Idolatry, Religion and Worship in the Horror Film
Jessica Scott reviews Scared Sacred from House of Leaves publishing, a collection of writings exploring the cultural history of religion in horror...
For as long as humans have existed, we have used religion as a way to make sense of the unknowable, to take our most instinctive fears and turn them into something less terrifying. For as long as cinema has existed, horror films have attempted to do the same thing.
Horror and religion, then, are inextricably linked. Both concern themselves with the deepest, darkest questions of what lurks inside the soul, what awaits us after death, and who or what pulls the strings of the universe. Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion and Worship in the Horror Film is a collection of scholarly essays edited by Rebecca Booth, Valeska Griffiths, and Erin Thompson that explores how horror cinema navigates these questions and examines the interplay between horror films and religion.
Horror fans know perfectly well that horror films are a vital part of the cultural conversation regarding the most fundamental issues facing humanity. Still, it is thrilling and validating to read the work of each talented author in the collection as they grapple with issues of faith and philosophy within horror cinema, particularly as they affect marginalised communities. Horror is more than worthy of serious academic study, and Scared Sacred is an important and engaging addition to that body of research.
The depth and breadth of the collection is admirable. Though Catholicism is most often associated with religion in horror — even people who staunchly refuse to watch horror films are familiar with Max von Sydow intoning ‘The power of Christ compels you!’ in The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) — Scared Sacred does not limit itself to discussions of Christianity alone. It examines films both well-known and obscure from every time period and from all over the world, interrogating faiths ranging from Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism, Korean shamanism, and atheism to cultism and beyond.
The word ‘religion’ covers far more than mere ritual or prayer; accordingly, the collection delves into issues that are as pressing and as wide-ranging as such a loaded word demands. Scared Sacred concerns itself with history, politics, culture, race, and gender. Though topics such as reincarnation, redemption, power, misogyny, and bigotry recur throughout the collection, each author approaches the weighty topics with a unique and thought-provoking voice that reinforces the importance of such a scholarly effort.
As with any collection, the reader will find that some essays resonate more with them than do others. That is part of the beauty of anthologies and indeed part of the beauty of horror: there is something for everyone, and the work that speaks to the reader most viscerally may not be the one they expected. What is certain is that the reader will learn something from each essay and find a new idea or new approach that they can use to expand their own appreciation of horror films.
This is perhaps the most exciting aspect of Scared Sacred: not only will the reader gain a new perspective on films they have seen (and perhaps gain a list of films to watch that they may not have seen or even heard of), but they will likely add to the tools they use to appreciate the genre they so love.
Horror is a religion for many fans, and by contributing so much depth and serious-mindedness to the conversation, Scared Sacred allows for deeper, more insightful worship.