Idolatry, Religion and Worship in the Horror Film
by Professor Douglas E Cowan
Section One: Christianity
Eyes of Believers: The Conjuring (2013) and The Conjuring 2 (2016)
by Alexandra West
This chapter focuses on the creeping conservative values at play within James Wan's The Conjuring (2013) and The Conjuring 2 (2016). Utilizing the controversial real-life figures of Ed and Lorraine Warren as the protagonists of both films, Wan has sanitized their history in favor of upholding patriarchal Christian values. The chapter examines filmic nostalgia, conservative Christian values, and how these elements combine in an attempt to make horror great again.
“I don't know if we've got the heir to the Thorn millions here or Jesus Christ himself”: Catholicism, Satanism and the Role of Predestination in The Omen (1976)
by Dr LMK Sheppard
This chapter focuses on how The Omen (1976), as a representation of New Hollywood Horror, acts as both an agent within this socio-political environment and a disseminator of its message and values. In addressing cultural and religious neo-liberal and conservative debates—involving the role of free will and its opposites, determinism and predestination—the film in many ways challenges this liberty of choice. Like the culture out of which it arises, The Omen may be regarded as being not only conflictual, but also conflicted.
As God is My Witness: Martyrdom in Modern-Day Horror
by Andrea Subissati
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) and Martyrs (2008) tackle the subject of modern-day martyrdom in diverse and theologically nuanced ways. This chapter seeks to unpack the convoluted term “martyr” by drawing from its etymological origins, and tracing its redefinition across history. Culminating in an examination of both films—with an aim to isolate the differing conceptions of martyrdom and the resulting cultural impact of those conceptions—this analysis illustrates that the figure of the martyr is far from antiquated, no matter how far removed from its theological origin.
The Last Sin Eater: The Hellraiser Mythology as the Hell Priest’s Purgatory
by Rebecca Booth
This chapter charts the development of the Hell Priest—often referred to as “Pinhead”—across the Hellraiser mythology. The portrayal of the figure in Clive Barker’s seminal novella The Hellbound Heart (1986) is analysed against further literary instalments, as well as the cinematic translation of the character, and its further evolution across popular culture. As an inversion of the traditional mediatory role of the clergyman, the Hell Priest is truly the last sin eater; he does not absolve sin, but feeds upon it as he condemns and collects souls. Taking into account the character’s human backstory in relation to several tangential storylines within the franchise, the Hellraiser mythology is explored as the Hell Priest’s own purgatory.
Section Two: Mysticism
Needful Things: Buddhism and Gender in Onibaba (1964) and Nang Nak (1999)
by Erin Thompson
This chapter explores the gender politics and social customs of spiritual fulfilment and balance amid the background of the religious traditions within Buddhism in Onibaba (1964) and Nang Nak (1999). The films present the disconcerting theme of a female practitioner requiring a male counterpart to achieve full spiritual potential, highlighting and reinforcing a combination of Buddhist perceptions and principles in regards to gender inequality through the devices of the vengeful spirit and the repentant religious.
Between Two Worlds: Semitic Soul Transmigration in The Dybbuk (1937) and Demon (2015)
by Rebecca Booth
Despite references to the dybbuk, a once-human spirit that possesses the living to accomplish a malicious goal, in 16th century Jewish writings, the figure was not embraced by popular culture until Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport published his play The Dybbuk in 1918, under the pseudonym S. Ansky. Drawing on Jewish folklore, this chapter compares the figure in The Dybbuk (1937), Michał Waszyński’s classic cinematic adaptation of Ansky’s play, against Marcin Wrona’s Demon (2015), exploring the resonation of soul transfiguration in each. In particular, the chapter examines the marital unions in both films as a site of tension between traditional and cultural values, and in terms of gender politics and how the past informs the present—even when buried.
From the Stake to the Sanitarium: Taming the Unruly Feminine in Häxan (1922) and Antichrist (2009)
by Valeska Griffiths
Few historical figures are as evocative as that of the witch. Social discourses surrounding the figure have provided long-lasting ramifications, and with the shift from the Medieval to the Modern era, the figure of the witch has also undergone an evolution. Through examining Benjamin Christensen's Häxan (1922) and Lars von Trier's Antichrist (2009), the lineage from witch to hysteric, and the psychic harm that these discourses have inflicted—and continue to inflict—can be traced and understood.
Monstrous Realism: Irreligious Religion in Lovecraft’s Cosmic Horror
by Anya Stanley
H. P. Lovecraft’s works are largely referential to and focused around a constructed religion from the depths of his own mind. Commonly termed the Cthulhu Mythos by later contributors to this universe, this observational framework is rooted in non-spirituality and a matter-of-fact delivery of revelations concerning multiple amoral entities that humans can barely behold, let alone understand. When taken contextually with Lovecraft’s unashamed condemnations of organized religion, the Cthulhu Mythos is a bleak reflection of his own spiritual attitude towards both faith and contemporary advancements in science. Further, the cosmic horror popularized by literary pillars such as Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, and R. W. Chambers mirrors the common fears of atheists, including ultimate human insignificance, hyperawareness of frailty and mortality, and the great dark void itself. This chapter references many films that are both Lovecraft-tangential and direct adaptations of his work, with a central focus on From Beyond (1986) and In the Mouth of Madness (1994) for their emphasis on (anti)religious themes. Amid all of the horror films that find monstrosity in religion and zealotry, cosmicism's lack of belief is a jarring contrast that is nonetheless terrifying in its unflinching amorality, hence its unwavering popularity in the horror genre. This chapter, in its atheistic focus, serves to provide a counterbalance to the various religious lens being applied to horror cinema in Scared Sacred.
Section Three: Occultism
“Not everything that moves, breathes and talks is alive”: Christianity, Korean Shamanism and Reincarnation in Whispering Corridors (1998) and The Wailing (2016)
by Frazer Lee
This chapter covers the conflict between Christianity and Korean Shamanism via the subject of reincarnation. Park Ki-hyung’s Whispering Corridors (1998) positions the artistic freedom of post-dictatorship South Korea and its differing religious belief systems against increasingly brutal educational regimes, using reincarnation as both a plot device and a thematic note of hope for the emotionally and physically abused/abusing characters. Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing (2016) reflects Christian guilt through the lens of Korean horror, positioning Korean Shamanism as an occult threat by spreading evil to seemingly utopian rural areas via the shaman and accomplice, a direct mirror of the Catholic priest and his acolyte. In viewing how the notion of reincarnation explodes the South Korean obsession with Christianity, this chapter also explores how the horror film reflects the tension between these two belief systems, each competing for dominance in both the spiritual and socio-political realms.
Deprogramming the Program: The Image and Anxiety of the Religious Cult in the Made for Television Film
by Amanda Reyes
As a tool for mass consumption, the television film is at its most influential when working with images of domestic spaces and family. Concentrating on the telefilms Can Ellen Be Saved (1974) and Blinded by the Light (1980), this chapter explores the ways in which cults are portrayed as symbols of the anxieties that arose during an era of rising divorce rates and broken homes, and how the made-for-television film employs those images as a tool to reinforce the nuclear family, which is treated as the ultimate iconography of a higher power.
I Believe in Death: William Peter Blatty and the Horror of Faith in The Ninth Configuration (1980) and Exorcist III (1990)
by Samm Deighan
Though William Peter Blatty achieved fame with the 1973 adaptation of his novel, The Exorcist, his work as a director has long been overlooked. This chapter will primarily focus on the two films Blatty helmed: The Ninth Configuration (1980) and Exorcist III (1990), both adaptations of his own novels that explore themes of madness, violence and horror. These films explore the inevitable consequences when men of belief and faith confront evil within the nihilistic modern world, whether that manifests as satanic possession, serial murder, or insanity as the result of trauma.
The Last Temptation: Demonic Warfare and Supernatural Sacrifice in The Amityville Horror (1979) and When the Lights Went Out (2012)
by Erin Thompson
The anxiety-inducing topic of demonic invasion and possession persists across world cultures. After a resurgence of interest in the 1960s to 1980s, tales of possession and supernatural occurrences began to manifest in cinema. In particular, The Amityville Horror (1979) and When the Lights Went Out (2012) portray alleged real-life events that chart a pattern of supernatural disturbance, possession and affirmation of faith. This chapter bridges the two films by means of the Biblical notion of temptation and sacrifice, as demonstrated in the tale of Abraham in the Book of Genesis.
Section Four: Beyond Belief
Smashing the Butterfly: Necropolitics, Racial Sovereignty and the Ecstasy of the Black Undead in Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess (1973)
by Dr John Cussans
This chapter addresses Bill Gunn’s 1973 experimental vampire film Ganja and Hess from a theoretical perspective drawn from the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe and the Lebanese artist and writer Jalal Toufic, framing the work in terms of a religious conflict within the African-American community in the 1960s and 1970s between the redemptive promise of non-violent Christian protest and a militant myth of ancestral African religiosity and racial sovereignty. It discusses the themes of freedom, sacrifice and terror in terms of an ecstatic Black Reason (Mbembe), the aesthetics of undead trans-temporality (Toufic), and how Gunn’s subversion of the genre worked to challenge normative constructions of race, class and religiosity within popular horror cinema of the time.
Zoolatry and the Feline Fatale: Obsession, Femininity and Revenge in Cat People (1942) and Kuroneko (1968)
by Joseph Dwyer
In Jacques Tourneur’s production of Cat People (1942), a woman is ominously cursed by her feline ancestors. In Kaneto Shindo's Kuroneko (1968), supernatural cats act as avengers of women who are violated and murdered. Much like the femme, the feline fatale is a simultaneously lauded and condemned figure across cultural and historical boundaries. These two films incorporate elements of feline shape-shifting within their cultural mythos, which belie the fabricated reality of religions and other belief systems like psychoanalysis; folklore—including cinema—is revealed to be as equally important as religion.
Faith and Idolatry in the Abrahamic Religions: Security through Symbols in Seytan (1974) and Jinn (2014)
by Neil Gravino
The use of idolatry in defense against otherworldly horrors has cemented itself as one of the most common tropes of the horror genre. Often, idolatry takes the form of the placement of faith—bordering on superstition—on symbols of a religious nature, such as a cross or statue. This version of idolatry often renders itself ineffective, a narrative device used to raise the stakes and present evil as a credible threat. This chapter frames idolatry as a sinful act, and its accompanying sense of protection ineffectual, within the Abrahamic belief systems portrayed in Seytan (1974) and Jinn (2014). The films argue that placing faith in symbols rather than Abrahamic teachings and beliefs can leave one vulnerable to evil, a loaded reading in today’s socio-political climate. In both films, idolatry is replaced by physical action, presenting evil as a pervasive threat that believers must be constantly ready to confront, regardless of faith.
Prophetic Voices and the Lethal Hand of the God: The Religious Zealotry of Frailty (2001)
by Chris Hallock
This chapter examines Bill Paxton's Frailty (2001), a psychological horror film steeped in the southern gothic tradition. Surveying how the film's non-linear framework enhances its religious and familial themes, it also studies the director's ambiguous approach to the material, ensnaring the story's tightly-knit family in the disastrous clutches of religious zealotry, murderous fanaticism and toxic patriarchy.