Respecting the Unholy: The Demonic On Screen

Lily Rabe as Sister Mary Eunice in American Horror Story: Asylum. Photo courtesy of FX promotions.
Lily Rabe as Sister Mary Eunice in American Horror Story: Asylum. Photo courtesy of FX promotions.
Lily Rabe as Sister Mary Eunice, who is possessed in the second series, Asylum, of the horror anthology American Horror Story. Photo courtesy of FX promotions.

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.


  • Preston Yancey earned his undergraduate degree in Great Texts of the Western Tradition with a focus in medieval monasticism, literature, and theology from Baylor University. He went on to complete his Master of Letters in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews. His first book, Tables in the Wilderness:A Memoir of God Found, Lost, and Found Again, is due out with Zondervan September 2014.

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  1. says: Christopher R. Brewer

    Preston, thanks for an interesting post on a genre which, for better or worse, I don’t frequent. As I read, I couldn’t help but think of Christopher Partridge’s ITIA seminar last year (“Haunted Culture: The Persistence of Belief in the Paranormal”). Partridge, if you recall, discussed what he calls “occulture … the new spiritual atmosphere in the West.” (Partridge, The Re-Enchantment of the West, vol. 2 [London: T&T Clark, 2005], 2.) “Put starkly,” he says, “popular occulture is sacralizing the Western mind.” (Ibid.) I bring Partridge up because his lecture has stuck with me, resurfacing in numerous conversations over these last months, and more to the point, he seems relevant here insofar as he calls our attention to this cultural trend which is indeed insidious.

    We might come at this from a different angle with David Brown who argues that “when more conventional religions retreat” from these areas “a vacuum is left, and in its place come alternative spiritualities, but because there is no longer any established tradition of what is appropriate religious discourse in such contexts, these are modelled superficially on the science of the day. Sadly, it is in effect a retreat to magic.” (Brown, God and Enchantment of Place [Oxford: OUP, 2004], 16.) And so Brown concurs, at least apparently, with Partridge.

    And with regard to your comment that we might fight the trend through good art, and the related comment (“Naming evil is power.”), I couldn’t help but think of Andy Crouch’s new book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (IVP, 2013), the gist of which is that “the deepest form of power is creation.” (Crouch, “Introduction,” in Playing God.) All this to say that I think you’re right. But I wonder, what does that looks like?

    I’ve just been reading Matthew Kieran’s contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Emotion, “Emotions, Art, and Immorality,” and he raises issues relevant to how we answer the question I’ve just raised. While his conversation tends towards the issue of empathizing/sympathizing with or admiring morally bad characters in art works, and “react[ing] to morally problematic situations as we would or ought not to ordinarily,”(p. 680) I wonder whether I might draw him into the conversation as we seek to think through two issues: 1) the philosophical/theological appropriateness (in terms of artistic payoff as well as morality, see Kieran, p. 702) of this sort of imaginative engagement (i.e., viewing these works of popular occulture), and then 2) how these considerations might affect our creating of works in this same genre (i.e., is that even possible, and if so, how?). Sorry to play devil’s advocate, but it seems fitting given the subject matter.

  2. says: DFK

    In a recent interview with New York magazine Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia stunned his interviewer with his admission that he believes the Devil is a present and active force today. Scalia takes care to suggest the Devil’s task is more subdued today: far fewer possessions and errant herds of pigs (perhaps too obvious?) and instead claims the Devil has adopted the charter to actually encourage disbelief (He cites Screwtape as the finest example of such a managerial retooling).

    “What happened to the Devil, you know? He used to be all over the place. He used to be all over the New Testament….He got wilier.”

    Perhaps it the task for film to capture this “wilier” mode of evil without descending into parody that you are hinting towards. In this sense, the long dark hallways of David Lynch’s work seem a better evocation of contemporary evil than the exorcistic charades of Hollywood Blockbusters.

  3. says: KSP

    As I’ve written elsewhere, the horror genre has played a central role in storytelling. From the Cyclops in ancient times, to the dance of death and Dante’s circles of hell in the Middle Ages, to the various permutations of the Frankenstein story in the modern age, the surface elements of horror stories have always merely been portals to the things that really terrify us. – See more at:

    Thanks for a thoughtful and insightful analysis of a genre that offers much more than meets the eye.

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