Warning: This story contains spoilers for Into The Dark: Pure.
The latest installment of Hulu’s Into The Dark series involves spooky encounters with Biblical figures at a father-daughter sleepaway camp for the chaste. Really. In an episode aptly named Pure, the main character Shay (Jahkara Smith) is attending a purity retreat for the first time ever with her long lost absentee dad, Kyle (Jim Klock). After Shay’s mother’s death, Kyle brought Shay into his family, and Shay gets a half-sister, Jo (McKaley Miller). Kyle brings both girls to a weekend-long purity retreat, complete with a gun-carrying pastor who can’t seem to stop shouting and a purity ball. During their weekend, the girls learn about the ambiguous “dangers” of sexual contact and the importance of virginity. They're supposed to pledge to Kyle and to God that they won't have sex until marriage, but — as you'd expect — things go awry.
The episode is shocking for a few reasons. There’s the demons wearing white lace gowns. There’s also the heavy-handed imagery: A pool of blood inching towards a flower crown. A chastity contract that combusts into flames. But perhaps the most shocking thing about the episode is that these purity retreats actually exist IRL. They’re not the dramatic bloodbaths the Hulu show makes them out be, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing insidious about them, explains Linda Kay Klein.
Klein, who recently authored Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, spent 12 years interviewing women who grew up with the idea that virginity was the be-all, end-all. A former Evangelical herself, she used her unique perspective as a Midwesterner who grew up in the '80s and '90s during the church's “purity movement” to help inform the work. Through her reporting process, she learned a lot about herself — and the way society deals with sex, gender, and God.
What does it mean to grow up pure?
It can mean a lot of things. In Klein's case, it meant an early association between sexuality and shame.
“The purity movement was about being ‘pure,’ which meant you’d be considered a good Christian wife,” she says. “If you were seen as impure, you’d be lucky if any good Christian man ever loved you, and you could also be seen as not Christian."
There were big consequences, not only for life on Earth but for ever-lasting life, she explains. Klein learned growing up that maintaining her virginity and purity was of the utmost importance. That meant no sex, but it also meant making sure boys didn’t think she was flirting or being otherwise promiscuous. She said this resulted “in a tremendous amount of anxiety.”
In her early 20s, Klein left the Christian church. “I thought I’d be suddenly free from the sexual shame and fear that had haunted my life up to that point,” she says. But it wasn’t that easy. “I had deeply internalized those messages of being pure or impure. Being good or bad, unholy, and unloveable. Although I wasn’t part of the community anymore, those messages were as strong as ever and lived within me.” Ultimately, she says she felt a certain shame about her body and her sexuality, which caused her to struggle in her mid-twenties. Eventually she decided to call up the women in her former youth group to ask if they were feeling similarly. This turned into the book, Pure.
Are purity retreats real?
“Purity balls aren’t the most mainstream part of the purity movement,” Klein says. But they might say something greater about our society. “Whether the idea of the importance of purity is delivered in an intensive fashion with a retreat, ball, and ring ceremony — which is not mainstream evangelicalism— or the concept is taught, but in a less obvious way, here’s what’s consistent: This idea that your body and your sexuality is both your greatest gift and weapon. And is ultimately for someone else.”
Do daughters and fathers really exchange rings?
Sometimes. In other instances, a person might buy a ring for themselves, Klein says. And the rings aren’t just for women. For example, the Jonas Brothers famously had purity rings, which they touted during their Disney days.
How much do purity retreats cost?
It varies. One retreat held in North Carolina last year, for example, cost $150. But the price of the Purity Movement in general is much greater. It’s not just about buying a white dress and ring for your purity ball. There are also Bibles you can buy with an extended section on virginity. There are books, pledges, and pop music dedicated to it. “Evangelicalism is a very American religion tied to capitalism in a number of ways,” Klein says. “It’s common for evangelicals to use products to spread their message.”
Money has always been a part of this movement, she explains. But don’t get it wrong: The movement isn’t really about making cash, but a way to spread the message of God.
Are purity retreats bad?
Into the Dark depicts the retreats as damaging, sexist, and borderline evil. But religion is more complicated than that, and it doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Ultimately, it feeds off of themes in our society, and is nuanced.
These retreats seem extreme, and there’s going to be a natural temptation for people who haven’t heard of them before to think: Those People. Those people with their weird thing. But before you judge, Klein points out that the themes of shame in sexuality and gender roles aren’t just found in these retreats — there a part of our world. “Look in the mirror,” she says. “You might find there are some similar themes in your life. How can we work as a collective to challenge the deeply damaging sexual ethics as opposed to pointing fingers at certain groups of people who we feel are the only ones who are having a negative experience with sexuality. The reality is: Sexuality is complex and we’re all having complex experiences with it.”
The bottom line: Does Into the Dark give religion a fair shake? Certainly not. But does the overall messaging hold some seriously sickening truths? Hell yes.