Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion and Worship in the Horror Film
Review by Kelly
Recently, I was given the chance to preview the upcoming book, Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion and Worship in the Horror Film. It’s an academic text that focuses around the themes of faith, spirituality, mysticism and more that can be seen in religious horror, a subgenre that one should treat with “delicacy and thought” (Editor’s note, pg viii). It can be considered a deeply personal genre for some.
As part of the preview, I was given the opportunity to review an introduction by Dr. Douglas Cowan - Professor of Religious Studies and author of Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen, along with four chapters from the four different sections of the book: Onward Christian Soldiers: Eyes of the Believers in The Conjuring (2013) and The Conjuring 2 (2016) by Alex West; From the Stake to the Sanitarium: Taming the Unruly Feminine in Haxan (1922) and Antichrist (2009) by Valeska Griffiths; I Believe in Death: William Peter Blatty and the Horror of Faith in The Ninth Configuration (1980) and The Exorcist III (1990) by Samm Deighan, and A Taste for Blood and Truth: Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess (1973) by John Cussans.
It is wonderful to see some familiar names in the table of contents like Alexandra West, Andrea Subissati, Rebecca Booth, Anya Stanley, and Valeska Griffiths as they are all incredible women and regular contributors in the horror community. There is quite a diversity in the films analyzed and themes addressed, along with a variety of voices. Though it is amazing to see that the majority of writers are women, it was also great to see some new names which means more writers to discover!
The first available chapter entitled Onward Christian Soldiers: Eyes of the Believers in The Conjuring (2013) and The Conjuring 2 (2016), was written by Alexandra West. I personally own both of West’s books, Films of New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity (2016), and The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and New Hollywood Formula (2018). I find I am constantly learning something new from her! West’s sociopolitical knowledge adds a lot to her piece, providing some much-needed context. I didn’t know a lot about Ed and Lorraine Warren, the mediums at the heart of both films discussed, so it was great to read more about them. When I watched The Conjuring 2 for the first time something about the film did not sit quite right with me. It felt different from the first film, so to read more about it from West’s research and point of view brought some peace of mind. The subtle, and sometimes stark, religious undertones of both films are unsettling to me and had previously gone unnoticed. So I thank West for her compelling analysis and for laying the truth bare. I wish more people would take time to learn about the Warrens as they, because of the James Wan universe, have been put on a high pedestal, and it seems they are quite unworthy of such praise.
The next chapter, From the Stake to the Sanitarium: Taming the Unruly Feminine in Haxan (1922) and Antichrist (2009) by Valeska Griffiths, was one that I was really excited to read. I will never tire of reading about the plight of women as witches as I strongly believe it will always be relevant in the fight against the patriarchy. Griffiths writes beautifully and I adore her sense of humor that comes through with her writing. Her comment of “bitches be crazy” made me chuckle. It’s refreshing to see this in a piece that holds such emotional weight. Her chapter blends historical and modern woman-as-witch themes with a look at a very old film (Haxan) and a recent release (Anti-Christ). I really enjoy comparing and contrasting classic and modern horror films, for it allows you to appreciate a new perspective, or even see how little things have changed. I would have to say that the Antichrist analysis is my favorite of the bunch as “Antichrist is a strange and wild film, a slippery and elusive nightmare ill-suited to the faint of heart or stomach” (pg 51). Griffiths isn’t afraid to go deeply into the historical context of witches, oppressive patriarchy, sexuality and more.
Next up was an interesting pairing of movies, with one I haven’t seen before: I Believe in Death: William Peter Blatty and the Horror of Faith in The Ninth Configuration (1980) and The Exorcist III (1990) by Samm Deighan. Early in the chapter Deighan claims that in The Exorcist the story is primarily about the relationship between a mother and daughter and the other two films, The Ninth Configuration and The Exorcist III, are very masculine, essentially lacking much of a feminine presence. However, later on, Deighan states that “All three stories essentially follow a male protagonist who is forced to abandon his reliance on science or rationality because it fails to help him find a resolution”. I found that to be a bit contradictory. Though The Exorcist could be read in different ways, I find it to be primarily about Father Karras and not about the women of the film at all. Deighan later goes on to state that Father Karras is the true protagonist and that the real dilemma of the movie is about him, his inner conflicts of science vs faith, which I definitely agree with. There are surprising connections between The Ninth Configuration, The Exorcist, and The Exorcist III, making a trilogy of sorts that I found interesting. Overall, I didn’t find this chapter incredibly compelling, and at one point I lost track of the central focus of the chapter as Deighan takes a detour into classic horror films with a focus on Dracula.
The final chapter, A Taste for Blood and Truth: Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess (1973) by John Cussans, was deeply engrossing and I was entranced by his words. Cussans combines fascinating and ever-important historical context in the analysis of Ganja & Hess, and by beautifully dividing the chapter into bite sized pieces made for a nicely flowing read. This was my favorite piece out of the four. Religion and addiction play major parts in Ganja & Hess which also made for an emotionally moving and complex reading. This chapter deserves attention along with watching the film Ganja & Hess as both are honest investigations into the mythology of vampires and the human condition. I will definitely put it at the top of my must-watch list because of this fascinating exploration. Did you know that Duane Jones, lead actor in Ganja & Hess, also played the infamous role of Ben in Night of the Living Dead? Amazing!
This sneak preview of Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion and Worship in the Horror Film has made me even more excited to get my hands on my pre-ordered copy. It will be available in February 2020 from House of Leaves Publishing and if this preview has shown me anything, it’s that this book will become essential reading for any horror academic interested in the themes of religion in horror.