Horror films shine light on religion’s dark side, but rarely show the good it offers

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While watching “Midnight Mass,” I asked myself questions like, “What is up with the depiction of religious practices within horror media?”

The October spooky season has unfortunately passed. As a huge fan of anything horror related, this season was made for me and people alike to participate in all things festive to the season.

Although I love classic horror films, the most important part of the season to me is checking out what’s new. This year, I was recommended another new Netflix show: “Midnight Mass.” The movie was directed by Mike Flanagan, who also directed  Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House” and “The Haunting of Bly Manor.”

“Midnight Mass” loosely follows Riley Flynn, a recovering alcoholic who’s forced to return to his hometown of Crockett Island after a tragic drunk driving incident. The story explores a larger theme of religion through the town’s church and the clergy within it. Since I highly recommend horror enthusiasts watch “Midnight Mass” for themselves, all I can say without spoilers is that things get crazy.

While watching, I asked myself questions like, “What is up with the depiction of religious practices within horror media?” and, “Why does this all feel so real?”

Graphic by Pixabay.

After reflecting on the topic, I think the answer is simple.

The instances of bad behavior seen in the realm of Christian religious practice are truly horrific. However, religion itself isn’t the antagonistic connection here; rather, those in positions of power within the church are where the horror spawns. These figures use religion and their authority as a means to their horrific ends. This theme found in “Midnight Mass” can be attributed to one such abusive figure: John Geoghan.

In 2002, the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team unearthed at least 70 known reports of Catholic priests sexually abusing children within Boston’s Catholic community. Geoghan was found to have molested over 150 children during the span of three decades in six different churches. Other church officials knew of this behavior, yet they still assigned Geoghan to work with altar boys during his time with St. Julia Catholic Church.

Because of how terrifying these issues are, horror is the perfect genre to discuss them. In a New York Times interview with Flanagan about “Midnight Mass,” he shared how the theme of religious servitude resonated with him. Flanagan recalls his time as an altar boy, reading the Old Testament for the first time and reflecting on how entrenched people become in their faith in God.

“The violence of the Old Testament God is terrifying, slaughtering babies and drowning the earth. It really struck me that I didn’t know my faith at that point,” Flanagan said in the interview. “I’m fascinated by how our beliefs shape how we treat each other. Looking at politics and the world today, so many of us are behaving based on the belief that God is on our side, and that God dislikes the same people we do.”

Another excellent Netflix horror film, “The Devil All The Time,” explores similar ideas. The movie follows Arvin Russell, exploring how religion affects his community. His father gruesomely sacrifices the family dog to God to cure his wife’s cancer, and his adoptive sister falls victim to the sexual predation of the Rev. Preston Teagardin, committing suicide when he got her pregnant and wouldn’t help her take care of the child.

By making abusers within the church the objects of fear, films like “Midnight Mass” and “The Devil All the Time” ground themselves in reality. However, I can’t help but feel saddened for individuals who suffer because of abusers who cloak themselves in religious ideals, instead of experiencing the positive impact that religious faith can offer.

The movie “Breakthrough” tells the events of Jan. 19, 2015, when teenager John Smith fell through the ice of Lake Saint Louise for 15 minutes, but survived after his heart stopped beating for 43 minutes. The only explanation his family and first responders could give was that they witnessed a miracle.

But, these stories are so few and far between to give the other end of the spectrum the limelight they deserve. And the urge for directors and filmmakers to put religion in this new horrific, yet entertaining, lens is just too good to pass up.

Only time will tell how the media can bridge the gap between the two perspectives.

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