The Changing Face of Biblical Horror & Fantasy Films
Recent Hollywood horror movies exploit Biblical themes – but in a post-modern context far removed from traditional religious values.
Recently, Cinefantastique Online’s administrator-editor, Steve Biodrowski, brought an article to my attention from earlier this month and asked for my feedback. The article was “Hollywood heroes on a mission from God,” by Anne Billson, originally published in a publication in the UK, but I interacted with a republication in The Sydney Morning Herald. The article discusses the prevalence of “biblical themes” in many contemporary horror and fantasy films. The article is worthy of further commentary, not only because of the main thrust of the article, but especially because Billson is missing important dimensions of the subject matter that will be brought out in the following article.
Billson is correct to note that many contemporary horror and fantasy films draw upon biblical themes, symbolism, and imagery. In the early section of the article, she specifically mentions THE BOOK OF ELI, SOLOMON KANE, and LEGION. The influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition is evident in these films, and the others cited later in the piece, but this influence is not surprising given the long history of this religious tradition’s presence in the West.
Unfortunately, Billson largely fails to account for the cultural changes in the West and how this alters “biblical horror and fantasy.” Specifically, Billson does not address the shift from a Christendom culture, with Christianity occupying a more positive source of cultural influence, to a post-Christendom culture in which increasing numbers of people express skepticism of the institutional church. In the post-Christendom context, the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition is still evident, but it takes on a decidedly different twist. It is surprising that Billson missed this aspect of the subject matter, since her UK cultural context is very different from America’s in regards to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The absence of a national Christian conscience should have provided Billson with an alternative framework that would enable a different reading of biblical influences in horror and fantasy.
But what does this post-Christendom depiction of horror look like in contrast with a Christendom expression? At one point, Billson mentions depictions of vampires in horror in times past, and how “they were kept at bay with crucifixes, holy water and men of the cloth.” Yet this is the only sentence the author devotes to an important religious shift in horror. In the Christendom context, the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition is central, strong, and reverent. Good and Evil are depicted as a Christian dichotomy, bordering on the Manichaean; Christian symbols have great supernatural power (as evidenced by the cross and holy water in opposing the vampire for example), and the church as an institution with its clergy is presented in positive terms as agents of God opposing Satan and the forces of darkness.
In the post-Christendom context, this situation changes dramatically. I was reminded of this recently while watching 30 DAYS OF NIGHT. As the race of vampires continues its onslaught on the Alaskan town, they use an injured woman as bait to lure any humans out of hiding. When the ruse fails, the vampires turn on the woman instead. Realizing her impending fate, she falls to her knees and exclaims “Oh, God!” In response to her plea the lead vampire, Marlowe, mockingly looks up into the sky for any hint of divine rescue, only to look back at the woman and remark in matter of fact fashion, “No god.” In 30 DAYS OF NIGHT not only do we find an absence of the church, clergy, and Christian symbols, but the monstrous creatures deny the existence of God, or at least deny that a God is present who will provide any kind of deliverance to humanity from the forces of evil. The point to take away from much of contemporary horror is that, while it may be influenced by biblical and Judeo-Christian elements, the way in which these elements are treated is very different.
The postmodern context adds an additional twist that is especially evident in apocalyptic films. Billson rightly notes the popularity and prevalence of apocalyptic in cinema over the last several decades. But again, the way in which apocalyptic is depicted has shifted. In the 1970s, a film like THE OMEN provided Hollywood’s version of a popular Protestant eschatological scenario, complete with the son of Satan as the antichrist working through the political process to achieve world domination and thereby ushering in the “end-times.” Although many Christians would be more comfortable with those apocalyptic films produced by Christian companies such as the LEFT BEHIND series, THE OMEN drew upon elements of Protestantism in ways that would resonate with many in the culture in the waning days of not only Christendom, but also modernity.
In the postmodern context, Christian apocalyptic is still featured prominently, but the formerly inspiring narrative is subject to critique. This is especially evident in the recent apocalyptic-horror-action film LEGION. The underlying religious narrative for the Judeo-Christian apocalyptic in the past was that, after exercising great patience and love, God sends his angelic messenger to mete out justice upon a sinful humanity and perhaps upon the forces of darkness, which have gained power in the end-times. In LEGION, this underlying narrative is turned on its head. God has “tired of his children.” He sends his archangel Michael to lead in the judgment of humanity, but Michael rebels and fights on behalf of human beings against the archangel Gabriel and a fantastic horde of angelic warriors.
Even the title of this film demonstrates a postmodern twist. In the New Testament, the name “Legion” is the self-designation of the demons within a man exorcised by Christ. In the film, this name is applied to God’s forces massing against humanity. As Elizabeth Rosen writes in APOCALYPTIC TRANSFORMATION: APOCALYPSE AND THE POSTMODERN IMAGINATION (Lexington Books, 2008), “postmodernists have remained interested in the apocalyptic myth, even as they reject the myth’s absolutism or challenge the received system of morality that underlie it.” Postmodernists also challenge the received system of religion in which western apocalyptic finds its roots, that of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
In a final consideration it is interesting to read some of the comments from Christian spokespersons in Billson’s article, regarding Christian influences in film. One states that Christians in the audience will welcome any film that “sensitively explores the stories of the Bible.” Another states that “biblically themed movies that herald justice, compassion and perseverance appeal to audiences.” Billson correct notes that the horror and fantasy films she has discussed in her article do not exactly come across like Sunday school material, but even so she states, “horror and fantasy have gone all biblical on us.”
Perhaps that is true, in a manner of speaking, but as good students of cinema and culture we must be careful to distinguish between the very different expressions of “biblical horror and fantasy” in the post-Christendom, postmodern context. Film critics, and especially clergy and church-connected institutions interacting with film and culture, need to do a better job of understanding the the continually prominent yet changing role of religion in horror, fantasy, and science fiction.
Note: This article has been revised since its initial publication due to a message sent from Billson regarding a correction needed regarding the source of the original publication.