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Religious Horror – Why We Are So Captivated by Them

Religious Horror

Religious Horror and Why We Are So Captivated by Them

Religious horror is probably one of the most intriguing subgenre for horror, especially for Christians. Growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, I was always fascinated by horror films but only if it was rated R. It was only because of the taboo nature that kids weren’t allowed to watch R rated horror films due to the content it provides. It was deemed too mature.

That made me more curious about watching R-rated horror films.

What really caught my attention the most was one day I was at a summer camp and these kids, who were no more than fourteen, talked about The Exorcist (1971). It was considered at the time of its release the scariest movie of all time. Of course it would be. Religion was taken more seriously back then than now.

But hearing these kids talking about sneaking to watch it because they were not allowed to, made things more exciting for me. They were warned that this movie will bring nightmares for a long time. It felt so forbidden.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to watch it since my mother pulled me out of that camp for whatever reason. It wasn’t until a few years later when I was in high school I watched it for the first time. However, I actually wasn’t scared. I was just entertained by how well the story was written.

Today, I can’t take any religious horror films seriously because of how over the top they’ve become lately. It also doesn’t help the fact that I’m not religious myself. So, seeing ghosts and demons showing up on screen as if one day they will appear in real life is baffling.

And yet, I am still entertained by their stories.

In this blog post, I will discuss what is religious horror as a subgenre, where it originated from, and its themes. The idea is to understand what captivates us as readers and viewers of the subgenre.

Contents

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What is Religious Horror?

Religious Horror is a subgenre of horror that depicts religion as a factual element within the narrative. It features religious themes such as good v. evil, divine punishment, possession, what is sacred and what is profane, and apocalyptic visions. The idea of these narratives is to invoke fear and existential dread through religious aspects. Throughout the narrative, supernatural occurrences appear as real.

Historical Context

Some may say religious horror started with Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby or William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. But we need to go back to its roots, where it all began. What inspired these works and if there were any earlier literature and film that had similar themes?

Let’s start with its ancient origins. Biblical narratives have been the key source and inspiration for the narratives we have today. There are stories in the bible that discuss demonic possessions, divine intervention, encounters with Satan, and the apocalypse according to the Book of Revelation.

To be honest, when I was younger, I read the bible a couple of times, but was more intrigued with the Book of Revelation as it stood out in their narratives than the rest of the text. That being said, I can only imagine how and why this particular part of the bible laid the foundations of religious horror.

To further expand, we need to discuss the themes of The Book of Revelations. This is the final part of the Holy Bible that reveals concepts of the end of times, divine judgements, and the triumph of good over evil. This part of the Bible is rich in symbolisms and imagery that can be haunting.

Themes and concepts of the Book of Revelations

Apocalyptic Prophecies

There are always discussions of signs that will lead closer to the end of the world. This theme gets into concepts of a cosmic war between good and evil. Such imagery includes natural disasters and divine judgements. However, this theme also introduces us to The Four Horsemen, which symbolizes the following: conquest, war, famine, and death.

Good verses Evil

This theme has been ongoing for many narratives today. It is the most relatable theme you can possibly imagine. The hero versus the villain trope. In this case of the Book of Revelations, it discusses the rise of the Antichrist, who will gather its people and lead humanity astray. The concept is basically a war between the forces of good against the forces of evil, with the forces of good ultimately winning.

Divine Judgement

In the end, the dead will rise and be judged for how they lived on earth. This determines the actions of a person’s soul on Earth and the consequences, whether they will be punished or rewarded.

New Jerusalem

This is where the Book of Revelations concludes. A new vision of peace where everyone no longer suffers on the new Earth. God dwells with humanity, providing a new heaven for everyone free from sin.

Cultural and Religious Impact and Influence on Religious Horror

With the ideas of the Book of Revelation briefly described, it has been the subject of many interpretations. The concepts are rich in imagery and symbolisms that it inspired countless artistic and literary creations. The Book of Revelation has had a significant impact on religious horror, offering a structure for an ultimate cosmic conflict and horrifying divine elements.

Its themes of apocalyptic destruction, the battle against evil, and the final judgment resonate deeply within the genre. The concept greatly explores human fears and the nature of evil. The Book of Revelation is a profound and powerful text, captivating and challenging readers with its visions of the apocalypse. Writers and artists have used these themes as inspiration to create their own perspectives on religious horror. Even today, apocalyptic visions will always be frightening.

Medieval Folklore and Witch Hunts

The Late Middle Ages and Early Modern period were characterized by a bleak and troubling history. These dark times were heavily influencing religious horror.

Medieval Folklore

In Medieval folklore, there were a vast amount of stories involving witches, demons, and other entities that were believed to be involved in the real world. When things are hard to explain, such as diseases and failed crops, these narratives would explain the unfortunate events. The idea was malevolent forces had a hand in the destruction of human nature.

Witches and Demons

Witches were commonly portrayed as people, particularly women, who had entered into agreements with the Devil in exchange for supernatural powers. They were accused of a range of malevolent activities, from causing illness and bad weather to flying and shape-shifting.

Supernatural Beliefs

During those times, many people held a strong belief in the supernatural. People believed that demons, the Devil, and other evil spirits were actively engaged in the world, aiming to corrupt and condemn human souls. Both the church and folklore supported this belief system, providing a fertile breeding ground for horror stories.

Witch Hunts

Between the 15th and 17th centuries, the witch hunts became a sorrowful result of the widespread fear and superstitious beliefs surrounding witchcraft and heresy. These events weren’t just religious, they also had a huge influence on society and culture. They represented the fears and conflicts of that era.

Causes

The witch hunts were influenced by several factors, including social turmoil, economic hardships, and the prevailing fear of heresy during a period of religious reform and warfare. Witchcraft accusations were frequently used to rationalize personal or community misfortunes and blame marginalized people.

Process and Punishment

Accused witches underwent trials that were often biased and based on spectral evidence or confessions extracted through torture. Convictions could lead to severe punishments, including execution by burning or hanging.

Impact

The witch hunts inflicted a lasting trauma on the collective consciousness of European societies. These events are believed to have resulted in the execution of tens of thousands of individuals, with women being the primary targets. Additionally, they created an enduring sense of fear and suspicion that persisted into the modern era.

If you’d like to learn more, read this Penn Today article about the Salem Witch Trials.

Influence on Religious Horror

The lore and historical events surrounding witches and witch hunts have had a profound impact on the genre of religious horror:

Narrative Themes

Medieval beliefs and the historical witch hunts serve as direct inspirations for the themes of witchcraft, demonic pacts, and the struggle against unseen evil forces. By incorporating both supernatural and human elements, these components establish an atmosphere of fear that explores human cruelty and paranoia.

Symbolism and Imagery

The imagery of witches, demons, and inquisitors has become iconic in horror. It symbolizes the clash of religion, fear of the unknown, and our dark side.

Cultural Reflections

Witch hunt stories teach us about injustice, persecution, and the risks of mass hysteria, reminding us to be careful about fear and prejudice.

Medieval folklore and the witch hunts offer rich material for religious horror, providing historical and psychological depth to tales of supernatural evil and human malevolence. They remind us of the power of fear and belief to shape societies and individual fates, a theme that continues to resonate in horror narratives today.

Gothic Literature - 18th Century

The late 18th century saw the emergence of Gothic literature, a genre that explores horror, romance, and the supernatural. Gothic literature has greatly influenced the horror genre, particularly religious horror, by incorporating unique themes, settings, and characters.

Atmospheric Settings

Gothic stories are famous for their inclusion in sinister, somber, and frequently deteriorating environments, such as ancient castles, dreary manors, and isolated monasteries. These locations enhance the mood and contribute to the storytelling.

Supernatural Elements

The supernatural plays a crucial role in Gothic literature, blurring the lines between reality and the paranormal. The characters are faced with ghosts, curses, and unexplained phenomena that challenge their understanding of the world and their role in it.

Themes of Madness and Despair

In many Gothic tales, the exploration of psychological turmoil is central, delving into themes such as madness and despair. Many times, the characters come face to face with their own fears and desires, which create intense psychological conflicts.

The Grotesque and the Macabre

Gothic literature often includes elements of the grotesque and the macabre, such as death, decay, and deformity. The emphasis on the darker elements of life and the human body aims to disturb and frighten the reader.

Influence on Religious Horror

The combination of the supernatural and the psychological in Gothic literature has had a lasting influence on religious horror. It provides a structure to explore the complexities of belief, wrongdoing, and salvation in the face of fear and uncertainty.

Moral and Religious Questions

Gothic novels make characters face tough moral and religious questions. It has themes as discussed in religious narratives, such as divine punishment, the nature of evil, and the possibility of redemption.

Iconic Works and Authors

Key figures in Gothic literature, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of the macabre, have created works that remain central to the horror genre. These stories deeply influence religious horror by embodying personal and societal fears in horror narratives.

Legacy and Evolution

Gothic literature’s legacy is seen in religious horror’s exploration of the tension between the sacred and the profane. It inspired modern horror writers to combine Gothic elements with contemporary concerns, reflecting ongoing anxieties about faith, morality, and the supernatural.

Overall, Gothic literature has had a significant impact on the evolution of religious horror by offering a diverse range of themes, settings, and archetypes. Its supernatural focus and exploration of human actions has made it a pivotal element in the history of horror.

20th Century to Present

Religious horror has evolved from the 20th century to the present, reflecting societal changes and technological advancements. The horror genre is seeing a rise in works that explore religious themes, impacting popular culture.

Films

In the 20th century, there were influential religious horror movies that have become iconic in our culture. Movies like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Devils (1971), The Exorcist (1973), and The Omen (1976) brought religious horror into the mainstream, terrifying audiences with stories of demonic possession and Satanic conspiracies. These movies used the raw power of cinema to explore themes of faith, evil, and redemption, and they set a real high bar for the genre.

Today, 2024, we have films like Late Night with the Devil, Immaculate, and The First Omen, which are all well received by critics. Looks like religious horror is making a comeback. The last well received religious horror film is The Conjuring (2013).

Television

Religious horror themes became popular on TV in the 21st century. Series such as The Walking Dead, which explores apocalyptic themes and moral dilemmas, and American Horror Story, known for its eclectic and often religiously charged narratives, demonstrates the genre’s adaptability and enduring appeal.

Literature

If you’re into religious horror, check out the books by Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Neil Gaiman. They’re all about blending the ordinary with the divine or demonic. King’s novel The Stand stands out as it explores a dramatic confrontation between good and evil in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s full of biblical references and moral inquiries.

Another great example is William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel, which is about a demonic conspiracy in a hard-boiled detective story. This book dives into witchcraft and the occult with many religious undertones. It was adapted into Angel Heart (1986).

This period also saw the rise of graphic novels as a medium for exploring religious horror themes. Stories like Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer and Garth Ennis’ Preacher blend raw storytelling with examinations of faith, the supernatural, and moral ambiguity. They push the limits of the genre through visually captivating methods.

Video Games

Video games bring supernatural and religious themes to life, letting players actively participate in religious horror. In games like Outlast 2, players assume the role of an investigative journalist who must confront the fanatical beliefs of a cult. Armed with only a camcorder and a flashlight, players must navigate their way through the game’s immersive and chilling scenarios.

Check it out on Steam!

Final Thoughts

The religious horror genre has come a long way and keeps changing, but it’s still all about exploring the human condition through supernatural and sacred themes. People can’t get enough of religious horror because it taps into our obsession with the dark side of life and spirituality.

From ancient myths and Gothic literature to contemporary films and digital media, religious horror reflects our collective dread of unseen forces and the moral quandaries of existence. They showcase how storytelling can skillfully navigate the delicate balance between fear and fascination.

Religious horror adapts and reflects the evolving fears and technologies of our era with themes like the exploration of good versus evil and the human versus the divine. The ongoing popularity of this genre highlights our never-ending desire to comprehend and find meaning in the face of the unfathomable. With themes of demonic possession, divine retribution, and apocalyptic visions, religious horror invites us to question, fear, and marvel at the unknown that lies beyond our understanding.

If you liked this article on this subgenre of religious horror, then check out The 10 Horror Subgenres.