This summer I’ve been surveying a range of cinematic phantasmagoria. In my recently finished dissertation, I found little room to discuss the range of pop culture representations of evil. Despite a sustained focus on the theological roots of spiritual warfare that led some evangelicals to see Satan occupying places, people, groups, and other material objects, I often felt that the broader consequences of this “demonic turn” (cf. spatial or cultural turn) were escaping my grasp.
So I dove back into the trenches to look at the many products of the moving image industry. I’ve watched many B and C level films such as The Ward (2011), The Hole (2009), The Tall Man (2012), Exorcismus (2012), The Shrine (2010), Evil Dead (2013), and Forget Me Not (2009). In television I watched Stephen King’s Bag of Bones (2011), the Netflix original series Hemlock Grove (2013), and even some of American Horror Story (2010-).
One of my goals is to identify the elements of cross-pollination between cultural and religious representations of evil. While Frank Peretti‘s seminal novel This Present Darkness lay alongside my work, it was secondary to the texts produced by religious leaders and authorities in the spiritual warfare community. (I.e., Peretti was a product of the forces I studied.) Looking at a range of horror and supernatural media (some of it non-American) is an attempt to move myself more firmly in the direction of the broader cultural climate of what appears to be growing supernaturalism.
We may be less religious than ever, but we appear more engaged with all manner of spirits. From this summer’s smash hit The Conjuring to the obvious flop R.I.P.D–we love things that go bump in the night. This fall you can enjoy (or not) The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, The World’s End, You’re Next, Riddick, Insidious: Chapter 2, and a Carrie remake. In 2014 watch out for I, Frankenstein, Seventh Son, Vampire Academy, Oculus, The Vatican Tapes, and additions to The Amityville Horror, Paranormal Activity, and Resident Evil series.
If you didn’t know already, horror is now *big* business. (If you’re curious about why so many of these are re-makes or additions to established series, check out this informative post at The Wrap.) For instance, the Paranormal Activity franchise is rapidly approaching a billion dollars gross. Part of what this means is a rush to find ever more exotic and radical spirits. (The Shrine is a great example of this.) Even secondarily, the world of spiritual warriors I study are a gold mine for these media-empires.
Sure, some of the earliest supernatural horror films–The Omen, The Exorcist, and Rosemary’s Baby–predate much of the evolution of 1980s Third Wave evangelicalism. These have roots in other complex movements of supernatural interest, from Roman Catholic and Pentecostal exorcisms in the 1960s to growing Asian interaction evident through both immigration and cultural influence. I suppose it isn’t so odd then that my favorite supernatural film is the charming and magical anime film Spirited Away (2001). (Second place is a tie among films dealing with Nazi occultism including Hellboy and the Indiana Jones series.)
In the end, we should all remember that horror isn’t a requirement, it’s a preference. (And perhaps that in itself is an opportunity to discuss the differences between say, The Conjuring and R.I.P.D.) It is a vehicle for complex ideas about spirits, the afterlife, evil and the nature of what terrifies us. As a genre it is immensely profitable both domestically and globally. It’s also a genre whose production budgets mean lower overheads and more opportunities for breakthrough franchises. Finally, it’s a genre where real-life supernaturalism continues to feed narratives and consumer interest. If you don’t believe that, check out this week’s news over at Jezebel: This Mennonite Colony Has a Crazy-Horrible ‘Ghost Rape’ Problem. Right.