The horror is in the subliminal messaging of these movies.
The horror movies of Western culture are not just supernatural thrillers for the audience seeking pleasures of self-horrification. They are also media for defining the ‘other’ and the relation of the West — as a colonial Christian power — with the ‘other’.
In fact, it is not just horror movies, in general, the entertainment in the West has always necessitated stereotyping the ‘other’ and introducing into the villainous characters as much of the cultural and spiritual aspects of the ‘other’ as possible.
Many of us Indians of the 1970s and 1980s, grew up with ‘Phantom’ comics in which the ‘Phantom’ fights for ‘justice’ with his clearly paternalistically racist attitude towards the ‘natives’. His sworn enemies were the ‘Singh pirates’. He was titled ‘Guardian of the Eastern Dark’. How many of us even felt that ‘Denkali’ was actually Bengali and the evil ‘Singh pirates’ were actually derived from the history of the naval resistance to European colonialism by the Marathas.
The Eastern Dark was a land where the high caste priests enslaved ‘native’ men and women and indulged in opium trade. They also offered human sacrifice to a multi-armed statue of a deity.
The success of the Western entertainment-propaganda is that it could sell such a stereotype of Hindu religion, society and history to Indian children themselves as entertainment.
The horror genre does this even more as it appeals to some of the very basic survival instincts of human beings.
Let us consider the most famous of these horror fictions. Bram Stoker wrote his gothic horror Dracula in 1897 when Britain had established itself as a major global colonial power. The character was based on the controversial 15th century Romanian ruler - Vlad III Dracula, who was known for his cruelty in purging his opponents through impaling.
Stoker used the narratives about his cruelty and resurrected him in horror literature as an aristocratic count vampire. What is important here to the discussion is how he consistently provided a pagan-versus-Christian strand throughout his storyline.
In his novel, Dracula himself was a reverse of Jesus, by drinking whose blood the believers are absolved of their sins and assured an eternal life. In the case of Dracula, he drinks the blood of his victims and makes them undead.
Dracula would be brought to England – the forbidden evil from the East brought into the heart of the Western civilisation.
The ship which brings Dracula from the east to the west, was named by Stoker as ‘Demeter’ – the goddess of fertility in pagan Europe.
He would be aided by the Gypsies – who were identified with paganism and were discriminated against in the West – a discrimination that continues to this day.
He has the power to travel as a mist and the moonlight aids his supernatural power as he can become elemental dust within the moon beams. For example, the mist of Avalon associated with Arthurian legends (popularised by the fantasy novel written by Marion Zimmer Bradley in 1983) was linked to the goddess tradition in Glastonbury, where the pagan roots were getting rediscovered tentatively in the late nineteenth century, same time around which Stoker wrote his novel.
It is not a coincidental imagination of the writer that associated two aspects of nature, mist and moonlight, associated with goddess traditions with Dracula.
One does not have to think explicitly on anti-pagan lines but if one goes passively through the Dracula genre – both in movies and in the novel, the association of pagan symbols and non-Christian communities with supernatural evil becomes internalised.
If there is a movie series that has successfully promoted an apocalyptic Christian worldview to a secular world, it is the Omen. The movie was released symbolically on 6 June 1976. David Seltzer, the person who wrote the story, released it as a novel two weeks prior to the movie. The birth of the anti-Christ was described in the preface thus:
For from the very bowels of the earth there came a distant sound. It was the sound of voices; human, yet not, growing in devout cacophony with the heightening potency of the star. In caves, basements, and open fields they had gathered; midwives to the birth, some twenty thousand strong. With hands joined and head bowed, their voices rose until the vibration cold be heard everywhere. It was the sound of the OHM, ringing upward to the heavens and inward to the pre-biblical core of the earth. ... Under Caesar they had cheered while Christians were fed to the lions, and under Hitler while Jews were reduced to charred remains.
Thus the Om chanting, which had become famous in the 1960s-70s counter-culture, was demonised adding a historical baggage to it.
The movie centred around a secular Western mindset refusing to accept the possibility of the incarnation of the anti-Christ as a child and killing it ritualistically in a Christian altar.
Even so, it was an attack on humanism. Killing a child for religious beliefs is something that humanity has overcome with the arrival of enlightenment and rationalism.
The fatal tragedies that happen with the family in Omen which had adopted the child, are blamed on the child by the fundamentalist elements in the movie, while the rational humanist elements in the movie see them as accidents.
Ultimately, the fundamentalist version of events turns out to be true, and in the end, when the father of the child realises that he should kill the child overcoming his own secular humanity, it is too late.
Omen was a global blockbuster. The number 666 became famous across cultures in the world.
What also became famous was the idea that a child could be Satanic. Particularly in Africa, the above mentioned memetic content of the movie became part and parcel of Church culture.
If in any family, after the birth of a child, tragedies would happen, or if the child had any kind of physical abnormality (in the movie the child has a birth mark which was supposedly ‘the mark of the beast’), then that child was taken to one of the many blooming evangelical churches in Africa. The child would be tortured in the name of exorcism and then if the priest declared the child to be Satanic still, it was usually abandoned.
In Nigeria, this became a serious social problem. The number of children being identified as Satanic had been increasing exponentially. Ironically, the Western NGOs and the mainstream Church apologists blame the ‘local traditions’ and not the high-voltage propaganda from across the continent.
In fact, Hollywood even churns out movies which justify the crimes of the Church. Let us consider the movie Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005).
On 1 July 1976, Anna Elisabeth Mitchel, a German Catholic girl, died after undergoing intense Catholic exorcist rituals.
In all probability, a very amicable atmosphere of allowing a late medieval exorcist ritual to be conducted on a teenager was created by the influence of another extremely successful horror movie, The Exorcist, made three years ago. The 1973 movie was again a global blockbuster for almost a decade. It was based on a 1971 novel by American writer William Peter Blatty, who in turn claimed that it was based on a true incident, a claim that has since been questioned by sceptics.
Historian Thomas B. Allen, who too was educated in Jesuit institutions, whose book Possessed rekindled interest in the real story behind the exorcism, had actually tracked down a copy of the diary kept by the team leader, Fr. William S. Bowdern. In a 2013 interview, he ‘emphasized that definitive proof that the boy ... was possessed by malevolent spirits is unattainable.’ More importantly, he added that instead, he actually ‘suffered from mental illness or sexual abuse — or fabricated the entire experience.’
The movie showed the exorcism performing Catholic priests as endowed with secular credentials. One priest was an archaeologist and another a Harvard-educated psychiatrist. Though both belonged to the Church, the secular education had created doubts in them. They doubt if the girl (in the movie) was possessed. Ultimately, they realise their secular folly and battle the evil. Finally, one priest offers himself voluntarily and heroically to the demonic entity and kills himself in order to save the child.
The movie had extremely disturbing features. It showed that when holy water when splashed on the girl, it made wounds and there were scenes in which the girl was masturbating with the crucifix and hurling obscenities.
In other words, it stereotyped mentally disturbed patients and spread a serious template for ‘possession’.
In the initial scenes of The Exorcist, the Jesuit archaeologist character is made to witness an apparition of Pazuzu - an ambivalent wind deity of the Babylonians and Assyrians. He was, of course, a wind that brings diseases but he was also the protector of pregnant women who prevents the demoness Lamashtu from killing their unborn children.
But the movie removes the ambivalent nature of the deity and reduces it to a pure evil demonic spirit.
So, the pre-Christian religions are shown as Satanic or demonic. But Catholic News, the official organ for the Catholic Archdiocese of New York hailed the movie as ‘a deeply spiritual film’ with ‘well-researched authenticity.’
So three years after The Exorcist attained huge success not only in the US but also in Europe, the parents of a 20-year-old Anna asked for help from two priests, Ernst Alt and Arnold Renz. Anna was a devout Catholic and a university student who was mentally disturbed and depressed for quite some time. The priests were successful in obtaining permission from the Bishop Josef Strangl for performing rituals of exorcism on the girl.
The only thing that mattered to the Church at the time of exorcism was the secrecy. Starting three days after her twenty-second birthday as many as 67 exorcism rituals were performed in secrecy across 10 months.
Then, on 1 July 1976, she died.
The official reasons, after an autopsy, were given as malnutrition and dehydration – a preventable death.
A court battle ensued. The Church defended exorcism. It was legal under the German constitution, it argued. It was claimed that the girl was possessed by several demons, including Nero and Hitler, and bravely the Church even claimed victory in exorcism it performed according to 1614 Rituale Romanum before she died.
The priests were, however, pronounced guilty of negligent home-slaughter. But the sentence itself was extremely mild – three years in parole and six months imprisonment, later suspended.
In 1984, the Church even admitted that the girl was actually not mentally sound. But simultaneously, her grave was made into a kind of pilgrim centre – a saint she was whose Catholic purity of heart could not stand the cruelty of the secular world.
In 2005, The Exorcism of Emily Rose created a sympathetic picture of the entire process of exorcism performed on the girl whose inner world was totally disturbed. But more pointedly, it shifted the blame to the cruelty she saw in the progressively secular world — secular of course in the true sense and not in Nehruvian parlance.
Now, a new series of horror movies carry on the same legacy – The Conjuring. Based on the sensationalised claims of Ed and Lorraine Warren, ghost-hunters with a strong Christian worldview, the series, has come up with three movies: The Conjuring (2013), The Conjuring 2 (2016) and The Nun (2018). Each of these movies has distorted facts of real events.
For example, The Conjuring 2 recreates the famous Enfield Poltergeist of 1976. The event itself has been questioned by scientists who studied the phenomena. Ed and Lorraine Warren themselves were not principal investigators at all into the event. Even in the most comprehensive and sympathetic treatment of the Enfield Poltergeist phenomenon, by British author and enthusiast of paranormal, Colin Wilson (1913-2013), this couple were not mentioned.
Yet, the movie shows them as bravely fighting the Poltergeist which again gets identified with demonic entity as Valak, a pagan God again and the poltergeist phenomenon is made into a case of possession and the demon getting cast into hell by being called by its name and by the power of — who else — of course, Jesus.
In reality, Enfield Poltergeist, even for the believers (among whom is not this author), was more a haunting than a possession, though elements of possession too were there with Janet, a teenage girl in the house as the focus.
But a thorough scientific investigation has proved beyond the shadow of doubt that it was more a hoax that started, perhaps, as an innocent teenage prank, but later got into a point of no return with a media circus.
Conjuring 2 converts this into an exorcism and a battle with a demon from hell – which in turn is conveniently named after a pagan deity.
One of the latest attacks of such a fundamentalist Christian worldview on secular and pagan cultures is exhibited in The Nun. Here, the young nun-to-be Irene, who is shown as being a pro-evolutionist to the chagrin of her Catholic superior, ultimately succumbs to the demonic entity Valak.
In between, a variant of the pagan alchemical symbol 'Ouroboros' (a snake eating its own tail - sometimes two snakes) is shown ominously in an ancient throne – suggesting the occult.
The movie, in a way, is a modern justification for another sordid episode in the history of the Church.
The systematic and institutional physical and psychological abuse of nuns within the Church had resulted in quite a few cases of Convents becoming ‘possessed’ by devils. The most famous case was of the Loudon monastery nuns through whom various demons including Leviathan spoke and accused a Jesuit priest, who had fallen out of favour with the convent mother superior, as being demonic.
The exorcism and confession extraction under inquisition ultimately led to the burning at stake of the handsome young Jesuit priest – Urbain Grandeur, who was initially tried for the insubordination of bending one knee and not two at the Church.
This happened in the late 17th century France. The movie powerfully evokes the images of the Loudon case but with certain important implications – the power of the Church and a male priest to battle the Demon to which almost all the nuns of the monastery succumb. It also shows that the nun Irene, who is ‘seduced’ by science in the beginning, is ‘seduced’ by Valak in the end.
Interestingly again, Valac or Valak is not a demonic entity to begin with. Valac, also called Valu, is actually a spirit entity turned into a demon in Christian demonology. who travels on a two-headed dragon.
Perhaps, it is this two-headed dragon that inspired the makers of The Nun to create the variant symbol of Ouroboros.
But in reality, for chemist Friedrich August Kekulé, it was a lucid dream of ‘Ouroboros’ that revealed the ring structure of the compound, benzene. Thus, one can say that Ouroboros thus catalysing the advance of organic chemistry saved more human lives than the cross carried by the exorcists.
All these horror movies have a consistent theme to them. It is that the secular science and pagan ‘other’ should be subordinated to institutional Christianity and its fundamentalist dogmas.
In all these movies, the secular worldview and the ridiculous and even inhuman claims of the Church are contrasted with the secular worldview naturally. But as each of these movies unfolds, the secular worldview stands defeated and the pagan cultures become seductive, leading to the demonic possession, only to be conquered by adhering to a fundamentalist Christian doctrine.
It is a war against both pagan cultures and human civilisation at large – done with the latest graphics and visual technology that takes us to the medieval worldview of Christendom – the burning times.