Horror and Catholicism have walked hand in hand on screen for almost a century. From Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 film “Häxan” to Mike Flanagan’s 2021 Netflix series “Midnight Mass,” scary films and television shows have portrayed the Catholic religion in both reverent and shocking ways.
“Midnight Mass” incorporates both approaches.
Set in a small, mostly Catholic community, the series gives a detailed depiction of everyday Catholic life. It also suggests an uncanny side to some elements of the religion, particularly the central sacrament of the Eucharist, or Communion, in which participants are understood to partake of the literal body and blood of Christ.
For many believers, Catholic ritual is meant to evoke a sense of wonder. For others, it can call up distrust of the religion’s overt mystical and supernatural claims and anger at the ongoing scandals within the Church.
In my experience as a scholar of religion in film, horror movies can offer a complex picture of Catholic belief, ritual and daily experience.
Demon-fighters and exorcism
Many horror films depict Catholic ritual as a means of fighting evil, especially demonic possession.
For instance, “The Conjuring,” a horror film franchise, fictionalizes the experiences of Ed and Lorraine Warren, a married couple, who are self-professed demon hunters and lifelong devout Catholics. In the films – “The Conjuring,” its two sequels, and the prequels “Annabelle” and “The Nun” – the Warrens employ the instruments of their faith, including prayer and sacramental objects such as rosary beads, to free possessed people.
In other films, often with the words “exorcist” or “exorcism” in the title, Catholic clergy are the heroes in the fight against evil. These movies often depict priests as martyrs whose sacrifices may even absolve them from violence they commit during the ritual.
In the 1973 film “The Exorcist,” which centers around the possession of 12-year-old character Regan MacNeil, two priests give up their lives in an attempt to expel the demon. The film has also been criticized for representing physical violence in a way that it appears necessary for saving the young female protagonist.
Similar violence is questioned within the 2005 film “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” In it, a priest is found guilty of homicide after the titular character dies during an exorcism. The movie’s narrative ultimately absolves him of moral, if not legal, guilt for her death because he believes himself to be acting according to the will of God.
Catholic symbols and the fight against evil
Screen heroes often don’t have to be priests, or even Catholic, to fight evil with Catholic ritual and symbols. In horror television and film, vampire hunters employ religious symbols like the Christian cross, but also specifically Catholic elements such as holy water and the consecrated Communion wafer. Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” leans heavily on such Catholic symbols.
Still, not all screen vampires fear the emblems of Catholicism. Many narratives make a point of the inefficacy of sacramental objects. These films and series include “The Strain,” “Interview with the Vampire” and even the “Twilight” franchise.
More importantly, many vampire narratives make use of the Catholic doctrine that the bread and wine consumed during Mass are the literal body and blood of Christ. Such stories connect Catholic rituals and vampirism. In fact, “Midnight Mass” creator Mike Flanagan has statedthat Catholic ritual and vampirism are “explicitly linked. You are dealing with a mythology that is steeped in blood ritual and resurrection.”
Other types of screen horror subvert or dismiss Catholic ritual and symbolism altogether. According to scholar Jana Toppe, modern zombie stories represent the opposite of Catholic belief regarding eternal life.
Toppe suggests that zombie narratives have come to “satirize” the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. In most zombie films, the eating of flesh does lead to a resurrection of a body, but one without a soul.
For every horror film that sees the rituals of Catholicism as instruments in the fight against evil, another portrays the Church itself as evil.
This representation dates at least back to horror’s roots in the 18th-century Gothic novel, which dramatized the Enlightenment distrust of the irrational in general and the supposedly occult and uncanny nature of Catholicism in particular.
Gothic’s use of Catholic tropes – ruined abbeys, lecherous priests, nuns walled up in convents and so on – created a picture of the religion that could be both repellent and fascinating to readers.
According to scholar Susan Griffin, in England and in 19th- and early 20th-century North America, Catholics – usually from countries outside the English-speaking world – were often portrayed as a “racialized other” in Gothic as well as early horror.
Horror’s critique of Catholicism
For years, horror film and television have also critiqued the Church’s secular and political influence, as well as the moral failures and sins of its adherents and hierarchy.
Horror narratives often reflect the Church’s reluctance to recognize or acknowledge the evil in its own midst. This has tragic relevance both in light of the child sex abuse crisis and its cover-up, as well as revelations about the treatment of Indigenous children in boarding schools administered by Catholic religious orders, among other groups.
Horror can call up historical abuses. The 2018 film “The Devil’s Doorway” is a supernatural film inspired by the abuse experienced by women at Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, where the so called “fallen women” were confined and subjected to hard labor. In another example, the 2015 Polish film “Demon” combines Catholic characters with the Jewish mythological figure of the “dybbuk,” a spirit of the dead, to interrogate Catholic complicity in the Holocaust.
Other narratives critique the institutional church while treating faith respectfully. In the television series “Evil,” for example, a Catholic psychologist and an atheist raised in the Muslim faith investigate supernatural occurrences for the Vatican alongside a tortured but devout Catholic seminarian. In doing so, they address issues within the church such as abuse, racism, misogyny and clericalism, or the privileging the clergy over everyday believers.
Complexities of Catholicism and horror
The representation of Catholicism in horror is varied and complex, and emphasizes the narrative and aesthetic creativity, as well as the subversive nature, of a genre so often undervalued as merely shocking and violent. Flanagan’s show is a case in point.
“Midnight Mass” exposes religious intolerance, including the othering of the community’s Muslim sheriff, which recalls representations of Catholics in the Gothic novel. The show also decries false piety and draws attention to the evil that can result from blind religious belief.
At the same time, the series emphasizes the possibility of redemption, as well as the complexity and authenticity in each character’s religious experience.
In “Midnight Mass” and other narratives, screen horror’s evocations of Catholicism parallel the intricacies and contradictions, along with the good and the evil, within the Church itself, and perhaps within all powerful institutions.