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6+6+6: In celebration of Easter, here are 18 must see films that explore the crossroads of religion and horror, and often the distinct merging of the two.

“I think the point is to make us despair, to see ourselves as animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.” – Father Merrin, The Exorcist
Intro by Matthew Currie Holmes

When discussing religion in horror, the first movie that comes to everyones mind, almost immediately is William Friedkin’s 1973 masterpiece The Exorcist. It is not only the archetype but also the aspiration for all other religious themed horror films. It’s been 46 years and this behemoth still reigns supreme both in quality of scares and masterful filmmaking. No other film on this great list holds a candle to The Exorcist, and every one of them owes their very existence to it.

That’s not to say there are not sublime movies on this list. On the contrary, I would argue that every single film mentioned below is worthy of repeat viewing and, I am happy to state that most of these movies have been enjoyed more than once by yours truly. I should also confess, I have not seen every film listed below, and that thrills me to know that, based on the effusive praise bestowed upon them, I will be discovering some knockouts.

While it is clearly evident that The Exorcist is absent from this list, it should be stated that was by design.

The Exorcist is seminal and has been written about countless times by countless poets, authors, film historians, film prognosticators, critics, analysts and fans. In short, everything that could possibly be written about The Exorcist has been. We at Morbidly Beautiful wanted to highlight religious-themed movies that, in some instances, were lesser known — and in others, the allegory may be a little more hidden in the subtext. These are films meant to be discovered or revisited.

The final reason The Exorcist was omitted from the list below is because it is sitting up here, above all others, right where it belongs.

FIRST 6

THE WITCH, THE CONJURING, THE OMEN, FRAILTY, THE GOLEM, THE WICKER MAN

“There is no devil, there is no God– there is only here and now and life.” – The Omen
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THE WITCH (2015)

Recommended by Syd Richardson

There’s a lot to be said about what’s found at the intersection of religion and horror, and no other film explores these two themes better than Robert Eggars’ 2015 release, The Witch.

Following a dispute within their Puritan colony, a family of six are banished, and find a new home on the outskirts of a New England forest. Before long, the family — including William, his wife Catherine, eldest daughter Thomasin, son Caleb and twins Mercy and Jonas — find themselves falling victim to the things that lay in the woods, seeking to destroy their faith and, ultimately, their lives.

Religion (invoking the Holy Trinity here) plays three key roles in Eggers’ film: catalyst, savior, and villain.

By preaching what he believes to be the true gospel, William and his family are ostracized from the church, effectively making religion a catalyst for the unfortunate series of events to come.

Religion as savior: Thomasin invokes her faith against her sibling’s accusations that she is a witch, proclaiming her love for the lord and His word. Religion is where Katherine turns, after the baby is stolen, for some small measure of comfort that her husband cannot give her.

And, when wielded by William, religion is the family’s downfall. Though he manages to justify his banishment under the guise of devotion, he puts his family directly in harm’s way. It is the family’s puritanical upbringing that quickly gives rise to mistrust, and discord, effectively breaking them apart as a unit.

By the time the madness dies down, and Thomasin is the only one left standing, it doesn’t take much for her to sign the devil’s book, effectively forfeiting her soul.

Her actions in the finale raise a couple of questions.

Was Thomasin as secure in her faith as we are led to believe in the beginning? The puritanical society of the 1600s didn’t afford women much freedom. Thomasin showed throughout the film that she was a headstrong young woman. Perhaps Thomasin knew what was waiting for her, should she lick her wounds and head back to town: a life of complete servitude, at best, or perhaps being tried and hanged as a witch for her family’s disappearance.

Or was it a matter of the devil breaking Thomasin down by having her doubt her own faith and stealing her family away from her, ultimately forcing her to join him?

Either way, the film ends with a haunting shot of Thomasin floating with the other witches of the woods. We can’t tell if she’s cackling in laughter reserved only for the mad, or if she’s found genuine freedom after being released from her Puritan lifestyle. But I think that mystery is part of the allure of The Witch, and what makes it such a memorable and effective film.

THE CONJURING (2013)

Recommended by Jamie Alvey

We Catholics are known for being one of the more morbid branches of Christianity. After all, we do love graphic depictions of the Crucifixion in our churches, the Stations of the Cross, vengeful angels with multiple eyes, and so on. When you think about Catholicism in horror, The Exorcist certainly comes to mind. It is the poster child for Catholic-tinged horror. However, The Conjuring series that James Wan brought forth is the heir apparent to the throne.

The Conjuring films follow a fictionalized version of real life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga).

Lorraine is the centerpiece of the film, as she’s more religious than her husband. Lorraine is spiritual and straddles the line between this world and the next. She is open about her struggles coming to terms with her psychic-medium abilities, as well as how her faith gave her purpose and direction when it comes to using those talents.

Farmiga gives Lorraine a warm and serene quality, a woman that embodies all the Christ-like love one would hope a devout follower of God to exemplify.

Her reasons for pursuing the unknown and unholy is rooted deeply in aiding others. She is presented as both gentle and fierce. Her ferocity and tenacity is a direct result of what she views as her call to duty from God; even the face of great evil she doesn’t give up. She’s often terrified by the supernatural around her, but her faith does not waver.

At Lorraine’s side is Ed Warren. He shares Lorraine’s faithfulness, but he lacks a deeper understanding of it. Although he puts his trust completely in Lorraine and her abilities, he often worries for her well-being since she is often in direct contact with the supernatural. Ed encompasses the idea of blind faith, and his reverence and belief in Lorraine mirrors his reverence and belief in God.

James Wan gives us characters that represent unfettered love and belief, which Christians should typically strive for. Unlike some religious horror films, The Conjuring portrays religious faith as a powerful weapon against evil, rather than the source of evil itself.

THE OMEN (1976)

The Omen

Recommended by Megan Hopkin

Undeniably iconic, The Omen enjoys a cult following that extends across generations. The story is simple: affluent politician and wife expect baby; baby dies, baby is swapped in secret; swapped baby turns out to be the antichrist and systematically kills any and all who stand in his way to world domination.

The religious undercurrents are obvious; the film is a love letter to gothic architecture, fire and brimstone Catholicism, and the threat of the final reckoning.

Father Brennan, played by Patrick Troughton, specifically embodies the duplicity between religion and human desire.

From a young age, Brennan was beaten to encourage devotion to god. On a mission to Africa, he attempts to convert a boy to Catholicism through the same means, while also exploring a lustful relationship with him. Following the discovery of this, Brennan turned to a faith which embraced his ‘sinful’ actions: Satanism.

It’s only in his dying days that Brennan attempts to atone through warning Robert Thorn (played by Gregory Peck) of the dangers of his son. Attempting to convince Thorn to kill Damien — very sacrificially I might add —definitely invokes images of Isaac and Abraham, as Abraham is ordered by God to kill his own son as a sign of devotion.

Brennan’s death is highly symbolic. It is the church that kills him in the end, via a very unfortunate lightning rod impaling. Brutal murder aside, Unfortunate Lightning Rod Impaling is definitely the new name of my imaginary metal band.

It’s also no coincidence that religion and politics are closely linked throughout the film, making for a very interesting message about the government.

The religious element to The Omen extends past the movie however, as mysterious events around its filming led many to believe a higher power was displeased with the curation.

Gregory Peck’s son, Jonathan, committed suicide during filming, planes carrying actors and writers were struck with lightning, and another charter plane that had to be swapped last minute crashed and killed everyone on board. There was also a fatal car accident, with special effects supervisor John Richardson and his wife Liz Moore, involved. Richardson emerged alive, but Moore was decapitated. Eerily, Richardson had been the one involved with the infamous beheading scene.

The Omen is my pick as one of the big hitters in Religious horror.

FRAILTY (2001)

Frailty

Recommended by Jackie Ruth

The 2001 psychological thriller and crime drama Frailty isn’t just underrated as a religious horror film; it’s underrated as a film, without qualifiers. It’s one of the great works of the late Bill Paxton’s career, as he both directed and starred in it.

Frailty follows the Meiks family, led by Paxton’s patriarch, who has two sons, Fenton (Matt O’Leary) and Adam (Jeremy Sumpter). It flips back and forth between the past, when the boys were young, and the present, when an adult Fenton (Matthew McConaughey) comes to the FBI with some information about a series of murders.

It doesn’t sound particularly religious, right? Well, that mostly comes from the timeline when Paxton’s character was raising the boys. You see, he had a clear message from God that there were demons in the world, and that he and the boys needed to rid the world of these demons — via murder. The wrench in the plan comes from Fenton becoming skeptical. The demons, after all, look like everyday human beings, which would make his father a murderer, not the left hand of God.

A lot of horror films that use religion lean on Catholicism (fair; it gets pretty scary), but there is a different kind of Christianity represented in Frailty.

Frailty

This film is, at times, uncomfortable to watch. Between the way the Meiks father treats his sons and the way he treats the alleged demons, you wonder if he isn’t really just a violent psychopath, using religion as an excuse and an outlet. The psychological aspects of this narrative will keep you guessing about the film’s true meaning up until the end (or at least near it).

If, like myself, you’re skeptical of people as fanatically religious as the Meiks, then Frailty will hit home. You may even make feel vindicated, and it might get you to question all kinds of beliefs.

That’s what makes this such a standout movie, and why it’s one of the early 2000s horror films that actually gained a fair bit of critical acclaim. Whether or not the critical reception matters to you, there’s no denying that it has an impact on how a film is viewed more widely.

If you haven’t had the chance to see Frailty, I recommend you watch it while you’re staying at home — it is a real treat.

THE GOLEM (2018)

Recommended by Lizzy VB

Starting with Paul Wegener’s eponymous 1915 film, one of the first stories ever to be adapted into a motion picture trilogy was the legendary tale of the golem. Not to be confused with JRR Tolkien’s cave-dwelling ring enthusiast, Gollum, a golem is a recurring figure in Jewish folklore, generally a supernatural being molded from earth and brought to life to do its creator’s bidding.

In 2018, the story was given another interpretation by Israeli filmmakers Doron and Yoav Paz in The Golem.

The film delves not only into the familiar folktale, but also explores how the mythology relates to themes of ethics, persecution, gender roles, and choice.

In The Golem, Hani Furstenberg plays Hanna, a woman living in a Lithuanian shtetl in the 1600s during an outbreak of The Black Death. A group of gentiles who live nearby suspect their Jewish neighbors of cursing them with the plague, and threaten to massacre the village unless the spell is lifted. Hanna fears for her people, yet her ability to intervene is limited by the norms dictating women’s behavior in her deeply traditional religious society.

With a stubborn determination that defines her character, Hanna defies the admonitions of the patriarchs and takes it upon herself to fight back. Having secretly studied Kabbalah from Jewish mystical texts, Hanna finds a way to summon a golem, which she believes is the only thing that can save her community. Once animated, the golem proves to be a powerful protective force. Though it remains linked to its creator’s will, it is not long before the villagers realize that the creature is unpredictable and difficult to control, as it begins to terrorize the people it was meant to defend.

Golem narratives often invoke ethical questions of an individual’s right to intervene for the greater good, even if others must suffer as a result.

In many horror stories with religious themes, the use of magic or science to meddle in life and death is often represented as an act of defiance against God or submission to Satan. In Jewish lore, the golem and the forces used to create it are neither good nor evil, but simply reflect their human creator’s intentions. The golem reveals more about Hanna than it does about the power that gave it life, its deeds a manifestation of both Hanna’s destructive and protective inner desires.

While golems are usually simple anthropomorphized blocks of mud, this creature takes the form of a perfectly formed flesh-and-blood human boy.

The choice to depict the golem as a child, with a female creator, illustrates the film’s central focus on the question of who has the ability and the right to create life and to destroy it — a question that is compounded by Hanna’s complicated relationship with motherhood, fertility, and autonomy over her own body.

Judaism as a backdrop for supernatural religious horror offers an opportunity to focus away from predictable contrasts between good versus evil, or between God versus the devil. In many ways, Judaism is more preoccupied with the grey areas that reign in the human realm. Hanna’s world is dominated by strict rules about the choices a person is expected to make to stay in God’s graces.

But in the face of the vilest human impulse to destroy one another, intervention from God or the devil is nowhere to be seen. All that remains is personal choice.

THE WICKER MAN (1973)

Wicker Man

Recommended by Richard Rowntree

Often cited as one of the films belonging to the “Unholy Trinity” of the Folk Horror sub-genre (alongside Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General), The Wicker Man is a fascinating exploration of religion in horror – primarily because of the juxtaposition of the religions represented within the film.

Whereas a lot of religious themes in horror focus on the traditional battle of “good” (see; religious) vs. “evil” (within the belief systems presented in the texts), The Wicker Man instead relies on the differentiation between the religions of the main characters. The fanaticism of belief is where the true horror lies.

The puritan protagonist of the film is Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) – a stern, unlikeable character who embodies the Christian faith at its most extreme. He doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, he holds other belief systems in disdain, and he generally considers himself better than anybody who doesn’t share his beliefs. In the course of his job as a policeman in rural Scotland, he is summoned to Summerisle – a small island, only reachable by sea plane. His mission: to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a young girl named Rowan.

On arrival, he is immediately immersed into what he views as a “primitive” culture with a pagan belief system, one which gently eases its claws into his psyche and, eventually, his physical being. 

At the centre of the island is Lord Summerisle, played by Hammer staple Christopher Lee in a deliciously over-the-top performance. He holds court over his people while they engage in naked dancing around fires, amidst a Neolithic stone circle in the grounds of his grand home. They wait with bated breath on his plans for them. And generally, they all seem far more concerned with the success of the forthcoming harvest than the whereabouts of the poor missing child.

When Howie eventually discovers the whereabouts of Rowan, she leads him to discover the real reason why he came to the island – to become a ritualistic sacrifice to the Pagan Gods of the islanders. And it is because of his puritanical beliefs that he must be sacrificed to the giant Wicker Man sculpture. His own God has forsaken him, and despite knowing this, he still holds strong with his beliefs.

In a brilliant twist, the protagonist is never likable. Rather, his dogged faith actually allows the audience to side with the antagonists of the film. As an exercise in contrasting belief systems, The Wicker Man stands alone.

SECOND 6

END OF DAYS, HELLRAISER, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, RED STATE, CARRIE, MARTYRS

“Can you imagine what happens to us after death? Be doubtful.” – Martyrs
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END OF DAYS (1999)

Recommended by Jason McFiggins

The end of days may not have happened, but the end of all breakfast smoothies did: mix coffee, Pepto-Bismol, what’s left in the glass from last night’s beer, a little leftover Chinese, and dash of pizza found on the floor — and voila! Breakfast is served. It’s the kind of over-the-top goofiness we’ve come to expect from hard drinking, faithless, tough guy, anti-hero movie cops. And Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Jericho Cane in End of Days is no different.

In this big budget, Hollywood action/thriller, the copy-and-paste formula runs rampant (including the wise cracking sidekick, played by Kevin Pollak). But Arnold is always game for these bombastic, devil-may-care type of roles. Besides, it takes a devil to catch the devil. And between the two, my money’s on Arnold.

But the end times will require more than just a come-get-some attitude and big ass guns — being held up by muscles the size of human heads — in order for Arnold to save the day.

He’ll have to exercise a different kind of muscle, one he has long ignored: faith.

Looks like the big guy needs a little help from The Big Guy, even though he chooses not to believe in Him after his wife and young daughter were tragically killed. His chance to make amends with the Man upstairs comes in the form of Christine York (Robin Tunney), a young woman destined to carry the child of Satan (Gabriel Byrne, a slimy, smooth talking, scene stealer).

This is where the redemption