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“The power of Christ compels you!” Those words are arguably most recognized from the iconic 1973 movie THE EXORCIST, a film that broke several barriers in horror for its controversial subject, grotesque special effects, and its lasting effect on cinema. The film’s release, along with other classics such as ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE OMEN, ushered in a new genre of horror: religious horror, where no child is safe and ouija boards are almost always to blame when a demon crawls straight from the depths of Catholic hell to torment mortals.

By now, harrowing tales of demonic possessions are all too familiar to movie-goers, and audiences are well aware of the formula for these “based on a true story” films: an innocent child is possessed by some demonic figure—cue creepy shots of this child speaking out loud when no one is there, presumably to the demon inside of them. Then there’s a scene in which the child levitates or starts speaking Latin in a deep and creepy voice. They are then ultimately saved either through exorcism by a priest or by another character’s sacrifice to save them. (i.e. Father Karras in THE EXORCIST or Evelyn in ANNABELLE).

From this formulaic structure often comes clichés and tropes which seem to pervade nearly every religious horror film, from the always-surprising ability of characters to make the worst possible decision of all the choices they have to the all-knowing and all-sensing Hispanic housekeepers who clutch their rosaries and burn sage (and meanwhile mutter about how stupid white people are—a good observation). The genre could use a bit of creativity and refreshment; dramatic irony is not the unpredictable and suspenseful cinematic technique it used to be. Religious horror films have become stale and distinctly not scary. Let’s take a look at the tropes that contribute to this most heavily.

1. Protect the women!

The Conjuring 2 (2016)

For whatever reason, demonic possession seems to only happen to young girls or slightly older, conventionally attractive women. The victim could be presented as either a naive little girl having to cope with her parents’ separation, a slightly rebellious teenage girl battling through adolescence, or a stay-at-home mother struggling to do what is best for her family, but the two formers are more prominent within religious horror.

It could be that filmmakers wish to focus on a specific type of terror, one that corrupts innocence; seeing a child taken over by something naturally evil would make any parent tremble and any adult afraid if not, at the very least, uncomfortable, but why is this tactic only used on young women? Or are demons and malevolent spirits really only attracted to girls and young women? Seems a tad unlikely.

Possession films so rarely focus on boys or men as victims that it took going through a list of 100 possession films to find that only several of them didn’t involve a woman as the target. INSIDIOUS, THE RITE, and A HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT are three films which didn’t center on a female victim, though more recent films such as INSIDIOUS 3, THE POSSESSION, OUIJA: ORIGINS OF EVIL, and THE CONJURING 2 continue the trend. Not only is the victim of possession almost always female, the presence that is attacking her is almost always a masculine one, which inevitably adds an unnecessary, heteronormative sexual charge to the situation.

READ: Interested in our discussion on the sympathetic monster in horror? Then check out this article!

In INSIDIOUS 3, teenager Quinn Brenner falls victim to an entity that resembles a man and has been called “the wheezing demon.” In THE POSSESSION, a young girl named Emily and her sister Hannah are adjusting to their new life following their parent’s divorce. Emily discovers an antique box at a garage sale and buys it to bring home with her. The box is home to a dybbuk, the name for a malevolent spirit native to the tradition of Judaism, and it slowly starts to influence Emily and turn her violent before fully possessing her.

THE CONJURING 2 focuses on young Janet, who is living with her single mother and three siblings in 1977 London. She becomes possessed by the spirit of the elderly man who previously lived and died in their home. SPOILER—it is worth noting that the spirit of the man was also victim to the demon that was controlling him to possess Janet. In OUIJA: ORIGINS OF EVIL, daughter Doris becomes possessed by a demon called Marcus after her con-artist mother stages a séance using a Ouija board. Past films such as THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, THE ENTITY, and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY all feature women as the central  victims of possession or attack. And this isn’t even a comprehensive list.

There are many theories to explain these film choices, one of them being that it’s easier for audiences to sympathize with a female victim because of their assumed vulnerability. But we’ll get to that later.

2. Even satanic worship and séances can get dull!

Paranormal Activity (2009)

How many times have we seen the characters in a horror film meddle with something that obviously is not meant to be meddled with? Playing with Ouija boards, performing seances, or naively repeating the name of an evil spirit while looking in a mirror are just a few of the idiotic choices we see repeated throughout horror films. This is where the concept of dramatic irony comes into play. First off, what is dramatic irony? Well, it’s a plot device used in film and theater in which the audience is well aware of the conflicts, actions, situations, and results, but the characters are not.

In the case of horror movies, it’s that moment when you see the masked murderer enter a house where their next victim is obliviously sitting in their living room and watching television. If the murderer successfully kills this person as you predicted, then dramatic irony has occurred. In religious horror, dramatic irony is even more apparent. Right off the bat, the audience already knows that the nothing good will come from a character trying to contact spirits or play with a Ouija board. These are forces the character cannot ever understand or control and audiences already know that the second a girl asks if there are any spirits in the room, she’s screwed.

As useful as dramatic irony is to keep the audience clued in on potential actions and resolutions, for once I would like to be surprised or just as scared as the characters when a major conflict or antagonist is revealed in a film, which brings us to satanic worship.

READ: Check out this in-depth analysis on “idiots” in horror and why they’re survival instincts aren’t the greatest!

The fear of all things satanic was a big thing back in the late ’80s into early ’90s, but by now those threats are so played out in cinema that I can only say “Oh, of course,” when a character reveals some sort of cult was involved in what led to the possession of an innocent person or the haunting of an expensive home.

In ANNABELLE, the protagonists’ neighbors, the Higgins, are murdered in the night by their estranged daughter, Annabelle, who was involved in a cult (The Disciples of the Ram) with her boyfriend. She then breaks into the home of John and Mia Form (the film’s main characters) and attempts to murder them but instead commits suicide by slitting her throat in the baby room. Upon dying, some of Annabelle’s blood drops into the eye of the doll she is holding in her arms and her soul is transferred into the doll, much like in CHUCKIE.

In PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 it is revealed that Katie, the woman from the first film, had a grandmother who was involved in a demonic coven and initiated Katie into the group, which allowed for a demon to latch itself onto Katie when she was still young and thus follow her throughout her life.

Obviously, demons and evil spirits have to come from somewhere and satanic worship or foolish curiosity provide the perfect explanation for such appearances. Still, I wouldn’t object to a change in plot progression—for example, incidents that don’t involve little girls speaking to “friends in their closet” or the male characters always being the last to admit that something might be going on in their house.

And that brings us to the final trope…

3. The Rational Male

Deliver Us from Evil (2014)

Compared to a female protagonist or victim, a male protagonist is expected to stare in the face of danger and aid the other characters in solving all problems. Not only that, the male characters are the backbone, the support, and even the strength in religious horror films. They are the first to ask questions, the first to voice their disbelief, and the first to take necessary action when faced with difficult choices. 

In most cases, the male characters are not easily swayed nor are they as emotional as their female counterparts. This type of character can come in the form of a husband or boyfriend who doesn’t yet believe, or makes light of, his wife or girlfriend’s claims of a force traumatizing her—as seen in ANNABELLE and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. Or maybe he is a cop or a detective who has seen enough evil committed at the hands of humans to believe in any paranormal causes as is the case in DELIVER US FROM EVIL.

READ: Interested in scary comics? Check out our article on the history and legacy of EC comics and the art of horror!

It’s understandable that audiences are quick to sympathize more easily with a woman or a young girl since the very fact that they are female raises the assumptions that they are more emotional and simply more vulnerable. This enforces the idea that men are primarily preserved to be the rational thinkers, not intuitive or spiritual or even remotely religious unless they’re a priest coming to save a tormented family, or spend a majority of the film performing exorcisms like with the film THE DEVIL INSIDE. If a male character does become the victim of possession, there is a higher risk of violent tendencies—and no I don’t mean mentally throwing others against walls —such as murdering loved ones or attempting murder, as shown in THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and THE SHINING.

The Shining (1980)

To this, I ask: would audiences be so against more male characters becoming helpless victims of possession rather than turning into axe-wielding murderers? Would witnessing a child, a teenage boy, or even an adult male at the mercy of a demonic presence be an earth-shattering concept? This isn’t simply about shaking up gender roles, because even if all of the female victims were suddenly swapped out for males it wouldn’t make the films necessarily better. All of the tropes that come with such movies would have to be challenged in the end to make something that actually felt “new.”

READ: Halloween just isn’t complete without a good scary movie. Check out this list of movies you can’t miss if you loved the classics!

At their core, religious horror films serve as morality lessons. Whether or not the viewer shares the beliefs of the religion being presented to them doesn’t matter. The film’s purpose is to warn the audience against tampering with the unknown: don’t call upon spirits because you may open a portal to another realm, don’t use Ouija boards because demons are always waiting for their chance to enter into our world, and never live in an old home without having it blessed first because there will almost always be a vengeful spirit lying in wait for its victims.

The tropes that still exist within horror have had a long run because of how well they worked in previous films, which are now considered classics. But we’ve come a long way and it’s time filmmakers got creative with their spooky story telling. If no better explanation can be thought of for “Suzie’s” strange behavior other than discovering her favorite playground was built on an ancient burial ground, then leave the skeletons of those vengeful spirits in the dirt where they belong.  

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