For Shay, this woman is less a reflection, and more a window to another way of carrying herself through the world. At the Purity Camp she’s attending with her father, Shay is told there’s only one way to goodness: Remain a virgin until marriage, and deny the body’s delights until death.
But this creepy spirit wants to pull Shay onto a gnarled, less-trodden path, where she can claim her power. To not be an Eve, but to be a Lilith — the exact inverse message of what the telegenic Pastor Seth (Scott Porter) wants the teenage girls to internalize during his week-long Purity Camp. Seth commissioned a stained glass depiction of Lilith, Adam’s doomed first wife, behind his pulpit as a warning of what happens to women who disobey.
Seth’s decision to introduce a bunch of under-stimulated teenage girls to a fully empowered demon who revolts against the patriarchy has an obvious effect – and it’s not what Seth intended. Shay and her friends end up summoning Lilith and overthrowing the real villains: Their fathers, who police their bodies.
“It’s a reverse possession movie. [Shay] begs to become possessed. She wants to fulfill her destiny by becoming a demon,” Hannah Macpherson, who directed and co-wrote “Pure,” tells Refinery29.
As the legend in Jewish folklore goes, Lilith was the first wife of Adam. Unlike Eve, who was formed from Adam’s rib, Lilith was created from the same soil as Adam. She was his equal from the start. For one reason or another, their union didn’t work out. In the most common telling, she’s banished because she refuses to lay “under” Adam. In “Pure’s” version, Seth explains that Lilith was sent to Hell after sleeping with an angel.
Though Lilith is most famous for being Adam’s first wife, this figure of dark, unbridled femininity has far earlier incarnations. The first mention of the “lilitu” demon appears in Sumerian mythology in 3,000 B.C. She was depicted as a beautiful, but dangerous, woman who led men astray. Lilith appears in one sentence of the Bible as a wandering demon. As variations of the demon traveled between cultures, she retained two traits: Lilith was both a seductress and a baby kidnapper, the ultimate threat to domesticity.
For 4,000 years and counting, Lilith invoked pure fear. Then came the feminist movement in the ‘60s — and Lilith’s uncontrollable nature rendered her the ideal role model. This is what happens when women comb mythology, shaped by the patriarchy, for heroes of their own. Just as Madeline Miller turned the witch of The Odyssey into a protagonist in Circe, the feminist movement reincarnated Lilith as a figure of empowerment (and as the namesake of an all-female music festival).
“In the hunt for a powerful icon, Lilith keeps popping up,” MacPherson says. “One man’s demon is another woman’s angel.”
Centuries after being interpreted by Sumerians, Israelites, Renaissance painters, and more, Lilith has become a popular figure in film, TV, and literature. She is scattered throughout works old (the White Witch is descended from Lilith in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) and new (Lilith is the first-ever vampire in True Blood, and she commands an evil army in Supernatural).
But “Pure” is part of a more specific and recent subset in Lilith-inspired pop culture. Namely, TV shows that juxtapose Lilith with teenage girls.
“One man’s demon is another woman’s angel.”
In the 2019 Netflix show Chambers, a teenager named Sasha (Sivan Alyra Rose) is implanted with the spirit of Lilith after a heart transplant orchestrated by a sinister new-age cult. The show ends with Lilith unlocking supernatural abilities in Sasha, and implies she can easily overtake the cult. Sadly, Chambers’ cancellation means we’ll never know for sure.
Lilith is more overtly evil in Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Sabrina’s (Kiernan Shipka) teacher, Mrs. Wardwell (Michelle Gomez), is killed and possessed by Madame Satan — aka Lilith, Adam’s first wife. As reprehensible and manipulative as she is, Madame Satan is also a subversive delight. She nurtures Sabrina, a budding witch, in a way that other adults don’t. Her intentions are both sinister and maternal: She wants Sabrina to take over her seat in Hell.
As this depiction in Sabrina shows, just because certain qualities of Lilith’s are now culturally admired – her independence, her refusal to be tamed — doesn’t mean she’s automatically a hero. These ambiguities are apparent in Into the Dark, Chambers, and Sabrina alike.
With Chambers, creator Leah Rachel wanted to challenge the notion that Lilith is either a demon or an icon. Like all of us, Rachel says, Lilith is good and bad. “The series ends with Sasha as Lilith’s new ‘host.’ The nature of that power will depend heavily on Sasha’s morality as the two begin to coexist,” Rachel said in an email to Refinery29.
Like Chambers, “Pure” concludes with the union of ancient night demon and teenage girl. The girls ditch the now-ravaged Purity Camp and walk into the forest, the spirit of Lilith guiding their leader, Shay, forward. “It’s a ‘wiping the slate’ feeling,” Macpherson says. Perhaps the girls are returning to the forest, historically the seat of a more feminine power. Or perhaps, like Sasha, they’re going to war.
The endings of these shows are both exhilarating and terrifying. We have no road map for a society like that one, founded by a radically different origin story. “What if Lilith had never been sent to Hell? What would a power structure where women were treated with the understanding that they can make choices themselves look like?” Macpherson asks.
To Macpherson, it’s no surprise Lilith is having a pop culture moment. The past two years have been relentless stream of stories of systemic oppression and harassment against women. “It has felt very empowering, but I’ve also felt helpless, like with the Kavanaugh hearing. We’re making huge amounts of progress, but we backslide. Are we powerful or aren’t we?” Macpherson says.
Lilith represents a different model, another way forward. Her power is awesome, and must be wielded wisely by a human vessel. It follows that teenagers, who are literally the next generation, are Lilith’s target audience. They’re being introduced to her power just as they are coming into their own.
“The misconceptions behind Lilith teach young women that they’re going to have to fight a hell of a lot harder to be heard, seen, and understood. It’s a powerful lesson and a challenge, I think now more than ever, adolescent girls are excited and willing to embrace — middle fingers to the air,” Rachel says.