Sunday, October 30, 2011

An Atheist's Guide To Improving Religious Horror

I’m an atheist. I’m also a fairly big horror movie fan. Amongst my favourite movies are Nosferatu, Let the Right One In, all of Romero’s first trilogy, The Thing (Carpenter version, haven’t seen the new one) and the brilliant satirical horror flick Scream. However, there is a very atheist-unfriendly strain in many horror movies. In a good deal of movies, the supernatural, perhaps even the devil himself, is the villain, and if the protagonists are saved, it’s by their faith in Jesus and/or his father. That can make it hard for a non-believer.

This really got me when, recently, I bought a few Hammer Dracula films starring Christopher Lee. I only watched Horror of Dracula and Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, the latter being a sequel. When I saw that one of the primary protagonists was, in fact, an atheist, and in fact a likable and moral character. Given that the only somewhat prominent atheists in fiction in this more atheist-friendly day are a curmudgeonly asshole doctor and a serial killer, this is actually pretty progressive. I sincerely hoped that this would be a true positive portrayal of an atheist where the atheist didn’t end up converting at the end. However, the movie let me down in a very real way, especially at the end. Firstly, they changed the rules. In Horror of Dracula, Abraham Van Helsing, played by Peter Cushing, said that what’s needed to kill Dracula, played by Christopher Lee, is either sunlight or a stake through the heart, though crosses burn his skin. In the sequel, after the stake has been hammered into Dracula’s heart, a prayer has to be said. It’s a blatant change of the rules and a violation of continuity simply to put in a pro-christian message. Of course, the atheist converted at the end after outwitting and impaling Dracula. Up until the very end, Paul (the atheist hero) probably thought the giant cross he impaled Dracula on was something he feared for reasons aside from the actual existence of the god it represents. It took Dracula’s pet priest “redeeming” himself by saying the Lord’s Prayer in Latin and thereby ending Dracula’s reign of terror until the next time. Religion saved the day.

Perhaps I shouldn’t complain so much, but that did alienate me a bit, but more importantly, it made the film less scary. The idea of a persuasive and nearly all-powerful evil force trying to take power is what is actually scary about vampire fiction (and before you start with the “clever” dig at Twilight, it’s obvious that inducing fear isn’t the point of those vampires). When you add another clearly fantastical element that doesn’t exist in the real world (god) into the mix, it takes away from the fear, essentially defeating the purpose of a scary story.

The fact is, however, that many supernatural horror films can very easily be interpreted as atheistic, or even purely naturalistic, and this dramatically increases the quality of the film by making the fears more real. I first realized this with the classic horror film The Omen. [Note: There will be spoilers for a few older horror movies in the following paragraphs. I don’t care if it’s spoiled for you since it’s how the story’s told that’s most important, not how it ends, however, some of you might bitch without this warning. So, here it is.] Granted, this only works if you ignore the sequels, but that’s generally good advice for any horror movie whose sequels are not directed by Romero of Raimi.

The Omen, for those of you who’ve not seen it, is the story of a family. While on vacation in Rome, Katherine Thorn went into labour. Her husband, Peter, discovered that the child died shortly after birth and at the behest of a priest, arranged to have a boy whose mother had just died in childbirth take their son’s place, without Katherine’s knowledge. Later on, Peter was convinced the boy, Damien, was the Antichrist and decided to kill him. However, it is very easily turned from a story about the horror of having your (secretly adopted) child being a literal demon, to a story of the horrors of guilt, contagious insanity and cultism.

Let me explain. The first event of the movie combines several extremely stressful and scary situations. Vacations, counter-intuitively, are often scary, especially when visiting a country for the first time. Giving birth is a very scary thing, or at least I’m sure it is, and losing a child you wanted to have is infinitely more so. And lying to your spouse, especially over something so huge? That’s a massive amount of stress. Not to mention the issue of adopting a child, raising someone who isn’t your own flesh and blood? Peter has to bear all of that. And very shortly after the vacation ended, Peter got promoted to being the US Ambassador to the UK, which is yet another heap of stress. It would take a man made of iron to not let that get to him. But that isn’t all. On Damien’s birthday (I believe it’s his third) the babysitter committed suicide in a rather public manner. This event draws the attention of Father Brennan and Keith Jennings. Brennan is already clearly insane, claiming that Damien is the Antichrist. Keith was initially interested by the suicide, but when a freak accident killed the pastor, he was convinced of Damien’s demonic origins. From there, it didn’t take much to convince Peter, in his over-stressed and weakened state, that Damien was the Antichrist.

What it looked like to me, of course, was a series of improbably-yet-possible events that are easily explained without the supernatural. By the end, when Peter put Damien on the altar, ready to sacrifice, I was truly afraid-for Damien. He was a little boy pleading for his life while his crazed father tried to complete a strange ritual to kill the Antichrist. And how did he reach that point? The same way Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidians, Jonestown and the Westboro Baptist Church got to where they did: With a support network. He was breaking down from the pressure, and the theory that his son was the Antichrist held the answers. It didn’t take much from there…and the fact is that even the smartest of us can fall for some crazy shit. This is a real fear. Much better than some little kid being the Antichrist, something even Christians shouldn’t believe in (more on that at another time).

So The Omen is about madness and cultism. What about other popular religious or supernatural horrors? Well, not all can have this sort of treatment and still make sense (for example, the Exorcist) but here’s a quick and far from complete list of religious horrors that atheistic naturalism can improve.

The Sentinel (1977): A young woman develops a condition that, after several horrific hallucinations, leaves her catatonic-in other words, she develops catatonic schizophrenia, a truly horrific mental illness. Her past with her abusive father and suicide attempt only help this claim.

Hausu/House: The girls aren’t attacked by ghosts in a haunted house, they’re attacked (and devoured) by something more dangerous. Anyone who’s seen the movie would assume drugs were involved, given the strange things they see, but it’s really the ending that gives it away. These girls we just watched get killed are still alive, and “hungry”. After the crazy and terrifying highs, they are trapped in the “house” of addiction, presumably to some sort of hallucinogenic drug. Purely allegorical.

[REC]: The big reveal is that the zombies have contracted a virulent form of demonic possession accidentally developed by a Catholic priest trying to use medicine to cure demonic possession…I think it’s pretty obvious that there’s no need for a god existing in this case, despite the words of the filmmakers. However, it’s pretty easy to make it an allegory for religion.

Drag Me To Hell: As argued here, this movie is about a woman with an eating disorder. The film strongly hints at the events being either a dramatic representation of a woman killing herself to be thin, or hallucinations brought on by extreme hunger.

The trick is to find movies where there are no explicit supernatural events, or where those events can be explained (satisfactorily) as not being supernatural in nature. Given the creativity of those who read this blog, I’m sure you guys can come up with a few more examples. I encourage you to do so either in the comments section or your own blog.

Happy Halloween, everyone!
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