2004 was a funny year for film, kick-starting (or at the very least re-vitalising) two cinematic trends that continue to this day.
Firstly, it was the year of Mel Gibson’s self-financed film The Passion of the Christ. A gory retelling of the final hours of Jesus’ life, it demonstrated that there was life in the Biblical epic yet, and that evangelical Christians were a massive untapped market. Over a decade later the reverberations are still being felt, with faith films now a regular part of mainstream slates (including this year’s Risen, a soft-sequel to The Passion).
Secondly, 2004 also saw the premiere of a little indie horror film called Saw. As well as spawning a seemingly endless slew of sequels (Saw 8 is currently filming), it ushered in the horror sub-genre of “torture porn”, so called given its alleged focus on scenes of sadism at the expense of plot.
What’s interesting about this is that on the surface these two cinematic traditions seem worlds apart, but in reality faith films and horror movies have more in common than you might think.
Now it doesn’t take a genius to point out that The Passion is both Biblical narrative and horror movie. With its grueling scenes of Jesus’ scourging and crucifixion along with minimalist plotting (the resurrection, for instance, is reduced to a 30 second epilogue), one might even argue that The Passion is an early entry into the torture-porn canon (although that phrase was not in common parlance at the time). Of course it wasn’t marketed – or even perceived – that way by a lot of its patrons, but look at the actual content of what’s on screen and it’s a horror movie through and through.
How about Saw? It focuses on serial killer Jigsaw, who delights to capture people and put them in traps which they can escape from only at great personal cost (such as the famous finale, where hero Cary Elwes must hack his own foot off in order to get free). The twist here is that Jigsaw isn’t really a killer at all – he’s trying to shock complacent, ungrateful people out of their apathy so that they can then appreciate their lives. So, say what you like about Saw – and for my money it’s a great idea with poor execution – but it does have an explicit moral lens through which it views proceedings. Much like The Passion.
The idea that somehow horror is morally retrograde by nature is pretty simplistic, and actually there is a long history of horror films in fact being morality tales in their purest form. Consider the slasher sub-genre, kick-started by Psycho and Halloween in the 60s and 70s respectively, before reaching its peak in the endless shockers of the 1980s. On the surface these films can be read as pure exploitation, but they are also morally conservative films about the dangers of adultery, sex outside marriage and drug use. Hence when the genre was riffed on in the 90s by Scream et al, these implicit moral rules were explicitly laid out.
Perhaps more interestingly, one of the most famous horror films of all time was roundly condemned by Christians – including evangelical leader Billy Graham – despite having a Christian message. The Exorcist might be famous for its scenes of devil possession, supernatural vomiting and expletive riddled ravings by the demonically oppressed Reagan, but it was actually written by William Peter Blatty, a Catholic who wanted to write a story proving the existence of God. Watch it again, and you’ll see how The Exorcist actually lays out the gospel more completely than The Passion: a victim tormented by evil is rescued by self-sacrificial love.
On a personal note, I remember watching The Exorcist back in the late 90s when it was finally reissued for cinematic release. As a Christian and horror fan, I remember finding it a very comforting film: one which does not shy away from the fact that bad things happen in this world, but where – to quote Mark Kermode and Exorcist-obsessive – “everything will be alright in the end”. Love really does conquer all.
Ultimately the world-view of a film is far more important than simply what it portrays on screen. Those with a faith should remember that the Bible itself is a book that does not shy away from horror, but confronts it . Seen like this, faith-films and horror movies have more in common than perhaps many give them credit for.