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SYFY WIRE Religion in Genre

Questioning religion through horror

By Sara Century
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There has been some commentary from critics and fans on the horror genre’s embrace of Christian themes over the last few years. Religious artifacts such as crosses and holy water have long been accepted tools with which to battle vampires, and possession films as a subgenre in and of themselves are almost entirely comprised of pro-religious, pro-church messages, with very few exceptions. There is no arguing that many of the most important horror films of the last hundred years would fall into the realm of Christian commentary.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, because there is plenty of representation for other sides, as well. For every Christ-based morality tale in horror, there is a Rosemary’s Baby to question and counterbalance it. While there has been much in-depth commentary on positive Christian messages or even propaganda that sometimes appear in horror films, it is equally important that horror has long since been one of society’s most powerful tools for criticizing the potential hazards of blind faith and organized religion.

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Possession and the Potential Dangers of Blind Faith

Films like The Conjuring, The Exorcist, The Possession of Emily Rose, and many more generally show a connection to God that has gone missing. The jaded priest or the non-practicing mother of the possessed child are strong tropes for these movies. They almost always indicate ongoing battles between good and evil dating back thousands of years, and the church is the saving grace of the suffering, unfortunate young woman who the Devil has inevitably taken hold of. Even in possession films, however, there is room for questioning the underlying commitment to religion many of these characters exhibit.

In this subgenre, God is good, but he is tragically fallible and forever distant, while the demons that seek to sway us are eternally present and active in our lives. Indeed, the failed priest who drags himself out of his own crisis of faith is there because only someone who has wrestled with the dark side of religion would have any hope of saving the soul of the possessed girl. While there is no arguing that these films are almost always pro-religion, they don’t ignore the nagging questions and doubts that many religious leaders have experienced. Indeed, those misgivings strengthen the character of those who experience them.

There are historically a great many atrocities committed by people affiliated with the church. Across time, people have used their positions of authority to hurt, kill, manipulate, and control others. It would be impossible to say whether organized religion since its inception has done more harm than good or vice versa, but it is true that there are many incidents that have given scholars, philosophers, and even religious leadership ample cause to question its effect on humanity. For much of human history, to question the existence of God was to become immediately heretical and thereby worthy of a death sentence, and indeed there are many who have died in this way through various inquisitions and crusades. Only recently have criticisms of this way of thinking been given room to thrive, and horror is one of the outlets that has been used to do so. While horror is often dismissed as a secondary art form (if it is considered art at all), it is important to acknowledge the effect it can have on its audience, and that it has been a genre forever willing to take on societal norms in both progressive and aggressive ways.

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In real life, cults are a forever present threat, and while they are often joked about and those who join them are considered mentally weak, the fact of the matter is that even the very strongest among us are highly vulnerable to the danger they pose. Therein lies the horror of cults. Many seemingly normal, healthy, and outgoing people have had their confidence undermined and their trust manipulated until they were deep within an unethical, abusive cult. In short, if you believe you are not vulnerable to manipulation by a cult, you are in fact their primary demographic.

Cults are frightening in real life and in fiction because they show us how easily we might be distanced from our own morality under a certain set of circumstances. Cults in film, much as in life, are all over the place in both theme and purpose. For instance, one of the most recent examples of a cult film would be Hereditary, in which the cult is capable of operating even from beyond the grave, possessing the living and destroying lives in its quest to bring its savior to power. Hereditary is a film that strays from the central tropes of a cult film, but in doing so it actually gives us the perfect film about cults, as they are seldom stuck in a rut and indeed run the gamut of horror.

The ancient witch cult of Suspiria operates under the guise of a ballet school, seeking only to empower its central cult figure, the demonic Helena Markos. In Martyrs, we begin with what appears to be a very bizarre slasher film, which slowly escalates to one of the most upsetting, visceral movies of all time as we discover the perpetrators of what appeared to be a home invasion killing are in fact a pain-worshipping cult who find the morally pure among us to torture until their bodies collapse entirely. Reflecting ideas first extended in Hellraiser many years before, in Martyrs the moment of absolute pain as the torture victim ascends to Heaven is the goal. Then, in The Wicker Man, there is a warning against feminism and matriarchal societies as an aggressive male figure attempts to break up a woman-led cult and they retaliate against his interference by offering him up as a sacrifice.

Meanwhile, in The Sacrament, we are shown a cult that reflects the real-life Jonestown massacre. Unknowing reporters choose to go into the cult so that one might visit his sister, but immediately they realize that things are off when they are met by armed guards who are openly antagonistic. Though they are allowed inside, once there they are trapped and forced to watch the slow disintegration of the organization as people die en masse at the behest of their leader. Of all these movies, this is perhaps the most literal, as it closely follows the story of the People’s Church.

The Devil

There are many films that use devil worship as a tool with which to criticize organized religions. Blending Satanism and cults into one, movies like Messiah of Evil, Rosemary’s Baby, and Mephisto Waltz are generally associated with their connection to the Satanic Panic phenomenon, but they are at heart films that question the dangers of free love and moral ambiguity while faulting the Church’s rigidity for the rise in such things.

Meanwhile, in Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby, there are lengthy discussions about religion. Rosemary’s lack of conviction in her family’s chosen beliefs, along with the birth of her demonic child, are the catalysts that ultimately draw her into Satanism. As in films like The Witch, it is the failure of Christianity that leads the way to Devil worship. It is the strange allure of the unknown mixed with a general malaise toward the oppressive rules of the church that breed dissent. Though these films portray characters who turn away from Christian ideals and toward their Satanic counterparts, sympathy is extended to the lost soul at the center of the narrative, and both sides are presented as equally hazardous.

Religion and Stephen King

According to interviews, King has overall maintained a belief in God throughout his several decades as one of the best-known horror storytellers of all time. Still, he has maintained a healthy sense of suspicion toward organized religion throughout much of his work. Carrie, after all, is a criticism of what can occur when a person who is unbalanced in other ways takes the wrong message from religion and uses it as a justification for relentless torture and cruelty, thereby hurting, alienating, and ultimately causing the death of their own child.

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Religion is the villain of Carrie, King’s first book, but this is not the golden rule by which his work thrives. Quite the opposite, in fact, as there are a great number of positive portrayals of faith. In The Stand, Christian beliefs are ultimately what saves the survivors of a man-made plague known as Captain Trips, while they are troubled by a figure who is essentially an analogue for the Devil. The entire second half of the book is primarily about finding a Christian community and preparing to fight against evil in literal terms as well as metaphorical.

In Children of the Corn, young children are manipulated by King’s “tall, shadowy man,” or in this case “he who walks behind the corn,” which causes them to ritualistically murder all the parents in town. The children then develop their own unsettling mirror image to Christianity, worshipping evil and death in the place of God. The excesses of an unjust preacher are on full display in the form of Malachi, the ringleader of the murderous children who have overtaken the town.

In Pet Sematary, it is the atheism and lack of belief of the father of the family in danger that causes him to snap when his child dies. While the mother is stricken with grief, she is able to accept it and process it as part of a master plan, while her husband, an atheist, can’t handle the idea his child is gone forever. Though the portrayal is skewed toward Christianity in these stories, valid points are made in how any belief system is fallible.

Bad Nuns and Evil Priests

Another subgenre of horror, nunsploitation, has long been dismissed as simply being blasphemous for the thrill of it, but there is almost always an underlying theme criticizing the power of Catholicism and the hold it had on the modern world of the mid-to-late ‘70s in countries like Italy and Spain. The widespread sexual abuses committed by Catholic leadership had not been brought widely to light as they have in today’s world, and so these schlocky, kind of campy, highly sexual, and overriding dark films were some of the only tools filmmakers were given with which to criticize the rampant corruption of the church. Films like The Devils were less pornographic and more seething criticisms of organized Catholicism, while films like School of the Holy Beast were highly sexually charged while remaining just as condemning.

While nunsploitation occasionally shields its critiques under a pornographic veneer, movies like Don’t Torture a Duckling and Alice Sweet Alice don’t pull any punches, nor do they fit soundly within any of horror’s many subgenres. There are the obvious realms of slasher and giallo that both these films, created on opposite sides of the globe, would fall into, but they are dissimilar to one another and highly unique among horror films. The common thread between them is that religion itself is portrayed as being somewhat inherently monstrous.

In the end, there are a lot of horror movies that deal in faith, and some of those are naturally going to support Christian idealism. On the other hand, many horror films are areligious, and many more are used to call out the many downfalls and extant historical atrocities committed by those who believed they were acting on God’s word. Because this has always been a sensitive and controversial subject and perhaps always will be, it is through the often socially taboo genre of horror that questions of faith are so often most successfully addressed.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the authors', and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.