Divine Inspiration – Religious Themes in the Horror Film Genre

There are many sources of inspiration that the horror movie genre has regularly tapped into for script ideas, characterisation, treatment and symbols. Folk stories, myths, superstition, psychology, crime, even science fiction - all of these have been deep wells that horror scriptwriters and filmmakers have frequently dipped into with an abiding enthusiasm.

But amongst the richest sources of inspiration has been that of religion - religious symbols, rituals, beliefs and personages.

Why is there this almost instinctive affinity between horror and religion?

Religion has always been extremely comfortable with qualifying and elaborating on 'good versus evil', ‘light versus dark’ or 'life versus afterlife' themes. After all, the very concept of ‘angels and demons’ has its roots in religious teaching. After all, every religion tells believers that the strongest weapon against fear is faith. After all, every religion points to a world beyond the known and beyond the visible. That is why horror filmmakers have constantly drawn from religion as they take their viewers (and the protagonists of their films) through emotionally difficult journeys battling diabolical forces both within and without. That is why horror movies are able to use religious imagery and themes to resonate with audiences who, for the large part, already have cultural common ground in concepts of ‘heaven and hell’, ‘the holy and unholy’ or 'the natural and supernatural'.

Not all such cinematic attempts have been successful. But those that did it better than others remain amongst the most powerful and memorable in the entire horror genre - The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976) and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) being three admirable examples, with widely differing treatments and outcomes.

In the final analysis, horror filmmakers intuitively appreciate how fascinating and compelling religious themes can be. They also know that beyond the mere iconography, there is a much more fundamental illumination involved through eternal questions that remain deeply challenging – those of suffering, redemption and each person’s journey in between.

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