Religion has been and still is a main topic in many horror movies. Nowadays, it seems it has been reduced to a mere scare tactic. After all, how many movies can you think of that involve some sort of religious imagery? In this post, I will be specifically discussing Christianity and children’s representation. I believe religion affects the way children are shown and what happens to them in horror films.
The overwhelming amount of spiritual horror today can be linked to the surge of occult films in the 1970s. The ’70s saw many cultural changes, with many people questioning their faith as a result. A fascination with dark spirituality, the supernatural, and sheer superstition swept Western popular culture during this time. As a result, movies like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), and many more came about. These films criticized the potential hazards of blind faith in organized religion. These movies had something unique to offer the horror genre. Bad nuns and evil priests, demonic possessions, and cults are some of the elements in these films. It’s hard to believe this now, but these aspects used to be original in the horror genre.
Films like The Exorcist and The Omen revolve around child characters that are in some way “evil”. The Exorcist, for example, centers around an upper-class mother and her daughter Regan. Regan is a seemingly normal girl until she gets possessed by a demon who claims to be the devil himself. This film is known for the special effects of projectile vomiting, blood, and gutturally obscene language that were meant to disturb the viewer. This movie was so horrific to viewers of the time and as a result, “some audience members in the ’70s reportedly fainted after seeing Dick Smith’s grisly makeup effects on Blair. In some extreme cases, viewers even required psychiatric care,” writes Charles Cassady Jr for Commonsense Media.
Unlike The Exorcist, Damien from The Omen never does anything evil. Rather, other people commit terrible acts because of him. The movie starts out with an ambassador who spares his wife from the tragic news that she’s lost her first-born son in childbirth by substituting an orphaned baby. Throughout the film, the father discovers that he’s been conned by a cult of devil-worshippers into adopting the antichrist. These movies show the two extremes of religions, specifically Christianity’s, fears about children. The girl in The Exorcist is used as a medium for evil by a demon while the boy in The Omen is literally the antichrist.
Another connection The Exorcist and The Omen share would be the use of topics covered in Robin Wood’s “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” where he states that Children are always demonstrated as either the monster itself or the medium through which the monster moves through. A basic formula for the horror that these movies use involves normality (in this case normality would be religion), the monster, and the relationship between the two. Wood describes this as that which changes from period to period at society’s basic fears. Wood states, “What the previous generation repressed in us, we, in turn, repress in our children, seeking to mold them into replicas of ourselves, perpetrators of a discredited tradition.”
Wood’s idea of society repressing new generations into molds of themselves who seek traditions is the opposite of what happens in horror films. Many films, especially the ones from the surge of 1970s occult films, went against this idea of conventional values and beliefs. These films combated traditional Christian ideals and even showed the horrors of organized religion. Because this has always been a sensitive and controversial subject, and most likely will stay that way, questions of faith are often most successfully addressed through the genre of horror. Horror films can be used to call out the many downfalls and historical horror committed by those who believed they were acting on God’s word. Christianity has traditionally viewed children and women as vulnerable. Women and children are seen as something in need of protection. Horror films go against this notion and show the exact opposite. Children can be corrupted by evil and can even be the evil themselves.
One example of a scripture that shows Christianity’s fears about children would be Psalms 58:3. This passage states, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies.” According to this scripture, before a child is born, they are sinners. I find this very interesting. Christian culture seems to prize children as blessings from God. But how can children be blessings if they are portrayed as little devils? According to this, children must be lead to goodness. They are susceptible to evil because it is in their nature to be trusting and mischievous. The solution to this problem is for the child to be brought to God. In The Omen, Damien was born evil and in The Exorcist, Regan became susceptible to it and was saved from the possession by figures from the church. These two films show the two paths a child can take.
Religion has always been a taboo subject, and some might consider religion to be good and necessary. But there have been many cases where it proves to be the opposite. In the 1970s, the widespread sexual abuses committed by Catholic leadership had not been brought widely to light as they have in today’s world, and so these films might be considered early examples of filmmakers attempting to criticize the rampant corruption of the church. Religion is an easy topic in horror films because it has a dark past. These dark times and sometimes harmful scripture make great topics in horror films. Horror provides much caution to the traditions that affect us all.
References: Wood, Robin, et al. “An Introduction to the American Horror Film.” Robin Wood on the Horror Film: Collected Essays and Reviews, Wayne State University Press, 2018.
Cassady Jr, Charles. “The Exorcist – Movie Review.” Common Sense Media: Ratings, Reviews, and Advice, Common Sense Media, 4 Oct. 2006, www.commonsensemedia.org/movie-reviews/the-exorcist.
Susan Young is a freshman at Indiana University Bloomington. She loves painting, photography, and movies. She is a fan of horror movies and enjoys watching them with her friends.