Can The Exorcist deepen your faith? Is God somewhere lurking behind all the split-pea soup, bloody crucifixes, desecrated statues, and faithless priests? These questions lingered in my mind during a recent re-watch of the film. To this day, it remains the scariest movie I’ve seen.
William Friedkin’s R-rated, 1973 horror classic tells the story of a twelve-year-old girl struggling with psychosis and of a local priest who, while grappling with his own faith, believes the young girl to be possessed by the devil. The priest seeks to perform her exorcism. The demon-possessed child commits vile acts both with her body and with Catholic iconography. During the climax (it doesn’t count as spoiling if it’s a forty-seven-year-old movie), the priest’s faith cracks. He frees the child, but the demon enters him and kills him, throwing him through a window.
The Exorcist is, above all, a morality play in the vein of Faust or Everyman. These religious plays date as far back as the twelfth century and they follow a simple formula where personified, evil forces test the hero. In morality plays, the protagonist may encounter Fame or Gluttony or the Devil himself. If he (and it’s always he, unfortunately) stays faithful, he lives. But if he fails? Well, he gets thrown through a window. You can picture The Exorcist’s screenwriter William Peter Blatty waving his finger at you, saying, “You better shape up, or this may happen to you.”
Aesop’s fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf, The Fox and The Hen, even Jesus’s parables (the parable of the ten bridesmaids has wicked potential as horror movie) are all morality tales as old as storytelling itself, and their formula can be mapped onto horror films from just about every era. In fact, Christianity itself is bound to most horror.
Early monster films like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) follow the morality tale formula, confronting hubris in surprising, graphic detail. Jekyll and Hyde capture scenes of sexual abuse and murder, and Frankenstein’s monster drowns a little girl in a lake.
Then in 1934, Presbyterian elder William Hays along with the help of a few Catholic friends implemented the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays code). They created moral guidelines to dictate what Hollywood could show on screen. Acts such as lustful kissing, nudity, ridicule of clergy, and blasphemy were all strictly prohibited. The scientist in the 1931 pre-code Frankenstein claims, “Now I know what it feels like to be God,” but in the 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, the scientist’s God-complex is sanitized. Likewise, the 1941 remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sacrifices story in favor of chastity. With a few very notable exceptions (such as Psycho), the horror films of this era were pure—they just weren’t very good.
In 1968 the production code lifted. Five years later came The Exorcist. The slasher flicks of the eighties and nineties came in the next wave of horror films. They followed a similar morality tale format but with its own spin on purity: teen sex equals death. The trend led to the establishment of the “final girl” trope, where, at the end of a horror movie, a morally and sexually pure heroine either escapes or overcomes the evil forces at play.
Thus played out the relationship of horror movies and Christianity for decades—legalistic, moralistic enmeshment. While pre-Victorian values have roots in Christianity, they do not themselves point to Christ. To suggest they do is to suggest Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees are agents of God’s bidding. That’s problematic theology.
It’s also problematic morality. Recent horror films (Scream, Cabin in the Woods, It Follows) have called into question the tropes about morality, and for good reason. I don’t think I’d want my daughter to be terrified of sex. And I certainly don’t want her to think God will punish her for every poor decision she makes. Her relationship with God should be one of love, not fear. Scripture speaks often of “fear of the Lord,” but that phrase is more about reverence than horror.
No, if you want to find God in a movie like The Exorcist, you’ll have to look elsewhere. It’s about monsters, not morals. Moral grandstanding had its moment, but people today aren’t searching for rules; they’re looking for God. And by depicting supernatural evil, horror carves out the possibility for its opposite. It makes room for the divine.
More than any other genre of film, horror movies are profoundly spiritual. And that feeling you get after watching particularly effective horror? That ridiculous sensation that has you checking your reflection in the bathroom mirror and sleeping with the lights on? Those thoughts you can’t shake are the lingering effects of the age-old question: Is it true? Karl Barth says this same question fills worshippers minds each Sunday when sitting to hear a sermon. Horror films force us to look beyond ourselves and confront big-picture questions that otherwise may only be answered on Sundays. Alyssa Wilkinson, film critic at Vox, says horror movies are perhaps the only channel outside the church that invites our increasingly secular culture to consider the supernatural. Horror is a gateway into the realm of spirituality. By forcing us to confront evil, horror draws us closer to God.
Horror films are not particularly Christian—though I would argue The Exorcist is. Nor are they worshipful, and they’re certainly not holy. But they are spiritual, and in a secular age, maybe that’s enough. They scare. They hint at forces beyond our control. And maybe—late at night, with all the lights turned on—they’ll bring us to prayer.
Cover image by Daniel Jensen.
 Peter W. Marty, “Living the Truth, Not Just Believing It,” The Christian Century, May 5, 2017, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/publisher/living-truth-not-just-believing-it.
 Joshua Rogers, “Five Questions With Film Critic Alissa Wilkinson,” Boundless, July 6, 2015, https://www.boundless.org/blog/five-questions-with-film-critic-alissa-wilkinson/.