‘Holy Spider’ Characters: Saeed And Rahimi, Explained – How The Spider Killer Was A Product Of His Society


Away from the cherry blossoms and picturesque landscapes of Iran, Ali Abbasi’s “Holy Spider” takes us to the dingy roads scattered with deprived souls. The roads where mothers stand at a corner in the darkness of the night, looking for clients. The trade was painful; men often left scars on their bodies to mark their dominance, and only drugs could numb their suffering. As the night progressed, the women turned into nocturnal zombies; their bodies were sold and abused; the drugs slowed down their brains, and only the sight of money reminded them of their purpose. While the pain of their existence was often overbearing, there was a man on a motorcycle roaming around with the purpose of cleaning the streets. After a few murders, the women were aware of the perpetrator, but they could not risk stopping their business. They continued their trade and accepted their fate: the man they would meet next could either be an abuser or a killer.

“Holy Spider” is not a suspense thriller where the disclosure of the identity of the killer is the final act. The audience spends a significant amount of time with the killer; the purpose is to understand how Saeed Azimi was not an exception but rather a face of the religious fanaticism that dominated Iran post the 70s Islamic Revolution. The film is based on true events that happened in 2000-2001, and Azimi’s character is directly based on the real murderer, Saeed Hanaei. He wanted to clean the streets of sex workers who stood in front of Imam Reza’s Holy shrine. He cared little about the socio-political reason behind the trade; all he knew was that the women were dirt, waiting in the corners of the streets to lure men to perform acts of sacrilege. It is also important to understand that Saeed Azimi preyed on sex workers who were heavily drugged. Therefore, his victims were easy targets whom he knew he would be able to dominate. It was a lot more than cleaning the streets; it was about conquering the “weak” and “dirty” women and teaching them a lesson. A place where he could exert power without fearing outrage. Serial killers tend to often associate their murders with a larger purpose to cleanse their conscience. Tying a purpose to their unthinkable urge helps them cope with their moral compass. Murder was addictive for Saeed Azimi, and by associating it with a religious mission, he was able to win the sympathy of his friends and family.

Saeed Azimi was a family man. He had three children and a wife. While he kept his nightly acts a secret from his family, they witnessed changes in his behavior. He was mostly lost in his thoughts and chose to stay away from family gatherings. He seemed more nervous and scared than usual, and his erratic behavior would often leave his family dumbfounded. At a family picnic, when his son mistakenly threw a ball at him, he lost his temper. He was no longer the father or the husband; he was a man deeply enraged who wanted to destroy the person who dared to throw an object at him. Saeed Azimi was a volunteer in the Iran-Iraq War. Actively participating in the war gave him a purpose in life, but as the war came to an end, the purpose dissipated. He wondered why his life was not taken during the war; after all, being a martyr was far more respectable than the life he was living. Planning the murders gave Azimi a purpose in life. He wanted to become the messiah of the common people, someone who dared to bring about a change without fearing the consequences.

While he despised the fact that he was labeled the “spider killer,” he always searched for news about him. He felt a sense of pride each time the newspaper mentioned his killings. He engaged in conversations with those who disagreed with the murders because, for him, it was important to garner the support of the crowd. He was desperately seeking approval for his acts and was proud of the fame he managed to achieve in a short period of time. While making love to his wife, Fatemah, Azimi’s eyes reached for the body that he kept wrapped in a carpet. The lifeless foot that peeked out of the wrap aroused him. The lovemaking turned into an act to assert dominance and conquer the body—the body that was his wife’s, but he imagined it to be the lifeless, cold, “stained” body of the sex worker. Azimi forbade himself from engaging with the sex workers he murdered. He wanted to stay true to his cause and staying away from the bodies was crucial for his purpose. With the constant hallucinations and the confidence that he truly was the messiah, Saeed Azimi started to lose track of reality. Even with the guidance of his wife and his lawyer, Azimi chose to do what he thought would lead to applause inside the courtroom. He no longer cared about his role as a husband or a father; he believed he was a face of hope to ordinary people, and he could not tarnish that image by confirming that he suffered from mental illness.

The most frightening aspect of the Saeed Azimi case was the support of the people he received. In a country where women are denied agency, it is not surprising that Azimi garnered a certain fandom. The local crowd believed in Azimi’s intent to decontaminate the city by killing the voiceless. The fact that hundreds of people resonated with his belief and agreed that taking lives in the name of religion is indeed a sacred act is terrifying. “Holy Spider” ends with a video of his son demonstrating how his father murdered his victims. His son was proud of the mission his father had embarked on, and he believed that he, too, would perhaps continue the good work of his father. While his son was initially ashamed that he was a serial killer, his neighbors built his confidence by expressing their support for his father. As the crowd cheered for his father, he felt pride and admired the man. The shift in the son’s behavior is indicative of how society, more often than not, creates a serial killer.

In the video, the boy uses his sister as the dead body to demonstrate the act, and his sister laughs and states that she is dead. The feet of the brother next to the little girl’s head was a chilling visual. A woman’s life in a patriarchal society, especially in a conservative country such as Iran, is always at the mercy of the men, and the little girl will grow up to feel claustrophobic as her every move would be controlled by the men of her family. And even when she fights the order and tries to rise from the ground, she will be reminded of her position in society. Journalist Areezo Rahimi struggled to navigate the male-dominated circles that her profession required her to engage with. She would often face discriminatory remarks and taunts for choosing a profession unsuitable for women. She was assumed to be desperate and vulgar as her hair peeked from her hijab. As soon as she offered a pack of cigarettes to the police officer, he assumed her to be a woman without character, someone who would smoke with any man they came across. Her character was scrutinized and tarnished every second that she worked on the case. As a woman with a little more privilege than the victims, Rahimi was horrified when she imagined the life that the sex workers were forced to live. While spending a night walking the streets of Mashhad, Rahimi could sense fear building up in her body. As a stranger on a bike followed her in the dark alleys, she was petrified. She was already considered a desperate woman by a fragment of society; would the country ever bat an eye if she lost her life that night? Her fight was not just against the serial killer but the deeply embedded misogyny that exists in Iranian society: the reluctant investigation conducted by the police, the crowd that believed it to be God’s work and upheld him for being a hero, and the constant silencing of the women. If she, with her privilege, was unsafe, where would the women discarded by society go to demand justice?

“Holy Spider” is not just about Saeed Azimi and the ruthless murders; it is about the misogyny that dominates Iran. On September 16, 2022, Mahsa Amini died as a result of police brutality for not wearing her hijab according to government guidelines. Repeated blows to her head led to a cerebral hemorrhage. A death that is deeply rooted in how the regime functions against the interests of the women of Iran. Amini’s death was followed by massive protests, with women taking the lead. Several protestors have lost their lives while the regime continues to play innocent. The women of Iran and those against the regime continue to chant for the fall of the dictator, but the future of Iran continues to remain uncertain. The global rise of conservatism is indicative of how insecurity with matters concerning power and control is becoming dominant. Minorities have become an easy target to assert the majority’s position, and the war against extremism and religious fanaticism is becoming a global concern.

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Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni has worked as a film researcher on a government-sponsored project and is currently employed as a film studies teacher at a private institute. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies. Film History and feminist reading of cinema are her areas of interest.

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