With a movie like Se7en, there’s so much you can talk about. In lieu of starting his own ministry, an enigmatic serial killer named John Doe (this is significant) begins murdering people as retribution for violating the seven deadly sins: Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Sloth, Envy, Lust, and Pride. On some basic level, Se7en is a morality play inspired by the medieval literature and adapted darkly to modern times.

Andrew Kevin Walker indulges his serial killer and main antagonist as a kind of anti-hero. His absolute loathing for main protagonist, David Mills, as a wannabe super-cop who grew up on too many cop flicks is apparent throughout his interplay with Morgan Freeman’s character Detective Somerset. Somerset questions Mills motives throughout the film and, even as they develop a tenuous friendship, Mills naivete manages to disappoint Somerset throughout the plot’s development. By contrast, Somerset is careful, measured, rationale, and thoughtful while Mills is prone to outbursts, vacuous, and more interested in his image than the work his job requires.

Perhaps Mills’ most iconic moment is when he speaks to an imaginary audience: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a homicide.”

Perhaps Walker’s greatest achievement is setting up the Mills character to be destroyed by John Doe; but it’s how he does it that makes Sev7n one of the best pieces of religious horror of all time. Much like the characters in the medieval morality plays, Mills becomes wrath.

Se7en is a perfect screenplay, perfectly executed by David Fincher. Pitt does a perfect job playing the vapid starstruck echo of Serpico and Morgan Freeman is brilliant as always. Se7en is a masterpiece and that sloth scene will haunt my dreams forever.

Then the Devils are Really Angels…

As far as Religious Horror goes, it’s impossible to talk about the genre without discussing the finer points of Jacob’s Ladder. The movie features Tim Robbins as Jacob Singer, a mailman who tragically lost a son (McCauley Culkin). Haunted by the loss and his involvement in Vietnam, Jacob makes his way as best he can.

The film then breaks into three different narratives. In one narrative, he’s living with a girlfriend named Jezebel who seems to want to separate him from his tragic attempt at fatherhood. In a second narrative, he’s still married to his wife and his son is still alive. A third narrative which is linked to both (but independent of either) involves Jacob’s time in Vietnam as a medic.

While much as been said about the narrative and its various interpretations, the thing that makes it interesting is that it’s steeped in allegory and draws on the biblical story of “Jacob’s Ladder” as a “Stairway to Heaven“. In fact, Jacob is haunted much more literally by his past than most people have cause to claim.

The reason why this movie works so well is because it means something to those who watch it. For those in it for the horror gore, it features some truly disturbing scenes including faceless demons, surgical refuse, and nurses with tumors growing out of the back of their heads.

Meanwhile, his old war buddies are trying to figure out what happened to them in Vietnam, and end up getting picked off by one. At the risk of interpreting, the story is really about letting go and moving forward.

In contrast to much of the horror films that see production in any decade, Jacob’s Ladder leverages its mystery to tell a parable of a man who cannot let go of his past and is put through hell (or at least purgatory) in order to reconcile his (very literal) demons and ascend to heaven (one would guess).

In my estimation, it is the top offering in the genre of religious horror for its psychological acuity and its willingness to indulge its religious convictions.

Possession Films and Misogyny


It all begins with The Exorcist. Arguably, one of the scariest movies of all time, The Exorcist is masterful at taking a vulnerable female victim and turning her into an demonic perversion. The source material for Blatty’s work, however, involved a young boy—Roland Doe—not a girl. So why change it in the dramatization?

That question has haunted Blatty for decades. Careful observers of the book have noted that the main protagonists are two women who don’t have men in their lives. They are then saved by two priests who must literally sacrifice themselves in Christ-like fashion in order to rid the young Reagan McNeil of the Pazuzu demon that possesses her.

While I confess this was not my original reaction to the movie, and, in fact, I consider it to be the best piece of religious horror ever written, this Amanda Marcotte piece correctly notes that Blatty himself was very orthodox in his approach to Catholicism and decried the liberalization of his former alma mater, Georgetown University. She reads the The Exorcist as a reactionary diatribe against progressive feminism:

The symbolic puberty young Reagan endures turns her from an adorable — and asexual child — into a disgusting monster who spews fluids, pants, and does seemingly impossible things with her body. Just in case the grim view of the sexually mature female body isn’t obvious enough, we actually get to see Reagan masturbate with a cross. At that point, the message “female sexuality is Satanic” stops even being subtext and might as well be printed in subtitles across the screen.

She has a point. Most possession movies do feature young women who, in some cases, have been the victims of sexual assault and, in other cases, are sexually liberalized outside the norm procreative paranoid religious sex.

However, she loses me when she says:

Beyond its offensive misogyny, “The Exorcist” is also a piece of crap. The dialogue is laughable, the horrors comical, and the plot tiresome. Its weakness as a film is even more pronounced when you compare it to the plethora of genuinely scary and often sublime horror films that came out in era spanning from the late sixties to the early eighties

Yes, it’s offensive when held under the light of Blatty’s often histrionic displays of Catholic normativity, but it’s a genuinely frightening film. The room that Reagan occupies is itself the stuff of nightmares. When she’s on screen you do get the sense that you’re in the presence of evil. You also have the sense that the Reagan is an innocent victim of the forces of darkness.

Nonetheless, you get the sense for why the possession sub-genre in general has not aged well. Despite that, possession movies continue to be made with each one the degraded copy of the original Exorcist.

When writing The Revulsion of Angel Walker, I wanted to move away from the sorts of anti-women undertones that plague religious horror. In fact, it can be easily argued that I reversed this trend and targeted male sexuality in the same way that Blatty’s novel targets female sexuality.

I did this for several reasons. First, female sexuality (from the vantage of paranoid religious sex) tempts. Male sexuality in its darkest aspect coerces, punishes, and violates.

What’s more frightening that that?

Why is Religious Horror So Compelling?

Religious horror, or horror that contains religious themes, draws on the rich tradition of humanity’s connection with the fundamentally unknowable. Where do we go when we die? What is the meaning of life? How do we control the seemingly whimsical forces around us when they are utterly indifferent to us?

Questions such as these have ignited the imagination for millennia. We only have about 4000 years of recorded history to draw on, but throughout that span, the human imagination has shown both a remarkable confluence of ideas and an almost impossible diversity of ways of expressing those. What these stories signify and what they mean to us are deeply personal and yet they persist even as we perish.

For as long as their have been mythologies there have also been stories that have conjured out of fear. While the more cynical among us might claim that fear is the origin of all of our stories, but when we talk about horror, we’re talking about stories that indulge that fear. These are stories that go out of their way to provoke that fear. Perhaps because religion is so deeply ingrained in our cultural memories it is such a rich resource to mine for horror stories. Perhaps that can be explained by the fact that religion itself is built on fear. Perhaps what we fear most of all is that our life is meaningless, our passions are no different than animals, and the universe truly is indifferent toward.

Or, consider that religion focuses on death. We create stories to explain what happens to us when we die. The Greeks had the notion of Hades which was both a god and place. Tartarus was a place set aside for the evil and became the foundation for Christian ideas of Hell. Those who offended their capricious gods found themselves tortured in ways that were tailored to their own psyches. Tantalus for exampled was condemned to hopelessly grope for precisely what he desired only to find it elude his grasp at the last moment. There are two elements to this. The first is everlasting want. The second is the illusion of hope. Sisyphus faced a similar fate. He could never quite get that boulder over the top of the hill, but the illusion of hope forced him to try indefinitely.

If that’s your religion, then your religion is horror and for so many of us, that’s exactly what religion is. The terror of an omniscient eye keeping score under the threat of everlasting torment.