Five horror films Christians should see

Halloween is approaching, and for me that means curling up on the couch to watch scary movies. Below are five horror films that I think have something interesting or provocative to say to Christians.

Alien (1979)

If the horror genre seeks to evoke our deepest, most primal fears, then Alien is perhaps the most effective religious horror movie ever made. But it isn’t horrifying just because a few unprepared space truckers encounter a hostile extra-terrestrial; after all, the science-fiction genre has long prepared us for the grim possibility that alien life-forms will find us delicious.

But what if we pulled our way into the cosmos only to find that the universe itself hates us? Or is, at best, utterly indifferent to us? There is no God in Alien, loving or otherwise. The cosmos is one big Darwinian proving ground. The moral and spiritual traits that give our lives meaning are weaknesses that will ensure our (grisly) demise at the hands of cosmic competitors "unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality." A terrifying picture of a world without God, without Christ, without grace.

ExistenZ (1999)

Filmmaker David Cronenberg is famous for his fascination with "body horror" - films and ideas that explore (and exploit) our discomfort with our own bodies. Christianity's uneasy relationship with flesh (itself an unpleasant word that evokes sin and shame) is no secret. Believers have long struggled to understand the adversarial relationship between body and spirit without falling into the gnostic heresy that our bodies are unredeemable.

ExistenZ provokes and challenges this squeamishness in a way that even gory slasher films do not. Its protagonists must navigate a virtual labyrinth while tethered to grotesque biological artifacts, which interface with the human body in disturbing ways. We instinctively recoil from the flesh, bone and gristle. Why?

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

The idea of “pod people" may sound cheesy to us today, but Body Snatchers will immerse you in the fear and paranoia of a Western Christian culture standing (it believed) at the brink of apocalypse.

We may not fear communism with this intensity anymore. (Or is it McCarthyism that Body Snatchers is critiquing?) But the plot – in which the people of a small American town are replaced, one by one, by soulless identical copies - is a metaphorical template you can apply to all sorts of situations. What is the price of perfect conformity in political views, business practices, patriotic fervor, theological beliefs? Where does prudence and caution become caustic paranoia?

The Haunting (1963)

Eleanor (Julie Harris), a quiet protagonist loaded down with emotional baggage, visits a creepy old mansion accompanied by a team of paranormal investigators. The haunting (if that's what it is) begins with seemingly benign supernatural shenanigans, but gets more frightening as time goes by.

The Haunting plays with our perception of evil and our discomfort with mental illness - topics that Christians usually discuss only in vague and uncertain terms. Is Eleanor being victimized by supernatural evil, or is she simply having a mental breakdown? Does evil spring from our own minds or from an outside source?

The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist is the model for "religious horror," depicting spiritual warfare in traditional form: servants of God against the devil. Disturbing as it is, The Exorcist is a theologically affirming (if not exactly uplifting) film: evil wreaks havoc for a time, but is ultimately rebuked by God through His flawed, human servants.

What is most compelling here is not The Exorcist’s portrayal of doubt, faith and self-sacrifice, but rather its picture of evil. The Exorcist’s personified evil isn't out corrupting the rulers of the world, inciting war or oppressing humanity. It is instead content to ruin a young child - it’s vicious but also supremely petty. The film’s devil and its priestly antagonists understand that the frontlines of spiritual conflict are located not on grand battlefields or in parliament buildings but in the hearts of “the least of these.”

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Hi. First, I would like to say that I don’t regard most of these as horror films, though I do appreciate and agree with your assessment of them.
So, my first pick is one that isn’t strictly a horror film either, ‘Panic Room’ by David Fincher. It’s a psychological thriller and very good. The reason I would put it in there is that over the course of the film we get to see the ‘bad guys’ as more than just ‘bad’, that they have a reasom for doing what they’re doing, and problems of their own.
My next one is ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’, for the simple reason that I have read an interview with an official church exorcist, who says that in his view, it is the most accurate to how possession actually is.
And third, I would suggest ‘Candyman 2’. Again, one where we get to see the ‘bad guy’ as more than just ‘bad’-there are strong themes of justice and redemption. It follows on well from the first, like a two part story, but you don’t need to have seen the first to understand what’s going on.

I had a feeling you’d put The Exorcist on here, Andy, and I must confess it’s a film for which I have little love. I like your observation about the pettiness of evil that it depicts, but I still see this as the granddaddy of religious exploitation flicks. Even its most interesting aspect to me - the faith-vs-science subplot - feels like window dressing for what it’s primarily interested in: thin shock tactics. I have an affinity for horror in general, but this one rubs me the wrong way.

Neil, your point about them maybe not being horror films is a fair one. I’ll confess my bias towards science fiction definitely colors the list. However, I’d still maintain that for these movies, it is the horror of the story that drives them and is their most defining element, regardless of sci-fi or other trappings.

Great suggestions, by the way.

Josh, I agree with you regarding the Exorcist, actually. As a film, I don’t hold it in the highest esteem. However, as you note, its influence makes it pretty much unavoidable when you want to talk about religious horror…

“Five horror films Christians should see” is an interesting choice of title for this article. In the case of the Exorcist specifically, would you suggest Christians be sure to see the unrated version, so they can see the scene where Regan masturbates with a crucifix and uses the Lord’s name in the most vile and repulsive ways?

Hi Godrestored, thanks for the challenging question!

In general I recommend steering clear of “unrated” versions of films, because it’s easily used as an excuse for the moviemakers to fit in unjustifiably gratuitous content. (But not always.)

But I think (and correct me if I’m misreading you) that what you are really asking is, “Is it morally appropriate to watch graphic depictions of sinful behavior in a movie?” I don’t claim to be a moral authority on the subject, but the way I usually approach this is that I don’t have a problem watching a depiction of sin as long as:

1) it is important to the story, or important in establishing a character element,
2) it does not tempt me, personally, to sin (for example, pornographic content), and
3) it does not depict the sin in a way that inappropriately glorifies it.

So in the case of The Exorcist or any other horror movie, these answers would depend greatly on the individual viewer. One person might argue that the crucifix defilement is important in establishing the depraved, demonic nature of the film’s antagonist. Another person might find that it is simply gratuitous and thus fails to meet the above guidelines.

The trick is, it’s almost impossible to tell a story that does not feature sin in some way—a film like The Exorcist provides us with some very over-the-top examples, but you could similarly ask if it’s OK to watch characters exhibit greed, or steal something, or be rude to another character in a film. Those sins are no less offensive to God than defacing a religious symbol is. As is often pointed out, the Bible contains many stories with graphic and disturbing accounts of sin, which suggests that it’s the context in which sin is depicted, not the depiction itself, which is key.

What do you think? I’m guessing from your question that you find The Exorcist inappropriate viewing, and I’d be interested in hearing more specifically why—and how you decide what is and isn’t appropriate.

Hi Godrestored,

I think Andy’s approach as outlined in his comment is very helpful. It’s a more nuanced method of engaging cultural objects than simply making a list of “offensive” content.

In terms of The Exorcist, then, I think it’s valid if one viewer sees the scene you mention as important in establishing the depraved, demonic nature of the film’s antagonist (as Andy put it). Personally, I think the film is only interested in that scene for its shock value, which is why I consider it to be religious exploitation.

My guess is Andy included the movie on this list because, no matter how you personally feel about the film, it is good for fostering these sorts of important conversations.

I’d put The Descent on that list. And Event Horizon.

Both are pretty good looks at what lurks in the human heart!

Good choices both. I do quite like The Descent, and its lingering questions about how much of the horror really happened vs. how much is taking place inside the protagonist’s grief-and-anger-filled mind are really haunting. That said, it tips slightly over my own personal gruesomeness tolerance limit, so I left it off this list. (And yeah, given that I endorsed The Exorcist, that probably makes me a hypocrite of some sort.)

Event Horizon is an interesting one as well, although I think I liked it better in concept than in execution.

Hi people. I would just like to add that I have much less of a problem with horror than with films in the action genre. In horror (with the exception of the horrible sub-genre of ‘torture-porn’), it is quite often a fairly clear battle of good versus evil; and, as well as that, there is often the question of what an ostensibly ‘normal, good’ person would do under those circumstances.
In the action genre, often it is the case that the ‘good guy’ behaves in an incredibly violent way that is not much different from the ‘bad guy’ in the film-and the audience is supposed to not only sympathise, but cheer him on, as it were. The underlying message is basically saying that your behaviour is fine as long as you’re doing it for the ‘right’ reasons, whatever they may be. A bit of a generalisation, I know, but what do you think?

If I were to add to Andy’s list, I’d second Neil on “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and add “Fallen.” These movies have sparked lots of discussions about the nature of evil and the suceptibility of Christians to it. While I disagree with the idea that Christians can be possessed, I think it’s worth reflecting on ways evil can influence and spread.
JR, I’m a fan of “Event Horizon” as well. I also really liked “Mothman Prophecies.” It’s an interesting take on the angel of Death and fate.

To be honest, I like a little humor with my horror so I’m more likely to rewatch “Shaun of the Dead”, “Zombieland”,
Scary Movie”, and “Arachniphobia” this Halloween.

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