As we exit Easter and enter Ramadan, it’s a good time to explore the relationship between horror movies and religion. Whether you like your horror featuring sweaty preachers or ancient prophecies, we scour the archives for some great holy horror nuggets for you!
The power of Christ compels you!
Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow), The Exorcist
Religion and horror are a linked pair. Order and chaos. Good and Evil. Sacred and Profane. The redemption of evil and the turning of the good. Horror movies can explore the intimate personal conflicts: the exorcisms and possessions, but it can also extend the scary conversation all the way to the epic and apocalyptic End of Days.
Those on the side of organized religion can be considered noble, or crazed zealots. Filmmakers can aim to make you uncomfortable by seeing the trappings and comforts of religion stripped away and leaving the protagonists exposed and vulnerable, and it’s all quite effective.
The undisputed kings and queens of this sub-genre, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and The Exorcist, were pivotal in the production of horror movies. These award-winning films took advantage of this delicate relationship and exploited it raw and visceral while maintaining artistic integrity and gripping storytelling. The exploration of religion in horror helped legitimize horror at a time when few horror movies were taken seriously. And on top of that, they were hugely scary. (And profitable!)
These landmark films managed to tap into something deeper than the average monster or slasher film. It isn’t the fear of bodily harm. Religious horror tapped into the fear of the corruption of the soul. No jump scares were needed to get the burgeoning fear to come out in these films. It’s not even psychological horror, it’s spiritual horror and it strikes DEEP. These are more adult concepts than could be conveyed in a creature feature.
There is an excellent essay about the nature of horror and religion referenced by Mike in our podcast by Timothy Beal, Professor of Religion at Case Western University. In there he proposes that the power of religion in horror movies can be explained by:
Horror films literally scare the hell out of us.
Horror films can be myths that sanctify order against chaos.
Horror films host otherwise uncomfortable religious questions.
Horror films lean into the scary side of holiness.
In a lot of ways Holy Horror can be the most personal of the genre, particularly if you are a person of great faith. For this episode, we concentrated not on the more cultish fare, wherein the religion is a cult, but we looked for films that said something about the belief systems and in manipulating these systems to make a scary story.
Whether you want your religious horror southern fried, steeped in Catholicism, Judaism, or Hindu, we were able to find something that you might identify with. (I’m still wondering if a good Islamic Horror movie is out there… send us a message if you know of one!)
So, find a cross, some rosary beads, a Buddha statue, or a Quran for comfort, and settle in and watch some of our recommendations. Remember to mind your social distancing, stay safe, and support your local independent cinemas!