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Modern Devils: Our enduring love of religious horror

Written by Film

While some terrifyingly modern films, like Get Out (2017), reflect all the contemporary and fears within modern society, it seems that nothing beats a religious horror flick. From The Exorcist (1973), to The Nun (2018), there is something deeply entrenched within us, a fear of the religious and supernatural which cannot be topped. There is something which contemporary society finds scary about supernatural issues, the helplessness in the faith of a power beyond ourselves.
The late Max von Sydow (1929-2020) in The Exorcist (1973). The film that set the rules for the genre. Image:IMDB

A film which really caught my eye recently was Eli (2019). The pacing was terrible, but the film was actually rather good. A satanic story, with a creepy house, an antichrist, flaming nuns hung in the shape of an upside-down crucifix, all the trimmings. Yet the really striking feature was. It wasn’t Satan, or dad as he was called, but the Nuns. As a Christian, this is rather sad. The fight against Satan is a fight against moral corruption, personal greed, but in a modern sense, against selfish, discriminatory and cruel behaviour.

To see this exchange, this fight against corruption, portrayed in a medieval sense reflects the challenge that the church faces in shaking off it’s dark medieval heritage, and the inability that secular western society has to see the Church in a more modern light, despite the massive theological advances being made since Vatican II and under Pope Francis. There is also something intrinsically sexist about portraying women who buck sexual and physical assumptions as evil, repressed and violent. It’s uncomfortable.

The Nun (2018). Christianity & Catholicism in particular has always been at the forefront of religious horror cinema. Image:IMDB

For Christians to be the evil figures, and doing horrible, evil things, in a Satanic story, is a horrible misunderstanding of the mental battle which the figure of Satan represents. If I was to give moral guidance to the Nuns in the film, I would quote Davos Seaworth; “If your Lord commands you to burn children, then your Lord is evil“. Yet this understanding which many Christians in the modern world might share is not represented at all.

I have to be honest as well. I find it a bit insulting, and I don’t think that the film industry is being a sensitive as it could be to religious people. Religion is being reduced in these films to an aesthetic, a result of the noetic quality faith has, the deep, universal feeling of a conceptual power beyond our own minds. And the terror that can provoke. All being said, they do make good films.

Below you can watch an short, but interesting video on the origins & development of the religious horror genre from Youtuber ‘GammaRay’.

Last modified: 5th April 2020

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