What do horror movies have to do with religion, and with Christian faith in particular? What is worthwhile about a genre in which evil is portrayed so vividly? Horror filmmaker Scott Derrickson suggests an answer:
For me, [horror] is the perfect genre for a person of faith to work in. You can think about good and evil pretty openly. I always talk about it being the genre of non-denial. I like the fact that it’s a genre about confronting evil, confronting what’s frightening in the world.1
The work of Derrickson and his frequent collaborator, Paul Harris Boardman, exemplifies precisely this possibility. Their films are notable for their truly scary yet thought-provoking confrontations with evil, whether that be in the form of demonic possession (The Exorcism of Emily Rose; Deliver Us From Evil), family-related trauma (Sinister; Devil’s Knot; The Black Phone), or genre hybrids like Hellraiser: Inferno, which blends the police procedural with Dantesque horror. Most recently, Derrickson co-wrote and directed Marvel’s Doctor Strange and the masterful The Black Phone, while Boardman recently co-wrote, developed and produced the exquisitely creepy Netflix show Archive 81 (2022).
In the following, I will explore how the horror movies of Derrickson and Boardman face questions of good and evil: how they dramatise the complexities involved with trying to seek and live the truth, and critically confront the ambiguities (often involving the Church) that this entails. By no means ‘religious’ or ‘Christian’ in any reductive sense, they rather challenge audiences to feel and think deeply, and to exercise reasonable skepticism while remaining open to mystery and truth.
Artists who depict truth about good and evil are embroiled in many tensions. We see this in Derrickson’s and Boardman’s first collaboration, Hellraiser: Inferno (2000). This film, the fifth entry in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser series (1987-2022), expands upon Barker’s visionary story about hedonists who open a gateway to hell via a ‘puzzle box’, the Lament Configuration; the man doing the honours this time is detective Joseph Thorne, who steals the infamous box from a crime scene.
Thorne’s theft is but the latest on his road to hell. Not exactly a nice guy, he’s a corrupt detective who regularly steals money and drugs, uses violence to get information, and cheats on his wife. Thorne’s story is unabashedly one of damnation. Ultimately, having abandoned his family and destroyed them and himself in the process, he winds up like someone in Dante’s Inferno (the film even depicts hell as a frozen realm like that inhabited by Dante’s Satan), face to face with a demon who shows him how he got here:
This is the life you chose, Joseph. You have destroyed your own innocence. Allowed your flesh to consume your spirit. You are your own king. And this is the hell you have created for yourself. Your flesh is killing your spirit. You have forsaken yourself.2
Joseph’s sin is self-worship—having no king or god but himself—and feeding his ‘flesh’ in this way kills both himself and his family. Notably, Joseph’s fate prefigures Derrickson’s later film Sinister (2012), likewise revolving around a father whose devoted ‘investigation’—pursuing a True Crime bestseller—similarly risks his family’s lives and brings down evil upon them all. Bleak and disturbing stuff, clearly. Could such dark cinema really be valuable for people of faith?
Many fellow Christians certainly objected to Hellraiser: Inferno upon its release. In a 2002 article, Derrickson directly addressed the controversy. He argued that Christians often want to ‘get to grace too quickly’ in their art, uncomfortable with stories (like this) ending not in salvation, but damnation. But doesn’t St. Paul instruct us to dwell upon what is ‘true’ and ‘lovely’ (Philippians 4:8)?
Whatsoever things are true…whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report…think on these things.
Derrickson agrees with St. Paul. He suggests, however, that not all truth is necessarily ‘lovely’. Rather, good art means telling the truth ‘descriptively’, showing people and the world as they actually are: often ugly, violent and disturbing. Derrickson identifies such ‘descriptive truth’ as a requirement for any ‘prescriptive truth’, any answers given. Rushing to the answers of prescriptive truth without properly asking questions means giving in to the temptation to create propaganda, rather than show truth, and sadly ‘Christian art’ all too often gives in. Derrickson, however, is determined to resist—especially if it means leaning into the uncomfortable tension required of any true artist.
One such tension that Derrickson and Boardman consistently explore is the problem of evil. Hellraiser: Inferno is but the first of their films to show unjust suffering and ask: Why? How could a God who is truly good allow such evil? We’re led to ponder this question directly during a pointed exchange between a detective and a priest in the filmmakers’ sixth collaboration, Deliver Us From Evil (2014). The two men—one a no-nonsense detective, the other a very human priest—converse in a bar. They discuss spiritual questions prompted by the wickedness that the detective, lapsed Catholic Ralph Sarchie, encounters in his latest case. At one point the priest, Father Mendoza, asks the disbelieving detective, ‘When did you outgrow God?’
‘Twelve’, Sarchie responds dryly, and refers to the time an addict broke in to his family’s home:
Sarchie: ‘God didn’t stop him. I did, with a baseball bat. You see, Father, as we speak, everyday out there someone’s getting hurt, ripped off, murdered, raped. Where’s God when all that’s happening?’
Mendoza: ‘In the hearts of people like you who put a stop to it. I mean we can talk all night about the problem of evil. But what about the problem of good? …If there’s no God, if the world is just survival of the fittest, then why are all the men in this room willing to lay down their life for total strangers?3
This dialogue is a snapshot of what the film plays out in a number of creative ways I won’t spoil here. Namely, it challenges the notion that humans are only animals, merely a bundle of physical desires and drives colliding in a materialist universe. The film asks: Is it possible that the existence of goodness is just as inexplicable as evil? And that speaking of such things doesn’t require us to discount the need to perceive and act physically—as with Sarchie and his bat—but rather to understand that reality may be more expansive than we think? Perhaps even that, as in a Catholic’s sacramental theology, material realities mediate the spiritual?
Such questions regarding the blurred lines between natural and supernatural are further developed in the duo’s earlier collaboration, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005).4 Based upon true events, Emily Rose likewise examines the nature of good and evil, through a story about the suffering and death of a child—a faithful Christian one, to boot—from an exorcism gone wrong.
Rose follows the trial of a Catholic priest charged with negligent homicide after a college freshman, Emily Rose, died during an exorcism ritual he performed. Ironically the priest’s defence attorney, Erin Bruner, is an avowed agnostic, while his prosecutor is a Christian. Bruner’s defence strategy is bold: she argues that the priest, Father Moore, treated Emily based on the belief that supernatural entities are real and that exorcism was, therefore, the best way to help her. Bruner implores the jury not to believe in the supernatural, but rather to ask themselves: ‘Is it possible?’ Is it possible that there is more to reality than is dreamt in their philosophies? Should they hold Father Moore accountable for doing what he thought was best for the girl, which was in accordance with her and her family’s religious beliefs? Or should she have been medicated and hospitalised against her will, as the prosecutor’s medical experts argue?
Like Deliver Us, Emily Rose challenges us to ponder what we believe about reality and what is possible. Part of what makes Emily Rose extraordinary is that it leaves it to the audience, as vicarious jury, to make up their own mind. Indeed, in a sense the film unfolds as a dramatic philosophical dialogue, in which we—like Bruner—become open to religious possibilities and doubts precisely while exercising the reasonable skepticism requisite of legal proceedings. Again we are led to face that mystery often troubling any honest believer in God: why would God allow a child like Emily to suffer?
Father Moore’s testimony proposes an answer. He claims that Emily, after her unsuccessful exorcism, had a wondrous vision and then wrote a letter detailing it. She wrote that she was given a choice: either to go immediately to heaven, or to further suffer in the flesh—knowing that, if she chose the latter, many would come to believe in spiritual realities through her death. Like St. Paul who chooses to ‘remain in the flesh’ in Philippians 1:19-26, and in imitation of Christ Jesus Himself—whose wounds Emily possibly displays (ambiguously either stigmata, or cuts from a barbed wire fence)—Emily chooses to suffer and die, horribly, that many might believe.
So we are left with many questions: Is it possible that Emily was actually possessed? Or was she mentally ill? Is it possible that Emily suffered so that secular materialists (like many of us) might believe in God? Or was her death the consequence of a priest’s medical negligence? Is it really possible that a horror film could tell a story to this effect?
Derrickson and Boardman explore related ambiguities in another courtroom drama, Devil’s Knot (2013).5 However, where Emily Rose and Deliver Us From Evil are horror films that make a case for religious realities and the potential goodness of religious faith, Devil’s Knot does neither—and it is not a horror film. Devil’s Knot is, rather, a drama about horror. It concerns a predominantly Christian community’s response to real horrors, the worst that any parent could face—the murder of their children—and how religious beliefs can lead to injustice.
Based upon notorious true events in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993, tragedy compounds tragedy when three older children—teenage boys who have come to be known as the ‘West Memphis Three’—are tried and convicted for the murders of three young boys.6 During the (now widely criticised) investigation and trial, the Three functioned as scapegoats for the crimes, victims of a contemporary witch hunt. They were pre-judged guilty by the community due to their supposed ‘ringleader’, Damien Echols, whose black-clad Gothic appearance and love of heavy metal music rendered them suspicious in the aftermath of 1980s-era ‘Satanic panic’. Devil’s Knot follows private investigator Ron Lax, among the very few who sees the truth about the Three’s trial, and Pam Hobbs, mother of one of the three murdered boys.
Like many of the West Memphis evangelicals, Hobbs can’t see the Three as anything other than wicked Satanists. As the story unfolds, however, Hobbs increasingly questions her judgment of the Three. However much this recently baptised Christian believes in the reality of supernatural good and evil, it nevertheless also becomes clear to her that the State is perpetrating an evil too. She realises that the local court and the community at large only sees what it wants to see about the guilt of the teenagers, not where the evidence actually leads. As such, Devil’s Knot is a cautionary tale about rushing to a ‘faith-based’ certainty. And yet—through compassionate portrayal of the grief-stricken Hobbs—it is also about how truly difficult it can be to remain reasonable and impartial in the face of unimaginable tragedy. As in Boardman’s and Derrickson’s other films, Devil’s Knot truthfully dramatises the complexities of exercising faith and reason amidst great evil.
In conclusion, I want to briefly mention Derrickson’s most recent film, The Black Phone (2022), in relation to his collaborations with Boardman. If Devil’s Knot is an essentially tragic story about real-life horror that leads to devilish injustice, told from the perspective of bereaved parents, The Black Phone (2022) largely takes the opposite tack—a fictional story told from the perspective of children, victims of a serial killer called The Grabber.
Without spoiling it, I merely want to suggest that The Black Phone, much like Emily Rose and Deliver Us, is a horror film reminding us that supernatural evil and good both remain real possibilities. It provokes us to wonder: Might there be more than evil at work in this sad world of horrors on every side? Might devils like The Grabber be destroyed? Might hopes in a supernatural conspiracy for good, not evil, actually prove true? Can we entertain wild hopes implied by a question, one variously present throughout Derrickson’s and Boardman’s films: ‘Is it possible?’
Is it possible that divine goodness and justice might really triumph? Is it possible such goodness will not only win in these films’ worlds but also—however painful to believe—even in that world this side of the screen? Can it really be true?