Religion in Horror: Using Spirituality as a Fear Tactic

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Religion in Horror: Using Spirituality as a Fear Tactic

Religion in Horror Part II

William Peter Blatty wrote the 1971 novel The Exorcist with the intention of turning people to Christ. The original novel actually focuses more on Father Karras and his spiritual journey through events like his mother’s passing, and his road back to salvation, more than it does Regan’s possession. He, too, wrote the script for the famous 1973 film directed by William Friedkin, which not only went on to win an Oscar, but lived on for years, lurking in the dark corners of people’s minds, deep in their nightmares. In 1976, Richard Donner’s The Omen terrified people with the notion that the antichrist could rise up and take over as a world leader through the medium of politics, a fundamentalist idea that can be traced back to Billy Graham’s apocalyptic early ’70s faith-based horror films. Looking back on movies like A Thief in the Night and Image of the Beast today, it’s easy see how poorly made and even laughable they can be, but in all honesty, it’s frightening to understand what a person of faith can bring forth to film. People assume that finding your faith means witnessing a miracle, but a moment of sheer terror brought on by supernatural forces can turn you to prayer quicker than any happy memory. In a strange way, the use of religion as a scare tactic in the horror genre is one of the most effective tools you can utilize as a filmmaker.

The 1960s were a time of potential, of hope and progress for the future. The Vietnam War was the first to be televised right into people’s living rooms, staring at them as they ate their dinner, forcing them to see what the draft does to young, inexperienced boys, and the public could hide no longer. A counterculture developed, as people raised their fists in protest of their government, demanding that everyone be treated like a human being, no matter their race, gender, or resistance to the armed forces. But for every step forward, we took two steps back, killing the most important members of our movements. John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and John Lennon all shocked us with their sudden absence, as we tried to understand the evil that hid beneath the faces of our peers. Men like Charles Manson and David Berkowitz violently dashed our hopes and dreams with hatred and violence, and corrupted the very vulnerable part of us that had once been open to change. In our frustration and spiritual confusion, an era of satanic films erupted, with the launch of movies like Rosemary’s BabyThe ExorcistThe Omen, a new sub genre was quickly ushered in that would only grow in popularity in the years to come. Soon, a plethora of titles followed, like StigmataThe Devil’s Rain, Satan’s School for GirlsSatan’s Baby Doll, Lorna the ExorcistThe Sentinel, and more. Extremism, in any fashion, is always an invasive, frightening spirit, which is exactly why it works so well for horror movies.

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Films are always at their most effective when they reflect the world we live in, and horror is no exception. With the AIDS scare of the 1980s came an air of homophobia and religious extremity that always walks hand in hand with a lack of understanding. Then, in triumphant defiance of public opinion, came Hellraiser. If bigots are so concerned with what men and women do in the privacy of their own bedrooms, then let’s give them something to really have a fit about. Let’s explore that fear of the sexual unknown, and witness the very darkest secrets of our own fantasies. Jacob’s Ladder displayed the ever-lasting effects that many men who had grown older still felt as a result of participating in the horrific events of the Vietnam War. After the Rodney King beating and the Los Angeles riots in the early ’90s, films like Se7en and Fallen popped up, mirroring a sad, gritty, hopeless world, where the gods had seemingly left man to fend for themselves. The early 2000s were a time of panic and foreign invasion, as terrorists hijacked our planes, and crashed our friends and family into buildings, launching us into a never-ending war. In the wake of our heartbreak and violation, several features depicting devils and demons came about again, and the invasion of privacy and loss of control we felt in our own country was projected onto the screen. The Exorcism of Emily RoseThe Last ExorcismThe Possession, PossessionHouse of the Devil, The Taking of Deborah Logan, Grace: The Possession, The Possession of Michael King — these are all demonic films that were released in the last fourteen years.

In our own way, we have shown how religion in horror doesn’t just serve as a scare tactic by showing us our worst spiritual fears, but also, as a commentary on how religion can be used as a weapon if its power is wielded by the wrong people. In Ti West’s 2014 The Sacrament, he demonstrates how a charismatic, smooth-talking man who happens to be well-versed in scripture can lead an entire group of lost souls to give up their worldly possessions, leave the lives they know, and come live with him, unquestioning, miles away from civilization. In Frank Darabont’s 2007 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist about a northern town that bears witness to an alien invasion, we learn that the most frightening monster in the movie is not the group of Lovecraftian creatures hiding in the haze outside of the store, but rather, the fundamentalist woman taking shelter inside with David Drayton and his son. In yet another King classic, Carrie White’s one chance at happiness and a normal life is brutally and without warning shockingly extinguished. A harsh religious upbringing, and an overbearing, born-again mother that have doomed Carrie to a life of constant torment, never to exist among the beautiful ones; the chosen ones.

Twenty-five years after Brian De Palma stunned audiences everywhere with Carrie, Bill Paxton created his own recollection of a childhood steered horribly wrong by a zealot parent in Frailty. In 2014, Jen and Sylvia Soska released See No Evil 2, which tells the story of Jacob Goodnight, a man forever scarred by his crazed, born-again Christian mother, destined to grow into a murderous monster, hell-bent on unleashing his Catholic guilt on anyone that dare stand in his way. God-fearing guardians bode well in the horror universe, because there are so many parallels between the relationship that a child has with his or her parent, and that which they have with religion. Just as god forbade Adam and Eve from eating fruit from the tree of knowledge, a parent can squander their child’s ability to mature naturally, and become sexual, independent, intelligent beings. Rules are set and followed without question, because questioning the authority means a lack of respect. At the same time, the discipline that makes living a normal life such a difficult thing, creates a comfort zone, because you know that there will always be someone to run to. Whether it be your mother, father, or god itself, someone will listen to your problems, and give advice, whether it be verbal, or the scripture of the bible. The hold that these two authoritative forces have on people isn’t just an interesting plot device because they have so much in common, but also, because it makes you feel what the character feels. The part of us that sometimes feels alone and ostracized is artfully exploited in Carrie, as we sit back and watch an innocent, sheltered-girl struggle to live a somewhat normal life, in spite of her mother’s best efforts to keep her locked away from society.

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While Frailty pairs well with Carrie because they both feature abusive, fanatical parents that torture their children with the supposed word of god, where they differ is in the perception of the religious material. From start to finish, Carrie makes it clear that what Mrs. White does to her daughter is cruel and wrong. In Frailty, Fenton Meiks gets along with his father swimmingly until the day that his dad is told in a “vision” that he must carry out god’s word and kill all of the demons, which inhabit human bodies on earth. Fenton witnesses his father kidnap and murder innocent people in the shed out back, and as much as he tries to reason, and get help, he can’t get through to his father, who is convinced that he is a messenger of God. Fenton’s brother Adam believes his father’s every word, and willingly aids him in his maniacal quest to carry out his psychotic plans, despite Fenton’s pleas, and it seems that everything is going to hell, but….what if it turned out that Adam was right? What if Adam and his father truly are killing pedophiles, and murderers, and savages that in a fair world wouldn’t be allowed to live? It’s a crazy, sick notion that this sort of behavior could be justified, but with a stellar script, impressive acting, and some seriously superb camera work from Paxton, Frailty manages to make you question your own morality through the use of thousand-year old text. This game of “is it real or is it in their heads” is a fun one to play with horror, and can be seen in many other examples, like The Exorcism of Emily RoseJacob’s Ladder, and The Last Exorcist, and most recently, the jarring cult-sploitation indie flick Faults.

Religious horror films, pro-faith or not, were and continue to be a reflection of our society, and therefore hold an important place in history. Not only are they constantly pushing the envelope, but they also serve as markers in time, like little bookmarks to look back upon and link to a certain national event. It’s been thousands of years since the first religions were written and declared holy, but these fantastical tales of talking snakes and men walking on water still hold a sense of significance in everyone’s eyes, whether that person identifies as spiritual or not, and the reason is simple: it’s comforting. It’s nice to believe that there’s a purpose for each of us, and soft, welcoming, pillowy arms to embrace us after death. It’s understandable why religion still claims so many followers today, and why people are so bothered by the “corruption” of their sacred text, whenever it’s perverted to give people goosebumps in dark theaters. But if creating art that speaks for itself, by causing people to cover their eyes and fear the dark, means offending a few sensitive souls in the process, which option truly serves a higher purpose? And in all honesty, isn’t it better that people be bothered by someone’s vision, than perfectly comfortable all of the time, surrounded by safe art and censored choices? Religion is not just a scare tactic, it’s a valuable declaration of freedom of speech, and a righteous, rewarding, outlet for all of the insecurities and happenings that plague our world and keep it from perfection. By using religious, fictional accounts to frighten audiences, filmmakers have only furthered the progress of the horror genre, and the entirety of the filmmaking process.

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