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What’s Behind Culture’s Obsession With Religious Horror Movies?

What’s Behind Culture’s Obsession With Religious Horror Movies?

They say people died of heart attacks while watching The Exorcist. The consensus is the scares killed them, but perhaps it was the sacrilege. With boundary-pushing intensity (including a scene in which a young girl mutilates herself with a crucifix) and disturbing subliminal messaging (listen close at times and you can hear pigs squealing), The Exorcist is still considered one of the scariest and most controversial movies ever made. And yet, alongside the spider-walks and yellow eyes is a complex, nuanced portrait of faith, one that rivals anything on PureFlix. It’s a movie about fighting the devil as much as it is about the devil himself.

Now, 50 years later, supernatural horror movies have resurrected the intention of The Exorcist to create a legion of smarter (and scarier) fright flicks. Scare-driven blockbusters like those in The Conjuring universe or Sydney Sweeney’s latest flick Immaculate make up the spine of the new-horror skeleton while arthouse terrors like A24’s Hereditary or The Witch branch off into spindly limbs. These movies are out to scare you, and they do, but they’re also here to ask questions and provoke thought in the tradition of the horror film that started it all.

The Exorcist has a balance between the psychological and the physical,” says Corin Hardy, director of The Nun, a prequel to The Conjuring. “It taps into our fears of religion and demons and possessions. It feels grounded. It can really shake you with this underlying sense of good and evil.”

What’s nice about genre is you can smuggle more difficult themes into the work…  [and] what first serves as a deterrent for the audience becomes a virtue in this other form.

Chad Hayes and his brother Carey wrote horror movies like The Conjuring, House of Wax and The Reaping. These guys grew up in a family of ministers. They’re Christians.

Chad says audiences are drawn to stories about faith and the supernatural in the same way he and his brother are.

“[At the time], The Conjuring was the second-highest grossing genre film ever, and first was The Exorcist,” he says. “So we have a possession story followed by another possession story. It makes me feel like the interest is worldwide. These stories cross over into virtually every religion. It’s good versus evil.”

The days of teenagers running from masked murderers and chainsaw-wielding hicks are long gone, for the moment. Scary movies are shouldering a spiritual angle, tapping into the universal fear of the unknown to figure out what it is about the great beyond that frightens us. Christians like Chad and Carey Hayes are beginning to tell these stories, too. In fact, Chad says their film The Reaping (which stars Hillary Swank as a former Christian missionary out to debunk supernatural occurrences) “was actually based on an aunt who had become a missionary in India. She served 10 years there.”

The Hayes brothers aren’t the only filmmakers who use their personal faith as inspiration in the genre. “I buy into [the supernatural]. I always have,” says Gary Dauberman, an outspoken Christian and screenwriter for horror movies like The Nun and the blockbuster It. “I gravitate toward things like this because it affirms death is not the end. It’s more of a paragraph break. I think it’s important to establish
there’s something else out there.”

For people like Dauberman, the supernatural elements of some horror stories are legitimate threats, but that’s part of what gives his job meaning. Sometimes it takes a near-death experience to change your perspective about life.

Psychologists say humans are born with two innate fears: loud sounds and falling. Everything else—spiders, snakes, deep water— comes from world experience. Over the course of our lives, our brains engineer themselves to be afraid of certain things we might or might not be aware of. In other words, we can’t control what frightens us, and that’s why horror movies can turn us into puppets.

Fear begins in a part of our brain called the amygdala, which scans the environment for threats. But the amygdala is paranoid. When it senses a threat, it orders the hypothalamus, which controls our emotions and nervous system, to tell the rest of the body to either defend itself or run away (psychologists call this response “fight or flight”).

It’s a useful survival tool, but the amygdala and the hypothalamus are irrational agents. They don’t give the brain time to consider context or circumstance, and that’s how scary movies manipulate us. The fear reaction doesn’t let us remember that what’s happening on screen isn’t real.

“If you hear whispering behind a door, you can imagine a hundred things that could be,” Hardy explains.

This is where smart horror movies distinguish themselves from the rest, because while most horror movies operate on this base psychological instinct, the best of them twist these primal instincts to orient audiences toward deeper, real-world ideas.

Hereditary is one of the most acclaimed horror films of 2018. On its face, it’s about a demon preying on a family, but according to director Ari Aster, those sinister overtones are a cover for the tragic family drama underneath.

“What’s nice about genre is you can smuggle more difficult themes into the work,” Aster says. “I wanted to make a serious meditation on trauma and the effect those extreme emotions have on the family. I wanted
to make a film that took suffering seriously. If you take that story and fit it into a genre, what first serves as a deterrent for the audience becomes a virtue in this other form.”

Horror manifests natural fears in unnatural ways. It embodies tangible threats like demons with intangible anxieties, and that surrogacy amplifies the scares. Hereditary is an excruciating movie. As the characters suffer, the viewer suffers because even the fantastic horror is grounded in something relatable. That means those irrational reactions of our brains are still frightening after we’ve processed them because even a rational look at the movie is scary and traumatic. A locked basement is scary, but if that fear is shown to be justified, it makes opening that door and descending into the darkness much, much worse.

Those abstract ideas—loss, trauma— can be elusive, but these spiritually adjacent horror movies are designed from the ground up to build a bridge for viewers between the story on the screen and the ideas in your head.

Grace Yun served as production designer on Hereditary. She oversaw everything from set construction to the prop design and visual framing. She knows what makes you afraid.

“We wanted to create environments that harness an unsettled feeling,” Yun says. “The house is almost like a doll- house, and the characters are being played with. They’re under the spell of a more powerful force they can’t break away from.”

That’s why when you watch Hereditary, you might feel in a subconscious way like you’re being played with, too.

In The Nun, the protagonists—a priest and a Catholic novitiate—battle a demonic force that manifests as the titular nun. Nuns are beautiful, says Jennifer Spence, the movie’s production designer, but there’s a way to warp the serene image of a devout sister to make her frightening.

“For the Demon Nun, we elongated her face and set her eyes back,” she explains. “We made things longer and more gaunt. We lengthened her nails.”

Indeed, the nun of The Nun is terrifying, but in indelicate hands, she could be an offensive, exploitative symbol. That’s why a script should give nuanced, complex reasons to position the characters (and the audience) against something like a “Demon” Nun.

With honest intention on that front, even a satanic sister can serve a redemptive purpose, explains Demian Bichir, who plays Father Burke in The Nun. Father Burke is a known demon fighter, but in this movie, his spirit is wracked by doubt and anxiety. He’s fighting a real external evil, but also has a spiritual war raging in his heart. The Demon Nun emerges to make that internal struggle tangible. By fighting this physical threat, Father Burke can also fight the battle for his soul.

For Christians, these parallels work on two fronts. Yes, the supernatural and evil do exist, but so do forces like doubt, skepticism and feeling distant from God.

“Horror films are always about the fight between good and evil,” Bichir says. “It’s fantasy, but it has a lot to do with things we deal with daily. Those demons are our own fears, our own weaknesses and our own flaws, and we constantly have to fight those inner ghosts and demons in order to survive our daily lives.”

As the forces on-screen compel the characters to confront the weakest parts of themselves, the horror movie asks the same thing of the viewer. Hereditary positions the audience alongside the grief of its tormented protagonists. The Nun compels viewers to consider the same questions as the characters: How strong is your faith? Do you question the Lord? How much are you willing to fight for Him? There’s conviction at work, but there’s also hope. After all, if the characters can win, so can you.

“Sometimes you want a film that acknowledges how dark things can get, and that makes you feel less alone and seen in your pain,” Aster says.

Horror movies aren’t the black sheep of cinematic storytelling anymore. They represent a rich soil for complex ideas and difficult topics, even with, maybe especially for, faith audiences.

“People out there might pre-judge and say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to support horror movies. They’re about darkness and the devil,’” Chad says. “Well, this is about beating the devil … Horror movies are scary, but they’re still truthful.” In a paradoxical way, horror movies are safe. The real world is unpredictable and complicated, but being able to enter a movie theater and watch real-world struggles, maybe your real-world struggles, made manifest through a piece of entertainment is in a sense a comfort. Because every horror movie has the same ending: You leave the theater. You survive the experience. Maybe in a small way, you’re stronger for it. Now you can exorcise demons of your own.

Editor’s Note: A similar version of this article appeared in 2017. 

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