Hollywood is never short of a horror franchise, particularly in the month of October. Often these representations of evil are gimmick-laden thought experiments into the worst-of-all-worsts; they are so unbelievable that it is more terrifying to realize that someone has thought them up in the first place.
However, the past few years have seen signs that Hollywood may be seeking a more sophisticated approach to the unholy, which is worth our attention.
Over the summer The Conjuring, a film based on real life Roman Catholic demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, was released to wide critical acclaim, particularly for its slow and careful representation of the demonic. Many noted the film was reminiscent of The Exorcist. Critics contended the success of the film was due to the way the events were both believable enough and ‘other’ enough – the movie was terrifying because it played on our most basic fears in an all-too-familiar way.
Though it would be prudent to say that we should exercise care when dealing with the demonic, I would suggest that there is some good in those approaches that, like The Conjuring, have a healthy respect for evil.
Consider the following examples from contemporary film and television.
Let Me In and its earlier predecessor Let the Right One In in their titles alone pose the theological question of evil with more nuance than is often considered in the horror genre: we are given the choice to invite evil in or to close the door. Moreover, once evil has been invited in, its movement is slow, taking root, and it begins to consume the host long before the host realizes what is happening. The danger is not in the shadows outside, but in what is openly welcomed into the home.
Similarly, American Horror Story: Asylum treats possession as a cooperative force for darkness, not as a single agent. This is not the typical scenario of one person being possessed and then all the ‘good’ characters fighting the devil. Though one character becomes possessed by the demonic in a very Hollywood, totally-overcome-by-the-power-of-evil way, the nuance is found in how everyone else around her begins to act. Possessed by a demon, she works temptations tailored specifically to those in her proximity, carefully crafting them to feed secret vices. It’s not about levitating or overturned crosses, though those make an appearance. The real danger is in believing the lie that she tells, using the same words as the ancient myth: Did God really say?
With the revamp of Carrie releasing this weekend in the United States and the month of October upon us, it’s worth reflecting on the ways Christians may be obligated to have a better portrait of evil than we tend to offer the world in mainstream media. We tend to fall too quickly into oversimplification, into loud antichrists or into godless atheists who want nothing more than to see the world burn. Carrie is a good example of how some of the most evil and dangerous lies come from those who manipulate the Truth of the Gospel into a bastardized power grab that reaps carnage rather than life.
Perhaps it’s high time the Church got back to depicting evil well. Not as something you laugh away or shrug off as not being real, but as something which is insidious, and that we are to actively and directly fight against. We can fight through prayer and faithfulness, but perhaps also through good art. Naming evil is power. There is perhaps nothing more dangerous than pretending it isn’t there.
American Horror Story returned with a new anthology, Coven, which airs Wednesdays at 10PM ET on FX.
Preston Yancey recently earned his MLitt in Theology, Imagination and the Arts from the University of St Andrews. His first book, Tables in the Wilderness: A Memoir of God Found, Lost, and Found Again, is due out autumn 2014 with Zondervan. He blogs here and tweets here.