October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best religious-themed horror films is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Religious horror films, as most Western audiences know, is dominated by Catholic imagery, from crucifixes and vials of holy water to bibles with tattered pages and worn-down priests. The God and the devil are warring for our mortal souls, and the heroic priests on screen are the only ones able to fight in that battle. If you grew up Catholic like me, these films are terrifying reminders of what could await us after death.
But if you grew up with a little less of that signature guilt pounded into your head every Sunday, the typical religious horror may not be keeping you up at night. Thankfully, religious horror is much more diverse than it may seem. From tackling doomsday cults to Korean mysticism, filmmakers around the globe are using their experience with different versions of faith to create horror beyond the scope of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
So say your prayers to whatever deity you worship and dive into some diabolical religious horror films chosen by Brad Gullickson, Chris Coffel, Jacob Trussell, Rob Hunter, Anna Swanson, Meg Shields, and myself.
10. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Who needs God when you have Satan-worshipping neighbors who want you to carry the Devil’s baby? Roman Polanski’s 1968 horror classic Rosemary’s Baby weaves together themes about Christianity and the occult as the titular Rosemary (Mia Farrow) is reduced to nothing but a fleshy vessel for Satanic offspring. But here there aren’t any exorcisms or religious rites. Instead, crucifixes are hung upside down, and the Bible is replaced with books about Satanism. There is no religious intervention, and evil is able to run rampant through the Renaissance Revival apartment building. The end. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
9. Prince of Darkness (1987)
Let me first say that this late 80s gem remains a somewhat underappreciated banger from John Carpenter. It’s occasionally heady stuff thanks to a bonkers premise — the devil is green goo, and college students are studying it in a church basement! — and some of the performances are rough, but it’s impossible not to love the nightmare of fun that Carpenter unleashes. Add in one of his best scores, a terrific pairing of Donald Pleasance and Victor Wong, and some entertaining grue, and you have a terrific horror film.
The religious angle is why we’re here, though, and that’s one of the film’s brightest highlights. Its very nature suggests a world where god and the devil exist, but rather than devolve into bland exorcisms and familiar beats, it approaches the concept through funky science and nightmares of the future. The idea that what we call the devil is just a thin piece of glass away from entering our world is terrifying and thrilling, and Carpenter captures that possibility beautifully with imagery both grotesque and haunting. Still one the maestro’s best endings too. (Rob Hunter)
8. The Witch (2015)
Robert Eggers‘ 2015 directorial debut The Witch lays bare the hypocrisy of religion and the consequences of being too devout. Here, patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) and his family are expelled from their village for being overly pious and disagreeing with the relaxed practices of their leaders. Instead of admitting his own mistakes or trying to see eye to eye with his peers, William takes his family into the wilderness to start their own settlement. But here faith does not follow and the family begins to believe God has forsaken them. They are constantly looking for someone or something to blame for their misfortunes, never taking a moment to reflect on how their beliefs got them in this dire situation. Instead, they turn on their own family, specifically Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) who they accuse of being a witch. Their hypocrisy makes their spiral into chaos feel all the more delicious. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
7. The Devils (1971)
Where do I even start with The Devils? Ken Russell‘s 1971 film is a feverish, sensual, and disgusting descent into Catholic madness all centered around one convent and their exceedingly sexy priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed). The kicker: it’s all based on true events. Grandier was a real priest who was killed after the sexually repressed Mother Superior (played by Vanessa Redgrave in the film) accused him of witchcraft. Russell uses these true events and takes them to orgiastic extremes to create a critique of the hypocrisy and lavish lifestyle of the Catholic Church.
It is Blasphemy: The Movie as nuns rip out pages of the Bible and rip open their habits on the altar, while priests in shimmering outfits sexually assault them under the guise of exorcism. Plus, Redgrave, dressed as a nun who dreams she is the Virgin Mary, licks the blood off Grandier-as-Jesus’s nipple. It’s no wonder this film was banned after its release. Thanks to Shudder, the film became much more accessible and more people were exposed to Russell’s mad and perfect cinematic masterpiece. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
6. Kwaidan (1964)
Kwaidan is a 1964 Japanese anthology film that tackles, well, kwaidan, or ‘ghost stories’ about supernatural experiences in everyday life. Belief in spirits is a part of some religions in Japan, such as Buddhism and Shinto, a nature-focused religion that’s been practiced in the country for thousands of years. But one segment of Kwaidan, in particular, touches most heavily on aspects of religious horror: “Hoichi the Earless.”
Here, Hoichi is an attendant at a Buddhist temple who plays the biwa and is known for his singing voice. But when the spirit of a samurai starts to appear to Hoichi, a priest realizes Hoichi is in great danger. The spirit wants to take Hoichi to the grave with him, the priest warns. To protect the attendant, the priest paints a prayer, the Heart Sutra, on Hoichi’s face to keep him safe. The segment both illustrates the power of these beliefs as well as the power of the spirits that occupy our world. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
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