ekm’s 31 NIGHTS OF HORROR: EVENING 17 – THE PRESENCE OF GOD IN RELIGIOUS HORROR FILMS
NOTE: This article is a companion piece to the previously-published “Absence of God in Religious Horror Films,” which can be read here. Disagree? Voice your contempt for my pretentious writing and punchable face by following this link, and win a prize package for doing so.
Way back in the very first installment of this October-themed series, I mentioned a family member who was baffled by my love of Horror. It’s important to mention that she’s an Evangelical Christian, which significantly narrows her view of “acceptable entertainment,” and more or less forces her to drive the car along an equally narrow road from which there are no off-ramps. I don't watch horror films (don't even want to), she wrote on Facebook; so I'm asking those of you who do - what is the attraction to watching films about fear, torture, cruelty, evil, and death? It’s a valid question, and one this series has attempted to address.
With all that said, I was (and am) willing to discuss these matters when she brings them to the table (or in the case of the exchange I’m about to relate, the island separating her kitchen and dining room, which also clearly drew a line between the two of us and our respective worldviews). She’s wanted to see my filmmaking career – such as it is – less focused on depicting babies being murdered in toilets, and self-reflexive commentary on belief systems. In other words, she’d love to see me direct something nice. Apparently, she doesn’t know me very well.*
I’m not sure how we got into it, but somehow, my love of THE EXORCIST came up. I was working on a book about the third film in the series, and running back and forth to Bethesda to meet (and hang out) with William Peter Blatty; I was getting phone calls from Brad Dourif and John Carpenter and other personal heroes, and digging up some incredibly intriguing information that still has yet to see the light of day.** It was an exciting time, and I was swept up in it…which led to the question: Why that movie, and movies like it?
It’s ironic that an atheist such as myself would take so much interest in films that are Evangelical in intent, but there it is. I explained to this person – who had never seen the original 1973 shocker in its entirety, but had nonetheless bought fully into Billy Graham’s insistence that there was sentient Evil embedded in the very celluloid itself – that Blatty was a devout Catholic.*** I carefully described (because care was needed) that the author and subsequent screenwriter had wanted to show that Goodness exists in both the cosmic and material universe; to do this, it was first necessary to depict the lengths Satan is allegedly willing to go. She couldn’t get past the Let Jesus fuck you stuff, because it was, to her, VIOLENCE FOR THE SAKE OF VIOLENCE, and so excessive as to border on obscenity.
Then I made her cry when I told her that the movie she considered ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT FILMS EVER MADE – a little flick you may have seen, called THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST – is Torture Porn far surpassing the most extreme films of the genre (HOSTEL 2, et al,.). This didn’t go over well at all, to put it mildly.
Everyone went to go see THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. You did. Your grandmother did. Elementary schoolkids did. Churchgoers organized field trips. The film defied the concept of Target Audience. No one in the theater laughed or applauded at the end.**** Gore fans didn’t talk about "all the great effects work." THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST was genuinely disturbing stuff, and that was its draw. People paid to watch a man brutally tortured for two hours, and then left the experience shaken. Has there ever been a film that was so cruel, violent, and disgusting, that little old ladies went out of their way to see it, and did so because they found it inspiring?
Yeah, I know: it’s the EXORCIST argument. In order to appreciate Christ’s love for Mankind, you have to understand the sacrifices He made. I take some issue with this, as it’s not much of a “sacrifice” when you know you’re about to be tossed a Phoenix Down and then resurrected three days later as the supreme Ruler of the Universe (a title you’ll have to share with your Dad, who is sort of half-You, but sorta isn’t). Nonetheless, if the purpose of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is to illustrate love, it misses the mark, and lands somewhere in the field behind the barn. The film offers no resolution or apparent purpose other than show the intimacies of pain. Argue about the ins and outs of the alleged Resurrection all you want, but no one can deny that torture of this kind was (and is) real. Were this film about any other person, historical or imaginary, it would be considered pointless and offensive. Sure, you can defend it based on its "message" – but I can defend CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST on the same grounds. Thus, I explained to my tear-soaked family member, that THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is the most successful commercial Horror film of all time, and wears an unearned badge of "respectability" due to the facade of supposed evangelism, which carefully skirts around the truth that it’s a violent film made for appreciative audiences. PLUS: demons, horrific suicide, and reanimated corpses. We never discussed the topic again.
I wrote previously about God’s perceived unwillingness to interfere in onscreen events where His adversary is openly laying waste to His vineyard; but what about films in which He does actively participate? How do these narratives differ, and how are they kinda-sorta pretty much the same?
The key element is sacrifice. God has been depicted as a general who’s only too happy to lose expendable soldiers; this goes all the way back to the Old Testament. Setting aside the Is-He-Or-Isn’t-He duality of Christ’s schizophrenic physical embodiment of The Guy in the Sky, Gibson’s film is fixated on the Messiah’s slow, agonizing death rather than the fulfillment of His promise. This is true of every onscreen depiction of the Crucifixion – after all, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? seems like the words of a child sent to his room without supper, only now with the added bonus of nails through the palms. The key difference between THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST and films like THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is that the former is, whether by accident or design, a Horror film of the Eli Roth variety, and it knows it is. We see all the conventions of the genre, but apart from the final shot, there’s no sense that God is at work in the universe. We know He’s there; we just don’t know what He’s up to, beyond sitting back and letting it all happen because of a mysterious plan, or forced penance for a crime committed in Eden that Heavenly Father – being omniscient – knew would happen, and still chose to point out a tree that Adam and Eve wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.
But why harp on one film? After all, Christian filmmakers don’t typically choose this particular genre to espouse the virtues of The Bible, right? Wrong. If THE EXORCIST terrified wayward Christians back into Sunday morning services, then A THIEF IN THE NIGHT deserves similar accolades for traumatizing a generation of children into thinking the Rapture was nigh. An ultra-low-budget indie that functions in much the same terrifying way as those Chick Tracts I collected as a kid, A THIEF IN THE NIGHT depicts a world in which the Saved mysteriously vanish, and the rest of us are – wait for it – left behind. All pun intended, as this phrase forms the basis of the very creepy folk song used throughout A THIEF IN THE NIGHT, as well as the title two film adaptations made from the popular Christian book series of the same name. In both versions of LEFT BEHIND, a Damien Thorn-style Antichrist rises amidst the ashes of a post-Rapture society; and no matter what banana-based nonsense Kirk Cameron tries to feed you, these are undoubtedly Horror movies. If Harold Camping had ever possessed a sense of humor or irony, he might have approved.*****
Keep in mind: these are Christian-made films, not Hollywood product. With the exception of noxious garbage from folks like Alex Kendrick, Faith-based production houses tend to be small-scale in the extreme; look no further than the most terrifying film of 2018 – THE TRUMP PROPHECY – which was produced on the shoulders of film students who weren’t given any choice but to work on their professor’s feature. One would anticipate more content from these studios along the lines of FIREPROOF, but what A THIEF IN THE NIGHT, LEFT BEHIND, THE TRUMP PROPHECY, GOD IS NOT DEAD, and even HEAVEN IS FOR REAL all have in common is the presence of demons and near-death experiences, an afterlife only obtainable to atheists through death-by-Divine Intervention, or a world abandoned by its maker. Likewise notable is the fact that if you asked any of the directors the genre of these films, “Horror“ would not be listed among them.
This extends to more conventional genre work, in those rare instances in which God is permitted to directly interfere in the story line. We can all more or less assume that the sleepy Turtle from Stephen King’s IT is a stand-in for a variation on the notion of a Creator, and this despite anything The Dark Tower wants us to believe; he pukes up the universe and then lets a Space Spider lick it up. The Turtle, it’s suggested, magically empowers The Loser Club, but chooses not to intervene directly. Here King may have been responding to his earlier opus, The Stand, in which the literal Hand of God picks up a nuke and uses it to destroy Las Vegas. The novel suggests a beast with five fingers; the 1994 miniseries eschews such subtlety. In both tales, our protagonists have to die, or lose their loved ones, while a powerful – and perhaps impotent? – Deity observes, and intervenes only when He sees fit.
An argument can be made that the recent CONJURING films (allegedly based on true events, and totally not) are in fact as much in the way of “Christian propaganda masquerading as entertainment” as THE EXORCIST was: the message is that only through Faith and prayer will God show up to save the day. Funny how He places conditions on whether or not he’ll let His children be possessed or murdered by demons, isn’t it? And so it goes. Coppola’s DRACULA warns us not to have a temper tantrum in Church, or God will turn you into a vampire; and if you’re a nun, God will be cool with your repeated rape by a hundred maniacs, so long as you don’t commit suicide when you give birth to Freddy Krueger – doing that will give Him reason to strand you in purgatory. And make sure you don’t wind up, helpless, inside a giant Wicker Man, because God’s not interested in hanging out with people of other religions, even if it’s to save your sorry ass.
Writing this piece, I feel I’m making the same points as the previous article, albeit with a twist that sort of isn’t. Religious Horror Films are films about God – more accurately, they’re about a world in which God has turned a blind eye, and Evil is given free rein. Regardless of whether these stories tell of 1) a Creator who is remote, and chooses to let His worker ants die accomplishing what He could perform without effort; or 2) a God who is present, but requires extreme acts of personal sacrifice in order to engage (if at all), the common denominator remains the same. In an age that has passed far beyond miracles, it’s no surprise to see that miracles no longer occur – not even in the realm of fantasy, where the fictional sky’s the limit. The fact that even Christian storytellers gravitate toward darkness and avoid God as an interactive component, is telling.
*I’m still waiting for acknowledgment that I was hired to edit two Faith-based features: SPENT, the debut film from Lisa Mikitarian; and CHARITY, directed by Connie Lamothe. This anonymous family member hasn’t watched either one, as far as I know. She’s probably afraid there will be uncomfortable sex scenes like the ones I put in ROULETTE (and which I feel would make both films stronger works of Christian cinema, because of course I do).
**Keep an eye on this website. 2020 isn’t that far away.
***I’ve since learned that, with many Evangelicals, saying that someone is a devout Catholic is right up there with saying the individual is a devout Satanist. Christianity is, to me, like a huge, dysfunctional family you visit at Thanksgiving. Mom and Dad are divorced; siblings hate one another; aunts and uncles talk shit in the kitchen about cousins and in-laws. Everyone in the family is wrong except them, and that’s why they deserve the inheritance, despite one and all sharing the same last name. Catholics, Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Lutherans, all of them, need to get on the same page before they try telling me that their specific interpretation of the same Holy Book is the one I ought to follow, simply because they say so.
****Had it been made just a few years later, I guarantee you there would have been a post-credits scene teasing a Biblical Cinematic Universe. Bonus points would be awarded if we’d have gotten a scene featuring Native Americans coming across a vacationing, resurrected Christ; the public outcry would have been as deliriously wonderful as the sense of empowerment the LDS community would simultaneously be celebrating. That’s a movie I’d pay to see.
*****For more on Camping’s wearisome exploits – in particular, his Rapture prediction of 2012 – I would, for a second time, refer you to an episode of SQUARING THE STRANGE, and one in which I was once again allowed the privilege of running my mouth.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)