Religious Horror: the burgeoning cultural moment

What an interesting cultural moment it is for somebody like me, who holds an obsessive interest in religion, horror, and the interface between them.

For example, it’s widely recognized that zombies have become the monsters of the moment in contemporary horror entertainment. Zombie-themed movies have been flooding movie theatres for the past five or six years, ranging in quality from the low (e.g., 2003’s House of the Dead, based on the popular video game) to the middling (e.g., other video game adaptations such as 2005’s Doom and 2002’s Resident Evil) to the high (e.g., 2002’s 28 Days Later, directed by indie fave Danny Boyle of Trainspotting fame). Last year, legendary film director George Romero’s Land of the Dead, the long-awaited fourth installment in his classic Living Dead series, finally arrived in theatres after a wait of 20 years. Zombie-themed novels are filling bookstore shelves at a staggering pace, such as Brian Keene’s The Rising and City of the Dead, Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, and many, many more. Sequels to many of the newer zombie movies have already happened (2004’s Resident Evil: Apocalypse) or are on the way (28 Weeks Later, scheduled for 2007).

This whole phenomenon absolutely fascinates me, since zombies are positively ripe (no pun intended) with the kind of religious-horrific crossover significance that I’m always looking for. I’ve been an avid student of the zombie subgenre for a great many years now. Romero’s movies blew me away when I was in my teens, during which period I also discovered the zombie films of Lucio Fulci and others. Years later, when I got into graduate school my religious studies professors generously allowed me to explore my horror-oriented interests within the confines of their discipline, and I turned to the zombie theme for one of the two seminar papers I wrote in completion of my M.A. The title was “Loathsome Objects: George Romero’s Living Dead Films as Contemplative Tools.” My thesis was that the rich trove of apocalyptic religious elements presented in Romero’s zombie movies (which at the time, ca. 2003, formed a trilogy instead of today’s quadrilogy), acting in tandem with their through-the-roof presentation of explicit violence and gore, renders them amenable to a contemplative reading in which they serve as spurs to an experience of spiritual transcendence, somewhat along the line of the famous — or obscure, or notorious (take your pick) — practice of meditating on rotten corpses that has been recommended by some historical Buddhist sects in the interest of awakening the meditator to a vivid recognition of the truth of impermanence and the reality of personal emptiness.

So in light of all that, you can imagine how interested I was to learn recently of the publication of a new book titled Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth, written by religious studies professor Kim Paffenroth and published by Baylor University Press. The publisher’s description reads as follows: “This volume connects American social and religious views with the classic American movie genre of the zombie horror film. For nearly forty years, the films of George A. Romero have presented viewers with hellish visions of our world overrun by flesh-eating ghouls. This study proves that Romero’s films, like apocalyptic literature or Dante’s Commedia, go beyond the surface experience of repulsion to probe deeper questions of human nature and purpose, often giving a chilling and darkly humorous critique of modern, secular America.”

Hello! This is precisely the sort of thing that makes me sit up and take notice. A little judicious poking around online reveals that the book is achieving considerable notoriety. Reviews abound all over the web. Recommendations for the Bram Stoker Award are piling up. And in the course of scoping it out, I’ve stumbled across a number of other recent, pertinent events and items in the same vein, such as a paper by Paul Teusner, written in completion of a Master of Theology degree, titled “Resident Evil: Horror Film and the Construction of Religious Identity in Contemporary Media Culture.” Certainly, scholarly studies that offer a combined focus on religion, horror, and pop culture aren’t new; consider Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King (1996) by Edward J. Ingebretsen, S.J., or Devouring Whirlwind: Terror and Transcendence in the Cinema of Cruelty (1988) by Will Rockett, to name just two worthy examples. But it seems to me that the new trend in such scholarship is to include items, and even to focus upon them centrally, that were formerly considered to be nothing more than pop cultural detritus. Yes, in larger scope this is probably an aspect of the same trend that has led many academic and cultural watchdogs in recent decades to lament the devolution of academic scholarship proper into a kind of degraded freakshow that operates under the influence of a kind of post-modernist frenzied urge to smash the ivory towers and swamp taste and high culture in a sea of trash. But it’s also possible to view this trend, or at least certain aspects of it, in terms of “scholarship on the ground,” as it were: scholarship that seeks to get at the heart of what really makes a culture tick, in terms of the concrete lived experience of being a participant in it.

When I turn my attention in this direction, significant seeming factors begin to pile up faster than I can note them. For example, my friend Maurice Broaddus is pastor, or rather “facilitator,” of a large urban church. He is also a published horror writer who is very aware of the interesting interactions between these facets of his life. Brian Keene, the aforementioned author of several best-selling zombie novels, spoke about his personal religious journey at an event held earlier this year at Maurice’s church in Indianapolis. Turning from literary matters to cinematic ones, Scott Derrickson has become a prominent Christian director of horror films in Hollywood. His resume includes Hellraiser: Inferno (2000), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), and, as I myself reported on this blog a few months ago, a forthcoming adaptation of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. As with Maurice, Brian, and others who are working this very interesting patch of earth, Derrickson is very self-aware of the interplay between his twin foci on religion and artistic horror, as witnessed by the reflective things he has said in various interviews.

The upshot of all my scattered comments and observations here is this: I’m thinking that the conjunction of religion and horror — with the second understood as both an existential experience and an important subset of media/popular culture studies — is an Idea Whose Time Has Come. I have been personally interested in it since earliest childhood and adolescence. I devoted eight years of graduate study to pursuing it along various lines. Currently I’m co-editing an anthology of horror stories to be titled Holy Horrors. So I’m certainly doing my part to turn the earth, and it’s quite gratifying to see the subject rapidly becoming a major focus of attention in the present academic and cultural climate. Gratifying enough, it seems, for me to devote a rambling blog post to it.

Not incidentally, I’m happy to report that I’ve talked with Kim Paffenroth, and he has secured a review copy of Gospel of the Living Dead to send my way. So I’ll definitely be writing more about this book when I’ve had a chance to read it. And I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes open for more evidence of what promises to be a long-lived trend — this widespread academic and cultural focus on religion and horror in tandem — that is only just beginning to blossom.

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on November 27, 2006, in Arts & Entertainment, Religion & Philosophy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Matt, I wonder whether you have written any screenplays. If your sense is correct, this might be the time to leap into the maelstrom. I think you would have at least as much to contribute along these lines as the other artists you mention.

  2. Very interesting. I’ll certainly be keeping my eyes open.

  3. Todd — No, I haven’t written any screenplays, but I’ve certainly considered it. I majored in video and media production in college, with a healthy dose of film studies thrown in as well, so I learned the basic screenplay format and made a number of student productions, and of course worked in video production for several years after graduation. So who knows, maybe you’re right, and it would be a good direction to pursue. Thanks for the encouragement.

    Grumpy — You are indeed someone who I would expect to find this trend intriguing. I’ll keep my eyes peeled and let you know what else I observe, if you’ll promise to reciprocate. πŸ™‚

  4. Yes, Matt, after years of wandering in the wilderness, we’re finally “in.” There’s plenty of vapid, useless horror (e.g. shock for its own sake). There’s plenty of vapid, useless things that pass for religion, too (e.g. sentimentality or bigotry). But the deepest and most thorough examples of both will always be beautiful and truthful, and they will be able to speak to us, and to each other.

  5. Matt, you seen THE UNDEAD AND PHILOSOPHY edited by Richard Greene and K. Silem Mohammad? Spotted it in a bookshop the other day and thought it might interest you.

  6. I just found your blog through a search for Paul Tuesner and his article on horror and the construciton of religious identity. What a thrill to find you reference Kim Paffenroth’s work in zombie films and religion, and your larger interests in religion and horror in general. You might be interested in my blog on this topc, TheoFantastique, at http://theofantastique.blogspot.com. Perhaps we can dialogue over our mutual interests.

  7. Benjamin Steele

    Nice post! I’m not all that interested in zombies, but I am interested in the merging of horror and religion. There are two books about this subject that are worth reading: Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets, and Eric G. Wilson’s The Melancholy Android.

  8. Interesting to see that I let five comments stack up on this post, reaching back to 2006, without responding. I have no explanation.

    Thank you all for weighing in. Great stuff. Thanks especially for the book and blog recommendations. As you know, John, I have since become quite fond of Theofantastique.

    Still haven’t read THE UNDEAD AND PHILOSOPHY, Stu, but have long thought I should.

    Glad you found the post worthwhile, Benjamin. I haven’t read the Wilson book you mention, but Ms. Nelson and her THE SECRET LIFE OF PUPPETS earned a permanent place in my literary pantheon a few years ago when I read the book and discovered she was already one of my favorite authors even before I discovered her (to exaggerate the depth of my reaction only slightly). I then sought out her book on writing and the creative process, ON WRITER’S BLOCK, and had a similarly profound reaction. It was especially interesting to read her words about the creative process in the latter book and then return to PUPPETS and reread her tale of the book’s interesting origin. Both sides proved mutually illuminating.

  9. Benjamin Steele

    I haven’t read Nelson’s On Writer’s Block. How does it compare to The Secret LIfe of Puppets?

    As for Wilson, his book is about gothic horror, noir, existentialism, gnosticism, alchemy, kabbalah, and Egyptian religion. He specifically discusses these in terms of puppets, androids, automata, golems, and mummies. The book The Melancholy Android isn’t as large as The Secret Lif of Puppets, but its packed full of ideas.

  10. Thank you much for the description of the Wilson book. It sounds *entirely* up my alley, and I’ll definitely look into it.

    Nelson’s ON WRITER’S BLOCK isn’t at all related to her THE SECRET LIFE OF PUPPETS in terms of content — nothing about a buried current of religious motivation showing up in popular culture in tales of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, nothing about Lovecraft or Schulz or Borges or virtual realities or any of that — but I do feel that it’s related by a common spiritual thread. She offers the most beautiful, elegant, and — for me — exhilarating description of the deep spiritual and psychic wells of the creative process that I’ve ever read, and I say that as someone who owns a full shelf of books about writing and creativity and has read about four times more books on the subject than he owns. The prescriptive advice that she draws from her insights is also extremely edifying and well-conceived. Moreover, I think the book might really be of interest to you since you have read her account in PUPPETS of the long and strange nature of that book’s writing. ON WRITER’S BLOCK might be considered a long companion piece and psychological/spiritual preamble to that later book, since it more fully explains, in generic terms, the creative process that she later went through in the writing of PUPPETS.

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