There is a sense of fellowship among strangers, gathered in pew-like rows. All eyes are drawn forward, not to a pulpit where the preacher delivers a sermon about good and evil, but rather to a giant screen where the clash of good versus evil unfolds like a terrifying reality.
And there can be prayer in movie theaters. It’s whispered during those moments when fear takes hold; moments when everyone forgets to breathe:
“It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie.”
With increasing — some might argue reckless and blasphemous — frequency, horror movies are incorporating religious themes and images, allowing audiences to confront their fears while finding comfort in the familiar trappings of faith.
In the 1930s, Dracula was repelled with crosses and holy water, and Victor Frankenstein gave life to a monster and identified himself with the biblical God of creation.
No movie has had a greater impact on religion and popular culture than “The Exorcist,” according to W. Scott Poole, author of “Satan in America.”
“It inaugurated a moment in American cultural life when the devil occupied a place in public discourse not held at any time or place in America since the New England settlements of the 17th century,” Poole writes.
James Lanier knows the moviegoer’s prayer. He whispered it in an Atlanta theater while watching “The Exorcist” on a dare. “I made it through the whole thing, but almost wish I hadn’t,” says the now 62-year-old Lanier. “It sickened me.”
Lanier, who was born and raised Baptist, knew “next to nothing” about Catholicism or exorcisms, but he knew enough about the devil.
“It all just seemed so real,” he says. “All I could think was, ‘This is what the devil would do.’”
‘The Exorcist’ is pro-Catholic
In “The Exorcist,” a young girl named Regan is possessed by an entity calling itself Captain Howdy, a demon that enters Regan when she plays with a Ouija board.
It’s that kind of occult practice that kept Francesca Scalici away. Scalici and her husband, Matt, host a Birmingham-based movie review podcast called “Cinematrimony” at Filmnerds.com.
Raised in a devout Catholic family — and still a practicing Catholic — Scalici’s imagination was so active as a child that simply reading “13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey” would bring on nightmares.
“In the Catholic church, the idea of evil is that it is a real presence and threat,” she says. “We were told to keep away from anything that might ‘open a door’ to evil. I still remember being at a friend’s house and being afraid simply because she owned a Ouija board. Possession and exorcism, while fringe, are part of the language of our church.”
Two Jesuit priests served as advisers on “The Exorcist,” and even the highly conservative National Catholic Register placed it on its list of “pro-Catholic” films, right alongside “The Bells of St. Mary’s.”
Scalici has never seen “The Exorcist” – “and never will” – but she is familiar with its premise as well as other horror movies that rely on religious themes.
“I think in classic films, the church was given a more prominent position in fighting whatever evil threat was present,” she says. “The hero of ‘The Exorcist’ is a priest. People still had great faith in the strength and goodness of religious people and institutions.
“Now the trend seems to be more towards vilifying religious characters if they appear in film. Religion is uncool and filmmakers generally seem to eschew it these days.”
Good vs. evil
For all the analysis and controversy swirling around religious-themed horror movies, the reason such elements are popular is simple: good storytelling, says Michael Cox, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Anniston.
“It’s the yin and the yang,” Cox says. “Obviously, horror movies deal with evil, but in order to have evil — and to ultimately defeat evil — there must also be good. The good is often represented by religion, faith or even God.”
Cox is an admitted fan of horror movies, although he is repelled by the genre’s insistence on foul language and nudity, which can be as ubiquitous as buckets of blood. Cox understands a thing or two about compelling storylines.
For 17 years, Cornerstone has hosted “Dexter: The Final Moments,” a chilling story built around “found” audio tapes of a drug-addicted teenager’s suicide and the torments of hell that follow.
Over the years, Dexter has incorporated various horror movie motifs and monsters to get the attention of its younger audiences.
This year, which will be the final run of Dexter as the church has chosen to “do more out in the community,” the production will feature a nightmare scene populated with zombies of Lust, Fear, Depression and Hopelessness.
“Having religious elements in horror movies makes sense,” Cox says. “What happens at the end of horror movies — good triumphs over evil. The monster is annihilated. In a lot of ways, that’s how the church works. Our job is to defeat evil."
Light in the darkness
“Horror movies can do some good,” Cox says, laughing. “It’s just not always real obvious.”
Cox sites the 2010 movie “Devil,” about several people trapped in an elevator. The passengers start turning violently against one. When the devil appears to take its final victim, one of the survivors repents and begs forgiveness.
The final line of the film is meant to make people reflect on the divine rather than the evil: “If the Devil is real, then God must be real too.”
“And that’s a good message,” Cox says. “One that people should remember.”
Another horror movie with an enlightening, if subtle. religious message is 2005’s “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” about a young woman who is supposedly possessed by demons and the pastor who goes to jail after she dies during an exorcism.
The movie is part courtroom drama, part horror movie. But for all the frightening moments, it’s also a testament to the value of faith in an agnostic world seemingly ruled by science.
The audience is left wondering if maybe demons are real, if there is something “else” out there, that God truly is with us. That was the overarching goal for director Scott Derrickson, who is also an outspoken Christian.
“The horror genre is a perfect genre for Christians to be involved with,” Derrickson told Christianity Today. “It’s about admitting that there is evil in the world and recognizing that there is evil within us, and that we’re not in control, and that things we are afraid of must be confronted in order for us to relinquish that fear.”
It’s movies like “Devil” and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” that people of all faiths — and no faith — can enjoy, Scalici says, because they us leave with a sense of peace and resolution, which is what most people seek when they go to the movies, horror movies or otherwise.
We all want the monster to die in the end.
Contact Brett Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monsters in the Bible
Horror movie fans seeking true abominations need only look to the Bible for inspiration, as it is riddled with monsters appearing in numerous stories and prophetic visions.
Perhaps the most infamous of the Biblical monsters is the sea-monster Leviathan, which at times appears as a playful part of God’s creation (Psalm 104:24-27), but in Psalm 74 is portrayed as among God’s archenemies during his creation of the world:
Leviathan was seen in ancient legend as a sea monster engaged in primordial warfare with the gods. This “twisting serpent” was chaos personified; a threat to the very order of the cosmos that would ultimately be defeated by God at the end of time.
It’s no coincidence that Leviathan is the name given to the Lord of the Labyrinth of Hell in “Hellbound: Hellraiser II.” In this adaptation, Leviathan isn’t a creature of the sea but a “God of flesh, hunger and desire” that hovers over its subjects like rats trapped in a maze.
The Red Dragon
There are myriad nightmares laid out in the Book of Revelation. Of these evils that spill fourth during the end times, none is more dreadful than the Red Dragon, a beast with seven heads and 10 horns that represents Satan incarnate. The Red Dragon is also the wellspring of one of horror’s most famous monsters.
“The heart and soul of Dracula is deeply religious,” writes Timothy Beal, author of “Religion and its Monsters.” “That this monster has deep religious roots is indicated by his very name, which identifies him with the biblical tradition of diabolical monstrosity, especially with the great devil-dragon of the Apocalypse of John.”
Count Dracula was named after the Romanian Prince Vlad of Wallachia, who was famous for, among other atrocities, impaling enemies on stakes around his castle. His family crest bore the Order of the Dragon, or “dracul.” In Romanian, the word “dracul” can mean either “the dragon” or “the devil.”
“Religion is never without its monsters,” writes Beal. “No matter how many times we kill our monsters, they keep coming back for more. Not just Dracula but all monsters are undead. Maybe they keep coming back because they still have something to say to us about our world and ourselves.
“Maybe that is the scariest part.”