The image above looks like it would be more at home in a sequel to Hostel than a film about Jesus. Whatever Mad Mel’s intention, he certainly reminded us that religion and horror do tend to cross paths quite a bit. I found myself thinking about this while reviewing the Nightmare on Elm Street Dream Warrior trilogy in preparation for the event coming up at the Alamo on August 25th. (Tickets here) The conclusion I came to was that at some strange level the Nightmare on Elm Street series is kind of Christian. Now, I myself am an atheist and was raised unchurched, so if I get a piece of your favored mythology wrong, my apologies. At any rate let’s take a short look at the intersections of religion and horror, shall we?
Actually, before we do that, why don’t you check out Negativland’s brilliant “The Mashin’ of the Christ.”
Okay, now that you’re in the right frame of mind we can proceed. Religious horror has come a long way since the Christian-Scare films of the past. With titles like Bible Study Hostage, The Burning Hell and A Thief in the Night, they were low budget and primarily for the already converted. Something Weird video has put out quite a few collections of these films and many are also available on YouTube. Today these movies are more covert. Take for example, the financially successful, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” Horror with religious messaging today takes a different tack than it once did. The angle now is to presuppose that a particular religion is true and than use that foundation to try to scare the audience. Where Gibson tried to guilt people into devotion with some Jesus torture porn, modern christian scare is trying to frighten you into believing.
So, why did I start thinking about this because of Nightmare on Elm Street? It’s simple really, the films are laden with Christian iconography. First consider the origin of Freddy Krueger. He is the product of the defilement of a Nun by hundreds of the criminally insane. Freddy’s mother then repeatedly reappears throughout the films as a guardian and guide to the children who battle against him. Then you have the cross constantly referenced as an effective weapon against Freddy or at least something which signifies the forces fighting against him. Just look at the end of part 3, Freddy’s earthly remains are found, doused with holy water and buried with a crucifix above to prevent his escape. Then consider all the talk of souls in the film. Freddy collects them and takes them to Hell, as he so often tells us. He seems to be an agent of Hell, although one who enjoys crossing the boundary to Earth a little bit too much.
So what’s to be made of this? It could be one of a couple of things. While non-belief is rising in America, those who identify as “none” on religious attitude surveys still only sit around 15 percent. This does appear to be speeding up with a growing number of younger people who proclaim no particular religious belief. Still, atheists remain high on lists of most hated or distrusted lists. So, the majority disposition in the U.S., and likely the world, is one of religion. That horror caters to the fears present in those belief structures shouldn’t be surprising. So maybe that’s just it, maybe filmmakers are mining what they know to be a language of fear that many will respond to. It could also be the disposition of the writer/director his or herself. The horror genre has certainly embraced the concept of the auteur and his/her singular vision being paramount to their film. How many horror directors can you name? Probably a lot I’m guessing.
Horror films tend to respond to one of two things. One, the fear which represents it’s particular time period. Take for example the explosion of the torture porn genre during the post-9/11 age of Abu Ghraib. Or two, a fear that is timeless, the most obvious of which is the fear of death. Death can mean a lot of things to a lot of people but the reason why it’s scary is that we have no idea what comes next. Religions respond to this fear in an effort to comfort or give hope. Horror can exploit this to frighten and thrill. Then you have that curious intersection between the two. Absent of the naked proselytizing present in the old Christian Scare films, we can only speculate about and debate those themes in modern horror. I myself, have never come close to being converted by a film, even if I do love the Elm Street series. Praise Freddy!