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Are horror films C(c)atholic?
Culver City, Brussels, October 20th, 2015 (SIGNIS/Rose Pacatte) This article of Sister Rose Pacatte argues that horror is a legitimate film genre and that horror films have a Catholic Christian core and are accessible to a universal, that is, small “c” catholic audience. She asks if the horror genre and many of its subgenres explore Christian theology and the human reality in relation to the divine and demonic or evil, so as to suggest or reinforce faith in God and hope. She contends that horror films attempt to exploit human issues and create a confrontation between human and supernatural strengths and weaknesses and draw from and/or reinforce Catholic Christian theology.
- Sr. Rose Pacatte
The Genre and Sub-genres
There are many subgenres or overlapping genres to horror, from grindhouse (raw, explicitly violent, and gorey) to science fiction and aliens, to gothic (e.g. Hammer horror films from the UK), to vampires and even humorous undead horror.
In 1995 the Vatican published a list of “Important Films” marking the 100th anniversary of cinema. Under the category of “art,” F. W. Murnau’s silent vampire horror classic Nosferatu: a Symphony of Horror is listed. Christians will recognize theological elements throughout the film but some think it is more haunting than scary.
Peter Malone, MSH, a Bible scholar and film critic, distinguishes between horror films and terror films. And then there are the paranormal, supernatural, psychological and satanic subgenres in horror as well. Finally, for a horror film to work, the audience has to be able to identify with a character or situation.
On CBS Sunday morning on June 30, 2013, the horror master himself, author and screenwriter Stephen King, spoke about what he likes about horror: “I liked the idea that things would get out of control and somebody would battle to put back control into their lives.”
Following, the analyses of The Passion of the Christ, categorized as an “epic drama,” and the 2013 “psychological thriller” The Conjuring, both of which are actually horror films that explore and to a certain extent reveal Catholic Christian theology while appealing to a broad audience.
-* The Passion of the Christ: The Passion of the Christ expresses horror, chaos in the universe, Jesus’ isolation, vulnerability, betrayal, pain and ultimately restoration because the Father loves the Son who rises from the dead overcoming death, sin, and the devil forever. In The Passion of the Christ, Satan and God seem to be in contention over the son, Jesus. Christ is overwhelmed by the dark forces but ultimately triumphs. Jesus’ passion death and resurrection were to redeem us from sin, yes, but also to save us from suffering. This restoration of order, or regaining of control, marks the end of most horror movies and offers audiences a way to assuage their own fears. The sacramental is very evident in The Passion of the Christ, because the film is the external manifestation of immense internal and grace-filled realities.
-* The Conjuring: The Conjuring has all the motifs and themes of a satanic horror film in the manner of The Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose so calling it a psychological thriller does not do it justice. It is extremely scary and evokes much horror and manages to say something theological despite its inaccurate historical facts about the Salem Witch Trials and the fact that no bishop in his right mind would allow a layman to carry out an exorcism without permission. Properly trained lay people can, however, assist in exorcisms and recite prayers of deliverance outside of an exorcism. In her research for this article, Rose learned that the Catholic Church does not officially recognize demonologists, though it is known that at least one bishop has consulted one.
As with The Passion of the Christ, The Conjuring has all the conventions and motifs of horror (and both have “R” ratings). While The Passion may have brought us to tears, The Conjuring brings out our screams. Both films meet the requirements for a Catholic and a catholic audience.
The C(c)atholic Audience
“Moving beyond the realms of ordinary experiences,” notes Peter Malone, “beyond the natural means that we are involved with are horrifying stories that transcend the natural. Catholics and all Christians can begin feeling comfortable about the religious dimensions of horror when we start to speak about transcendence. Horror comes from threat and menace beyond the natural. The sources of horror are not readily explained rationally (whereas terror films can be.) We share the terror but are aghast at the horror. Audiences relish the tantalizing attraction of, at least for the running time of the film, having a Darth Vader experience of going over to the dark side.”
Many Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, believe that horror films are immoral because they often receive an “R” rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). First of all, film ratings from the Motion Picture Association of America are not moral judgments on a film but are offered as an age-appropriate content guide for parents. The reviews that come from the Catholic News Service provide moral judgment on a film through its ratings, but do not address what the movie means.
Ratings are helpful guides, perhaps, but these do not take away the responsibility of the audience to be critically autonomous and to choose according to one’s beliefs and values and, once a film is chosen, to reflect and discover what the movie means to you.
She asked filmmaker Scott Derrickson (Constantine, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister) for his thoughts about why some Christians think horror films are immoral. His response: “Anyone who finds horror cinema fundamentally immoral either doesn’t watch it, or doesn’t understand it. It’s perfectly fine to say that you don’t like the genre; that you don’t like to be scared by movies – but if you are wise, you will respect it. In my experience, the instinct to judge the horror genre often comes from people who don’t strive to confront their own fears.”
Wes Craven, raised in a strict Baptist family, is the master of the horror genre and it is worth reading what he is quoted as saying in an essay by Craig Detweiller in 2006: “When I first wrote A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), I was trying to account for something in human nature, in the human race, that had been here since day one and went all the way back to Cain and Abel, one half of humanity rising up to club the other running right up to events in the world today…. We have to be aware that within the pure hero is the potential to be a real villain and within any villain there is the capacity for elements of humor, tenderness, vulnerability and love.”
Craven did not get his desired ending in Nightmare: “In my version, the film ended with Nancy turning her back on Freddy and telling him he was nothing. It showed that evil can be confronted and diminished. That ending was very carefully thought through and had to do with a worldview of my own.” Instead, the ending was changed to introduce a sequel, something we are quite used to now.