Faith and Morality in ‘Viy’

Manor Vellum
6 min readFeb 10


By Luke Beale

Art: Sanrigan

The morality in folklore and fairy tales has always been complex. Fairy tales have a reputation for being highly moral, and it’s true, they often imbue very clear messages. “The Frog Prince…”: beauty is more than skin deep. “The Three Little Pigs”: build solid foundations. “Little Red Riding Hood”: get your eyes tested. “Rumpelstiltskin”: always tell the truth. However, the stories do not always end well, and the characters’ motivations are often murky.

Viy (1967) is a Soviet film based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol, first published in 1835. Gogol was a Russian novelist of Ukrainian origin, known for his grotesque short stories. He used macabre figures in his work as a way of satirizing the human condition, perhaps none more so than in Viy. The story draws from Ukrainian folklore, complete with a witch, goblins, and a slippery moral center. Gogol introduces ‘The Viy,’ the king of the gnomes, as a folkloric character from his own childhood. However, it is unclear whether Viy does emerge from previous Ukrainian folklore, or whether he was actually the product of Gogol’s mind.

The 1967 film is notable for being arguably the first Soviet horror film and follows the plot of the short story very closely. Three students on summer break from their monastery seek shelter with an old woman after losing their way. She attempts to seduce the student Khoma, riding him like a horse and eventually soaring into the air with him. After flying around for a while Khoma escapes by beating her with a stick, assuming that she’s either a witch or he’s had a very vivid nightmare. She turns into a younger woman, seemingly unconscious or dead, and he flees. The next day, Khoma hears of the death of a local Cossack chief’s daughter, and that her last request was for Khoma to pray over her corpse for three consecutive nights. A bunch of superbly mustached henchmen ensures that the reluctant Khoma is taken to the chief’s village. Once there he agrees to the daughter’s dying wish, but on seeing her body realizes that she was the witch he had beaten to death. Each night the witch rises from her coffin to torment the young priest, who only has his faith and a chalk circle to protect himself. While she has much in common with witch stereotypes, her portrayal is also quite vampiric. Every night is worse than the last for Khoma, culminating in the witch-corpse summoning a gaggle of ‘gnomes’ or ghouls to attack him — including the gnome king himself. The gnomes cannot see Khoma while he’s protected by his chalk circle. Nonetheless, Viy uses his powers of sight to lead the monsters to Khoma, eventually killing him.

The film has many tropes in common with folktales. The ‘old hag’ trope is certainly present here. In her initial appearance, the witch is shown as old, powerful, sexual, and ultimately evil. From Circe in Homer’s Odyssey, perhaps the first witch, to the Russian witch archetype Baba-Yaga and countless witches throughout folklore, women who transgress social norms of masculine power are shown as evil or to be consorting with devilry. Real or symbolic promiscuity is often punished in fairy tales, and in horror films of course. In horror being a virgin often saves characters from grizzly deaths, which is particularly well satirized in films like Scream (1996) and The Cabin in the Woods (2011). In ‘Viy’ it’s strongly implied that Khoma has sex with the witch (remember that she rides him like a horse) and arguably this seals his fate. The classic moral of “do not stray from the path” is also a theme of the film. Although Khoma is a student of religion, he’s shown to be reluctant to perform his duties and more interested in drinking and mischief. Folktales often emphasize the dangers of choosing your own path. The witch archetype is a good example, as through their portrayals we are shown everything a woman is expected to avoid — being old, childless, independent, and horny.

Certainly, there is a reading of this film as a simple morality tale. Yet, there are enough details to suggest that these morals are being mocked. Although Khoma is reluctant and a bit of a joker, he does ultimately do everything that he is expected to do. He is a religious man following a path of faith. Despite his fear and doubts during his three nights of terror, he does end up staying with the witch each night. While it’s implied he has sex with the witch, this is very much not instigated by him. In fact, his first run-in with her has more in common with how everyone else, including men of faith, treats him throughout the film. Many characters tell him what to do or force him into situations he’d rather not be in. He either goes along with this or has no choice. It may be that the story is mocking the idea of blindly following rules, whoever lays them down. Its mockery may be aimed at religion specifically. In the early 1960s under Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union was incredibly anti-religious, closing many churches and monasteries. Although Khrushchev engaged in the de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union and modest political and cultural changes, there was widespread suppression of religion. In this context, it seems difficult to ignore the image of the film thumbing its nose at religious institutions.

The theme of blindly following rules emerges again through the reveal of Viy the gnome king at the end of the film. Viy has long eyelids the entire length of his face, blinding him, and short arms unable to reach them. He asks for the other ghouls to lift up his eyelids so he can see, and in doing so he is able to identify Khoma. Viy points him out to the other ghouls who attack and kill him. Khoma’s religion has kept him hidden, but the power of sight reveals him, even if it takes a collective struggle to see the truth. The film may be poking fun at the arbitrary rules of religion and duty because even going through with them led to the main character’s death. This is a cynical view of faith which fits with how religion was treated around the time the film was made. Despite the cynicism, the film’s humor really shines through, and away from the context in which it was made the mocking tone could just as easily be focused on secular institutions.

The strange blend of Ukrainian folklore, the film’s Soviet production, and clever use of stop-motion animation means Viy lives long in the memory. 🩸


Luke Beale is a writer interested in horror films, fantasy, comic books, and psychology. Follow him on Twitter @mutantgenes.

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A membrane of texts about the human condition and the horror genre. A MANOR feature. New 🩸 every Friday.