Holy Spider: Between Truth and Fiction

March 5, 2023

Hanai’s story could be a compelling subject for a crime, police, or horror movie, but the way this story is handled is ideological.

The story of Iranian-Danish director Ali Abbasi’s latest movie, Holy Spider, which garnered a lot of attention at the 75th Cannes Film Festival, is based on the serial murders that took place in the Iranian city of Mashhad in the 2000s. Saeed Hanai, who is the subject of the film, killed 16 female sex workers in Mashhad between July 2000 and August 2001, and was executed in April 2002. The story of the man known as the “Spider Killer” has been the subject of three films: Maziar Bahari’s original 2003 film And Along Came a Spider, The Killer Spider by Ebrahim Irajzad in 2020, and finally Holy Spider, directed by Abbasi in 2022.

Over the last 20 years, there have been multiple incidents of serial murders in Iran that have been striking not only for the horrific nature of the crimes involved, but also for how they were received by the Iranian public. One such case was that of Gholamreza Khoshroo, 32, who raped and murdered nine women before being caught and hanged in 1997. Another was the 2005 case of Mohammed Bijeh, a 22-year-old who raped and killed 41 boys.

However, Holy Spider, beyond addressing Hanai’s criminal case, offers references to the Iranian social and political contexts. Hanai’s case is one of the most controversial and mysterious criminal cases in Iran’s judicial history after the Islamic Revolution, and is still surrounded by a lot of speculation and doubt.

Although Holy Spider has the tone and theme of a crime-thriller, it answers the “whodunnit” question at the very beginning. With the identity of the murderer made known, the director creates tension by exploring a much different and larger question that lies behind the case. Hanai’s murders represent a much larger problem and dilemma. We realize the array of reactions to the murders among the public and authority figures, and the social picture that can be derived from these becomes the film’s main subject.

Holy Spider is a reflection of Iranian women’s position in society as it addresses the difficulties women face in all their quests and efforts. This is also the case for the film’s heroine, a journalist who is investigating the main case and is held back at almost every moment and on every turn of her research, simply because she is a woman. The director uncovers the tensions present in Iranian society and stemming from its contradictory nature, where women can be highly trained professionals such as doctors and engineers but are also subject to strict controls over what they wear and how they look in public.

As Abbasi stated, although the film is based on Saeed Hanai’s murders, it is not a documentary, so it does not adhere to the realities of the events. The purpose of the film is not to inform us about the serial murder case with a documentary-like approach. What makes the film distinctively insightful is that it analyzes Saeed Hanai’s character on the basis of what exactly motivates him to kill by especially analyzing the religious and political beliefs that influence his decisions and actions.

At the same time, from the very beginning, the film is biased in so far as it argues that Hanai committed these murders with religious motives and that religious social groups in Iran feed such mentalities. The screenwriter is excessively and hysterically insistent on the fact that the murderer is religious; however, certain aspects of the murderer’s actions raise deep suspicions about this claim.

First of all, Hanai’s wife, Fatemeh, has stated that the real reason the crimes started was because of an incident that took place between a taxi driver and her one night when he attempted to force himself on her because he thought she was a sex worker. When she came home with a sprained ankle her husband realized the situation and decided to “punish” the driver. There are statements by Fatemeh Hanai that her husband first targeted male drivers, but after a few fights and beatings, he realized that he could not outmatch them, and turned to women sex workers, whom he saw as a secondary reason.

In other words, Hanai started to kill sex workers for psychological reasons, and more importantly, Hanai’s sexual intercourse with these women before killing them deals a major blow to the emphasis on his religiosity, rendering the context of the film baseless. While the court sentenced Hanai to death for 16 intentional murders, it also sentenced him to 173 lashes for 13 instances of adultery, and 4 years of imprisonment for theft and using false documents (basij card— a membership card for a state affiliated organization). The forensic pathologist revealed that 10 of the 16 murders were accompanied by rape. For example, during the trial, the judge told Hanai, “You claim to have religious motives, why did you have sex with these women before you murdered them?” While the prosecutor denied the motives for the murders, he said he had sex with 13 victims before killing them. It was clear from the first moment that Hanai was arrested that he wanted to present himself as a religious person in order to justify his actions.

Roya Karimi Majd is a veteran journalist and reporter for Radio Farda with a focus on societal issues, including women’s rights. During the making of And Along Came a Spider, she worked with Maziar Bahari in researching the details and fallout from the Hanai case from different angles. Karimi interviewed Hanai and recalls that “Saeed Hanai was a very simple and honest person but not very intelligent.” “In a lot of murder trial footage, or even when watching films about him, you sometimes feel you’re watching an actor: someone whose every movement has been planned to influence the judge’s verdict. But in the interview with Hanai, I never felt he was hiding anything or lying.”

Hanai was remarkably candid in the interview about not just how he had gone about the killings but his motivations for doing so. Karimi says he also sometimes brought up seemingly unrelated matters that gave some clue as to his psyche: most importantly, having been the victim of violent abuse from his mother as a child. The discussion was not included in the final cut of the film, but Hanai told Karimi that his mother used to try to bite off chunks of his flesh, and his body always showed the marks left by her fingernails.

It seems that some social groups want to believe that Hanai is telling the truth and that he killed the sex workers for religious reasons as this scenario is more in line with the Iran they describe. Yes, Iran has problems in terms of human rights and women’s rights, and it cannot be said to be a democratic and free country. The whole world knows this! However, the screenwriter, like the opposition to any government or regime anywhere, is solely concerned with sending a specific message to international viewers, and not with the truth about Iranian society and politics.

The rapists and traitorous men in this movie all have religious and government profiles. For example, all such men wear an agate ring, which the director repeatedly highlights with multiple zooms. In the Holy Spider, men of all levels and positions in Iran look at women in a derogatory manner or as commodities to meet their sexual needs: filmmaker, hotel worker, police, and judge – every man in every position has some sexual disorder! Some get satisfaction by humiliating women, some by raping them, and some by killing them. Iranian society on the whole is presented as disturbingly sick, and it comes as little surprise that someone like Saeed Hanai would emerge from it.

Of course, Hanai’s story could be a compelling subject for a crime, police, or horror movie, but the way this story is handled is ideological. At the same time, it should be noted that the Iranian regime is to blame for how easy it is to persuade the audience of this line of thinking. In several scenes of the movie, the judge tries to deny the connection between Saeed Hanai’s actions and his religious and revolutionary past, and to convince the audience that his decision was an arbitrary act that was not accepted by the government and the law. However, his efforts fail, and based on the viewers’ knowledge of the regime’s existing views on women, the viewers feel that Hanai’s actions were fully in line with the regime’s constant preaching of “commanding good and forbidding evil.”

When it becomes clear that a state oppresses a part of its people – in this case, women – with the excuse of protecting their “chastity” or “decency” by interfering with what they can wear, who they can have relations with and how, etc., it is easy for the audience to think that in such an atmosphere, any individual may find it in themself to “educate” or “cleanse” society of “corruption.” In this way, the audience easily establishes a connection between Hanai and the Iranian regime that enabled his abominable actions, and, in turn, it identifies Hanai’s actions with the Iranian regime.

İsmail Sarı graduated from the Department of History at Istanbul University in 2001 and received his master's degree in History and International Relations from the same university. Receiving the best doctoral dissertation award in 2016, Sari served as a post-doctoral researcher at Columbia University between 2018 and 2019 and as a visiting professor at the Missouri State University during his studies in the United States. Sarı's research focus concerns Iranian foreign policy and contemporary Iranian and US politics. Sari is currently working as a lecturer at Ankara Hacı Bayram Veli University.