RC Talk: Faith in horror films

Linda Blair famously portrayed a girl possessed by a demon in the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist. Religion often plays a role in horror films.
Linda Blair famously portrayed a girl possessed by a demon in the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist. Religion often plays a role in horror films.

The No. 1 movie at the box office last weekend was about a priest.

Actually, it features two priests and discussions about faith in a film that Roger Ebert says takes the spiritual world seriously.

Not that your church group will likely be taking any field trips to see The Rite, the latest hit horror film. Although horror may superficially seem at odds with faith, it is actually a genre that may give as much consistent credence to Christian beliefs as any aspect of popular culture that is not explicitly faith based.

"Horror in particular is one of few genres where audiences are comfortable with religious themes and in fact expect it," says Joshua Overbay, an assistant professor of media communications at Asbury University. "Horror answers the human need to study good and evil, which naturally leads to discussions about the existence of God."

Among the most successful horror movies of all time are The Omen (1976), about a child who is the antichrist that some segments of Christianity believe will bring about the end of the world, and The Exorcist (1973), about a demon-possessed girl. Both spawned multiple sequels, and we can, ahem, thank The Exorcist for an entire subgenre of horror movies.

Danville native Robby Henson, who has directed film adaptations of faith-based thrillers by Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker, says that Christianity often appears in horror because in the genre, "you're dealing with things that are not easily explained, and in faith you have things that are not easily explained.

"The mythology of religion is often used in these stories. Things like demonic forces are a natural fit for horror."

Even if we are not in a naturally religious territory like exorcism movies, religious iconography permeates horror. Just think of all the crucifixes and holy water that are supposed to ward off vampires. The 1999 film Stigmata focused on a woman played by Patricia Arquette who begins to experience the wounds of Jesus Christ at the crucifixion after mysteriously receiving a rosary.

But does all of this religious imagery lead to actual substantive explorations of faith?

Overbay, who says the way horror movies deal with faith is what piques his interest in the genre, says that all depends on the film and the viewer.

The Rite, for instance, "is not a well-executed film," Overbay says. "but it is asking, 'What do you believe?' and that sort of saves the day."

For Overbay's money, last year's The Last Exorcism, had promise. The story is about a priest who sets out to prove exorcism is a fraud and ends up facing real supernatural evil. The story starts in a crisis of faith when the priest reads about errant diagnoses of demon possession and realizes he has more faith in science than in God.

"The pastor in The Last Exorcism has a faith journey and a return to faith through an encounter with evil," Overbay says. "It utilized the conventions of the genre well and it really had me for about an hour. Then it turned into Rosemary's Baby," he said, citing another horror film with religious overtones.

Expectations of the horror audience often limit a film's ability to fully explore themes of faith and the like, Overbay says. At some point, audiences expect to see a certain level of thrills and gruesomeness.

One film that Overbay cites as successful was Frailty, a 2002 film directed by and starring Bill Paxton as a widowed father who tells his sons he believes he has been commanded by God to kill demons who live in open society.

"It really dealt with issues of why God would allow evil in the world really well," Overbay says.

He and Henson also cite The Exorcism of Emily Rose as a particularly intriguing film. That film's writer and director, Scott Derrickson, is a Christian who was recently announced as the director of the forthcoming Goliath, a 300-style take on the biblical tale of David vs. Goliath.

Being a horror fan or filmmaker can be a challenge in the evangelical community, which tends to prefer "positive," "family" entertainment.

Henson, who does not consider himself a faith-based filmmaker, says he never encountered any negative reaction himself for making faith-based horror films. But he believes the movies were greenlit only because they were based on successful novels — Peretti's The Visitation (2006) Dekker's Thr3e (2006) and The House (2008).

"I get weird looks sometimes when I start talking about horror," says Overbay, who is working on a werewolf film that explores the theme of why God would allow such a horrible thing to happen to an ostensibly good person. "But if you look at the Bible, it's not very family-friendly. You have violence brought on by people in obedience and disobedience to God, books like Job where there is suffering and the search for meaning."

Parts of the holy book are downright scary, like many movies that focus on faith. But Christians should not be afraid to look for how darker tales are relevant to faith.

"There will always be stories about good and evil," Overbay says. "As Christians, we ought to have something to say about that."

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