Screen horror and Catholicism have been going hand in hand for almost a century. From Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 film “Hakson” to Mike Flanagan’s 2021 Netflix series “Midnight Mass,” horror films and television shows have portrayed Catholicism in both reverent and shocking ways.
“Midnight Mass” includes both perspectives.
Set in a small, mostly Catholic community, the series offers detailed depictions of everyday Catholic life. It also suggests a supernatural side to some elements of the religion, especially the Eucharist, or the central sacrament of Communion, in which participants are understood to be part of the literal body and blood of Christ.
For many believers, the Catholic ritual is meant to create a sense of wonder. For others, it may call for distrust of the religion’s openly mystical and supernatural claims and anger at ongoing scandals within the church.
In my experience as a scholar of religion in film, horror movies can paint a complex picture of Catholic faith, ritual, and daily experience.
Demon-fighters and exorcism
Many horror films depict Catholic ritual as a means to fight evil, particularly demonic possession.
For example, “The Conjuring”, a horror film franchise, fictionalizes the experiences of a married couple, Ed and Lorraine Warren, who are self-proclaimed demon hunters and lifelong devout Catholics. In the films – “The Conjuring”, its two sequels, and the prequels “Annabelle” and “The Nun” – the Warrens employ instruments of their faith, including prayers and religious objects such as rosary rosaries, for freed people. .
In other films, often with the words “exorcist” or “exorcist” in the title, Catholic priests are the protagonists in the fight against evil. These films often portray priests as martyrs, whose sacrifices can also save them from the violence that occurs during rituals.
In the 1973 film “The Exorcist,” which centers around the capture of 12-year-old character Regan McNeill, two priests give their lives in an attempt to oust the demon. The film has also been criticized for representing physical violence in such a way that it appears necessary to protect the young female protagonist.
Similar violence is questioned in the 2005 film “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”. In it, a priest is found guilty of murder after the titular character dies during an exorcism. The film’s narrative ultimately blames him for his death, if not the moral, as he considers himself to have acted according to God’s will.
Catholic icons and the fight against evil
Screen heroes are often not required to be priests or Catholics to fight evil with Catholic ritual and symbolism. In horror television and film, vampire hunters employ religious symbols such as the Christian cross, but exclusively Catholic elements such as holy water and Holy Communion wafers. Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” relies heavily on such Catholic symbols.
Still, not all screen vampires are intimidated by the icon of Catholicism. Many legends speak of the inefficiency of sacred objects. These films and series include “The Strain”, “Interview with the Vampire” and even the “Twilight” franchise.
More importantly, many vampire tales use the Catholic doctrine that the bread and wine consumed during Mass are the literal body and blood of Christ. Such stories combine Catholic customs and vampirism. In fact, “Midnight Mass” creator Mike Flanagan has said that Catholic ritual and vampirism are “clearly linked. You’re dealing with a mythology steeped in blood ritual and resurrection.”
Other types of screen horror completely overturn or reject Catholic ritual and symbolism. According to scholar Jan Tope, modern zombie stories are contrary to Catholic belief regarding eternal life.
Tope suggests that the zombie tales have come to “satire” the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. In most zombie movies, eating flesh leads to the resurrection of the body, but without the soul.
For every horror movie that views Catholicism’s rituals as tools in the fight against evil, another portrays the Church itself as evil.
This representation goes back at least to the horror roots in the 18th-century Gothic novel, which dramatized the Enlightenment distrust of the irrational in general and the perceived occult and supernatural nature of Catholicism in particular.
Gothic’s use of Catholic tropes – ruined abbeys, unscrupulous priests, nuns imprisoned in walls and so on – created a picture of religion that can be both repellent and appealing to readers.
According to scholar Susan Griffin, in England and in 19th- and early 20th century North America, Catholics – usually from countries outside the English-speaking world – were often depicted as “racial other” in Gothic as well as Same initial horror as well.
Criticism of Catholicism
Over the years, horror film and television have criticized the secular and political influence of the Church, as well as the moral failings and sins of its adherents and hierarchy.
Horror stories often reflect the church’s reluctance to recognize or accept the evil in its midst. It has tragic relevance in light of the child sexual abuse crisis and its cover-up, as well as revelations about the treatment of Indigenous children in boarding schools administered by Catholic religious orders among other groups.
Horror can call for historical slurs. The 2018 film “The Devil’s Doorway” is a supernatural film inspired by the abuse experienced by women at the Magdalene Laundry in Ireland, where so-called “fallen women” were confined and subjected to hard labor. In another example, the 2015 Polish film “Demon” combines Catholic characters with the Jewish mythological figure “Dybbuk”, the spirit of the dead, to interrogate Catholic complicity in the Holocaust.
Other narratives criticize the institutional church by treating the faith with respect. For example, in the television series “Evil,” a Catholic psychologist and atheist raised in a Muslim religion investigates supernatural phenomena for the Vatican with a tyrannical but devout Catholic seminary. In doing so, they address issues such as abuse within the church, racism, misogyny and clericalism, or the privilege the clergy have over everyday believers.
Catholicism and the Complications of Terror
The representation of Catholicism in horrors is varied and complex, and emphasizes the narrative and aesthetic creativity of a genre, as well as the subversive nature, often perceived as simply shocking and violent. Flanagan’s show is an example.
The “Midnight Mass” exposes the religious intolerance of the community’s Muslim sheriff, including others, which recalls the representation of Catholics in the Gothic novel. The show also condemns false piety and draws attention to the evil that can result from blind religious belief.
At the same time, the series emphasizes complexity and authenticity in each character’s religious experience, along with the possibility of redemption.
In “Midnight Mass” and other narratives, Catholicism’s annals of screen horror parallel the intricacies and contradictions of good and evil, both within the Church, and perhaps within all-powerful institutions.