Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Redemptive Fear: A Review of Sacred Terror and Further Analyses of Religious Horror Films

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Redemptive Fear: A Review of Sacred Terror and Further Analyses of Religious Horror Films

Article excerpt

[1] Stewart Hoover was indeed right when he wrote "for some time the study of mass media has been on the margins of theological and religious studies, leaving it to scholars from other fields to ruminate on the relationships between theology and the forms of mass media." (1) This marginalization explains Robert Johnston's need for an "apologia" in his argument for the importance of studying religion and film in his first edition of Reel Spirituality. (2) Both Hoover and Johnston observe, however, that this paradigm is shifting and note an emerging interest in the relationship between religion and media by scholars in both religion and media studies. (3) Such scholars have begun to explore the interaction between religion and media, and specifically between religion and film. Despite this trend there has been a lag in works that explore the relationship between religion and the particular genre of horror. Indeed, Bryon Stone notes that none of the major books on religion and film discuss this topic in depth. (4) This marginalization cannot be explained by the unpopularity of the genre, or its insignificance; many of the recurring themes in horror films--Count Dracula, Satan (or "the beast"), demons, exorcism, or paranormal activities--are major icons in the media and form a part of daily conversation. Horror is rooted deeply in our culture and its influence is hard to deny.

[2] Recognizing the dearth of literature exploring religion and horror, Cowan uses his book, Sacred Terror, to present an extended discussion of the research conducted to date on this relationship. Cowan argues, "to ignore them [the connection] is to deny the value and validity of this most basic of human experiences." (5) Cowan's arguments on the subject are convincing. His assertion that horror is where scholars should look into in order to explore the sociophobics of the audience is difficult to refute given the popularity of this genre. Similarly, the implications of horror on theological importance are equally important. I begin by discussing Sacred Terror--the most up to date and comprehensive work on the topic.

Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen

... my basic argument in Sacred Terror is that religiously oriented cinema horror remains a significant material disclosure of deeply embedded cultural fears of the supernatural and an equally entrenched ambivalence about the place and power of religion in society as the principal means of negotiating those fears. (6)

[3] Early in his book, Cowan defines the scope of his definition of religion as well as the types of horror films that he will discuss. First of all, the phrase "cultural fears of the supernatural" in the above statement emphasizes a particular aspect of religion. It is tempting and occasionally legitimate, especially for scholars of religion or theology, to argue that narrowing the concept of religion and spirituality to the realm of the supernatural is not a fair treatment of what religion really is. (7) However, focusing on the broader understanding of religion may not be helpful for the discussion on the relationship between religion and horror films. Indeed using such a broad definition of religion leads to the conclusion that every aspect of film viewing is simply religious and thus negates the need for further discussion. Furthermore, in today's society the majority do not hold to the ancient idea that religion is human culture. On the other hand, limiting the concept of religion to institutionalized practices also has its flaws. Scholars in both religion and media studies with an interest in the two fields agree that new religious tendencies with a more "subjective turn" do not necessarily identify with the world's major institutionalized religions and yet still have what it takes to be "religious." (8) Given varying definitions of religion, in his work Cowan suggests the core of William James' definition: "the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. …

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