Holy Horror

Admit to loving horror films and you’ll become a pariah.  With very few exceptions have friends or colleagues responded with “I like horror films too!”  Nevertheless, horror teaches us a great deal about what people actually believe.  Watching horror movies from childhood on, I noticed the Bible quite often appears in them.  In 2008 I read Douglas Cowan’s Sacred Terror and realized that now that I was out of the academy, religion scholars were starting to cover topics I always wanted to address but had been prevented from by convention.   And, to be honest, I was trying to make a career as a scholar of ancient West Asian religion—a hard sell even in a bull market.

Like Weathering the Psalms, this was a book that combined two unlikely ideas.  The Bible and horror don’t go together in the popular mindset.  I believe, however, that popular culture dictates how most people understand their religion.  I’d been exploring the idea of iconic books—a field of study championed by James Watts of Syracuse University—and noticed how frequently the Bible appeared in the short-lived Fox supernatural television series Sleepy Hollow.  I wrote a paper about it figuring that if I could get it published, it would validate my approach.  The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture accepted it.

Using that paper as a springboard, I decided to write a book.  Television series, however, take many months to view.  Movies, which I’d often used in the classroom, were much more compact.  And the Bible appeared frequently in them.  It was quite evident, for example, in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow.  Before I knew it I had 80,000 words on the subject.  Agents responded that it was a great idea, but not commercial enough.  Unlike Weathering the Psalms, this is a non-technical book and can be easily understood by anyone with a college-level education.

Standard publishing wisdom is, if you’re looking for a publisher check your bibliography.  Who publishes books like the one you’ve written?  The answer was pretty clear here: McFarland Books.  At their advice I dropped the chapter about the television series and made the book entirely about movies within the horror and thriller genres.

Iconic Books and Films

The idea behind iconic books is that they make a statement simply by being, well, iconic books.  You don’t need to read them.  Simply showing the book gets the point across.  America’s iconic book is clearly the Bible.  Holy Horror examines how the Bible functions iconically in a subset of popular culture—horror films.  As the book shows, there are a variety of ways of viewing the Bible in horror.  I categorize different ways of looking at the Good Book in a number of movies.

Not all the horror films showing the Bible are included, of course.  Early in my career I asked a media expert how many movies had been made.  He said, “There’s no way to know that.”  Of course.  What I’d really meant was what was the current number of the Motion Picture Association of America imprints you see at the end of the credits for American films.  That number, of course, is constantly in flux as well.  There are at least tens of thousands.  Myriads, in biblical vocabulary.  Nobody has seen them all.

One decision I had to make right away—what to do about sequels?  Sequels change things.  Sometimes a second film will give a revisionist summary of the first.  Consider The Evil Dead.  The sequel nearly completely rewrites the original.  For the kind of analysis I do in this book, I couldn’t have shifting sands, so I decided not to discuss sequels.  On the other hand, remakes speak volumes about the Bible.  If a remake existed at the time I wrote this book, I included it.  Like the MPAA numbers, however, this factor is constantly changing.

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About the Book

Unlike my previously published works, this book was written for a general, educated readership.  You don’t need any advanced training to know what I’m talking about.  You really don’t even need to watch the movies.  For me this is a guilty pleasure sort of book.  Few people believe Hollywood has much profound to say (although I think it does), so movies are just for fun.  A lifetime of watching films has convinced me that there is serious intellectual work going on, at least some of the time.

This book was written to share insights about how popular media, well, mediates our understanding of the Good Book.  It might profitably be compared with the Sleepy Hollow article that preceded it, but both stand by themselves.  Already before I’d finished it, I’d begun work on a sequel.  That book spun off in a different direction due to the announcement of a new series of books by Fortress Press and Lexington Academic.  Look on the next page for that.  Holy Horror has been delayed until early 2019.

Among the many monsters considered, demons feature rather obviously.

A Reassessment of Asherah (1993)

Weathering the Psalms (2014)

Nightmares with the Bible (2020)