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The Iranian horror film that speaks volumes on the regime

Holy Spider: The Iranian horror film that speaks volumes on the regime
6 min read
10 February, 2023
Film review: A cinematic swipe at the Iranian regime, Holy Spider displays the hypocrisy of life under a theocracy. Naturally controversial, the film nonetheless fleshes out elements of dissent which are gaining traction in Iran and the diaspora.

Holy Spider has attracted its fair share of controversy. It’s a true crime depiction of serial killer Saeed Hanaei, nicknamed the "Spider Killer" by the Iranian press, who murdered 16 women working as sex workers in Iran’s holy city of Mashhad between 2000 and 2001.

Some of the most sickening aspects of the film are, unfortunately, true to life; yes, he did indeed kill the women by strangling them with their own headscarves, and some of the most fundamentalist groups in Mashhad did regard him as a hero.

Unsurprisingly, the Iranian regime has warned it will "punish" anyone who worked on the production.

Neither has the film been universally well received abroad. Critics have commented on how the camera follows the serial killer rather than fleshing out the characters of the women he murdered.

It’s also been argued that director Ali Abbasi’s embellishment on the plot to include a journalist (played by Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who won Best Actress at Cannes for her role) who catches out the Spider Killer perpetuates the idea that some women’s lives are worth more than others.

It's likely, though, that some of the criticism comes a place of misunderstanding. The camera’s lingering on Saeed does come at the expense of the victims’ inner lives, and there was certainly room for both.

However, it reflects the film’s purpose as an allegory for the incoherence to the regime’s ideology, which Saeed represents. In his actions, you see the violence and incoherence central to the regime’s ideology, namely, that as the source of temptation, women must take all measures to avoid arousing men and "corrupting" society at large, and when they refuse to do so, they must be disciplined, up to and including killing them.

It’s institutional victim-blaming taken to extremity, persecuting women for society’s failure to view them as anything other than sexual objects.

Ali Abbasi attends the "Holy Spider" UK premiere during the 66th BFI London Film Festival at the Southbank Centre [Getty Images]

This brings rise to the contradiction at the heart of the regime’s ideology that plays with – namely, that by seeking to root out sex and its corrupting potential, the regime has become, ironically, sex-obsessed.

Suppressing cultural pollutants is both an explicit goal of the regime, but also a means of control; in the words of historian Abbas Amanat, faced with a fast-changing society over whom they hoped to exert social power, the regime became obsessed with theocratic "cultural ossification".

It’s the most convincing analysis I’ve read that explains how a regime so hellbent on suppressing temptation can find itself broadcasting chat shows on prime-time television where an Ayatollah discusses whether it is halal if a man accidentally penetrates his aunt as a result of an earthquake that collapses the floor in between their two rooms.


Holy Spider takes this perspective to its twisted logical conclusion. Sure, it’s a serial killer flick, but it’s also an allegory for the violent and illogical ideology of the Iranian regime that would rather kill women en masse than address its own misogyny.

In this twisted context, Saeed’s acts appear rather rational; valorous, even. He refuses to be called a murderer, rebuking the journalist who accuses him of being one, for he is "cleansing" the streets of sex workers to "serve Imam Reza" – hence the title of the film. But Abbasi is constantly challenging this narrative.

In one scene, Saeed leans over the corpse of the woman he has just murdered, burrowing his head into the nape of her neck, before he restrains himself. To what extent does his "crusade on corruption" (jihad alay-he fesad) hide the fact that he’s "cleansing" the streets of his own temptation?

Watching the film, I was reminded of a video that went viral in Iran last year, in which a woman screams at a cleric "if you are so aroused by one or two hairs, then you’re the one that’s wrong."

Abbasi doesn’t shy away from showing how women too are caught up in this propaganda: in the eyes of a regime that only recognises the Madonna or the whore, women are turned against each other, each vying to escape the bottom of the barrel.

Saeed’s wife at no point in the film seems to empathise with her husband’s victims, defending him as doing "God’s work" when a journalist visits her home. And yet, the cognitive dissonance is palpable when, confronted by a neighbour who has seen Saeed with another woman, (a victim of his murder spree, but whom his wife assumes to be a mistress), Saeed’s wife curls her hair to win back her husband’s affections.

Mid-coitus, Saeed glimpses the hand of one of his victims that he has rolled up in a carpet from the living room. It’s a moment that – layered with black humour – lays bare the irony of how women are simultaneously expected to serve men’s sexual desires and are blamed for arousing them.

One of the most thrilling aspects of Holy Spider is its depiction of how this ideology, once an imperative to bring about the revolution and combat the existential threat of the Iran-Iraq war, has now run amok.

Saeed’s killing spree is framed by his manifest PTSD from his time in the army and his inability to return to normal life. Having been sold a promise that being killed in action would be a contribution to the regime, he confides in a fellow veteran that he wonders if he didn’t "deserve" martyrdom enough; a fear that pushes him to what he thinks are acts of "valour" in the eyes of the regime.

Yet, the government in Tehran, the big wigs of the local veteran’s organisation, and the clerics of Mashhad each have their own opinion on the Spider Killer that range from disgust, to self-interest, to a twisted form of hero worship.

It’s a welcome addition to the plot that shows the dilemma facing bloody revolutionaries when they turn to statecraft, as they attempt to cram the fundamentalist revolutionary spirit back into the box before it threatens the regime as a whole.

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"Every man shall meet what he wishes to avoid", reads the epigraph at the beginning of the film, taken from a sermon given by a cleric in Najaf. Thus begins a brilliant but largely misunderstood film; yes, these words refer to the justice the serial killer comes to face (as argued by most critics), but also to the campaign of cultural purification at the heart of the regime, which, in seeking to root out sexual temptation, sees it everywhere, and to the regime’s bankrupted ideology that after years of calls to extremities result in atrocities that even the regime can’t accept.

At a time in which widespread protest in Iran has shown broken the social contract between the state and wide swathes of the population is, Holy Spider exposes the incoherent, hypocritical, and violent nature underpinning it. 

Tiara Sahar Ataii has worked in humanitarian response for the UN and major NGOs in 11 countries. She founded SolidariTee, which fights for refugee rights. She is also part of the 2022 'Forbes 30 under 30'.

Follow her on Twitter: @tiara_sahar