This article was last modified on July 12, 2017.


The Sacred and Profane in Horror Films, a Book Review

Recently, the thought occurred to me how strange the presence of religion is in horror films. The hardcore horror fan may be stereotypically seen as weird, a freak, and not uncommonly “satanic”. This is not completely without merit. Horror fans do tend to cheer on Jason and Freddy while they commit serial murder. Freddy, in case we forget, was at one point a child molester. There is nothing to admire in this pair, and yet they are celebrated in pop culture. The creators of such films are perhaps seen as even worse than their fans.

But at the same time, many horror films actually validate the existence of God, and actively promote Christianity. More often than not, the Roman Catholic Church is singled out. Take just about any vampire film, and the creature in that film will be susceptible to crucifixes, holy water and sometimes consecrated wafers. We rarely (if ever) see a vampire hide from the Star of David or a statue of the Buddha. Whether consciously or not, vampire films show us a world where Christianity is powerful and clearly the correct path.

A similar theme can be said to exist in exorcism films (most notably “The Exorcist”). While the demons in these films tend to be more resilient towards holy water and crucifixes than vampires are, it still holds that the only way to get a demon out is with a priest or pastor. Not necessarily a Catholic priest, but still someone who is an authority in the Christian faith. We do not see Jewish exorcism films or Hindu exorcism films; if demons exist, then by extension the power of Jesus Christ is every bit as real. (Though, oddly enough, director William Friedkin was raised Jewish and later became agnostic; his work on “The Exorcist” does not seem to have converted him to Christianity.)

In “Divine Horror: Essays on the Cinematic Battle Between the Sacred and the Diabolical”, editors Cynthia J. Miller and A. Bowdoin VanRiper assemble nearly twenty essays on a wide array of topics concerning the interplay between religion (primarily Christianity) and the horror film. With each writer picking a different film and having a different voice, the range is wide and thought-provoking.

The essay that comes closest to my random thoughts is from Martin Norden, who addresses the “folly of faithlessness” in the Dracula series of Hammer films. He discusses the role of “objective” or “subjective” faith in the world of Dracula. In the original novel, for example, Jonathan Harker is protected by a crucifix despite not being a strong believer. This would be objective, where items have power in themselves. In the film “Dracula has Risen from the Grave”, by contrast, Dracula is staked in the heart and survives. How can this possibly fail? Because the stake is wielded by an atheist. Here, the power of faith is subjective. That stake could be carved from the cross itself and blessed by a dozen priests and still be useless if the attacker is not himself a believer.

First up in the book is a deeper look at Robert Eggers’ “The Witch”, which also happens to be the most recent film covered (2015). The film is rightly noted and praised for its excruciating accuracy to the colonial period. But what this essay points out is how crucial that accuracy was to making witchcraft seem real, plausible. The writer (Thomas Prasch) correctly says that in the past, historical witchcraft was viewed sociologically as a sort of hysteria, and in films it is often a metaphor for political witch hunts or feminism. “The Witch” is neither of these – it explores how the world of Calvinist Puritans could really, truly believe that their friends and neighbors might be witches. Today we see witchcraft as something silly, but not too long ago – thanks to the power of religion – the threat was very real.

Brad Duren’s essay on “The Omen” puts the film in its proper historical perspective. Today, the film is a classic and exists free of its roots. But Duren stresses just how much popular religious culture influenced the film and, in turn, the film influenced real life. Gaining traction at the time was a movement called “premillennial dispensationalism” which is a fancy way of saying that the end times were approaching and evidence could be seen in the world around us. (Seventh-day Adventists still use a variation of this in their teachings.) With the turbulent late-1960s and early-1970s, it made sense to suggest the end was coming and to put the Antichrist in the body of a child… suggesting that when he arrives in the year 2000, it will not be from Hell; he had been on Earth the whole time. The real brilliance of Duren’s essay, however, is not in showing the source of “The Omen”; rather, it is in showing how the film actually pushed the movement into the mainstream. Such ideas as a physical Antichrist or the number “666” were fringe beliefs… but today they are known by almost everybody.

Sue Matheson’s essay on “Rosemary’s Baby” is excellent, though it does tend to run outside the boundaries of the book. She spends a good deal of time discussing how director Roman Polanski framed shots to obscure people, make the space look more claustrophobic… and even how Rosemary herself is framed to suggest she is nothing more than a vessel. This is interesting and makes a good deal of sense, but has no real connection to religion. Matheson successfully compares Rosemary to the Virgin Mary, pointing out her blue and white attire, and how she is to give birth to a supernatural being. There is also some discussion of the Cult of Domesticity, an alleged Victorian, WASP ideal about pregnant women. While that connection can be made, it does have its flaws when considering that this alleged “cult” is a modern invention. This puts the whole discussion into a more theoretical and abstract realm than it really needs to be.

While it would be hard to single out any one essay as the centerpiece, I was probably most enthralled by Mark Henderson’s look at “Frailty”. The film is a complex one, full of twists and turns and a very different view of God – not the loving, forgiving God, but the more vengeful spiteful one we thought had retired after the Old Testament. Henderson skillfully explains the plot and its many interesting ethical implications. We have essentially two serial killers, but one is supported by God… does that make it right? And is there a distinction because one is “destroying” and the other is “killing”? (Though the essay does not go there, the same could be said about killing in war – a soldier may kill many people who have done nothing wrong and still not be seen as a murderer because of the context.) A nice parallel with the story of Abraham and Isaac is also thrown in. In my view, Henderson goes astray when he tries to connect the film to the idea of manifest destiny. This seems quite the stretch and appears to be founded on little more than Bill Paxton’s claim that he was influenced by “The Searchers”.

Paired with the “Frailty” essay is one on “God Told Me To” by Fernando Gabriel Pagnoni Berns, and they are a perfect match. Both reference Abraham/Isaac and this one more bluntly asks the question once raised by Plato: is something right because God commands it, or does God command it because it is right? Seemingly, the answer is that God commands because it is right. We intuitively know that murder and theft were wrong. But this film turns that idea on its ear: if God tells people to kill, does that then make it okay? Today we might say that the Crusades were barbarous, or that Columbus was genocidal. But what if these men were truly guided by God? Are the deaths of millions of Jews and Muslims okay if God says so? If we decide that morality can be determined without God, why listen to Him at all? The film presents less drastic situations alongside the murders – people who cannot divorce or end their pain-filled life because God wills such actions. But again, if God says murder is okay and we know that it is not, why do we think He is any more right on the little things? And whose God do we listen to when more and more denominations spring up all the time?

One of the weakest entries is Lucio Reis-Filho’s look at the “Hellraiser” series of films. Although not a bad essay, it does tend to lack source material to work with. Trying to construct a comprehensive religious view on Hell and the cenobites in these films is a challenge and probably impossible. An interesting claim is made that the morality expressed in the films begins as ambiguous, much like the work of H. P. Lovecraft. And as the series goes on, the morality is much more black and white like the works of Lovecraft’s disciple (and Wisconsin native), August Derleth. This is an interesting perspective, though even here it fails if we pause to consider the source material. I am willing to accept that Lovecraft influenced Clive Barker. I am not willing to accept that Derleth was on the minds of anyone involved in the sequels. All that can really be said is that as the series goes on, it gets more generic and less inspired. And everyone already knows that.

Matthew Killmeier’s analysis of John Carpenter’s “Prince of Darkness” is a breath of fresh air. Having seen the film multiple times, I confess that it is still a bit over my head in places. Killmeier lays out the central argument of the film: that science and religion (or the natural and supernatural) may be complementary, two different ways of looking at the same thing. Specifically the idea of evil. Could “evil” be more than an idea or a spiritual force, but actually have a physical manifestation? These are interesting concepts, and the science/religion debate is explored in a way that it rarely (if ever) is.

Many other essays are included, and each one is a discussion waiting to happen. For each 10-page thesis, a student (or film fan) could easily write a 10-page response. These are thought-provoking topics both for horror and religion. While the target audience is someone who is interested in both, the general horror fan will probably get something of merit from the writing, too. The student of religion who does not care for horror may find the book confusing, mostly because many of the titles covered are fairly obscure to the general public.

The book can be ordered from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or any reputable book dealer. If the local book dealer is not reputable, feel free to reach out to McFarland directly through their website (www.mcfarlandpub.com) or by calling 800-253-2187. Ask for “Divine Horror”.

Also try another article under Film Industry
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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