{Book Review} Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion and Worship in the Horror Film

Religion has long been a focus for horror films. Think of the many modern examples, including The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), and The Conjuring (2013), just to name a few. In Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion and Worship in the Horror Film (House of Leaves Publishing), scholars explore the relationship between religion and horror. The result is an extensive and diverse anthology that provides insightful analysis on dozens of films.

Edited by Rebecca Booth, Valeska Griffiths, and Erin Thompson, the anthology features over a dozen essays. Doug Bradley’s intro alone makes for an interesting read. He riffs on what it was like playing Pinhead, coupled with his views on religion.

Perhaps more importantly, he calls religion and horror “cultural siblings.” Indeed, they are concerned with many of the same issues, including where we came from and what awaits us after death. Religious Studies Professor Douglas E. Cowan’s echoes this point in the introduction.

In that regard, both he and Bradley give an interesting read on the Hellraiser films. The first film’s tagline (Demon to some. Angel to others.) illustrates Cowan’s point that religion is perspectival. Bradley states that when he first considered playing Pinhead,  his idea of hell was not one defined by Christianity. He adds that Satan is never mentioned in the films, and instead, hell is whatever you make of it, hence the tagline.

In fact, this is one of the anthology’s real strengths. By looking at familiar content through a religious lens, it provides a fresh perspective. Take Alexandra West’s essay on The Conjuring films, for example. Both films generally earned positive reviews and scored big at the box office, launching an entire franchise and universe. Much has been written about them already.

Yet, West’s essay urges readers to think about the films more critically. She proposes that the films, specifically their depictions of famed paranormal investigators the Warrens, uphold patriarchal values and conservative culture. It’s a thorough analysis  that you’re not likely to read elsewhere. More specifically, she details how the films depict Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) so blissfully, as if Christian values lead to stability.

Photo Courtesy of New Line Cinema

West’s essay blends film criticism with historical context in a superb fashion to support the thesis. Her essay, which opens the book, highlights the quality of research and writing that follows. To boot, her criticism is biting and memorable. Her insight into the marketing of the films to a targeted Christian audience also makes for a fascinating read.

West’s work may be familiar to readers because she co-hosts the Faculty of Horror podcast with Andrea Subissati, editor of Rue Morgue. Subissati makes an interesting contribution to the anthology, exploring the concept of martyrdom in The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) and Martyrs (2008).

Her essay offers a thought-provoking  take on the concept. Specifically, she plays with the notion that martyrdom doesn’t happen because of the condition or circumstance surrounding a death, but rather, the discourse surrounding the death. She applies this idea to both films. In the case of Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), she poses the question: can Rose be considered a martyr if she went willingly to her death? Furthermore, Subissati notes how the film gives equal weight to skepticism and faith.

Likewise, she gives sound analysis to the French film Martyrs, specifically the film’s ambiguous ending. Again, these are two films quite known to horror fans, but the author’s take on them, using a religious framework, provides new insight and commentary.

By the time you finish her essay, you’ll question the ending of both films and the concept of a martyr. Do we, the audience, get to decide if the female leads in both films are martyrs? Are we, as audience members, meaning-makers? Subissati thinks so. Additionally, for the author, the term martyr no longer conjures images of a heretic killed in public, but rather figures like MLK and Malcolm X. Again, each essay provides much to ponder

Scared Sacred gives plenty of attention to lesser-known and international films, too. That’s another one of its highlights. The Wailing (2016), The Dybbuk (937), and Nang Nak (1999) are just a few of the other films addressed, representing Korean, Polish, and Thai filmmaking and an exploration of religion in other cultures.

Furthermore, the book covers some lesser-known American films. The essay by John Cussans on Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess (1973) is a must-read. Cussan’s historical analysis shows why the film is so relevant today. Additionally, Cussans’ take on Duane Jones as an actor, from playing Ben in Night of the Living Dead to Dr. Hess Green, two characters with totally different educational backgrounds, makes for a fascinating exploration of class and race.

Photo Courtesy of Kelly/Jordan Enterprises

Even familiar films, like The Amityville Horror (1979) and The Omen, will warrant a re-watch after encountering the anthology’s take on them. Meanwhile, horror icons, like Pinhead, undergo new analysis, too. Should the hell priest be thought of as a redemptive character, lingering in purgatory? Booth’s essay makes the case.

Like any academic anthology, Scared Sacred can’t be rushed. It’s a slow read and hefty at that. Yet, each essay contains such breadth and depth that you’ll want to savor each one. Then, you’ll want to watch the films with accompanying essays in mind. Most importantly, you’ll realize that horror and religion aren’t all that dissimilar. They’re concerned with similar philosophical questions. Now, we finally have an anthology that thoroughly explores the connection between the two.

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