CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Horror as Religion. A Review of “Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen” by Douglas Cowan

by Massimo Introvigne


In the Festschrift published in 2001 to honor Antoine Faivre, for many years professor of History of Western Mysticism and Esotericism at the Sorbonne University in Paris, my chapter was devoted to him as “father of contemporary vampire studies”. To my knowledge, in fact, Faivre was the first scholar to devote academic books and courses to vampires. I also noticed that Faivre was a scholar of religion, and that others who followed in his footsteps and tried to seriously study the vampire myth – including Gordon Melton in the U.S. and myself in Italy – also came from the field of religious studies. My tentative explanations for this went beyond mere coincidence, and pointed at the fact that the vampire mythology has to do with life after death, immortality, and the symbolism of blood, all themes central to religion.

The theme – at last – has now been explored in depth by Canadian religious scholar Douglas E. Cowan in his admirable Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2008).  Cowan finally explains to all of us scholars of both religion and horror in popular culture what we do and why we do it. He seems to understand it better than we do ourselves.

Armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of horror movies (the book is about the silver screen, and TV series – although mentioned – are somewhat under-represented), Cowan presents the argument that the fascination with horror is closely linked to the sacred as mysterium as described by Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) and to religion in general. More specifically, horror has to do with specific fears about religion, typical of the 20th (and 21st) century. These “sociophobics” are organized by Cowan in five categories.

The first is the fear of changes in the sacred order. Change in our familiar religious universe, Cowan explains, may occur in three ways: inversion, invasion, and insignificance. The inversion is the fear that an institution we regard as benign, organized religion, may in fact be the locus of conspiracy and malevolence. The Catholic Church (with a high degree, Cowan notes, of anti-Catholicism) is exposed as such in movies like Stigmata and John Carpenter’s Vampires (not to mention The Da Vinci Code, but the latter is not a horror movie). The invasion is the irruption in our familiar Christian universe of alien and strange gods, be they the gods of the Egyptians or those Hollywood has taken, more or less faithfully, from the weird fiction of Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937). Irrelevance is the inability of organized religion to confront and defeat new or extreme forms of evil, as evidenced for example by the Hellraiser movies.

The second category of sociophobics involves the ambivalent fear of sacred places. Horror movies are frequently set not only in non-Christian temples, but also in abbeys (preferably of the Gothic variety) and cemeteries. In fact, Cowan argues, we do have ambivalent feelings about these places. Non-Catholics traditionally do regard abbeys and convents as the symbol of what they fear most in Catholicism, and when something wrong happens in what we regard as the house of God the fear of inversion prevails again. There are also somewhat postmodern sacred places such as Roswell for UFO buffs and Burkittsville, Maryland, an interesting case of a town whose connection with the occult has been entirely fabricated by the propaganda for a horror movie, The Blair Witch Project, which made millions believe it was about a true story (it wasn’t).

The third category – the fear of death, and of dying badly – obviously refers to ghosts, zombies, mummies and vampires. Cowan guides us through the endless variations of this theme, emphasizing the importance of the old fears of being buried alive and of remaining trapped between life and death. These fears also appeal to non-Christian cultures, hence the rich filmography on ghosts and vampires in China and India. In traditional vampire movies, which are almost Christian allegories, “the power of Christianity triumphs in the end” (p. 138): the cross defeats the vampires. In the more recent Dracula 2000 the vampire Dracula is actually the latest incarnation of Judas; but the sequels Dracula II: Ascension and Dracula III: Legacy do offer a hope of redemption. Not so in movies such as John Carpenter’s Vampires, and several others, where the Church colludes with vampires. Inversion, again. And in the future Cowan will have rich material to examine from TV series (Angel, Blood Ties, Moonlight, preceded in the 1990s by Forever Knight which, just as Blood Ties, was set in Toronto, Canada) where the vampire either is, or work with, a private detective (combining the two most popular movie and TV genres), and from movies like Twilight. In both cases vampires are the good guys (in Twilight, based on the novels of Mormon author Stephenie Meyer, they even preach good family values), perhaps another form of inversion.

The fourth category is about another familiar fear, supernatural evil. Although often dismissed by critics, movies like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby not only have been taken seriously by millions of moviegoers but have compelled the mainline churches to devote issues of their magazines to issues such as exorcism and Satanism. And, Cowan notes, the whole idea of skepticism about the exorcism and its religious and legal consequences is skillfully discussed in the 2005 movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which moves away from horror in the direction of courtroom drama, this time really based on a true story. The reference is to Anneliese Michel (1952-1976), a German girl who died after repeated exorcism by Catholic priests (authorized and supported by their bishop). The priests and the parents were later found guilty of manslaughter, although many (including anthropologist Felicitas Goodman) maintained that the exorcism didn’t do any harm to a girl whose situation was medically hopeless, and that the judges showed a good deal of scientism and anti-religious bigotry. Be it as it may be, the movie returned after thirty years (moving the scene from Germany to U.S.) to one of the most controversial discussions of the 1970s about the relationship between faith and science. What is interesting here is that, in the 2000s, when confronted with the movie, public opinion proved far less skeptical than in the 1970s, when the original Michel incident occurred.

Public opinion, on the other hand, may be more tolerant of exorcists but is still afraid of whatever movement is labeled as a “cult”. Cowan’s fifth category of sociophobics deals with fear of fanaticism. Cowan himself has studied extensively new religious movements and the so called “cult wars” and is well placed to study how the “cult” theme has entered the horror movies, usually in the shape of apocalyptic preachers leading followers to suicide and homicide, or of covens of witches or Satanists sacrificing scantily clad young virgins (or non-virgins). Protests by followers of Wicca against such stereotypes may have played a role in the positive portrait of witches in TV series such as Charmed.

The mirror image of the fear of religion is the “fear of the flesh”, i.e. the fear of sexuality and particularly of the unholy combination of sex and religion. There is a whole subgenre of “nunsploitation”, the exploitation of the (Protestant) fear and curiosity about Catholic nuns through depiction of their alleged secret sexual practices. Nunsploitation did exist in print, at least since La Religieuse of anti-Catholic Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot (1713-1784), and Cowan is right in directing our attention towards a recent sociological literature noting that anti-Catholicism is the last form of prejudice and bigotry to be largely tolerated in our society. Most nunsploitation is simply soft core pornography. Some movies do belong to the horror genre, however, when nuns become obsessed with sex because they are possessed by the devil.

This, of course, is a case in point of an argument which may potentially invalidate Cowan’s enterprise as a whole. Obviously these movies are made for mere commercial reasons, and their quality is often abysmal. Why should we take seriously what is patently only exploitation? Cowan answers that this is not the right question. Even when horror movies are of very poor quality (which is not always the case) the question is whether filmmakers exploit certain fears rather than others. Granted that movie production is audience-driven, why do exactly audiences react to religious references? Cowan reminds us that in North America belief in the devil, Hell or communications with the dead is shared by a large majority of the population – if only by a tiny minority of professional movie critics, part of an intellectual establishment which is much more secular than the average American. Horror movies, thus, are there to stay. That religion plays a role in their success should now be regarded as conclusively proved.