It's Halloween and time to revisit films that help us stare down our most primal fears. But beware: You'll often see religious themes -- actually, anti-religious ones -- woven deeply into the storylines.
"It’s one of the only genres that gives credence to the idea that there is a supernatural world," artist Craig Joseph says in an indepth piece in The Canton Repository in Ohio. "Because of that, you can get away with talking about religion and spiritual and invisible things more than any other genre."
The opportunity may be there, but it's often squandered. Horror films typically have a powerful malevolent force, but little or no supernatural help on the side of good. Believers, in fact, are often shown as part of the problem.
Take the quintessential devil movie, 1973's "The Exorcist." Two priests gang up on a demon-possessed girl, yet can't overcome the evil influence. (Spoiler alert.) Finally, one of the priests invites the spirit to invade him, then leaps out a window to his death. A tale of sacrifice, but not exactly triumph.
This past Saturday night saw a scientific horror tale, 2004's "Resident Evil: Apocalypse," on the Syfy network. The film has a group flee to a church from hordes of yowling, carnivorous zombies. But the church is no refuge: Not only are three monsters lurking there, but the rector himself is harboring his zombified sister out of misguided pity. His mistake literally comes back to bite him.
Remember "Carrie," the 1976 film about a girl with psychic powers? Her mother is a Bible thumper who chases her around the house with a butcher knife and a sickly smile. Carrie, of course, is forced to defend herself, in horrific style.
There’s more of the same in the 1988 remake of "The Blob," where an otherwise calm pastor is driven mad by the sight of the oversize amoeba. (Spoiler alert.) He becomes a raving tent evangelist, foretelling the end of the world -- which he'll help create, having saved a piece of the beast.
Horror-fantasy gets this treatment, too. In the 1981 film "Dragonslayer," a monk assures the townfolk that there ain’t no dragons. As he's preaching, the beast shows up and toasts him onscreen.
You can even see this attitude in the 2009 apocalyptic film "2012." That movie shows the graphic destruction of several world landmarks, including the Christ the Redeemer statue over Rio de Janeiro and St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. In the latter, the rotunda actually collapses onto people who are praying in St. Peter's Square. "I'm against organized religion, director Roland Emmerich told a reporter.
Why is all this so? Well, part of it may be that filmmakers feel more adept at portraying the profane than the divine. As C. S. Lewis said after writing "The Screwtape Letters," he could imagine correspondence between demons just by looking in his own heart.
It's also true that some preachers have often warned people away from films. They consider movies to be corrupting influences, through the messages in the plots and the lifestyles of the actors and directors. The movie folks have often struck back, as when Susan Sarandon this month called Benedict XVI a Nazi.
There may also be another motive, one identified two decades ago by film reviewer Michael Medved: a drive to gain respect by attacking serious topics.
Religion is "the one subject in the world that everyone acknowledges as fundamentally serious," Medved, himself an Orthodox Jew, has said. "No matter how clumsy or contrived that attack may be, [filmmakers] can feel as if they've made some sort of important and courageous statement."
But the antagonism doesn’t extend to all faiths. During "Independence Day" in 1996, the defenders of Earth pause for a prayer by an elderly Jewish man. And sometimes, it's notable what is not bashed. In making "2012," director Emmerich said he wanted to show the destruction of the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam. What stopped him? He agreed with his co-writer, who didn’t want a "fatwa on my head because of a movie."
Nor is this a fluke. The 2000 sci-fi horror film "Pitch Black" has a dignified Muslim leading others in daily prayer after a spaceship wreck. In the 2004 sequel, "The Chronicles of Riddick," he accepts his own murder as a classic shaheed, or martyr.
Still, even in the darkness of horror films, rays of hope break through. Now and then, a mainstream feature film tips the hat to Christianity.
One example is 2002's scary flick "Signs." The story has a priest (apparently Episcopal) taking off his collar after the tragic death of his wife -- and a bit before aliens start raiding Earth for God-knows-what. But his faith revives after his wife's prophetic comments help him save his son's life.
Also notable is "I Am Legend" from 2007. As a scientist seeks a cure for a plague -- which, yet again, turns humans into vicious zombies -- he sees a recurring butterfly pattern that helps him find a solution. His friend and her daughter then carry the cure to a remote, walled village, which has a church with a prominent steeple. At least zombies don't invade that sanctuary.
One nice thing about horror movies: "The End." The night never lasts.
That’s my take, at least. What’s yours?
Are Hollywood horror films basically anti-religious, in your opinion? Partly? Dependent on the maker? Or is just my own primal fear?
James D. DavisCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times