A few weeks ago I made a terrible mistake: I went to see Constantine at the local $2 movie theater. I left the theater wanting desperately to punch myself in the face. It would have been even worse if I hadn’t had free passes.
Aside from a poor script, bad acting, and various stupid Hollywood conventions, the movie completely failed to engage me due to its religious angle.
I’ve noticed, too, that I like The Exorcist less every time I see it. The first time I saw it, I loved it and was sure that its classic status was justly deserved. Each of the three or four times I’ve seen it since my middle teens I’ve noticed worse performances, flabbier direction, and less interest/scares on my part.
I think there’s a connection here: it’s religious horror. It fails to gain traction in me every time.
I read The Exorcist and its pseudo-sequel, Legion, in my teens and liked them, was scared by them. I found other religious horror powerful.
But I find now, in my late 20s, a decline in my ability to be scared by religious horror in direct correlation to my lack of religious belief/conviction.
The issue, there, I think is that religious horror isn’t effective in those of us who don’t believe in the religion at issue.
The Exorcist was, in some ways, a response to the growing secularization of the country and a new formation of religious thought after the 1960s.
But ever since ? despite a growing devoutness in the country ? religious horror has been a case of diminishing returns. Sure, The Omen was good, but its sequels were weaker every time, as were the sequels to The Exorcist (with the possible exception of the third film in the series).
And once you’re outside the major religious horror franchises ? those two and The Prophecy ? the pickings get frightening for reasons of quality, not content.
But religious horror still gets made. Hard to see why, though, when the box office results aren’t there. After all, who fondly remembers Lost Souls, The Order, Stigmata, The End of Days, or Bless the Child?
I’d wager that what causes these films to fail with audiences on the large scale is the same thing that causes them to fail with me: a film that relies on a background of religion to effect its horror will always fail when the audience doesn’t adhere to that religion (and the audiences for these films are likely teenagers and the less devout).
In this way, religious horror functions in the same way that archetypes like vampires, werewolves, zombies do in modern horror. They’re well-know, well-worn concepts that the audience already knows about and thus doesn’t have to learn anything more about. By using them, whole sets of stories, associations, and prior knowledge lock into place in lieu of character, plot, or the development of original ideas.
That is, in these movies audience are supposed to be afraid of vampires generally, as a category, because of what they do, not necessarily because of what these specific vampires do in this specific movie.
The same is true of religious horror. The prospect of eternal damnation (or whatever) is frightening in theory but it’s never going to be frightening unless made more concrete, more of a real threat.
And it’s even less of a valuable tool if the audience doesn’t even believe in the possibility of eternal damnation.
Now, I know the polling data and election results tell me I’m in the minority. I’m one of the smallish number of Americans who doesn’t adhere to any particular religion. So maybe I’m also unusual as an audience member. Maybe any day now we’re going to see a resurgence in successful religious horror movies (I doubt it, though. I think the country is too secure in its religion right now. Religious horror seems more likely to succeed in times of spiritual questioning and upheaval).
For now, though, I can say with surety that religious horror never frightens me because your God doesn’t scare me.