Of all the creepy things in American Horror Story: Asylum, one of the creepiest is the song that Sister Jude insists on playing in the rec room of Briarcliff Manor. As the inmates bash their heads against the walls and masturbate uncontrollably, they’re forced to listen to a perpetual loop of “Dominique” by The Singing Nun.
And that choice is unsettling on several levels.
Most obviously, it’s horrifying when something cheerful gets placed in a dark context, like when the masked thugs in A Clockwork Orange croon “Singin’ in the Rain” while terrorizing a couple in their home. The distance between the implied emotion of the music and the actual experience of the violence is almost like a psychic break. This disconnect suggests that the emotional and moral order have dissolved, and as it distorts the intentions of something kind, it becomes an act of violence against our understanding of society.
That’s the same basic principle in Asylum’s use of “Dominique.” The song—which hit number one in 1964—is a gentle, spiritually-minded ode to a man who “talks only of the good lord.” And at the time it was released, The Singing Nun (a.k.a. Jeanine Decker) really was a nun in Belgium. It’s hard to imagine anything more family-friendly.
But the way Sister Jude uses it, “Dominique” is a tool of oppression. Jude presents the tune as a corrective moral force, but its sweet message is corrupted by totalitarian implementation. When you’re forced to listen to a song over and over while surrounded by the insane, the message of joy becomes corrupted and scary. Listening to such a happy song in such a miserable context could actually make you feel more insane, because you’d be enduring a constant fissure between what you hear and what you see and feel.
And Sister Jude, of course, is herself a corruption of what nuns are supposed to represent, what with her reliance on brutal violence and her history of alcoholism and vehicular homicide. When this nun delivers The Singing Nun, she just ups the discomfort level.
But there’s more. If you watch Asylum, then you know that when it comes to evil, the monsters and demons are easily matched by hypocritical church officials and institutionalized homophobia. In the name of God’s grace, characters are subjected to vile “conversion therapies” for their lesbianism, or they have their lives stolen from them by the church.
And in a roundabout way, that’s exactly what happened to The Singing Nun. After her musical success, she left the convent and began what seems to have been a long-time lesbian relationship. But she appears to have been plagued by depression, and her former church took several steps to ruin her financially. So eventually, she and her lover killed themselves. It was a bitterly ironic end for a woman who rose to fame as a happy, singing bride of God.
So when you watch Asylum, remember that “Dominique” became a chipper soundtrack for the destruction of the woman who sang it. It’s not just on TV that the appearance of religious joy can be a cover for deep wells of pain.
Mark Blankenship would like to note that “Dominique” is one of the few foreign language songs to succeed in America, which is a weird way that the Singing Nun and PSY are connected. Mark tweets as @IAmBlankenship.