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Religion Won’t Save You: Religious Tropes in Horror Films

The Omen: horror and religionAsk anyone to explain a link between religion and horror movies and you’ll undoubtedly hear a large number of replies citing the use of crosses to ward off vampires. But, the genre is so heavily laced with religious sub-plots and analogies, it goes much deeper than Van Helsing brandishing a representation of where Jesus was crucified in the face of Count Dracula. On top of this, when you really look into it, it appears that religion is one of the most impotent tropes in horror cinema, with characters putting misplaced trust into age old beliefs in the hope that they will be saved. Unfortunately, that’s just not going to work.

Most horror stories utilise the well-worn adage of good vs evil, with the virtuous and virginal pitted against a malevolent person, group or force that has mischief and dark deeds as their main goal. It is the light against the dark. Of course, sometimes religion in a horror film is used as a central plot point, whereas on other occasions, it is a device used to move the story forward, such as when a character discovers their faith and uses it to fuel their quest to defeat their nemesis.

The link between horror and religion could be put down to a number of things. Firstly, as horror films are mostly fantastical, involving supernatural occurrences, it is easier to utilise religion as it ties in with that quite nicely. Also, the fact that the bible itself is full of horrific stories of death, retribution and blood-letting so it’s an easier fit than any other genre out there. It is perhaps the best collection of short horror stories ever collated. Here are a few examples and their celluloid counterparts.

For the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, see Carrie’s mother in Carrie. For the impaling of Haman on a 75 foot pole (Esther 7:9-10), see the impaling of the woman in Cannibal Holocaust. For the crushed victims and the lake of blood (Revelation 14:20), see the cave pool of blood in The Descent or the blood gushing from the lifts in The Shining. That doesn’t even cover off the Red Sea deaths of those chasing Moses or the numerous body horror moments that befall people in the bible. Also, as he rose from the grave, isn’t Jesus a zombie in some form?

Perhaps the most obvious evidence of religion used in horror is that of The Exorcist. When a young girl becomes possessed by a demon who refers to itself as the Devil, two priests conduct an exorcism to release the twelve year old. There are all the usual religious trinkets on show, from crosses to Holy water and the repetitious use of the name of Christ. Released on Boxing Day 1973 – the day after the supposed birth of Jesus Christ – the film was both shocking and incendiary to audiences who had not seen anything like this before. Sure, Satanism had been used in Rosemary’s Baby five years before, but a full exorcism of a demon from an adolescent, left audiences reportedly passing out and being violently sick when witnessing the events unfold on screen. We’re not even going to dwell on the crucifix masturbation scene. You could say that in the case of The Exorcist that religion ultimately wins, but not without major casualties, with both the priests undertaking the exorcism  dying – one who’s voluntarily possessed by the demon itself before committing suicide. Remember that suicide is supposed to be a sin, so in the eyes of God the demon will have won as one of the priests takes his own life.

The idea of an omnipotent deity is a very interesting one and something that can be neither proven nor disproven easily; it is all down to personal beliefs. Something you will find in countless horror films, however, is the sudden u-turn that some characters undertake in the face of their own unavoidable death. With an unstoppable killing machine about to detach their head from their body with the axe in their hands, these characters will suddenly find that they believe in God, whereas they have eschewed the idea for the rest of their life. It’s an extension of the deathbed retraction. In real life for example, when a death row inmate is due to be taken for their execution, they will be asked if they wish to repent their sins that they have committed in life. A person who takes this option would be considered in the eyes of religion to have cleansed themselves before passing over to the afterlife. In the movies, this role is normally taken up by a character so lacking in positive traits, but so full of sinful ones, that the audience wills them to die horribly. However, as the creators wouldn’t want to be so brazen as to have them beg for forgiveness before they die, instead they will normally be on their knees and will quote something similar to “Oh God”, as if using the name of this deity will resolve them of their sins. When that axe comes crashing down and slices through skin, muscle and bone, you know thatthatGod wasn’t listening.

How about a few other examples to really emphasise how much filmmakers believe that religion is a misguided safety net?

In the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, the scene where the crucifix leaps off the wall in the bedroom where Nancy is sleeping – just before Freddy tries to push through the barrier between dreams and reality by leering over her through the wall – is an obvious statement that the crucifix is a pointless defensive weapon in the fight against evil. Remember, when Tina is running down the alley and says “Oh God” and Freddy flashes his razor fingered glove and replies “This, is God.”

How about in 28 Days Later, when Cillian Murphy’s character wanders into the church and finds a pile of bodies, it is a warning that if a virus were to infect the population, congregating in large numbers at a place of worship is not going to help the situation. Instead, it will make finding you very easy and help make the process of killing you like shooting fish in a barrel. In circumstances like that, pray if you must, but do it on your own, or much smaller numbers and don’t shut yourself into an enclosed space with little chance of escape.

There are obvious religious pointers in films such as Hellraiser, Rawhead Rex, [REC], The Omen, the underrated Frailty, and obviously, the spate of exorcism movies that have been steadily released over the last few years. That doesn’t even begin to scrape the amount of horror films that have religion as an important part of their story, but one thing becomes clear. Looking at the evidence, if you ever find yourself in a horror film, don’t stop and pray; this will only assist the bad guy(s) in catching up and caving your head in. Instead, grab a weapon and start swinging. It may be your only chance of survival.

As the former reverend played by Mel Gibson in Signs says, “There is no one looking out for us. We are all alone.”

JD GILLAM

(Note: the author has no religious beliefs and this feature is not intended to incite or belittle anyone else’s personal beliefs.)

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