The Laboratory: The Pro-Faith Horror Film

In one of Stephen King’s earliest novels, Salem’s Lot, the master vampire, Barlow, confronts the small-town priest, Father Callahan, challenging him to a duel of “faith against faith”. Salem’s Lot was adapted as a 1970s television movie by Texas Chainsaw Massacre director, Tobe Hooper, and while some aspects of the confrontation are altered, both versions offer essentially the same conflict. Lacking faith, Father Callahan loses his struggle against Barlow. In the original novel version, as Callahan’s faith recedes the light emanating from his crucifix slowly fades; in the film version, Barlow merely reaches out and crushes the crucifix with his hand. Later, in the both the novel and film, the central protagonist, novelist Ben Mears, constructs a crucifix out of Popsicle sticks while reciting the Lord’s Prayer and wards off a vampire. From the contrast emerges a clear theme – only the power of true faith can shield one from evil.

“Pro-faith” horror refers generally to a small subgenre of horror film wherein the role of religion and faith are central themes rather than just as iconographic imagery incorporated to introduce supernatural themes. This type of horror film may include explicit politicized attempts by claims-makers to incorporate religious messages or commentary or films where narrative patterns merely develop common themes over time that reinforce the importance of Church, faith, and religion. The emergence of pro-faith horror in the early 1970s coincided with the peak of the Western counterculture, the cultural and social movement that emerged in the United States and England between 1954 and 1974 with its height typically identified as occurring between 1965 and 1972. The civil rights movement, anti-war and anti –draft protests, and the women’s movement were hallmarks of an era that witnessed a radicalization of youth politics. Conservatives saw the counterculture movement as an attack on traditional values from the structure and role of the family to norms governing sexuality. According to Anders (2006),“[b]y the early 1970s severe fraying had become visible in the fabric of American family life. Infidelity, divorce, and a widening generation gap were the common themes of a drama being acted out in households across the country: the meltdown of the American nuclear family” (p. 46).

Amidst the upheaval of the counterculture and emergence of the radical politics evangelical fundamentalists began an expansion into film that led to the emergence of the earliest attempts at overt faith-based horror. Christian filmmakers Russ Doughten and Donald W. Thompson created their own Evangelistic film production company, Mark IV Pictures, which would produce 12 feature-length Christian-themed films aimed at sparking a renewed interest in Christ among young people. The Mark IV film series included a loosely connected four-film apocalyptic horror series made with the intent to frighten non-believers into converting, and keeping Christians fearful and loyal by showing them what happens to sinners at the end of times. The film series, which included pictures with titles like A Distant Thunder and Image of the Beast, were based on the belief that the Second coming of Jesus Christ will occur after the rapture and a period of seven years of hell on earth.

Rejected by mainstream Roman Catholicism, the basis for the Rapture has typically been pulled from interpretations of several biblical text including First Thessalonians, the Gospel of Matthew, and the Book of Revelation. While end-of-times prophecies had long been a part of Christian fundamentalist and Evangelical faiths, the Rapture saw a renewed popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. A Thief in the Night, produced by Doughten and written and directed by Thompson, was released in 1972 and marked the first entry in the Mark IV Rapture series. The film revolves around Patty Myers, a married young Christian woman with wavering faith, who wakes up one morning to discover that millions of people have disappeared including her husband and family. Myers discovers the Rapture has occurred and those people remaining will suffer through the Great Tribulation where the AntiChrist rules over the Earth. A single one-world government known as UNITE (United Nations Imperium of Total Emergency) has taken power and requires all citizens to be identified with the mark of the beast (666) to signify their obedience to state power. Myers now lives in fear and peril as she struggles to accept Christ and face execution or take the mark of the beast.

Other pro-faith films offer less explicit moralizing and propagandizing but their narrative patterns, and the emergent themes, provide a subtextual commentary on the role of faith and the Church in a secularized society. The Exorcist, one of the most controversial films of the 1970s, provides the rough narrative template that guides most of the pro-faith films we discuss in this section. The film follows the plight of actress Chris MacNeil as she struggles to help her young daughter, Reagan, who exhibits increasingly bizarre and violent behaviour. Doctors, therapists, and surgeons all ultimately fail to offer any insight or help. The film includes several scenes and montages of invasive medical procedures and brain imaging techniques that contrast with “barbaric shamanic rituals” referred to by one doctor. In one scene, MacNeil sits across a large table in a dimly lit room with several medical experts who express their complete inability to offer any help. Chris MacNeil’s frustrating journey through the medical system is juxtaposed with the crisis of faith experienced by Father Damien Karras. A Jesuit priest and trained psychiatrist, Karras loses his mother and expresses to a colleague that he is losing his faith. Karras’ confrontation with the demon possessing Regan tests his faith; for much of the film, he clings to secular ideas and rejects the possibility that demonic forces are present. Even at the start of the exorcism, Karras offers the possibility that Regan has “split personalities” manifesting, an idea firmly rejected by the film’s symbol of faith, Father Merryn. At the film’s climax, it’s Father Karras who saves Regan by embracing his faith and sacrificing himself.

The Exorcist created a narrative pattern that has found its way into several later horror films – the troubled protagonist experiencing a crisis of faith who is confronted by true evil wherein the secular world cannot protect or save and only embracing faith can offer any hope. At first glance, John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987) does not appear to offer too much in the way of significant commentary – either overt or subtextual – on this subject. Like the incorporation of religious iconography in other horror films, Carpenter is largely utilizing the juxtaposition and potential conflict of “science and religion” to mainly advance his oft-used narrative device of the Howard Hawks tradition of a “ragtag group under siege from an external force”, as seen in his past work including Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing. The most substantial representation of “science vs. religion” within the film comes from its characterization of science itself as both deviant and a source of evil. While the scientists maintain that the idea of the glowing green container being something supernatural as “crazy”, the “Priest”, played by Donald Pleasance, places blame on the scientific community for “manufacturing doubt” and enabling evil to exist:

“It’s your disbelief that powers him. Your stubborn faith in common sense that allows his deception. He lives in the smallest parts of it, in the atoms. Smaller, invisible. He lives in all of it—in the sum of its parts” (Prince of Darkness, 1987).

Faith and secularization are central themes that also emerge more recently in The Last Exorcism (2010) and The Borderlands (2013), both films adopting the found footage format. Secularization is confronted less directly in these films as compared to past films like The Exorcist or The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The central protagonists of both films, like Father Karras, are ‘men of God.’ Reverend Cotton Marcus in The Last Exorcism is an Evangelical minister while Deacon in The Borderlands is a Scottish priest. Like Father Damian Karras in The Exorcist, both protagonists are suffering from crises of faith. Cotton is an admitted ‘fraud’ – though he prefers to phrase it differently – who has made a career of performing fake exorcisms, exploiting the lack of education, poverty, and religious fever of the Deep South. Deacon is a paranormal investigator for the Vatican.

Neither film features a direct conflict between religion and science. Unlike The Exorcism of Emily Rose, religious faith is not put on trial and there are no scenes or montages where medical science is tested and fails. It is the format of the films themselves through which the conflict between faith and the secular is explored. We will be exploring themes inherent in the found-footage horror film in a later chapter but for the sake of our discussion here we can briefly explore the FFH format and its contributions to thematic development in the horror genre. Given the cheap production values associated with this subgenre critics have justifiably bemoaned the overkill with which filmmakers have embraced the approach. In many films critics and audiences have rightly criticized the obsessive ‘documenting’ of events characters must engage in for the film to exist in the first place. However, several films have exploited the approach to develop a commentary on the role of technology and its use in the discovery of ‘truth’ or, alternatively, its role in ‘truth-making’.

The camera and the need to ‘document’ events are both central to the themes of faith and secularization in The Last Exorcism and The Borderlands. Both protagonists – Cotton Marcus and Deacon – are skeptics actively seeking to disprove the supernatural. While Deacon is a priest employed by the Vatican, his role as their paranormal investigator serves to feed his need to challenge and debunk what he views as ‘hoaxes.’ An alcoholic, the film does not explore the source of Deacon’s disenfranchisement with faith, but he clearly needs to ‘prove’ that the supernatural does not exist. Investigating claims of a miracle at small rural British church, Deacon and his crew set up cameras and sound equipment to record any supernatural phenomenon.

Cotton Marcus who has made a career of performing ‘fake exorcisms’ has a change of heart when he hears about a case of a young boy who dies during an attempted exorcism. Marcus has invited a documentary film crew to attend his ‘last exorcism’, chosen randomly by selecting one letter mailed to him. As he attends to his last exorcism, Marcus reveals all the ‘tricks of the trade’ to the attending filmmakers. In a clever twist on the standard Hollywood exorcism, Marcus’ theatrical ‘exorcism’ of a possessed young girl are interspersed with his revelations of all the slights of hand employed. Wisps of smoke that escape from his crucifix after he ‘pulls out the demon’ are shown to be smoke effects hidden in a prop.

In both films the camera is seen as a lens into the truth. Both Cotton and Deacon believe that technology can cut through the ‘smoke and mirrors’ of the religious supernatural – can expose mythology – and reveal truth. At the start of The Last Exorcism, Marcus illustrates how easily people who want to believe can be fooled when he inserts a recipe for banana bread into one of his ‘fire and brimstone’ sermons, winking at the camera when his parishioners mindlessly follow along. In both films technology, the camera, the found footage format itself, is the representation of the secular. One of the most common themes in the FFH subgenre is the need to document – we are compelled to film ourselves and the things that transpire around us because if it is not on camera then it is not real. The camera is a source of truth.

But in each of these films – and very commonly in the better FFH films – is the lack of real objectivity or truth in documented footage. Technology is a poor substitute for faith in both films. Despite the presence of cameras and sound equipment, neither Cotton nor Deacon can see the threats that are lurking in their surroundings. Their documentation offers no insight or truth. As each film progresses to its climax Cotton and Deacon are confronted with real demons. Deacon and his cameraman, Gray, literally find themselves in the ‘belly of the beast’ as they crawl further and further down in what initially appears to be a narrowing tunnel below the church. Cotton watches in horror as the local priest and townspeople deliver a demonic baby during a satanic ritual. Both skeptics suddenly regain their faith in the last minutes of their respective films. Deacon recites the Lord’s Prayer in his final moments; Cotton marches towards literal flames with his crucifix ready to battle the evil now as a true exorcist. Interestingly, in both films, as the protagonists find their faith, the technology they previously relied upon is “destroyed”. The documentary film crew in The Last Exorcism are brutally murdered while Cotton marches forward; the camera footage ends with no clear resolution. The camera and sound equipment cuts out in The Borderlands, the screen going black, leaving the audience only with Deacon’s voice as he prays (Note: The film’s original title was The Final Prayer). The secular, as represented by technology and the need for documentation not only fail but must be destroyed for the protagonists to fully embrace their faith. In each film, objective truth – or that which we can see and record – is limited. At some point, only faith can carry the protagonists to the conclusion.


Author: Andrew Welsh

I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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