“Mind Body Spirit” Explores the Horror of Self-Actualization

Few activities calm us more than yoga. We take a deep breath, close our eyes, center our focus, and leave the rest of the world behind. The goal is to retreat into ourselves and shift our attention away from our physical surroundings, but what happens when we close our eyes? Does this intense inner focus leave us vulnerable to outside entities who may also want to connect with our bodies? Alex Henes and Matthew Merenda explore the quietly insidious world of spiritual influence with Mind Body Spirit, a terrifying found footage film that follows a young woman trying to achieve self-actualization. By opening herself up to an ancestral spirit, she inadvertently creates a passageway for horrific connection. 

Anya (Sarah J. Bartholomew) is a yoga teacher trying to find herself. She’s just inherited her grandmother’s house and hopes to connect with her Slavic ancestry. So what if she never met this mysterious relative or that no one in her family knew this house existed. It’s the perfect opportunity for Anya to make a fresh start and achieve her higher purpose. At first it seems like the likable pixie may not be cut out for the influencer life, but an accident uncovers a secret chamber in her ancestral home. In addition to dusty ritual tools and ominous tapestries, Anya finds a decaying journal dedicated to her. Hoping to connect with the spirit of her recently deceased grandma Verasha (Kristi Noory), Anya begins the book’s intensive cleansing in hopes of purging herself of negativity and fear. But is she truly alone in the house and can she trust this inscrutable tome? As Anya’s body begins reacting to the extreme rituals, she awakens another spirit searching for a doorway back to reality. 

After a brief framing device, we join the story with Anya’s first video. This found footage film consists of a series of clips designed to become a yoga-based fitness account. The petit practitioner is incredibly likable, if vulnerable and naive, and we pray that she’ll find her footing and make a successful go at this new venture. But the next few videos reveal a sinister presence in the house. Not only do we catch glimpses of an elderly woman lurking in the attic, but the camera moves on its own when Anya’s eyes are closed. It’s nearly impossible to watch without checking our own surroundings and fretting about what will happen when we close our eyes.  

Henes and Merenda also play with the idea of intuition and spiritual belief. Anya senses the presence in her home, but she honestly believes she’s safe and flirts with the darkness preparing to take over her body. If she can just push past her justifiable fear, she will find enlightenment outside of herself and the holy grail of self-actualization. Contrasting her peaceful ambition is the energetic Kinzi (Madi Bready). A childhood friend, this girl boss fitness instructor has already built a brand for herself and proves to be the perfect foil for Anya’s gentle spirit. Bready is hilarious in this offputting role and manages to provide a conduit for the audience as well as a tool to make Anya seem more likable. Faux commercials offering artificial enlightenment break up the film and remind us just how dangerous these false promises of inner peace can be.

Like the best found footage entries, Henes and Merenda resist the temptation to over explain. Not only are the scares subtle and teeming with ominous simplicity, we never find out exactly who this mysterious woman is. Two face-time calls between Anya and her mother Lenka (Anna Knigge) give us just enough information to hint at past corruption or abuse, but we never learn exactly why Anya’s mother is wary of her daughter’s new home. And we don’t really need this information. Just watching Verasha systematically break Anya down is enough to deeply unsettle. Moments where the camera moves on its own are truly terrifying and lead to jump scares that don’t feel like cheats. There are a couple of effects that feel a bit forced, but the minimalist approach allows the quieter moments of horror sing. The terror lies in the mysterious force lurking in the shadows and watching this likable young woman careen head-first into disaster. 

Bartholomew carries this disturbing film with the perfect blend of self-deprecation and confidence. We’re instantly on her side and hope she’ll be able to see the terror unfolding. But the film succeeds largely due to her uncanny ability to dance on the line between sinister and sweet. Bartholomew hints at dangerous instability or perhaps outright possession with a widening of her eyes or minute sharpening of her delicate features. As the horror unfolds, we lose track of who has possession of this familiar body as Anya loses control of herself. The film concludes with shocking and bloody violence and an ominous hint at the terror to come. Mind Body Spirit peels back the layers of uplifting influencer accounts and exposes the hidden dangers of the quest for inner peace. It’s a terrifying reminder to interrogate our intuition and maintain our awareness. By opening ourselves up to the secrets of the universe, anyone – or anything – might take the opportunity to walk through the spiritual door.

Jenn Adams is a writer, podcaster, and film critic from Nashville, TN. Find her social media nonsense @jennferatu.