"The Devil Made Me Do It"
A Theology of Horror Movies
Note: weird religious stuff. Might be more comprehensible in light of my previous post, The Surprising Joy of Exorcism.
I’m currently on a horror movie binge, at least partly as research for a play I’m writing about a demon possession, and I am absolutely fascinated by the way Christianity functions in fictional portrayals of spooks and frights.
Christians traditionally believe in a spiritual plane of existence, including not just by God but also a variety of less-powerful beings we typically call angels and demons. The bible gives us only the barest of outlines of what these beings are up to:
Demons are locked in an ongoing violent struggle against angels and God
Demons both tempt people to do evil and torment them by reminding them of things they’ve done wrong in their pasts. Occasionally (mostly in the gospels + acts) they seem to have the power to possess people.
Apocalyptic writings (e.g. Daniel, Revelation, Isaiah) link major human events to “behind the scenes” struggles between spiritual forces. It’s implied, for example, that demonic activity is behind the rise of the oppressive Roman Empire. The writers never make this connection concrete, so it’s not clear precisely how they believe the “behind-the-scenes battle” is influencing events on earth.
(There are a couple more facts here and there, but honestly not that many? It’s actually really surprising how sparse the Old Testament demon references are, given that archaeological evidence shows Israelites at the time were quite worried about demons!)
This is theologically important and teaches us something about the Christian gospel, but it also leaves so many questions unanswered. And so at some level, if you want to make a coherent story about how demons function, you have to start filling in the gaps yourself. Real life people try to do this every once and a while, from the medieval church’s surprisingly prolific witchcraft obsession1 to the Warren family whose “demonology” exploits became the basis for the Conjuring film franchise.
These often come across as strange and artificial: one of the most amusing moments of the first Conjuring movie occurs Ed Warren confidently declares “there’s no such thing as Annabelle [the child ghost supposedly inhabiting a doll]” because ghosts, while real in the Conjuring universe, don’t have that specific power. This point is expanded upon, with even more logic and even less sense, in one of the Annabelle movies when Ed explains that while God doesn’t allow spirits to inhabit dolls, demons can use dolls as “conduits” for further evil. I have looked through my bible but so far have been unable to find any support for this claim. (maybe it’s in one of the extra Catholic books?)
Horror movies also have to create rules like this, primarily as a storytelling device. For a plotline to function, the protagonists need some way of overcoming evil, some goal they can pursue to ultimately cast the demon out or die trying. And I’ve found that the stilted, implausible nature of these structures underscore what really frightens and awes me about the spiritual realm: we really have no idea what the hell is happening, and there’s not much we can do about demons besides wait faithfully for God to deal with evil.
In some sense, horror movies seem to be aware of this: there’s widespread agreement across a surprising number of fictional worlds that you need the power of God to drive out demons or vampires or what-have-you. And in horror-land, you access this power via religious imagery — the sign of the cross will repel the vampire, reading the bible agitates the demon possessing your friend, a splash of holy water will literally burn the devil’s minion. I’ve always found these scenes kind of worshipful — God is more powerful than the worst kinds of of evil, and the sight of a physical cross literally throwing a demon against a wall is a beautifully visceral way to express that hope.
But in real life, holy symbols do little to stop people from carrying out the devil’s work. In real life, Vladimir Putin twisted Jesus’s own words to rally his troops to commit unspeakable evil. In real life, John MacArthur held a bible and a place of Christian honor as he publicly shamed, banished, and demanded that his congregation mistreat Eileen Gray for leaving her husband — a man who continued to beat up and sexually assault her children. In real life, “Christian” slaveowners didn’t just carry bibles — they chopped them up, physically cutting out parts that spoke of liberation before handing these mangled, desecrated books to the people they claimed to own.
In a horror movie we might expect these physical representations of Christianity to do something to the perpetrators of evil who try to hold them — to burn their skin, or bleed out their eyes, or call thunder down upon them. But in real life the totems are not enough, and just as Satan quoted bible verses to Jesus, evil learns to appropriate holy imagery to its own wicked ends.
And yet it seems to me that watching these films can be a genuine, spiritually-edifying experience, if we interpret the onscreen “cross vs vampire”-type scenarios as a fictionalized story pointing us to a deeper reality: we may not have direct access to God’s power through horror trope rituals, but it is true that God’s power exists and ultimately will defeat the sorts of evil we see around us.
So even if the settings and the mechanism of God’s power are fictionalized (sometimes atrociously so), there is something profound about seeing Christian hope play out in viscerally frightening onscreen clashes, because hope is powerful.
The hope of Christianity is knowing that, when he died on the cross, Jesus irrevocably marked the forces of evil for defeat. The hope of Christianity is knowing that the same Jesus sees the systems of oppression and injustice growing among his church like thorny weeds and vows to expose them. The hope of Christianity is knowing that when Jesus returns in glory, the destruction we’ll see him rain upon the demonic forces of injustice, oppression, and violence themselves will make cinematic exorcisms look like fairy tales.
If you’ve never experienced that hope — not just in the abstract but really absorbed it into the depths of your being — it’s difficult for me to describe how fundamentally it can shake you to your core, how intensely it recasts your priorities, how small and quaint the materialism you were formerly devoted to now appears in comparison. You quickly find that there is literally nothing more important, on heaven or on earth.
So, no. Of course I don’t think the crucifixes we hang around our apartment have magical demon-fighting powers. But if they remind me of the hope I need to push myself out of my comfort zone, to turn from my selfishness and apathy, to really pursue sacrificial love for God and for those I have the power to serve, then that’s good enough for me.
It’s worth mentioning that the problem with this kind of “gaps filling” isn’t just intellectually odd. It leads really easily into scapegoating and real injustice, often aimed at the most vulnerable people in an area, as the victims of witch hunts and pogroms are well too aware of.