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Horror films have a complicated and rich history with christian themes and influences, but how healthy is it for audiences watching?
September 24, 2023
“The Nun II” has little to show for itself except for its repetitive jump scares — but could it also be a danger to your soul?
Christians have a complicated relationship with the horror genre. On the one hand, horror movies are one of the few types of Hollywood films that unapologetically treat Christianity (particularly Catholicism) as good.
“The Exorcist” remains one of the most successful and acclaimed movies of all time. More recently, “The Conjuring” franchise — about a wholesome husband and wife duo who fight demons for the Catholic Church in the 1970s and related spinoffs about the monsters they’ve fought — has more reverent references to Jesus than almost any movie I can think of in recent memory (even more than many faith-based films).
The Catholic film critic Deacon Steven Greydanus once mentioned that one of the few places where you can find substantial positive Catholic representation was inhorror films.
On the other hand, a great many Christians think horror films are harmful. They argue that seeing these compelling and arresting depictions of fake evil desensitizes you to real evil and makes you more likely to be possessed by demons. This is especially true for movies involving demonic possession.A Catholic priest in the Philippines has warned people about watching horror movies because he had to free a woman from demons who inhabited her after seeing “The Nun” and “Twilight” movies.
The renaissance of horror
None of this has prevented the horror genre from being a reliably profitable box office draw, especially this time of year. The genre is consistently one thehighest grossing in proportion to its budget. This has continued with “The Nun II,” which has had had an extremely successful opening weekend,nabbing the No. 1 spot at the box office this past weekend. “The Nun II” is set four years after the first film. It follows Sister Irene as she once again is called upon to do battle with the habit-garbed demon Valak.
The “Conjuring” films are an interesting part of the general renaissance of horror films that has gone on in recent years. Unlike films like “Hereditary” or “Get Out,” which revitalized the genre by using fear as a metaphor for psychological or social issues like grief and racism, “The Conjuring” and its spinoffs focused squarely on giving the audience the scares.
“People wanted more violence” Chaves told EW, describing the reaction of “The Nun II” test audiences. “There was already a good degree of violence and gore in the movie, but people wanted more of it. So, we did a little bit of additional photography and we ramped that up. It just goes to show how audiences are always changing, evolving. Even in the earliest version, it was more (violent) than what was in your traditional Conjuring movie. I think horror audiences have been on this journey, this horror renaissance, where they've seen a lot of horror movies, they've seen a lot of violence. It's something they wanted more of and we gladly gave it.”
Unpacking demonic influences
Alyssa Plock, aYouTube film critic who tries to help Christians unpack the messages in the movies and TV shows they watch, talked to Religion Unplugged about why she warns people about watching horror movies. This is what she said:
"Yes, watching demonic things in movies can open you up to demonic influence and sometimes even possession, especially if the movie is void of the lens of Christ's power. There is evidence for this in Christian doctrine and in the universal experience of deliverers and ex witches and warlocks. Doctrinally, Jesus says the eye is the lamp of the body and if the eye is dark, the whole body is filled with darkness (Luke 11:34-36) The Old Testament also discusses the dangers and divination and witchcraft, which are often found in these movies, and in the New Testament, we are told that the power behind idols is demons (1 Cor 10:20).
Horror films 'can be tremendously valuable in our society — and Christian culture.'
The first two of the Ten Commandments put God in his right place with no place for idols or demons. Watching these movies, especially where the demons reign and are only subject to human authority and not the blood of Christ, opens you up to demonic teachings. I like the warning against being taken captive in Colossians 2:8 because it connects philosophies to spiritual forces. Even if watching a horror movie does not lead to possession, it certainly puts Satan's side in the teacher's position. And who wants that?”
She recalled a story told to her by a friend in deliverance ministry — a practice among some Christians who cleanse others of demons and evil spirits — that illustrated that point:
“A friend of mine tells the story of a man who came for deliverance from night terrors. One swoop! The demons and night terrors were gone. Only, after a month the dreams started to come back. So my friend prayed deliverance again. Again gone. Again they came back. Finally my friend asked, "Are you still watching your horror movie collection?" The man said he was. And my friend said, "I will not get rid of the demons again until you get rid of the horror movies, the source." The guy got rid of them, got prayer, and the dreams left for good.”
“The Exorcist” remains one of the most successful and acclaimed movies of all time
“The Nun II” is a movie built around basic scares and little else — even more than other movies like it. The best of the “Conjuring” movies spend as much time indulging in the wholesomeness of the heroes like the Warrens as they do the monsters — if not more so. Here, the characters are established just well enough that we care about them (which, admittedly, is a step above the first “Nun” movie) but not developed on much during the majority of the film. The themes are established and paid off, but little time is spent developing them either. There are a few moments where the visuals and the mood are effective and clever, but they are over way too quickly as well.
Instead, most of the movie is built around going from one loosely connected repetitive scare to another. Rinse and repeat. All this means is that if you’re here for “The Nun II,” then you’re here because you want to be scared.
This emphasis on getting cheap thrills from dark and disturbing material is what often makes Christians uncomfortable with horror, even if they don’t think that it directly causes demonic possession. Why would a healthy person want to be subjected to this? There is a genuine fear that indulging in this kind of vicarious enjoyment of violence would lead to people becoming desensitized to it and — even worse — potentially becoming violent themselves. This was a big accusation against slasher films like the “Friday the 13th” and “Saw” franchises in the 1980s and 2000s, respectively. And “The Nun II” director’s words about audiences wanting more gore proves that point.
This fear is not entirely unfounded. TheAmerican Psychological Association notes that some studies have found that exposure to violence in television can increase aggression and fear in children and desensitization to the suffering of others, and there’s good reason to believe it’s causative rather than correlative — although as a factor in causing violence, it’s quite small. Of course, this is with kids, not adults.
Horror as a positive force
Nonetheless, even Smith said he is open to the idea that horror can open you up to the demonic:
“I suppose anything can open you up to demonic forces. Art is no different. Art is unique, though, in that it is often meant to pull the audience in and allow them to experience what the artist is conveying. So, while I am hesitant to go so far as saying a person could be actively possessed by a demon just by watching demonic-themed movies, an argument can be made that, by requiring the audience to face this material head on, it could ‘give the devil a foothold.’ By dwelling on this material, the undiscerning viewer can become so preoccupied with darkness that it can begin to take root in their general outlook, to the point that demonic forces might be able to convince said viewer to do things they otherwise wouldn’t.”
'Man versus demons will lose,' she said. 'Man with God versus demons will win.'
Even so, he thinks horror films are uniquely able to offer positive things to viewers that we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss.
“Thematically, horror movies are uniquely equipped to overtly address concepts like good and evil, and what separates the two. In a time when these concepts are increasingly declared subjective, horror often takes the stance that evil is very real and can only be stamped out by good. Similarly, horror can tackle modern issues in a way that other genres can’t. While a drama must embrace subtlety in dealing with these issues, lest they be denounced as preachy, horror can face them head on, often without the viewer being consciously aware of them, distracted by sensationalistic stories and extreme imagery. While this is obviously true of high-minded horror, it is equally true of what might be considered a lower, more exploitative, class of horror.
For years, George Romero made some of the goriest, trashiest, most disturbing movies of their time. In the middle of the blood and guts though, he also explored human relationships and prejudices in extreme circumstances, forcing the audience to face – perhaps unconsciously – their own attitudes and actions towards those that were different than them.”
Smith also said horror films “can be tremendously valuable in our society — and Christian culture — because it is willing to take a long, hard look at the ugliness and evil that we spend so much time and effort shielding our eyes from.”
“The Nun II” is set four years after the first film.
Saving your soul
Plock said she’s more skeptical of what horror films have to offer — and more cautious of the bad messages they can send.
“What we watch is teaching us in a mild or extreme measure. The Bible says do not fear 365 times, one for every day of the year. In contrast, horror movies, and particular slasher movies, are designed to make you get high off of fear. This has a terrible effect on the viewer. The movie and you in your participation are glorifying fear. You will either learn to constantly be in fear or to never be in fear where some fear is needed. If you give demons legal right to your mind through idol worship, witchcraft or the lessons they are spewing in horror movies, you do have reason to fear them but now you are numb to it. You are choosing them over God’s word and lowering your protection.”
In more specific terms, she suggested people “avoid humanistic supernatural horror movies as they teach you that you can win this fight on your own, and you cannot.”
“Man versus demons will lose,” she said. “Man with God versus demons will win. ‘The Conjuring’ and ‘Nefarious’ are safer movies and do not glorify evil. They are dealing with the realities of a dark realm driven by Satan and his minions as well as the light of God that can overcome it. ‘The Conjuring’ can overplay Satan's power though. Deliverance does not have to be a hard fight. There is no comparison to Jesus and the angel Lucifer he created.”
Let’s play devil’s advocate and say it wasn't bad to watch horror films: Why would anyone want to? Why does anyone want to be scared?
Interestingly, people who love horror films have good reasons for loving them. People who love horror films do so because theyenjoy the experience of getting scared and surviving. In fact, people who watch horror films tend tofeel more powerful and capable of achieving their goals after they’ve watched them. This is actually extremely psychologically healthy.
If the Bible commands us not to fear, horror films might actually be a recipe for helping us do that.
The pushback might be that Christians shouldn’t feel psychologically strong on their own. As Plock pointed out, they may grow to believe that they are capable of standing up to the darkness themselves and that they don’t need Jesus to do so. One can argue (Alyssa doesn't argue this, but I have talked to Christians who do) that healthy confidence instead comes from embracing your weakness and wholly relying on Jesus for your safety and peace. In my own life, I have found that I have had the most confidence and peace that Christianity promised when I learned more and more to face the things that scare me with prayer rather than stay away from the things that scare me with prayer. But I can understand the other side to it.
Dealing with your fears by safely exposing yourself to them makes you mentally and emotionally tougher, which is why people during the pandemic who watched horror films tended to be less anxious than those who did not. In fact, sociologist Jonathan Haidt credits much of the increase in anxiety and depression over the past decades to an explicit rejection of making yourself mentally tougher by exposing yourself to your fears and an embrace of a lifestyle of running away from things that scare you. He calls this kind “fragile” thinking.
If the Bible commands us not to fear, horror films might — in many cases — actually be a recipe for helping us do that.
What about “The Nun II”? While I don’t think it spends enough time on its virtues, that doesn’t mean there aren’t virtues to be had. It is a story about good but flawed people who see evil in the world and stand up to it. But they can only stand up to it by getting on their knees and putting their full trust in God that He will act on their behalf. (It has one of the best visual third-act uses of the power of faith in the Eucharist that I’ve seen in film).
That said, they have a wonky view of faith — that it’s the faith that has power and not the person they have faith in — so no one should go to them for correct theology. But they are putting their faith in the right person, and when they do the results are clever and spectacular.
I still find it hard to see much worth your time in jump scare-a-thons like “The Nun II.” If you do, however, at least this one will point you in the right direction.
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