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Horror Films and the Proximity of Religious Iconography

Horror Films and the Proximity of Religious Iconography
© Photograph by Lyubov Shipaeva

Horror films and the relationship between religion and filmmaking has always been a bit uncertain. From the very beginning, religious themes, stories, and metaphors were prominent in the cinema, at times taking on epic proportions and frequently carrying enormous symbolic freight. And yet rarely have films treated religious faith on its own terms or explored religious values and motivations with much depth and complexity (even and especially when they have been intentional in telling religious stories). This persistent yet ambiguous relationship between religion and film is nowhere more evident than in the case of horror films.

Other than pornography, horror is the film genre least amenable to religious sensibilities. It offends, disgusts, frightens, and features the profane, often in gruesome and ghastly proportions. Yet, from the earliest Faustian dramas to vampire legends and accounts of demon-possession to more recent apocalyptic nightmares, horror films have tended to rely heavily on religious themes, symbols, rituals, persons, and places. That is, of course, due (at least in part) to the fact that many of the central themes of horror films overlap with traditionally religious concerns (or at least Western religious concerns) such as sin and redemption, life after death, the struggle between evil and good, or the presence of the supernatural. Horror films frequently construct evil, for example, even if unconsciously, within familiar religious coordinates — and in the West that has meant specifically Christian coordinates. With the disintegration of Christendom, however, these coordinates are increasingly losing their hold on the popular imagination. Whatever we may want to conclude about the unrelenting openness of the human to various modes of transcendence, to the spiritual, or to religious searching, the voice of religion in public discourse and its function in cultural artefacts such as popular film has been radically transformed.

To complicate things further, our most basic understandings of self; community, and cosmos have undergone enormous alteration during the past century. To the extent that a Judeo-Christian worldview clings to more traditional notions of self, community, and cosmos, the rejection of these more traditional notions raises serious questions about whether a Western religious worldview can be sustained and, if so, what that might look like.

Not in spite of, but precisely for these reasons, horror films provide an important case study for thinking about religious meaning in contemporary culture. But, of course, horror is not widely respected as a serious partner for religious, theological, or philosophical reflection. Only three horror films surface in the recent American Film Institute Top 100 list (‘Psycho’ at number 18; ‘Jaws’ at number 48; and ‘Frankenstein’ at number 87), and only three have ever even been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture (‘The Sixth Sense’ in 1999; ‘Jaws’ in 1975, and ‘The Exorcist’ in 1973). None has ever won. The recent surge in studies of religion and film reflect this general disdain for the horror film, and uniformly neglect any sustained consideration of the genre while, at the same time, the recent spike in philosophical and psychological studies of the horror genre pay little-focused attention to its explicitly religious dimensions.

In this article, I will look briefly at just a few of the ways that religious questions and religious themes show up in the cinema of horror. In doing so, however, it is important to note from the outset that the breadth and complexity of horror film is not easily encapsulated in any single genre classification. Horror as a genre stretches across any number of different character types, locations, storylines, or time periods. Whatever value is to be found in thinking about horror film in terms of its recurrent patterns, common themes, or shared affects on audiences, therefore, entails certain risks that require a good deal of flexibility and humility. As Andrew Tudor reminds us, all genre is “a social construction and as such is subject to constant negotiation and re-formulation.” Every so often, for example, a film comes along that redefines the horror genre, stretches its boundaries, shocks us in new ways, or transforms existing conventions.

Examples of such films would be ‘Psycho’, ‘Night of the Living Dead’, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, ‘The Exorcist’, or ‘Halloween’. It may be possible to identify some of the persistent features of horror films that help us to understand more about ourselves in terms of our primal fears and repulsions, our collective unconscious, or our buried psyches. However, I take it that who we are both as selves and communities are always being formed in unique and context-dependent ways that alter our ways of knowing and our patterns of relating to one another. All of this requires that film changes, sometimes drastically, if it really is to speak to us and for us.

The success of horror as a popular art form is due in no small part to its ability both to attract and to repel — to captivate, entertain, and invite us, on the one hand, and to confront us with that which is forbidden, unknown, strange, and terrifying, on the other hand. Horror preys upon our vulnerabilities, superstitions, nightmares, and fears, and we like it! Or at least many of us do.
Explanations for why this so often takes two forms: the quasi-religious (“awe”) or the psychoanalytic (“repression”). But neither of these is fully sufficient in and of itself. When horror is at its best, it satisfies our curiosity about both the metaphysical and the psychological unknown while, at the same time, casting an unsettling light on the shadow elements both of the human condition and of the cosmos.

This dual movement in horror frequently reveals to us just how thin is the line that separates beauty and terror — and here, of course, is precisely its openness to the religious, what Rudolf Otto called the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Horror film both interests us and disturbs us by confronting us with the disgusting and the fascinating simultaneously. Naturally, that which disgusts us and that which fascinates us change over time, but horror remains, as filmmaker David Paul Cronenberg describes it, “the genre of confrontation.” By functioning both as a threat and a catharsis, horror brings us face to face with our fear of death, of the supernatural, of the unknown and irrational, of “the other” in general, or a loss of identity, of forces beyond our control — regardless of whether those are to be found in outer space, in nature, in our bodies, in sexuality, beyond the grave, or deeply buried within our own psyches.

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