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Oh, The Horror: Holy horror

Hana Shafi

Thanks to horror movies, I could probably perform a perfect exorcism. I know exactly what demons to look out for, the ways in which they can deceive you during an exorcism, and how to request permission to do one. It’s probably not the most useful thing to know, but I have to admit that much of my religious “knowledge” actually comes from the horror genre. And by that I mean Christianity and misinformation about African voodoo.

I was absolutely thrilled when I watched The Possession (2012), simply because it’s the only horror movie I’ve seen with a Jewish exorcism. I felt like an overeager high school student, ready to take notes about how the Rabbi prepared for the exorcism. It’s really that rare—I’d been so used to seeing priests do the job.

Religious themes are an intrinsic part of most horror films. Ideas of pure evil, seeing the light, and lost souls are immediately tied to religious ideas. Whether it’s ghosts or demons, it’s connected to the underlying idea of an afterworld, a heaven and hell. Horror generally relies on Abrahamic religious ideas, but even then it’s really only Christianity. From overtly Christian horror films such as Bless The Child (2000) and The Prophecy (1995)—where Viggo Mortensen portrays a weirdly sexy Satan—to more subtle ones like the slasher classic Friday the 13th franchise (which hint in later sequels that Jason Voorhees has consorted with the devil), Christian religious themes are everywhere in horror. The problem is that there is little to no diversity in religious themes. Ideas of “foreign” religious practices are usually simplified down to African voodoo practiced in New Orleans, which is, more often than not, portrayed incorrectly and is rife with racism.

One of the major flaws with over-using Christian themes is that it makes horror movies predictable. We start to catch on to exactly how a demon can be defeated, and exactly how to rid your home of a ghostly presence. We learn that you slap a flew Crucifixes on the wall, read your Hail Mary’s, avoid locust swarms, and you’re pretty much good to go. Not only is including different religions in horror more progressive and diverse, but it’s also more interesting for the genre. The only thing is that if horror does choose to expand to, let’s say, Eastern religions, writers and directors need to make sure they’re not tokenizing it, exotifying it, or using it to essentially scare white people from the scary rituals of foreigners.

Adding different religious themes to horror is also very timely and would reflect the diversifying demographic of audiences. As the Western world becomes more racially and religiously diverse, our media needs to reflect that, and storytelling needs to pay attention to it or else plots will read as socially irrelevant. We are a diverse society, but if horror would have us believe we’re entirely homogeneous.

Instead of the same old “the power of Christ compels you!” let’s look at Hindu traditions, let’s look at jinns in Islam, churels from South Asian folklore, or Japanese Oni. Enough with sprinkling holy water; I want to see how lime or lemon is used in Hindu pooja to protect from evil spirits. And I want to see these traditions treated with respect, rather than portrayed like the backwards customs of the mystifying “Orient.”

Next week, I look at the elderly in horror, tropes of the creepy old lady, and how frightened we are of aging.

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