Upcoming horror movie about entrapment of missionaries hits close to home for Latter-day Saints

“What is this dude about to do?” — Statistics show missions are incredibly safe, but many young proselytizers still return with stories about scary encounters.

A newly released trailer for the forthcoming horror film “Heretic” produced unexpected and overwhelming dread in a particular and unlikely audience: members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The short preview shows two female (“sister”) missionaries — wearing the familiar black nametags of the Utah-based faith and saying they are from “The Church of Jesus Christ” — knock on the door of a chipper but creepy psychopath played by Hugh Grant.

He invites in the young women, traps them, then tricks and presumably tortures them. He tells the terrified missionaries they can leave but have to choose between doors marked “belief” and “disbelief,” and says, ominously, “It will make your hearts beat faster. It may even make you want to die.”

(A24) A gif from the horror movie "Heretic," scheduled to be released on Nov. 15, 2024.

The fictional tactic of luring a naive, unsuspecting twosome into Grant’s sinister snare proved all too real — and deeply triggering to the collective anxiety — for current and former Latter-day Saint missionaries.

After all, their two-year or 18-month stints as soldiers of faith can be scary at times for the tens of thousands of young Latter-day Saint proselytizers who leave their homes to seek converts across the globe, hurtling into unfamiliar territory. Many of them return with at least one story of a harrowing adventure.

They have been mugged, detained, jailed, punched, stalked, grabbed, groped and sexually assaulted. They have been met at the door by guns, knives, machetes and leering, unclothed residents. They have been chased by motorcycle gangs and police, spat upon by teens and mocked by children. They have been caught in the crossfire of civil wars and coups, sometimes hiding while bullets flew around them.

In 2021, for example, two gunmen invaded a routine gathering of 70 missionaries in Mexico, and then proceeded to steal wallets, cellphones and computer tablets. They beat several of the missionaries, including the mission president and his wife.

And because Latter-day Saint missionaries spend their days speaking to strangers and knocking on an endless number of doors, they have a higher-than-average chance of encountering some, well, unbalanced characters, including those who may mean harm.

It is especially true of female proselytizers, says Rosemary Card, a Utah businessperson who served a mission in Arizona from 2010 to 2011.

“Watching the trailer, many of us had the sinking feeling, ‘Oh no, what is this dude about to do?’” Card says. “All sister missionaries can connect to that.”

‘We could sense something was off’

After the trailer appeared online, Card got dozens of private Instagram messages from an array of women, who shared unsettling experiences from their missions. They described men stalking them, making lewd comments, pushing physical boundaries, dropping their pants, even exposing themselves during missionary discussions.

One told Card her experience mirrored the “Heretic” trailer — with a man saying his wife was inside, but no one else was there.

“We could sense something was off,” the missionary wrote in her message. “He tried not to let us leave, and it was so terrifying.”

The missionaries got away and “ran all the way home,” the responder said, believing “if we didn’t get out, we were going to die there.”

A member later told the missionaries “horrible…stories about the neighborhood/area we were in.”

In 2015, two sister missionaries were violently attacked and sexually assaulted in Mexico, and a similar episode occurred a year later in Bolivia. The 2016 encounter seemed eerily like the “Heretic” trailer.

A sister missionary from Washington and her companion met a man who claimed to be an “inactive” member. He invited them inside his house, a 2018 Salt Lake Tribune story reported, where he said his family was gathered. Inside, though, he led them downstairs and then held them at knifepoint, bolted the door and assaulted them separately.

They both eventually escaped, with the first running naked into the street to get help.

How missionaries are trained

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Missionaries performing service in France.

Since then, the church has implemented more safety measures to protect young women, creating “a sister safety committee,” according to officials, and developing a new guide that instructs mission presidents what to do when one of their charges is assaulted.

Mission presidents have a protocol for assisting missionaries after a traumatic event, which includes offering medical and mental health care and involving the proselytizers in decisions about whether they will return home.

In 2019, the church released a 12-part video series, titled “The SafetyZone,” that teaches missionaries various measures that could help protect them or even save their lives.

Still, some say, a culture of silence remains among many missionaries about these frightening episodes.

There is an unspoken belief that “the more sketchy a place is, the more faithful missionaries are who go there,” Card says. They believe it shows they are “willing to risk going to dark corners to reach ‘the one.’”

(Rosemary Card) Rosemary Card served a Latter-day Saint mission in Arizona.

Further, some see going to “these terrifying places,” she says, “as an essential part of the experience, a test of their faith.”

Some choose not to tell either their parents or their mission leaders, Card says, or, if the sister missionaries do report these alarming interactions to, say, a fellow missionary, possibly a male zone leader, they sometimes are not believed.

In its videos about missionary safety, the church emphasizes following rules and being “situationally aware.”

“Many possible dangers can be avoided with common sense and by observing mission standards, including staying where you can see and hear your companion,” the church’s online missionary guidelines state. “However, people may still harm you even when you try to be safe. …Leave immediately if you or your companion feels uncomfortable about a location, person, or situation (including a teaching situation). Listen to spiritual promptings.”

The guidelines specifically instruct these young people to keep their doors locked, always close curtains in their apartments and never give out their addresses.

“Immediately contact one of your mission leaders or another trusted leader,” they add, “if you experience, witness, or hear about any physical or sexual misconduct of any kind.”

The standards cover a range of possible “dangerous situations” such as threats, robberies, harassment and assaults. They remind missionary victims that if they are assaulted, “no matter what you were doing, the assault is not your fault.”

Safer on missions

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Latter-day Saint missionaries talk to a man in a park in Taiwan.

An irony is that statistics from the World Health Organization and academic journals show young people in this age group — men can serve at age 18 and women at 19 — are safer serving missions than not. Liked-aged death rates for non-missionaries, for instance, are six to 20 times higher, depending on the measures used.

Independent counts since the 1980s show Latter-day Saint missionary deaths generally hover below 10 a year. That number crept into double figures in 2013, and five have died so far this year.

Even if 10 full-time missionaries died every year, the resulting mortality rate, based on research from a University of California think tank, would still be less than a tenth of estimated rates for all U.S. males of similar ages.

In the end, the church believes that mission rules help protect these evangelizers from accidents, illnesses and assaults.

Increased safety comes partly as a key byproduct of the rigid routine, close supervision and obedience to rules — rising at 6:30 a.m. and lights out by 10:30 p.m. — embedded in missionary life, especially the biblically based tenet of living and traveling in pairs.

Such stats are not always enough, however, to calm the natural fears of worried parents.

And a trailer like the one for “Heretic” doesn’t help.

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