Thinking About Religion
Volume 13 (2018)

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Horror's Boons

Patricia Turrisi
University of North Carolina at Wilmington

This essay is the elaboration of a hunch about the religious value of horror fiction in American films. Horror films, especially supernatural horror, offer representations of the difficult relationships human beings have with their own deaths, the deaths of others, the afterlife, suffering, obligations towards others, free will, and many others that plague us, and are otherwise frequently assigned to religion to sort out. A variety of psychological, sociological and even biological hypotheses have been offered in explanation of why film audiences crave horror, but none have attempted to show the “immediate luminousness, in short, philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness” of the treatment of the dilemmas found in horror fiction (James 1902, 18).[1] An exploration of culturally specific styles of horror in India, Japan and Korea would further the development of the hypothesis. However this essay confines itself to American horror films.

I concur with William James that the term “religion” “cannot stand for any single principle or essence, but is rather a collective name” (James, 27). Furthermore, he reasons that “religious sentiment” cannot refer to a single state of mind derived from a single sort of religious act:

As concrete states of mind, made up of a feeling plus a specific sort of object, religious emotions of course are psychic entities distinguishable from other concrete emotions, but there is no ground for assuming a simple abstract ‘religious emotion’ to exist as a distinct elementary mental affection by itself, present in every religious experience without exception. As there thus seems to be no one elementary religious emotion, but only a common storehouse of emotions upon which religious objects may draw, so there might conceivably also prove to be no one specific and essential kind of religious object, and no one specific and essential kind of religious act. (James, 29)

In other words, for my purposes, religious responses may be understood to be associated with a variety of experiences, including the imaginary scenarios depicted in horror films.

In 1961, 32 percent of horror films produced internationally were made in the USA, and by 2006 the percentage of American horror films more than doubled (Lanzagorta 2007). Moreover, Lanzagorta notes an “exponential increase in the annual production of genre works” internationally from 1990, with 229 horror movies in that year, to 874 in 2006. Simultaneously, by another measure that many consider controversial, “aggregate religiosity” in America decreased over the same period (Grant 2008, 460-68). Grant’s study examines religious elements such as rituals and practices within communities of practitioners rather than substantive elements of religion such as understandings of deities, demons, the soul, mystical experience and otherworldly locations (Pasulka).  My inquiry does not propose that viewing horror films constitutes religious practice in itself. Rather, I suggest that the occasion of reflecting on horror focuses religious sentiment on the objects of horror. Nor do I imagine that religion is the only occasion for horror or that the representation of horror, religious or otherwise, is confined to the horror genre. Rather, my hypothesis is that horror fans may be seeking James’ “immediate luminousness” on their own terms, through conjecture upon the approaches to questions taken in horror films. Accordingly, I explore the appeal horror has for addressing substantial elements of religion within contemporary American culture, specifically what William James called “personal religion” (in contrast to “institutional religion”):

Worship and sacrifice, procedures for working on the disposition of the deity, theology and ceremony and ecclesiastical organization, are the essentials of religion in the institutional branch. . . . In the more personal branch of religion it is on the contrary the inner dispositions of man himself which form the centre of interest, his conscience, his deserts, his helplessness, his incompleteness. (30)


While biological, evolutionary, psychological and social theories help to explain the value of emotions and cultural perspectives that arise from viewing horror films, they do not sufficiently address the role horror films play in demonstrating the problems of persons as selves in a world in which selves are subject to “conscience, deserts, helplessness and incompleteness.”

The Adaptive Value of Fear and Anxiety

Randolph Nesse’s career in medicine has focused on “evolutionary compromise,” a concept that refers to chronic health conditions that have not been eradicated. Many of these conditions involve intense physical or psychological suffering, but they don’t always lead to death nor do they prevent us from procreating (Nesse, 1991, 2009, 2011).[2] For example, human beings have a very long set of intestines that extract and filter our omnivore diets effectively. An omnivore diet is positively adaptive since it allows us versatility in our diets and therefore, versatility in the climates in which we may live. However, human beings have so much intestine crammed into their abdomens that they risk hernias and infections throughout their lifetimes. The tradeoff carries a risk but the alternative of a more restricted diet is riskier. Likewise, humans suffer from anxiety, depression and a variety of thoughts that may be classified as violent but which must be restrained in order to live within the kinds of social networks that best promote our health and well-being. But, reasons the evolutionary psychologist, anxiety, depression and violent thoughts have a well-earned place in the defenses we have against predators, including those within our own species (Barrett 2005, 200-223).

Secondhand fear and the anxiety accrued thereby may be understood as an evolutionary compromise. We fear strangers because in our own deep history, strangers represented the most dangerous adversaries. Statistically, those who feared strangers were better able to live long enough to have offspring who likewise feared strangers. It may be argued that they still do. We fear the dark because our vision is too poor to see predators in the dark. We react with fear to loud noises or sustained cacophonies because they blur the sounds we need to hear in order to locate predators in our midst. We react with fear to facelessness or blank affects because our well-honed evolutionary abilities to “read” the emotions and intentions of others is useless unless these others have faces that display emotions and intentions. We fear bodily distortions such as asymmetry or skin or muscle deformities because in evolutionary deep time, we learned that such distortions were associated with disease and contagion. We fear certain kinds of landscapes and interiors because they do not offer shelter, a primary human need. We fear monsters hiding under the bed because in our arboreal past, monsters prowled and stalked us from the base of trees on whose branches we were perched above. It is tempting to hypothesize that horror films keep us in tone for facing dangers we no longer face in the same ways as our ancestors, but may face unexpectedly again now. In particular, we should always fear the corpses of the dead, for example, because they carry contagion and represent a terrifying public health hazard especially when we experience wars, epidemics, natural disasters, or, a vividly imagined zombie apocalypse.

Anxiety is a form of alertness to danger and only enters the realm of suffering when no apparent danger exists and we cannot discharge it in action. Depression leads the depressed to lay low with the effect of making them less conspicuous to predators. A reclusive target is a less visible one. Unfortunately, when we are not the focus of a predator, depression also keeps us from engaging in lively interactions with the world and prevents the kind of stimulation that human beings require to experience high levels of fulfillment. Most of us have violent thoughts in response to perceived risks. But the effort of restraining them takes a toll on the psyche. Horror presents an abundance of opportunities to experience exactly the kind of excess of anxiety that people otherwise wish to eliminate from their lives. People who suffer from an excess of these dispositions more and more seek to minimize them through therapy, prescription drugs and self-medication, so the popularity of films that provoke superfluous anxiety, depression and violent thoughts requires an explanation.

The Pleasures of Horror

Horror films frequently revive the dead.  Thus the fear and anxiety associated with predatory risks is prolonged and intensified. Theories about why we crave horror take into account the intensity of fear and anxiety experienced by viewers but posit a simultaneous pleasure or benefit. The most well-known is Stephen King’s “Why We Crave Horror Movies” in which he elaborates on the theme that they “appeal to the worst in us,” because “if we share a brotherhood of man, then we also share an insanity of man” (King 1981, 50-54). King raises the theme of anticivilization emotions that “demand periodic exercise.” In other words, the shadow will have its day, and “the best horror films, like the best fairy tales, manage to be reactionary, anarchistic, and revolutionary all at the same time.” In King’s work, the dead often return to complete their unfinished business with enthusiasm and merriment. Pennywise (It), Kurt Barlow (Salem’s Lot), George Stark (The Dark Half), Gage Creed (Pet Sematary), Lloyd (The Shining) are only a few of the host of dangerous and unscrupulous individuals who have remarkable powers of regeneration and generous supplies of malice that fuel their interactions with ordinary living beings. Could it be that horror fans desire the freedom of the dead in having nothing left to lose, or, the narcissism of the dead whose only interest seems to be their own immediate gratification? Infamous undead villains such as Freddie Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Samara (The Ring), Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th), the inhabitants of The Further (Insidious), and Chucky (Child's Play) are models of gleeful unruliness.

While such characters seem to possess little that makes life worth living other than their spiteful agendas, the dead can also appear as highly attractive and relatively fulfilled, or at least no less than their living counterparts. Ann Rice’s vampires are glamorous and powerful as are the vampires in the Twilight films and the television series True Blood. Malcolm Crowe in The Sixth Sense is a sympathetic character whose life as a dead man is more vivid than his life as a living one. The actor Evan Peters plays seven loosely related characters throughout seven seasons of American Horror Story, many of which are dead yet interacting with living characters as if they are alive. Peters plays an ebullient (dead) teenager in several roles, and though he suffers from amnesia, depression and anxiety, he remains attractive enough to develop relationships with living persons that are no more nor less fragile than those of any other adolescent. Season Five takes place in the Cortez, a luxury hotel in which every character is dead or about to be dead and regenerated. Peters plays an entrepreneur, the (dead) owner of the hotel. He consistently appears in a tuxedo, well-groomed and in charge of various scenarios in which he successfully manipulates the lives of both the living and the dead.  The other dead characters have fabulous wardrobes, indulge in exciting liaisons, and otherwise are unlimited in their activities as long as they stay inside the hotel. Though the Cortez Hotel is a chamber of hell in most respects, the lifestyle inside appears to resemble the high life of stars portrayed in Hollywood films. American Horror Story has evolved with each season but a recurrent theme is that the dead have lives of their own, some not as bad as others, some worse, just as in “real” life.  The “worst in us” in this series is never far from the best in us.

The character of Jack in He Never Died should not be omitted from a survey of dead-yet-regenerated personalities who appeal to the worst in us, though his appeal is more complex because he neither lives a materially comfortable life nor has he the freedom that accompanies a lack of moral conscience. Jack is ancient, as he reveals late in the film, having lived many lives since his first life as the biblical Cain. Jack spends each day sleeping, watching television, playing bingo and drinking coffee in a diner. He is weary of life, neither really alive nor really dead. Hired thugs try to kill him, but he plucks out bullets from his body and continues his depressed life in the same way until he meets a woman who turns out to be his daughter. Thugs kidnap Jack’s daughter and he struggles to free her in the midst of mayhem, murder and repeated bouts with death followed by regeneration. Audiences who find Jack appealing do so because (1) he is played by Henry Rollins, an actor who is tattooed, well-muscled and has a gravelly voice that is well-known to fans of several bands in which he has performed; (2) the fate of Cain east of Eden piques the curiosity of anyone who thinks deeply about the meaning of Genesis; (3) the disruption of Jack’s seemingly endless ennui by potentially meaningful undertakings is a compelling premise for a story. The initial conditions that brought on Jack’s migration away from Eden are universal to some extent – being the less favored sibling, momentary impulsive violence leading to an irrevocable and protracted conclusion – and along with his current malaise and despair, are an illustration of the worst in us that occurs as a result of a combination of bad luck and bad character. The initial pleasure of viewing “the worst in us” is to see Jack in his broken and humiliated state, but the pleasure by the end of the film lies in viewing his spiritual regeneration.

Horror Representing Oppression

The film critic Robin Wood wrote about the reactionary and revolutionary aspects of horror four years before King, in Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan . . . And Beyond.  By contrast with King, who looks to the anticivilization emotions evoked by horror, Woods argues that the influences that keep civilization intact are themselves horrific. “The American Nightmare” traces the evolution of the horror genre that, in the 1970s “produced films more gruesome, more violent, more disgusting, and perhaps more confused than ever before in its history”:

One might say that the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses, its re-emergence dramatized, as in our nightmares, as an object of horror, a matter for terror, and the happy ending (when it exists) typically signifying the restoration of repression. I think my analysis of what is repressed, combined with my account of the Other as it functions within our culture, will be found to offer a comprehensive survey of horror film monsters from German Expressionism on. It is possible to produce “monstrous” embodiments of virtually every item in the above list. (Wood 2003, 68.)

His list includes objects of repression and oppression and is as fresh an account as any produced since: female sexuality, the proletariat, other cultures, ethnic groups, alternative ideologies, homosexuality and bisexuality and children, all easily identified in horror movies and television in the present time. Wood notes that horror films resolve the dread prompted by symbolic representations of oppressive agencies by slaying the monsters to create a false sense of well-being. For example, the killer shark that menaces the town of Amity, is hunted down and dies by the end of Jaws. Regan MacNeil, possessed by a demon, is successfully exorcised by the end of The Exorcist. Against Woods’ claim that horror restores repression and oppression, it may only do so temporarily. Films such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Omen (1976) leave their demonic antagonists alive and well, their oppressive powers not only undisturbed, but nurtured within loving and powerful families. And it must be noted that sequels to Jaws and The Exorcist, including the recent television series in which Regan’s demon not only re-possesses her, but who joins in a plot to destroy the church, revive their monsters, as do sequels and remakes of A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Ring, Friday the 13th, Insidious, Curse of Chucky and others. While there are correlations between situations represented in horror fiction and the forces of social oppression, the popularity of horror films that demonstrate the triumph of these forces is not explained by his theory.

The Return of the Dead

While evolutionary psychology and social criticism offer clues about why horror fiction commands a contemporary audience, they do not go far enough. Let us consider especially one kind of event that occurs in horror films. People die but return from the dead in hostile forms in order to enact malicious agendas. Denizens of hell, neither dead nor alive, infest the living and propagate harm. The dead stalk the living. Often, the victims of the dead are strangers to them or only remotely related by location or family ties. One could propose that actual human beings do suffer from harm from revenge enacted by relatives, so fear of revenge, no matter how distant the source, is deeply embedded in evolutionary psychology. But evolutionary psychology, though it may shed light on our fear of revenge, does not explain the obsessive interest in the dead expressed in horror films. Nor does it account for the appearance of entities such as ghosts, shapeshifters, demons or other “otherworldly” influences, unless these are thinly disguised natural predators. I am unsatisfied with such a substitution because (1) thinking of horror fiction-induced fear and anxiety as a series of rehearsals for responding to actual risks does not take the actual content of these fears and anxieties seriously. It does not take into account the specific moral agency attributed to each entity. (2) This view regards predators, whether they are especially dangerous human beings such as serial killers or monsters such as sharks, demons, werewolves, vampires, giant spiders or zombies, as being all of the same kind, single-mindedly determined to vanquish prey. It does not attempt to account for the sorts of things that fictional characters, and by proxy, audiences, learn about themselves and others through encounters with these entities.

Religious Themes in Horror

The “religious” attraction of horror is not necessarily its rendition of events in religious history. The television series Mahabharata, based on the Hindu epic and The Last Temptation of Christ, based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, portray horrific historical or quasi-historical elements, yet neither should be classified as “horror.”  In these treatments, horror is one of several means to an end, drawing individuals to deeper religious commitment or simply providing information. Horror fiction’s claim to the genre is that it primarily deals with events and circumstances that are revulsive, terrifying or difficult to endure. A medium by which to portray horror is readily available in religious content. Religion is one of horror’s means to the end of deriving meaning from baffling uncertainty. Religion is enduringly irresistible because it does not avoid the difficult to endure but rather recognizes it in many forms. And, despite explanations within religion that attempt to moderate our deep discomfort with ourselves and the world in which we live, horrors remain and proliferate. Horror fans may be seeking accounts of religious concerns whether or not they recognize their concerns as being “religious.”

Horror fiction often focuses on life changing personal encounters with deities and demons. Frequently, interactions with otherworldly or invisible beings or forces lead characters to question and transform their views of the soul, morality, responsibility, the nature of reality, good and evil, and the meaning of their lives. It would be impossible in the scope of this essay to address every variation on these themes in horror films but a sample may suffice to show how horror films focus on the content of “personal religion.”

Films in which demonic possession is featured offer explorations of personal, metaphysical and epistemological concerns about the status of the possessed. The nature of a universe that includes spirits who can supernaturally usurp one’s identity is essentially different from the nature of a universe that does not include such a possibility. Spirits themselves are not susceptible to empirical proofs of existence but can only be detected through interpretation of the results of a series of tests whose foundations and justifications lie in religious tradition or folklore. Spirit possession represents a disruption of normal presumptions about the singular continuity of the person over changing circumstances. Films such as The Conjuring, The Exorcist, The Possession, Devil Seed and Constantine challenge ordinary expectations about personal autonomy. Audiences are invited to think literally about demons but in addition, audiences are given an array of means of identifying evil in new forms, shown risks and rewards of resisting evil, and presented with subtle opportunities to understand the consequences of corroboration with evil. Viewers are compelled to contend with their own consciences and with their helplessness in the face of powerful invisible forces.

Films about hauntings such as Poltergeist, The Shining, House on Haunted Hill, The Sixth Sense, Candyman, 1408, Hellraiser, and Burnt Offerings presume an afterlife for the dead. These films call upon audiences to think about their relationships with their own dead, the unfinished lives of the dead as well as the unfinished aspects of their own lives, and, by contrast, some generally unacknowledged advantages and privileges of being alive. While they refer to the past of their subjects, the life stories of the dead lead audiences directly back to their own present. They pose a challenge: You are here now. They are not. What will you do now before you become like them? Stories about the dead provide a ground for thinking about being alive in all its inevitable finite vulnerability.

Other films offer complex explorations of prophecy and faith that challenge the notion that significant religious events happen to others only or cannot happen in the present time. In The Reaping, Katherine, a Christian missionary, repudiates God when her daughter is sacrificed in a pagan ritual. We first meet her as she is pursuing a new career as a scientist who debunks paranormal phenomena. Events she witnesses in a new case lead her to question her rejection of religion and her subsequent scientific skepticism. Katherine conducts a scientific inquiry in a small town where biblical plagues appear to be taking place, which leads her to investigate a young, impoverished and neglected girl, Loren McConnell, who the townspeople generally agree is the cause of the town’s misfortunes. Katherine’s investigation fails to provide a satisfying scientific explanation for water turning into blood, rains of frogs, an outbreak of lice, or invasions of locusts. At the end of the film, the audience is presented with a far from clear choice, but one that cannot be answered through empirical observation and testing -- is Loren McConnell a messenger from God or a demonic entity? Is her designation as scapegoat deserved because of her own culpability or is she merely an easy target for blame? The possibility that Loren is truly sinful, possibly even a fallen angel, and not an innocent mortal, is kept open. An even more compelling question for the audience is how Katherine will now confront this question herself now that she has rescued Loren from villagers who have attempted to kill her. Throughout, the film invites the audience to reflect on the relation of prophecy to local events as well as to consider the Job-like question of why a small town in Louisiana should be the target of plagues. The Reaping challenges its audience to further reflect on how easy it is to identify and persecute a vulnerable individual, already an outcast, as the one responsible for events that might otherwise be thought of as due to bad luck or coincidence. The film is able to revisit religious questions without having to resolve them in a narrowly proscribed religious framework. It is able to freely pose religious questions not only outside the framework but critical of a traditional framework, so that the moral dilemmas faced by the town and by Katherine become living concerns. The audience is given the opportunity to reflect on broad metaphysical questions such as the nature of the universe and for what and whom it operates. Whether one adopts the perspective of Katherine, Loren or the townspeople, one is compelled to understand that seemingly private choices have consequences beyond the individual person.

In conclusion, horror fiction may be good for us for several reasons. It may be a source of psychological stimulation or solace. It may be a means of understanding social and cultural stabilization through repression and oppression. It may be the occasion for practicing adaptive responses to life-threatening situations. However, in distinction from these goods, the religious content of horror films adds to a storehouse of religious objects that prompt the exploration of questions that lie at the heart of our existence as persons with “conscience, deserts, helplessness and incompleteness.”



[1] In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James cites the criteria of “immediate luminousness, in short, philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness” that, if followed, demonstrate the value of religious experience regardless of objections to its explanatory value. 

[2] The development of the Nesse’s concept of “evolutionary compromise may be traced through discussions of illness and disease, including psychological conditions. See Darwinian Medicine articles at .


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