Religion in Horror: Scared Sacred Roundtable

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Guest contributor: Rebecca Booth has a Masters in Film Studies from the University of Southampton. Formerly the Managing Editor of Diabolique Magazine, she authored a book on The Devil Rides Out (1968) as part of the Devil’s Advocates series for Auteur Publishing. In addition to contributing essays to printed collections, most recently The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin (Spectacular Optical, 2017), she has been published on several popular culture websites such as Den of Geek, Scream and Wicked Horror. Rebecca also co-hosts the following podcasts: United Nations of Horror, X-Files X-Philes and The Twin Peaks Log. Follow her on twitter @rebeccalbooth.


As the co-editor, along with Erin Thompson and RF Todd, of the forthcoming anthology exploring religion in horror cinema, Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion and Worship in the Horror Film, I am very proud and excited to share below insights from some of the amazing cast contributing to the book. Scared Sacred will be released in 2019 from House of Leaves Publishing and covers a variety of theological approaches to the genre. Exploring films such as Onibaba (1964), Ganja & Hess (1973), From Beyond (1986), The Exorcist III (1990), Martyrs (2008), and Antichrist (2009), we’re looking at a range of topics such as: zoolatry, feminism, and the feline fatale; the lineage of the witch, from Medieval mystic to Victorian hysteric; and the tensions between science and the supernatural, examining religious zealotry in terms of prophetic voices and auditory hallucinations.

My personal contributions to the book involve an exploration of soul transmigration in Jewish folklore, and a character study of the Hell Priest from Clive Barker’s seminal novella The Hellbound Heart (1986) through its evolution across popular culture. Drawing upon the ancient practice of sin eating, this chapter charts the Hell Priest’s human backstory and development in several tangential storylines within the mythology, to argue that this figure is the last sin eater, and the Hellraiser mythology is his own purgatory. As an inversion of the traditional mediatory role of the clergyman, he does not absolve sin, but consumes it—as he condemns and collects souls. On top of this, I’m very excited to say that the book features a foreword by the Hell Priest himself: Doug Bradley.

My second chapter takes Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport’s play The Dybbuk (1918), published under the pseudonym S. Ansky, and examines the popularity of this figure in Jewish folklore. Cinematically, the chapter compares the representation of this possessing spirit in The Dybbuk (1937), Michał Waszyński’s classic cinematic adaptation of Ansky’s play, and Marcin Wrona’s Demon (2015), exploring the resonation of soul transfiguration in each. In particular, I examine the marital unions in both films as a site of tension between traditional and cultural values, gender politics, and how the past informs the present via the figure of the dybbuk—even when buried.

Our crowdfunder for the project ends at the beginning of November and was designed for early buyers to preorder a first edition copy of the book. This print-run is limited to 500 paperback copies, and only 100 hardback copies (including an alternative cover). Each book will be accompanied by a numbered certificate, and we have some amazing rewards, including original artwork, early film festival passes, and an overnight stay at one of the alleged most haunted houses in England. Please visit the Scared Sacred crowdfunder to preorder, and the House of Leaves website for further information. You can also find regular updates on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

Scared Sacred developed from discussions surrounding the recent reclaiming of religious and supernatural themes in mainstream horror, initiating a necessary and illuminating exploration of this contemporary landscape. As well as discourses examining the current socio-political climate and how it continues to inform the genre, the historical path carved by religion and folklore is traced through the book—culminating in the cinematic church of horror. We hope you join us on this journey by supporting the project, the first in a small series dedicated to religion in the horror film from House of Leaves, and that the book fulfils its aim: to instigate and propel further discussions surrounding religion, faith and folklore in popular culture. I’ll leave you in the more than capable hands of the contributor team, as they discuss their submissions to this important discourse.

John Sowder (illustrator)

What is your background and can you tell us about your process for producing the artwork for Scared Sacred?

I began writing and drawing for various small press magazines during the 1990s. It was a lot of fun, and promising, but, eventually, I reached a point where I hit a brick wall creatively. After a few comic book and RPG projects I was working on fell apart, I decided to take a break from illustrating. Unfortunately, that break lasted nearly 10 years.

Now, I’m glad to be back at the drawing table. Even though I use my home computer as an artistic tool, I pretty much use the same materials for drawing that I’ve been using since I was a teenager. I like traditional comic book art and I always have a bottle of Black Star Indian Ink in my home, along with horsehair brushes, a few 102 quill pens, some Faber-Casteel brush markers, and Micron ink pens.

Comic book art is clear, inviting, and dynamic. It’s a style that seems to be easily accessible to different people from different backgrounds. And it’s an approach that I thought would lend itself perfectly to the artwork I created for Scared Sacred. The black and white chapter illustrations take a core theme from each piece of writing and present it in a Medieval woodcut design, fusing the traditional subject matter with modern technique—much in the way the chapters discuss the representation of religious themes and values from a contemporary standpoint.

Beyond Belief
For each poster/bookmark, I was required to merge different elements from familiar movies into a single image, so I had to approach each subject knowing that it had to be easy to read or else it wouldn’t work. For example, the Ganja & Hess (1973) and Cat People (1942) poster—drawing on two films from the ‘Beyond Belief’ section of the book—depicts the two female protagonists mirrored with the same expression, commenting on the female monster in each (and how both come to accept/embrace their monstrosity). The Rorschach inkblot represents the psychological aspects of Cat People, and the design of the Myrthian dagger is representative of the Christian/traditional African religious tension in Ganja & Hess.

Similarly, The Amityville Horror (1979) and The Exorcist III (1990) poster—using two films from the ‘Occultism’ section of the book—addresses possession via supernatural sacrifice and the horror of faith. Father Damien Karras’ face is superimposed over 112 Ocean Avenue, representing the invading possessive force—in these films, both body and home are not safe. With each of the four themed posters/bookmarks I took a pretty simple approach to depicting the subject matter, and the comic aesthetic gave it an extra kick that brought it to life—or at least I hope it did!

Neil Gravino (contributor)

The iconography in recent mainstream Hollywood religious/supernatural horror cinema has been accused of being Christian propaganda. What are your thoughts on this, and how does this landscape compare with iconography in Eastern horror films?

It isn’t hard to see why many would consider recent Hollywood horror such as The Conjuring series and similar to be Christian propaganda; religious horror films, while meant to terrify and entertain viewers, do of course hinge on the idea of good and evil, God and Satan, and occasionally the end times. Personally, however, I do find it worth noting that a majority of Christians that I know would be hesitant to even consume this current trend of horror media, regardless of the imagery it propagates. For many, it would come down less to what is shown in the film and more towards how it is shown; basically, is the overall package for or against Christianity? (And that’s before one even gets into the various denominations and offshoots and how they interpret various aspects of the religion.) It’s also probably telling that there is a subset of media that takes influence from horror, but packages itself as a Christian substitute, such as the work of Frank Peretti. For me, the current trend is just that: a trend, and one that simply uses the cultural influences of the West to tell a story, which viewers can easily dismiss as fiction, whether they are religious or not.

Christianity

Christianity is also present in the East, and concepts such as angels and demons of course appear, albeit presented in different ways. The Japanese television franchise Super Sentai’s thirty-fourth series, Tensou Sentai Goseiger, revolved around angels. However, aside from the term itself, wing imagery, and a villain who is a Lucifer/Antichrist-like figure, it was wholly separate from the Christian reverence of these figures (by comparison, when the series was adapted into its corresponding Power Rangers series, Power Rangers Megaforce, the references to angels were cut out, so as not to offend the religious). This presence is unsurprising when viewed in a postcolonial context; Christian missionaries spread around the world, so some instance of Christianity in a country is expected.

However, in countries such as Japan, Christianity is not as prominent, so it would make sense that horror from those countries would focus more on beliefs such as Shintoism, Buddhism, and other faiths and legends. The Eastern setting and imagery of such films makes use of the cultural symbols of the countries they are made in, the same way that Western audiences understand Christian imagery due to its prevalence. Within the United States, there is a push for more diversity in film, so logically this demand would also entail films (horror or otherwise) that reflect the diverse cultural and ethnic background of many Americans. I don’t think that means there will be less Christian-themed horror films, but simply that there may be more horror films that use non-Christian themes (ideally produced by people who are culturally connected to or experts on those subjects).

Anya Novak (contributor)

Atheism and monstrous religion is prominent in H. P. Lovecraft’s work and cinematic adaptations, but how does it feature in the wider scope of horror films?

Lovecraft’s works speak to a core fear in our hearts, not only of worlds beyond our own, but of the ultimate insignificance of our own world. Stephen King puts it far more succinctly than I ever could in his book Danse Macabre, “The best of (his stories) makes us feel the size of the universe we hang suspended in, and suggest shadowy forces that could destroy us all if they so much as grunted in their sleep” (2011, p. 65).

The fictional gods in these stories are terrifying, but alongside them is the dreadful realization that the paltry deities that we’ve come up with since the dawn of man are nothing more than arrogant projections. Nothing matters, no one is coming to help us, and we are at the mercy of something tremendous and indifferent. Regardless of your religious beliefs, the prospect is abominable. It’s this theme that spans across the last century of horror films even when Lovecraft wasn’t involved. The Void (2016), Hellraiser (1987), The Endless (2017), Resolution (2012), Event Horizon (1997), The House by the Cemetery (1981), The Mist (2007), even genre-straddling kaiju films like the Cloverfield series all speak to these realist themes and make monstrosities of them. The very basis of cosmicism (like that of Lovecraft’s stories) is man’s struggle to comprehend his place in the grand universe, and what better genre to examine that struggle than horror?

Mysticism

My chapter references many films that are both Lovecraft-tangential and direct adaptations of his work, with a central focus on From Beyond (1986) and In the Mouth of Madness (1994) for their emphasis on (anti)religious themes. Amid all of the horror films that find monstrosity in religion and zealotry, cosmicism’s lack of belief is a jarring contrast that is nonetheless terrifying in its unflinching amorality, hence its unwavering popularity in the horror genre. This chapter, in its atheistic focus, serves to provide a counterbalance to the religious lens being applied to horror cinema in Scared Sacred.

Dr LMK Sheppard (contributor)

Your chapter in Scared Sacred focuses on The Omen (1976) as a product and agent of New Hollywood Horror’s neo-liberal and conservative values. Can you open this discussion to the contemporary landscape of horror?

The Omen (1976) is an example of New Hollywood Horror Cinema which, like the larger filmic cycle of which it is a part, functions as a product of and an agent for the dissemination of contemporaneous debates surrounding liberal and conservative values. These concerns arose during the late 1960s and 1970s era, when modernism gave way to the postmodern, and challenged the extent to which historic grand narratives such as the family and the Church continued to function as mechanisms of social stabilization, exploring whether these institutions were in fact culturally and individually stultifying.  

Far from being rendered irrelevant or passé in the current socio-political post-millennial climate, this discussion is in many ways still being foregrounded as the contemporary political and cultural landscape continues to engage with similar neo-liberal/conservative debates involving familial cohesion, gender roles, and religious affiliations. Certainly, the 2016 United States election saw such concerns being brought to the fore, ironically, calling into the limelight the self-same proponents of the aforementioned conflagrations arguably brought about by the equal rights movement and the Vietnam War. According to an article recently published in the New York Times, “Even before Mr. Trump took the oath of office… the organizers of the Woman’s March on Washington released a list of 28 “revolutionary leaders who paved the way for us to march”, including Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem and Malala Yousafzai” (Chozik, 31 January 2018). The election fuelled the fire of debates surrounding equal rights already incendiary due to the dogmas surrounding war on terror, which linked insurgency and terrorism to race, not to mention religion. In an increasingly secular society, affiliations of faith are, more often than not, regarded as dangerous as religious fundamentalism continues to take centre stage, inextricably associated with terrorism in the media.  

According to an article published in The Guardian, a British publication considered to hold a liberal slant, “Since 2001 religious extremism has overtaken national separatism to become the main driver of terrorist attacks around the world, according to the Global Terrorism Index” (Arnett, 18 November 2014). Muslims are not the only faithful followers that are falling prey to cultural condemnation. Ironically, even as the Catholic Church and Pope Francis seem to be moving toward a more inclusive liberal agenda not seen since the Second Vatican Council, Christianity is, much like its Muslim counterpart, often conflated with fundamentalism within the press. Returning to election debates, Tim Rymel of the Huffington Post asserts, “Most of the popular Republican candidates in the 2016 presidential election claimed God told them to run for president. What they share in common is a Christianity, which is historically racist, homophobic, xenophobic and exclusive. It is a form of Christian Sharia law, which forces those who believe differently into strict adherence to their version of “religious freedom”” (1 August 2017). Thus, to have strong religious ties, to claim to be either Muslim or Christian, could be considered dangerous at this political moment—once again opening up an even stronger debate as to the role that religion should play and indeed if it should play any role at all. Rather than being scared sacred, we might be becoming scared secular….  

Just like with New Hollywood Horror, it seems as though this genre is still at the foreground of disseminating these debates. One need look no further that the hugely popular American Horror Story’s ‘Cult’ series and its examination of post-election fears surrounding the maintenance of such liberal rights as gay marriage, and gender/racial equality, while equally questioning the power of conservative institutions such as familial bonds, religion and other such traditional historical legacies.  

Amanda Reyes (contributor)

How has the medium of television specifically utilized the theme of religion in made-for-television films that can be categorised as horror?

While many of the made-for-television films that tackled religious issues were produced as dramas, I feel they work well in the horror genre because they are tapping into cultural anxieties. The television film was a tool that was used to handle hot-button topics in a timely manner (since they were produced rather quickly and aired almost immediately after they were shot), and they often played on current tensions, creating their own air of an unease and fear that something malicious was going to move into our domestic spaces, our homes. 

As a tool for mass consumption, the television film is at its most influential when working with images of domestic spaces and family. Concentrating on the television films Can Ellen Be Saved (1974) and Blinded by the Light (1980), my Scared Sacred chapter explores the ways in which cults are portrayed as symbols of the anxieties that arose during an era of rising divorce rates and broken homes, and how the television film employs those images as a tool to reinforce the nuclear family, which is treated as the ultimate iconography of a higher power.

Erin Thompson (co-editor and contributor)

How does religion influence both the horror of family crisis, and resolution, in your chapters?

Religion and familial relationships are the common denominators of all four films I’m covering across my two Scared Sacred chapters: Onibaba (1964), The Amityville Horror (1979), Nang Nak (1999) and When the Lights Went Out (2012). Onibaba features a mother-in-law that doesn’t want to lose the only family she has: her late son’s wife; The Amityville Horror sees a brand-new blended family trying to navigate their fresh start together; Nang Nak has a soldier returning home from war to a wife and newborn; and When the Lights Went Out features a cash-strapped family moving into council housing to get ahead in life.

Occultism

Each scenario is tough enough as it is, and is further complicated as each family is dysfunctional in their own right. A normal, stressful situation like buying a new house or processing grief makes these people prime targets for something supernatural to swoop in, gain their trust and worm into their world. That’s one of the staples of the horror genre: take a normal, relatable situation and throw a wrench into it, whether it’s a ghost or a masked man with a knife that keeps getting back up. It’s what gives the characters depth, and makes the story so much more terrifying to the audience.

The core integration of religion and the supernatural into the mix of each film causes a crisis that pushes these families to their limits. At the same time, religion is the make-or-break factor for each unit: they can either use religion to do harm or affirm both their faith and their love for one another. My chapters explore this family bond, and how religion can either help or hinder the family unit.

Jeremy Thompson (illustrator)

What is your background and can you tell us about your process for producing the artwork for Scared Sacred?

As a self-taught artist, I was fed a steady diet of comic books, afternoon cartoons, science fiction, and horror growing up. During this time I was inspired by artists such as Frank Frazetta, Frederic Remington, Bob Ross, Bernie Wrightson and Jim Lee. I think you can see that influence in my work.

I designed the original cover artwork for Scared Sacred, and am offering horror-fied portraits as crowdfunder rewards, in which supporters choose a desired photo/image and receive a digital and hard copy original pencil sketch on Strathmore smooth watercolor paper—in which they and/or a loved one have been horror-fied as the undead…

The process for creating the original design for the cover started with the premise of taking the Lament Configuration—of course, based on designs from the late, great Simon Sayce—and melding it with the most sacred of Christian symbols. I wanted to make it look as if it had transformed itself while being manipulated by some poor soul. Once the overall image was agreed I started laying out the design. I spent a couple of evenings with a pencil and a straight edge making sure everything was precisely sized. At that point, I set the piece aside and drafted a couple of colour test pieces to decide how I would apply the colours and layer the textures to create the overall illusion of depth in both the cross itself and the background. From there the piece was completed over the course of several sessions, using pencil, PigmaMicron ink pens, Copic Markers, and Prismacolor pencils on Strathmore Bristol paper. Once I felt it was close to done I shelved it and stepped away from it for a few days. I came back to it with a fresh perspective and made the final enhancements.

Horror-fied portrait perk_Image 1

Each horror-fied portrait starts with a conversation with the client. Sometimes they have a specific image that they want me to work from, and other times I have them send me a handful of photos that I use as a reference. From there I work on some ideas and share them with the client to determine which one we both like best. I use a handful of different techniques to achieve a good likeness of the subject and then begin applying the elements that will create the final horrific composition. Over the course of a couple of sessions I build the values and details until I’m satisfied with the results—and hopefully so is the client!

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