Saturday, December 29, 2012

Sacred Terror: Mini-Review #2


In my first mini-review of Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen, I basically talked about the power of religious belief in the framing of a horror story, and how objects of religious fear are often used in horror movies, and how horror movies very often play off these objects of religious fear, take expected, trusted religious conventions and invert them, and how horror can portray our feeling of apprehension in our dealings with the  "unseen order" that we may or may not believe (but perhaps suspect) pushes against us on a daily basis.

Today, I'm going to look at Cowan's attempts to define both "religious" and "horror." Basically, he once again finds fear to be central to both of these: that the center of any religion is essentially fear - IE., the Christian ethic that we are to "work out our faith with great fear and trembling" - and that the chief aim of a horror movie is to invoke fear in the audience.



Like Noel Carroll in The Philosophy of HorrorCowan points out that every movie genre has it's best and worst examples, that, just as there are "smart" action movies that are exciting AND thought-provoking and there are ones that feature nothing but mindless action and violence, there are horror movies that aspire to greatness, that traffic in lofty themes, and others that simply seek to disgust or "gross-out" its audiences, and that horror cinema as a whole should be judged on its finest attempts,  not its attempts at exploitation (although Cowan disagrees with this a bit in the fact that ALL directors are trying to exploit SOMETHING in order to tell a story with a theme, and that exploitation isn't necessarily a bad thing). Noel Carroll went further in his explanation, differentiating between films aimed at exploitation, and films at least aspiring to what he called art-horror.

Cowan also points out the difference between religious belief and "being spiritual," citing the development in today's society of people eschewing organized religions in favor of pursuing a "spiritual outlook on life", even though that's not clearly defined.   Because of this, Cowan adopts a definition from American psychologist and philosopher William James:

"...the life of religion...the belief there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto..."

Cowan believes this definition fits his purposes best, because it accounts not only for "accepted"  organized mainstream religions, but also extreme faiths deemed as "cults" and those who believe they live "spiritual lives." So therefore, horror films trafficking in "religious fear" portray themes of SOMETHING pushing against, or violating, or inverting our attempts to harmoniously adjust ourselves to an unseen order, or our ambivalence and apprehension about our interaction with that unseen order.

Of course, Cowan then cites philosopher and Christian Theologian Rudolph Otto, and his thoughts on "religious dread." Now, I've already dealt with Otto in my examination of The Philosophy of Horror, but in brief: Otto felt that fear of a holy, divine, supreme OTHER was at the very core of not only our existence - whether we "believe," or not - but at the core of every religious belief and practice, but not only are we AFRAID of the "holy," we are attracted to it as well, in some sort of mixed response of fear/attraction to something larger, greater, and ABOVE us. But this could be applied to "demonic" orders as well, because they are bigger and larger than us, and inspire in us feelings of fear. 

Cowan then cites examples of movies that employ this "religious dread." He begins with a very obvious example: Lost Souls, (trailer) staring Winona Ryder and Ben Chaplin. This movie deals with "religious dread" in a very direct way, the fear of the Antichrist rising, possessing an innocent human being, and bringing forth the "End Times." Cowan calls this a film about the "naziresis of evil" - "films that present audiences with the possibility of a satanic legacy, the expectation of a child dedicated in some way to the devil."

And indeed, this movie does all the things Cowan has been talking about: inverts our expectations of religious orders, with a Catholic Church and priest that initially seems very dismissive of "evil", then (SPOILER) is revealed to be complicit in the plot to raise the Antichrist. Lost Souls has all the recognizable religious "signifiers": bottles of holy water, the cross/inverted crosses, pentagrams, scripture readings in Latin, chanting, exorcisms, satanic plots...the whole deal. 

An interesting note that Cowan makes here, regarding the power religious dread has over the general viewer's subconscious, is that Lost Souls begins with a bogus verse quotation from the Bible:

...a man born of incest
will become Satan
And the world as we know it,
will be no more - Deuteronomy 17

This verse isn't found anywhere in the Bible, but it hints at the knowledge filmmakers have about the resonance of anything religiously themed, the understanding that most viewers will read this verse - and even if only casually religious - will somewhere inside feel a small shiver at its implications, because they  subconsciously assign it supernatural authority.

In Lost Souls, Maya (Winona Ryder) works with Exorcists in the Catholic Church, because she was possessed once herself, and has now dedicated her life to fighting evil. She KNOWS evil exists, and has been delivered from it, but she can't seem to get anyone in the mainstream - including mainstream Catholic officials - to take her fears about the coming Antichrist seriously. Of course, we learn this is because there's a sect WITHIN the Catholic Church (betrayal at the highest order, like in Carpenter's Vampires) that is part of the satanic plot. 

Also, Peter - the object of this cult's "worship" and "preparation" - is completely innocent, and helpless in the face of his future possession. He's unaware that he was conceived through an incestuous relationship, unaware of the plot surrounding him. Peter's inability to do anything about his possession is an inversion of most religious beliefs and faiths, which usually hinge very heavily on "free will", involving some sort of CHOICE - AKA, another great movie of "religious fear", The Devil's Advocate, with Keanu Reeves (trailer), in which our character can at LEAST still choose, at some point, his path (although, that movie traffics in another "religious fear" in that, even after we choose, we're going to be set up to fall again and again and again...). In Lost Souls, no matter what he does, Peter's destined to be the Antichrist. It's out of his hands. He's doomed.

On a side note of my own, there are SCORES - maybe even hundreds - of "Catholic/Protestant" movies dealing with these above themes, so many, that even their efforts at "inversion" have become expected, in a way. Like another very heavily Catholic "religious horror" movie, End of Days (trailer), another movie about the rise of the Antichrist, remarkably similar to Lost Souls in both its themes and execution. Except, of course, in that movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger wins, because, well...Arnold always wins.


A movie that I found far more disturbing, especially given my own personal beliefs was The Ninth Gate(trailer) starring Johnny Depp. 

Instead of religious trappings like the Church, priests, exorcists, Catholic/Protestant signifiers, the Antichrist rising to usher in the end of the world, in The Ninth Gate we have a somewhat agnostic book collector played by Johny Depp, who's asked at the beginning of the movie: "Are you a religious man? I mean, do you believe in the supernatural?"

This movie targets forbidden, unknown knowledge, of a satanic order...but there's no "religious" institutions in this movie set off against it, portraying this forbidden knowledge as necessarily evil.  Dangerous and violent and alien, yes...but not necessarily evil.




Dean (Depp) has no religious beliefs or aims of his own, at first, he's just trying to do his job: track down a book for someone.  He gets drawn into a supernatural web - an "unseen order," in this case, one that's "demonic", and in a COMPLETE inversion of what we expect, that people generally try to align themselves harmoniously to a "good" order, in this movie, everyone is  trying to align themselves with an "evil" order. Depp is somewhat innocently drawn into all of this, and the ending (spoiler) of Depp walking through the Ninth Gate, obtaining this enlightened, "forbidden" knowledge, is also an inversion...because it's portrayed as a good thing. A happy ending, because Depp was able to open the door to this forbidden realm, when others could not.

That's enough for now. In my next blog, I'll look at Cowan's examinations of movies that deal with the religious indirectly, in particular, the movie Ghost Ship.