There’s a validation about finding something you figured out written in a book. For me that happened just about this season, some years back. At the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting I found Sacred Terror by Douglas Cowan—the first book I’d discovered that discussed religion and horror films. Not only discussed them, but made the case that they have considerable common ground. Divine Horror: Essays on the Cinematic Battle Between the Sacred and the Diabolical, edited by Cynthia J. Miller and A. Bowdoin Van Riper, addresses the same theme but in more detail. Some of the essays in this volume get to the heart of the relationship between the sacred and the scary. As I mentioned, there’s a validation here for those of us who find horror movies fascinating. Others have noticed.
Genre fiction, as many fans know, comes with a subtle sense of shame. Low brow. Unsophisticated. Garish. Those with more refined tastes prefer subtlety and muted colors. Horror appeals to more basic instincts—but it’s also a form of expression that allows for the safe exploration of fear. There’s good horror and there’s bad horror. The eighteen essays in this book explore a bit of both. One conclusion that is unavoidable, however, is that religion—particularly Judeo-Christian religion—thrives in the context of horror cinema. The surprising part is that they often affirm the same message, but you need to look for it. Those who seek the origins of religion itself peer into the realms of awe and fear.
My own forthcoming book looks at similar territory. I don’t mind being classified as low brow. Raised in a blue collar world, that’s a fair assessment. What’s more, life confirms the reality of the connection between fear and religion. Consider the political moment in which we find ourselves. Much of the horror coming out of DC originates in religious “think tanks” trying to make evangelical Christianity the default faith stance of all our legislation. It means death and suffering to many, but the view of heaven for some becomes the tax haven for all. I know low brow when I see it. Horror comes in many forms—some lurid and some insidiously sneaky. Miller and Van Riper have pulled together a collection for our times here. The movies their authors discuss are part of a culture that is prominently religious and very afraid. If we want to understand what’s happening around us, we have to be willing to be scared.
Among the most explicitly religious of horror movies, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser series exploits biblical themes and tropes to blur distinctions between sacred and sacrilege. Not a fan of gratuitous gore, I began watching the series after reading Douglas Cowan’s Sacred Terror. Cowan utilizes this particular series to illustrate how deeply the religious mythology may reach, awaiting the fourth installment before finally having an explanation. Curious, I have been making my way through slowly. October seems a good time to consider the unsettling aspects of human nature, so I watched the third installment, Hell on Earth, this weekend.
Funnily, I do not find Pinhead particularly evil. Perhaps that is the intent. His eyes seem too kind to be a true villain. As the leader of the demonic Cenobites, he leads the curious down the path of exploration to ultimate destruction and, appropriately enough, Hell. The Hell presented throughout the films, however, is the true desire of the victims. They stumble upon a puzzle box, but when it is opened the curious find themselves trapped. The very use of monastic ideals as emblematic of Hell is surely a commentary on the futility of self-inflicted means of grace. Does not the flagellant at some level enjoy the pain? Where is the religious value in that? In Hellraiser III, Joanne runs to a Catholic church for help with Pinhead in pursuit. As any horror fan knows, the church is never a haven against evil. Pinhead makes himself a parody of the crucifixion while a helpless priest tries to defend God.
Horror films are a remarkably successful genre. At least one aspect of the appeal is the unabashed use of religion. Conditioned by the old films such as Dracula, the early twentieth century taught us that the church kept us safe—crucifixes always used to work against vampires! By the end of the century that vision had shifted. The church of the early twentieth century was a preserve of male power, a place where men made the rules and abused the rules and no one questioned them. As the century progressed, we became wiser. And more vulnerable. By the dawn of the new millennium, when such movies as Hellraiser III were being filmed, the security of the cloister had itself become a source of fear. October is the season of reflection on the transience of summer and ease. Perhaps it is also the season to reflect on how our perceptions of religion are ever shifting as winter wends its way toward us once again. And Mr. Barker will be standing there to remind us that we each create our own Hell.
The Bible has many eminently quotable passages. I suspect that is one of the reasons it has the staying power that it does. Many critics of the theologies spun off by the Good Book have turned their vitriol toward the Bible itself, but I believe such hostility to be misplaced. Not everyone enjoys reading the Bible – that much is true for any book. The Bible, however, is foundational for not only our society, but the entire western literary tradition. Its influence on Shakespeare alone, who has, in turn, influenced just about every writer since the seventeenth century, underscores its literary importance. That’s why I’m always surprised with film-makers use concocted verses from the Bible when actual passages would produce the same effect. Granted, few Bible scholars comprise movie audiences and producers and directors seldom worry about writing the story for them. Last night I watched the “horror” film, Lost Souls, released in 2000. I’d read about the movie in Douglas Cowen’s Sacred Terror, so I wanted to see how it rated.
The movie begins with a false Bible quote: “… A man born of incest will become Satan and the world as we know it, will be no more. Deuteronomy Book 17.” Now granted, the movie failed to rock the critics, but the sheer weight of errors from pre-scene one should be the first warning to start from a better script. Beginning with an ellipsis for dramatic effect may be acceptable, but it serves no purpose – and what’s with the misplaced comma? A man born of incest in Deuteronomy is a non-starter because his potential parents could only be found dead, crushed together under a pile of hurled stones before the unfortunate could even be born. Satan as a devil is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, let alone Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is almost never quoted by apocalypticists since it does not predict the end of the world, and Bible books are divided into chapters, not “books.” Well, the biblical illiteracy of Hollywood may be overlooked for a good story, but this is no such thing.
Lost Souls fails on the premise that a biblical “literalism” (and that is only if certain Evangelical interpretations are given unwarranted credence) about the coming of an Antichrist should be shored up by a fabricated quote from the Bible. I’m not trying to be a movie critic here, but a cultural one. The whole “end of the world” scenario held by many Evangelicals is a hodge-podge of biblical verses brought together by clever nineteenth-century clergy with little exegetical training. It is like trying to connect the dots while having to change pages constantly. The idea caught on amid the discarded lives left behind by advancing industrialism and the perceived threat of evolution. Apocalypticism has become its own industry as some otherwise unknown writers can attest. Movies like Lost Souls, or even The Omen, however, pale when compared to the antics of religiously motivated apocalypticists in the real world. Some of the rules in Deuteronomy itself are more frightening, if better written.
With the teaching schedule I have, vacations are not viable. One semester blends into another like some demonic tapestry with blurred edges between the somewhat discrete components. Breaks just aren’t part of the picture. While my family is on a well-deserved vacation, I’ve been home doing class prep and lecturing. On those nights when I have no classes, I sometimes watch a movie to hear the sound of human voices. This week one of my picks was The Mist.
My fascination with horror films stretches back to my college days, concurrent with my first degree in religious studies. Never a slasher fan, I’ve preferred the more thoughtful movie that has a (hopefully) profound message. I’d never read Stephen King’s novella on which this movie was based, so I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew was “there’s something in the mist.” The build-up was great until the creatures were shown – after that it became a standard monster flick. A human menace arises in the form of Mrs. Carmody, a religious zealot who is convinced the mist is the apocalypse. As the survivors try to form some plan of action, Carmody’s preaching becomes more and more strident and self-convinced as the “wicked” die and the “righteous” are spared. Not having read the book, I’m not sure if her over-the-top rhetoric originated with King or with Frank Darabont, the screenwriter/director.
I have often posted on the relationship of monsters and religion, but The Mist is almost too easy to cite. Perhaps released too late to make it into Douglas Cowan’s Sacred Terror, the connection between religion and fear is patent and bald. Mrs. Carmody’s religion, apart from being very generally Christian, is hard to identify. She insists on human sacrifice while constantly referencing the Bible. Although there are examples of human sacrifice in the Bible, that particular cultic activity is never advocated for monster invasions or the apocalypse. Carmody is a parody of religious over-reaction to the unfamiliar and dangerous. In her insistence that others take her point of view, the caricatured Carmody becomes a danger that threatens the community. It is left indeterminate whether her followers survive or not.
The religious agitator is a trite and tired character, but one that has instant recognition value. In The Mist, however, I came for the mystery and stayed for the monsters. Mrs. Carmody could have said much more by saying much less.