When it comes to Christian propaganda films, most people think of the obnoxious God's Not Dead, or Nic Cage's get-me-out-of-IRS-debt Left Behind—criticially reviled assaults on the secular world that occasionally make a lot of money. But there's another genre that seems to have the same proselytizing agenda that champions Christianity and demonizes all other faiths (including the faithless): horror movies.
Every year we endure more of these predictably edited, laughably plotted thrillers centered around a young girl foolishly toying with the tools of Satan (usually a Ouija Board), becoming possessed by a demon, and then being exorcised by a priest who was struggling with his faith but now sees the error of rational thinking.
It's true that not all horror films serve as mouthpieces for Christianity—there are even a few examples that condemn church leaders—but nearly any horror film that touches on the supernatural will either condemn the faithless ( The Conjuring, The Rite ), frame non-Jesus religions as spooky (The Wicker Man, The Exorcist, Sinister ), or claim that Biblical prophecy is coming to pass (Legion, The Omen). Even slasher films with no ties to religion often dabble in moralistic tropes against drugs, premarital sex, or doing anything the least bit salacious.
"[Many filmmakers] see their jobs as being missionaries for Christianity, and film is their missionary tool. Fear is a missionary tool."
When I was a kid growing up in the satanic panic of the early 90s, I was never allowed in the horror section of our local video shop. We were evangelical Christians who believed in "spiritual warfare," the idea that angels and demons are around us at all times, fighting for our soul. Watching movies like The Craft or Bram Stoker's Dracula could be an invitation for demonic possession. Looking back as an adult atheist, I don't see very much distance between the message I was taught by the church (Satan is everywhere, and you need the Bible to protect you) and that of many scary movies. It would make sense for Christian parents to show these movies to their kids as a biblical version of Schoolhouse Rock!
But the real question is: Are the producers of these films intentionally feeding us Christian propaganda (the way Communists in Hollywood were accused of poisoning minds in the 40s and 50s), or are they just using cultural devices that we're familiar with in order to scare us?
"Many of these films are explicitly Christian propaganda with a missionary agenda," says Hector Avalos, a professor of religious studies at Iowa State University who teaches a class on religion and film. Avalos compares movies like The Omen to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ , claiming they both have an agenda. "Many filmmakers actually believe in the message of their films. They see their jobs as being missionaries for Christianity, and film is their missionary tool. Fear is a missionary tool. The message is that evil is real enough to be feared, and that you should view Christianity or religion as the best answer."
Avalos points to 2013's The Conjuring (the "true story" tale of Christian ghost-hunters that has since developed a franchise of spinoffs), which closes with text quoted from the real life ghost-hunter the film is based around: "Diabolical forces are formidable. These forces are eternal and they exist today. The fairy tale is true. The devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow."
The Warner Bros. film was marketed to faith-based institutions, and in an interview with the Christian Post about the sequel, co-writer Chad Hills said, "Conjuring 2 is a story told through the eyes of believers, whose strongest weapon is their faith in God. Our film allows believers and nonbelievers to travel their journey with them, and in some ways, maybe affect someone who is on the edge of faith, and somehow give them the strength they need."
Most horror filmmakers aren't so overt in their proselytizing, and possibly don't have any conscious religious agenda at all, according to David Morgan, a religion and art history professor at Duke. Morgan has studied centuries of paintings and literature that use religious fear to shape societal behavior, and while he agrees that there is often a moralistic finger-wagging to horror films, he doesn't believe that they qualify as Christian propaganda.
"The filmmakers aren't necessarily using propaganda, but are banking on a cultural currency," he said. "They know that large segments of the population have a cultural literacy about vice and virtue, and hell as a concept. [Religious tropes] are more of a utility with the aim to entertain people."
That's a fair point, but it's worth looking at where the cultural currency of demonic possession and hauntings comes from: It's either from the church or scary movies, both of which are usually absorbed in childhood. Children aren't typically skeptics of religion or horror movies, rarely objecting to either on the basis of science or rationality. They tend to believe unconditionally, and their convictions are cemented in proportion to their level of fear, which makes them the perfect candidates for the propaganda of religious terror of horror films. When I was a kid, my friends and I had no trouble believing the outrageous rumors about Marilyn Manson concerts, the scores of "satanic" murders sweeping the country, or the idea that so much as touching a Ouija board would result in your body and soul being hijacked by a demon. We lived in near constant terror of the evil that surrounded us.
I suppose to some extent the cinematic experience seeks to give us the awe and wonder of childhood. So it makes sense that horror filmmakers continue to utilize childish notions about holy water and crucifixes. But, as an adult, supernatural films that claim to be "based on a true story" are nothing more than patronizing. Believers claim there are many "unexplained events" in the world that prove God's existence, such as an exorcism where an uneducated peasant girl speaks ancient Latin, or a haunted house whose walls bleed "666." These stories typically come from horror films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose or The Amityville Horror, whose "true stories" have been roundly criticized and debunked.
This conundrum has far more nefarious implications than merely agitating an atheist millennial. While I'm forced to admit that 2015's The Witch was a cinematic masterpiece, it's centered around the same premise as The Conjuring, asserting that victims of the Puritan witch hunt in the 17th century were justifiably executed, as they really were murdering babies under the orders of Satan. These assertions have real-life consequences, as evidenced in the documentary Saving Africa's Witch Children, where torture, abandonment, starvation, and murder are inflicted on children after evangelical missionaries convince Nigerians that there are witches among them.
The same goes for any films involving exorcism. For centuries, mentally ill human beings in need of scientific medical treatment were systematically tortured by priests who are convinced that the sick are communing with a demon rather than an illness. What's next, a movie about how the Spanish inquisitors were really heroes when they stretched, sliced, and burned people alive?
The next time you are thinking of handing over $15 to watch yet another film about victims of a haunted house, vampires, or a Ouija board, and who can only be saved by a priest and his magic water, ask yourself why you still find this stuff scary—and what dangerous ideas you are financially endorsing in the pursuit of a good adrenaline rush.
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