We’re almost to Advent, with Christmas on the way, so, why am I talking about horror movies? Let me explain …
Ghosts and Christmas
No less an authority than the 1963 Christmas song “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” says, “There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”
And of course, one of the most famous Christmas tales — other than the Nativity itself — is A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ 1843 ghost story, centered on the redemption of miser Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve.
This Is Nothing New
The telling of spooky stories during Yuletide has a long history.
“Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories,” humorist Jerome K. Jerome wrote in his 1891 collection, Told After Supper.
“Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.”
These days, ghost stories are mostly relegated to Halloween, a holiday with deep Catholic roots (so says the Vatican).
Even Christmas itself has a dark heart — in the terrible Biblical story of the Slaughter of the Innocents, as Herod murdered toddlers and babies in an attempt to rid himself of an infant Messiah.
The Catholic Heart of Horror
If you’re a horror-movie fan, then you know a large percentage of these films draw on Catholic theology and feature Catholic imagery, iconography and characters.
One can’t stop filmmakers from exploiting the Faith to promote movies, but what does the Church itself say about these films?
In his 1999 Letter to Artists, Saint John Paul II wrote:
“Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.” (Letter to Artists, 10)
Regarding this, from The Catholic Exchange:
This, I would suggest, is the key to understanding why Catholics can watch horror movies. Contrary to the belief of some, good horror doesn’t actually glorify evil. Instead, good horror highlights it and, in so doing, shows it for exactly what it is.
It shows that evil is not a good thing to be celebrated, emulated, or sought; rather, it is something we should fight against and try our best to conquer and escape.
Simply put, the horror we see onscreen should remind us of our need to be saved from the horror we experience in the real world.
Writes Catholic Deacon (and movie critic) Stephen Greydanus:
Like the medieval danse macabre, horror at its best can be an imaginative way of grappling not only with adversity but with the specter of our own mortality, and the moral and existential implications of the fact that we will die.
So, if a horror film doesn’t glorify evil or try to make it alluring or attractive, but instead shows it as something repugnant and to be resisted, it’s coloring well within Catholic lines.
Let’s Face It, the Church Looks Her Best Fighting Incarnate Evil
Deacon Greydanus opens another essay on Catholicism and horror by quoting one of Hollywood’s most respected critics:
“When it comes to fighting vampires and performing exorcisms, the Roman Catholic Church has the heavy artillery” is how Roger Ebert opened his review of John Carpenter’s Vampires. “Your other religions are good for everyday theological tasks, like steering their members into heaven, but when the undead lunge up out of their graves, you want a priest on the case. As a product of Catholic schools, I take a certain pride in this pre-eminence.”
The Church has been taking on Satan and his minions for 2,ooo+ years. In that time, we’ve developed theologies and rituals to make that fight as effective as possible.
We’re not alone in fighting supernatural evil, but as Ebert notes, we’ve got an impressive arsenal.
“The Power of Christ Compels You!”
Along with ghosts — movies about which may or may not have religious overtones — one of horror films’ favorite themes is exorcism.
As noted above, battling demonic possession is one of the Church’s specialties.
I’ve always argued that Catholic author/screenwriter William Peter Blatty’s 1973 hit film The Exorcist is one of the greatest examples of movie evangelism.
It follows an older, ailing priest and a younger priest suffering from doubt, as they take on a demon possessing a young girl.
Unlike such sacraments as Baptism and Marriage, which, if correctly performed by the priest, aren’t dependent on his personal holiness, exorcism is.
To fight evil, a priest must cleanse himself of sin through Confession — and he must believe.
In The Exorcist, both priests ultimately sacrifice themselves, but not before the younger one must overcome his doubts to channel the power of Christ.
It’s hard to think of a more effective witness to faith.
In an article I edited on Catholics and horror films, my co-worker Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., said:
By watching horror films, Catholics begin to discern the difference between fear and faith. They’re frightening elements within horror films, for sure, but the best ones, especially the Conjuring Universe films, end in hope and an increase in faith on the part of the characters.
That Gothic Sensibility
Also, with our veneration of the body parts of saints and so on, Catholics could be considered the original goths — or so said Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble.
A popular social-media personality — she’s @pursuedbytruth on X (formerly Twitter) — this former atheist is fond of the idea of Memento Mori, reminding people to be conscious of their eventual death.
Last July, a goth named — no kidding — DothTheDoth tweeted, “Be the reason a nun clutches her Rosary when you walk by.” Sister Theresa Aletheia verbally rolled her eyes: “Oh please. No one is clutching a rosary because you are a goth. We’re the original goths. But I’ll say a rosary for you anyway. [skull-and-crossbones emoji]”
Her retort garnered 15,000 likes and 2,000 retweets by the next day. Even DothTheDoth retweeted it. Some lapsed Catholics found their interest in the Church reawakened. Heck, after reading the ChurchPOP article, I started following her!
In the End, It Starts With You
As they say in the law, it goes to the question of intent.
If you’re going to a horror film because you think Satan is the bomb, and demonic rituals are cool, that’s not good.
If you just go to enjoy seeing gory violence visited on people, that’s also not good.
Unfortunately, there are horror films where the above is actually the intent of the film itself, whether glorifying evil or celebrating blood and guts. These films are not worth watching.
But there are horror films — even ones that seem silly — that ultimately celebrate the power of prayer and Christ.
If you go to a horror film to be entertained but also to be reminded that true faith can triumph over supernatural evil, then, more power — and popcorn — to you.
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