The Pro-Faith Horror Film: Scaring Them Back Into the Pews

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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. Later, in both version, 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 this contrast emerges a clear theme – only the power of true faith can shield one from evil.

For this edition of The Laboratory, I take a closer look at a narrative pattern found in a small horror subgenre – the pro-faith horror film. In these horror films, the source of horror emerges from character conflicts between dwindling faith and reliance on secularized knowledge.

Defining the Pro-Faith Horror Film

“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 superficial images used to introduce supernatural themes. Vampire films, for example, use the crucifix as part of an established mythology, but not necessarily to advance any deeper meanings about religion or faith. In contrast, the pro-faith horror film is an explicit attempt to incorporate religious messages or commentary intended to reinforce the importance of Church, faith, and religion. The emergence of pro-faith horror in the early 1970’s coincided with the peak of the 1960’s and 1970’s Western counterculture movement. Conservatives saw the counterculture movement as an attack on traditional values from the structure and role of the family to norms governing sexuality.

The Rapture and Mark IV Pictures

Amidst the upheaval of the counterculture movement, evangelical fundamentalists began an expansion into film and produced the first faith-based horror films. Christian filmmakers Russ Doughten and Donald W. Thompson created Mark IV Pictures, which was aimed at sparking a renewed interest in Christianity among youth. 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 to keep Christians fearful and loyal. The film series, which included films with titles like A Distant Thunder and Image of the Beast, were based on the belief that the Second coming of Jesus Christ would follow The Rapture and a period of seven years of hell on earth.

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. Myers discovers the Rapture has occurred and 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.

A Thief in the Night

The Exorcist and the ‘Crisis of Faith’

Other pro-faith films offer less explicit moralizing than the Mark IV series but their narrative patterns offer a similar commentary on the role of faith and the Church in modern society. The Exorcist, one of the most controversial films of the 1970’s, provides the rough narrative template that guides most of the pro-faith films we discuss in this section. William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty 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.

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Over the course of The Exorcist, several montages of invasive medical procedures are juxtaposed with 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.

Prince of Darkness
Prince of Darkness

Supernatural Evil and the Failure of Science

Supernatural evil, faith, and the limitations of science are central themes that have emerged in several subsequent pro-faith horror films following The Exorcist. The most substantial representation of “science vs. religion”, found in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, constructs science itself as both deviant and a source of evil. While the film’s 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).

Similar ideas have been explored more recently in The Last Exorcism (2010) and The Borderlands (2013), both films adopting the found footage format. 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. Both Cotton and Deacon 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.

It is the format of these films through which the conflict between faith and the secular world is explored. Specifically, 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.

Borderlands 1

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.

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. 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  there is a lack of objectivity or truth in documented footage. That is, 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. 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.

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

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 and sound equipment cuts out in The Borderlands, the screen going black, leaving the audience only with Deacon’s voice as he prays .

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.

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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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