A few weeks ago, I was sitting in Easter service, mulling over the more horrific aspects of many religious stories. As the gospel was read, I listened to all the details of Christ’s death and resurrection. I couldn’t stop thinking about how bloody and traumatizing the whole event must have been, on a physical, emotional, and existential level. And yet, this story brings happiness and comfort to millions of people. It’s not the only one either, since holy books are often filled with ghastly depictions of violence. It’s weird to think that these brutal stories are revered as sacred.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it’s not that weird. These religious stories aren’t threatening or challenging. They’re part of an important ritual to reaffirm what millions believe to be true about their faith, gore and all. There are no surprises and no uncomfortable lessons to confront. The bloody details of Christ’s final hours affirm long held notions of sacrifice and redemption that permeate the Western world; thus, while the story involves horrific things, it doesn’t produce a horrifying experience.
Religious horror is different. A movie like Rosemary’s Baby scares people because they don’t want to think an innocent woman could be tricked into carrying the Antichrist and feel maternal love towards him. A movie like The Exorcist garners controversy because people don’t want to think about how a demon could possess an innocent girl and cause a priest to have a crisis of faith.
That’s why I think, out of all the horror subgenres, religious horror is the most difficult to stomach. Religion encapsulates all our confusion in this life and all our fervent hopes for the next one. Religion helps make sense of increasingly strange universe. It helps us organize the world into easy categories, even if religion was never meant to do that. That’s why religious horror is so powerful—those movies toy with the rules mankind clings to. Religious horror confronts us with how delicate this system is and how vulnerable our faith has always been.
So I decided, in the spirit of confronting one’s fears, to compile a list of eight of my favorite religious horror movies. This list is not exhaustive by any means. Also, I’ve purposefully avoided what I call The Big Three—Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), and The Omen (1976)—because there are countless articles and blog posts about these undisputed religious horror classics, and that can get a little boring, don’t you think?
I hope you enjoy! If you have any religious horror movies to recommend, please leave them in the comments!
- The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
Based on the 1985 account of Harvard research Wade Davis, The Serpent and the Rainbow follows a Harvard ethnobotanist and anthropologist as he searches for a powerful anesthetic drug in Haiti. He soon finds that yes, the drug does indeed exists, and yes, it can turn people into zombies. But he also finds dark forces he never imagined. He becomes entangled with a malicious witch doctor who abuses his powers by creating an army of zombies for his own nefarious purposes. These poor souls are caught between life and death, trapped in their bodies, powerless to do anything other than obey their master’s evil bidding. And the witch doctor really doesn’t appreciate intruders who try to steal the secrets of the “zombie powder.”
Directed by Wes Craven, this movie is more creepy than scary, but it delivers. It is, technically, a zombie movie, but the zombies in The Serpent and the Rainbow are distinctly different from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Instead, the film presents zombies as they are portrayed in Haitian culture—individuals who are under the influence of a powerful spell. They do not eat the living, but they are unstoppable and will not rest until they’ve carried out their instructions. In The Serpent, there’s no shortage of zombies, reanimated corpses, souls trapped in jars, and nightmarish moments in the dark. Craven has always been particularly adept at unsettling dream sequences, and there are plenty in this film. While there isn’t much gore, but Craven is successful in using what gore there is to make the audience shudder.
What I really enjoyed about the film was the portrayal of voodoo as a complete religion. The movie isn’t a perfect depiction of Haitian culture and religion (white male savior trope, hello!), but it was much better than I’d expected. Instead of an offensive and one-note depiction, the film takes care to depict voodoo as a nuanced and deeply important component of Haitian culture. Craven includes a joyous and meaningful voodoo marriage ceremony as well as a beautiful and movingly rendered pilgrimage. He takes care to show that voodoo is not synonymous with black magic. In fact, a recurring theme in the film is how much other practitioners of voodoo regularly denounce the evil witch doctor and his zombie magic. By taking time to depict voodoo as a real religion, the film makes it’s point—religion does not corrupt. Rather, human greed and malice enable a person to manipulate religion for personal and political gain.
- The Possession (2012)
The Possession has a special place in my heart. It’s not the best or scariest movie on this list, but I give it major props for exploring a monster from another tradition—the dybbuk. In Jewish folklore, the dybbuk is a spirit or ghost that attaches itself to a living person for evil and malevolent purposes. The Possession is based on the urban legend of the Dybbuk Box, a wooden cabinet purportedly possessed by the Jewish demon. (This urban legend is one of my favorites, since it got started by a fake eBay post.)
Needless to say, in a horror subgenre overflowing with the same old possession tropes and creepy child archetypes, The Possession is something new and different. It starts off like a lot of other possession movies—a husband and wife have just divorced and their children are struggling to cope. The youngest daughter, Em, begins exhibiting disturbingly violent behavior and becomes alarmingly unstable. It might be a case of Em acting out her sadness and resentment towards her parents’ divorce, or it could have something to do with that weird box she picked up from that sketchy garage sale. Where the film veers into the unknown is when the family realizes Em is possessed not by a “regular” demon, but by a Jewish demon. They are woefully unprepared to deal with the threat.
Everything about Em’s possession were easily explained by more real-world, non-supernatural reasons. The signs were there, but because the family is largely ignorant of the Jewish tradition, they don’t realize what’s happening until it’s way too late. Even then, the knowledge wouldn’t have helped them. They don’t have any of the weapons you might use to combat a demon—they don’t speak Hebrew, they don’t know the right prayers, they don’t know what rituals are needed. Many people of even a fleeting Christian background would at least be able to bust out the Lord’s Prayer and know to grab a cross or two, but what would you do with a Dybbuk? I loved how unfamiliar I was with this religious monster, and I love how that unfamiliarity unfolded on screen.
Again, this movie isn’t the most frightening, and has some problems with execution, but I appreciate how a family could be totally unprepared for this spiritual threat simply because it originated in a unfamiliar religious tradition. If The Possession had been a more carefully made movie, it could have said some very important things about cultural and religious ignorance. As is, however, it’s a kind of “Jewish-themed Exorcist,” which isn’t a bad thing.
- The Wicker Man (1973)
In The Wicker Man, a British police officer, Sergeant Howie, travels to a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. The locals, though polite, seem less interested in assisting the investigation and more occupied with practicing their strange pagan religion. The more Howie investigates the girl’s disappearance, the more concerned he becomes about the islanders’ pagan religion, especially when he suspects the girl may have been abducted to be used in a ritualistic human sacrifice.
An overarching theme of the film is the conflict between an insular religious community and the intrusive force of the national government. This set up is an age-old horror trope, but The Wicker Man is unique in how it portrays the both Sergeant Howie and islanders. Howie, a devout and definitely repressed Christian, is disgusted by the islanders’ religion. While the island is weird, it functions much like a small town. They aren’t the most sophisticated bunch, but they have their own economy, people play taxes, children go to school. They aren’t crazy backwoods rednecks, and they just don’t appreciate outsiders judging them and sticking their noses where they don’t belong. Not that the islanders can’t make it work for them.
The Wicker Man different isn’t about the religious world vs. secular world. It’s more about religion vs. religion. It criticizes judgment and the feeling of superiority the faithful often feel about their religions. Howie clutches his metaphorical pearls for the whole movie, constantly admonishing the islanders for acting “immorally” and lecturing them on how to be more civilized. In particular, he uses his feeling of superiority to attack the islanders’ sexual liberty; something his religious conviction denies him despite his desperate desire to explore his own sexuality. At times, it’s obvious his outrage has less to do with his own morals and more to do with his overwhelming sense of sexual frustration.
Ironically, in one of the great horror movie twists, Howie directly aids the cult in accomplishing the ritual human sacrifice he desperately tried to prevent. His assumptions about the cult are simultaneously undermined and confirmed, and he pays for it. It’s not that The Wicker Man wants denigrate Christianity in favor of paganism. The movie serves as a warning to the religious to tread lightly and respectfully around other belief system, lest one’s judgment blind them to the real threat.
- Frailty (2001)
I know I just profiled this movie for my Texas Horror Movies post, but I really liked Frailty, and it’s my blog, so I’m going to talk about it again. In case you didn’t read this post, Frailty is the story of two brothers, Fenton and Adam. One day, their father claims the Angel of the Lord visited him and told him that God wants him to kill demons (i.e. murder people). Fenton fears his father has gone mad, but Adam believes his father may be right. Both boys don’t know what to do and are forced to help their father kill people. Years later, one brother has become the God’s Hand Killer, a notorious serial killer. And the other brother has just walked into the Dallas FBI branch office to explain everything and help the authorities catch his brother.
This movie is particularly chilling because of the father’s single-minded conviction that he is obeying God’s commands. His unquestioning devotion to a higher cause becomes increasingly harmful to his children, but he is not deterred. At no point does the father question his instructions. Sure, he expresses doubt and hesitation at his own ability to carry out his demon-killing, but never once does he question if God is really speaking to him. On top of that, Fenton’s understandable hesitation hurts and angers his father, who feels he must resort to extreme measures to “correct” Fenton.
The portrayal of a man obsessed with his holy mission is easily comparable to religious fundamentalism. Real life horrors happen every day when people feel their religion justifies committing child abuse and murder. That’s scary enough, but the most terrifying part about Frailty is *Spoiler Alert* the fact that God has actually commanded the father to kill seemingly innocent people.
Here’s one horror movie where God exists, and while good triumphs in the end, Frailty leaves you feeling profoundly disturbed. God’s will was done, but at what cost? And why? One can’t help to think that the family’s horrible tragedy was exasperated by the father’s extreme conviction and his unwillingness to question his divine instructions. But if the premise of Frailty is correct (and there’s no reason to think it isn’t), then God approved of everything that happened and the father shouldn’t have questioned anything. Fenton was wrong and deserved to be punished, but is it right to punish a twelve-year old for doubting?
If you are a religious person, your faith may never be tested. But when it is, what do you do if your faith is too weak? What does it mean to obey God if your father is telling you to hack apart a stranger? What does it mean when your son refuses to follow the Word of God as it was given to you? You may not know until it is too late.
- House of the Devil (2009)
House of the Devil is another one those horror gems I can’t get enough of—a moody, atmospheric, slow burn that builds tension until Bam! You find yourself, covered in blood, chained to a concrete floor with a pentagram carved in it, while a satanic cult readies its most terrifying spell.
In House of the Devil, broke college student Samantha is desperate for cash. She agrees to babysit for a strange couple, Mr. and Mrs. Ulman, who live in an imposing, shadowy house far from town. Once there, Mr. Ulman reveals that Samantha won’t be babysitting a baby—he needs her to watch his ailing mother-in-law. Understandably, Samantha refuses and tries to leave, but Mr. Ulman convinces her to take the job. Samantha agrees to stay, despite her suspicions that something is very wrong. Things get stranger and spookier, and eventually the night goes from mildly uncomfortable to downright nightmarish. Samantha realizes she will play an essential part in the Ulmans’ plans, whether she wants to or not.
Not only is House of the Devil an excellent study in creating suspense and dread, it uses low-budget 80s horror tricks to hearken back to the Satanic Panic of the 1970s and 80s. With grainy 16 mm film, subdued colors, lots of lurking camera angles, and liberal use of the trademark zoom-in shot, the filmmakers created a weirdly chilling nostalgia for a time when thousands if not millions of Americans were convinced that there was a secret, wide-reaching network of Satanists controlling secular life.
Even though no evidence was ever found that such cults existed, let alone held black masses or sacrificed babies, many people feared the Satanists were going to consume all the honest, god-fearing Americans. Ti West, director of House of the Devil, was always intrigued by the Satanic Panic, describing it as “this weird phenomena that wasn’t actually going on.” In an interview with Shock Till You Drop, West explained, “This movie is like if the urban legend had been true. This is as far fetched as it could get.”
It’s an intriguing concept. Sociologically speaking, the Satanic Panic and other instances of moral panic originate in segments of society that are, for lack of a better term, at the top of the socio-economic-cultural food chain. As Stanley Cohen, author of Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972), put it, “a moral panic occurs when ‘…[a] condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.’” More times than not, moral panic creates a reaction vastly out of proportion to the threat, if such a threat even exists. The moral panic is a way to kill of any perceived threat and protect the status quo. You have to wonder why someone would participate in this mass panic. Why would someone rail against rock music or Dungeons and Dragons when real social ills like poverty and racism require attention?
So what could be more horrifying to a largely conservative, Christian America than if it was actually confronted by a pervasive force like the evil, long-feared network of satanic cults? After playing the victim for so long, would people be able to fend off the social scapegoat made real? The Ulmans embody that monster perfectly—soft-spoken and unassuming but also ruthlessly pursuing the arrival of a Satanic new world. And poor Samantha, having failed to take their threat seriously, is completely helpless to stop them.
- Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
I am so sad this movie is not more well known. It messed me up the first time I saw it, but in the best way possible. What else can be expected from a movie about that includes child murder, knife attacks, a child molester, more murder, and sacrilege?
Alice, Sweet Alice is about two sisters, Alice and Karen. Where Alice is seen as a weird troublemaker, Karen is seen as a sweet angel. Alice resents Karen for all the love and attention she receives, and the two girls constantly bicker. On the day of Karen’s First Communion, someone strangles Karen leaves corpse in the transept. It’s an appalling crime. While the police have no leads and inconclusive evidence, all signs point to Alice as the killer. The last thing Alice needs if for everyone to dislike her more, and her behavior worsens. When the adults in her life begin to privately and publicly suspect Alice, a terrifying masked figure begins to brutally attack her accusers.
This is not your typical slasher, nor is it your average creepy-child-might-be-killing-everyone horror movie, though these tropes are front and center. The kills are stark and ruthless, which underscores the killer’s cruelty. And something is seriously wrong with Alice, who has a bad habit of lying and manipulating people. While Alice herself is creepy and untrustworthy, there are very few adults around her who are trustworthy. One suspects they don’t actually care about Alice like they should. They’re too self-absorbed, in one way or another, to see what’s happening and why. This is why the killer nearly gets away with murder.
Like the best religious horror movies, Alice, Sweet Alice goes right for the jugular with its exploration of taboo themes. A shameful, sinful family secret follows Alice’s family, which to a modern non-Catholic viewer is probably not very shameful or sinful. But this is the nature of the setting—the tight-knit, prying Catholic community in the film has strong notions of what sin entails and how sinners should be treated. This communal attitude fosters regret, animosity, and bitterness and contributes directly to the events of the film.
Ultimately, this film deals with the monsters bred from the toxic intersection of religious conviction, strict social mores, and the human compulsion to sit in judgment on those deemed unworthy. Alice, Sweet Alice demonstrates how religion can easily twist an already demented person.
- The Devils (1971)
Holy crap, this movie.
Based on the true story, The Devils is about how France’s Cardinal Richelieu sought to weaponize religion for political gain. Set in the 17th Century, Richelieu with the support of King Louis XIII, moves to expand the centralized authority of the crown and take power away from France’s most important cities. Father Urbain Grandier, the leader of one such city, vehemently opposes the move. In retaliation, Richelieu and his allies decide to remove Grandier from power. This plan involves exploiting Grandier’s reputation as a womanizer and convincing a group of cloistered nuns that Grandier has possessed them all and had sexual congress with them as part of his devil worship. Aiding Richelieu in his literal witch hunt is his cruel overseer, a pair of demented “doctors”, and a crackpot “witch hunter”, all of whom have their own twisted motivations for creating mass hysteria.
Yeah, this movie doesn’t sound like a horror movie, but it is. Equal parts political thriller, gore fest, and torture flick, The Devils is rife with shocking, horrifying stuff. In fact, this movie was so controversial upon release that Warner Brothers refuses to release the film in its original, intended cut. (The most notable scene cut from all versions is the infamous “Rape of Christ” scene. It’s a doozy.) But The Devils still has plenty of disturbing scenes without the drastic cuts! The Mother Superior of the convent has fantasies of making love to Grandier as Christ in multiple stages of his torment. There are scenes of self-flagellation. There are multiple, gruesome torture scenes, including but not limited to the scene where the Mother Superior is forcibly given a virginity test before the “doctors” force her to undergo an enema on an altar. Another lengthy torture sequence shows us exactly how the Catholic Church punished dissidents in order to get them to “confess” to crimes they had not committed. And all of this barely scratches the surface, what with the hysterical nuns running amok, naked, crazed, and convinced they’ve been possessed by Grandier. And of course there’s the part where a main character is burnt at the stake.
This movie goes there.
It’s not just the physical horrors that make this film a challenge to watch. The Devils never lets its audience forget that a small group of powerful men decided that the manipulation, torture, and murder were worth it. All of their concern for saving souls and punishing the wicked was merely to gain political power. Even today, this film still hits many nerves with it’s unflinching examination of how religion and politics can be two sides of the same coin. We’d like to think we’ve made progress since 17th Century France, but have we?
As film historian Shade Rupe said, “In…The Exorcist, the devil is defeated. In The Devils, he simply never existed.” Humanity doesn’t need the Devil’s help to commit devilish acts.
- Martyrs (2008)
Martyrs begins fifteen years in the past, when a young girl named Lucie is found battered and bloodied on the streets, having escaped from horrific abuse. No one knows who hurt her or why. She is haunted by what happened to her. Despite her close relationship with best friend Anna, Lucie is unable to heal from her abuse. Years later, Lucie finds her tormenters and exacts her vengeance, dragging Anna into the bloodshed. Anna pays a terrible cost, finding herself at the mercy of the same secret cult who tortured Lucie years ago. Their goal is to torture young women to the point of death, thereby producing a transcendent experience, so they can learn the mysteries of the afterlife.
Horror fans will recognize this title as one of the most infamous, if not the most infamous, films to come out of the New French Extremism movement. And for good reason. Martyrs is one of the most intense films I’ve ever seen. While watching, I felt shock at the cruelty of the physical violence. I felt profound sadness for Lucie and Anna—Lucie because she could not overcome the pain she had been forced to endure, and Anna because of what the cult does to her. I felt disgust at the cult and its members, their arrogance, their hubris. In their selfish pursuit of the truth about the afterlife, they perpetuate and misery. And for what? What will they do with the truth, if they ever learn it?
Martyrs is a damning movie about how selfish people can use religion and the quest for divine truth to ignore and create suffering. Even though it was never presented as religious, the cult nonetheless shares many of the same goals—to know the unknowable, to control the uncontrollable, and to achieve some degree of power over the afterlife. The cult’s relentless pursuit of the afterlife is so important that murdering young women is merely necessary and totally justifiable. The cult members even have the nerve to denigrate the women who did not achieve transcendence as only “victims” and not true “martyrs.” Martyrs are special but victims are worthless, as if it’s somehow the fault of those women that they went insane from torture. And the worst part about it is that the cult members won’t submit themselves to this torture. They’re a bunch of chicken-shit hypocrites.
Martyrs is a dense and complex film. I don’t think I’ll ever untangle everything. But one thing that I took away was the film’s condemnation of religious hypocrisy. Everyone wants to be a martyr, everyone wants to be a saint, everyone wants to be revered and honored for making a huge sacrifice, but no one actually wants to suffer it. It reminded me of so-called “religious” people who claim to follow a righteous path but are really selfish and hard-hearted. These people feel like going through the motions will redeem them, as if the pursuit of the afterlife will cancel out all the bad shit they’ve done. In this way, Martyrs was something of a religious experience because it compelled me to examine my behavior and find ways to help others. When’s the last time a horror movie did that?