Horror Films and Religious Illiteracy

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John Morehead has posted a brand new interview with author and academic Douglas Cowan (author of “Cyberhenge: Modern Pagans on the Internet”) concerning the interface of religion and horror films on his excellent TheoFantastique blog. In the interview Cowan discusses popular Pagan-themed films like “The Craft” and “The Wicker Man”, and how movies and other popular entertainment mediums have helped reinforce the notion of the religious “Other” as dangerous.

“In terms of new religious movements – or any religion, really – three things are significant here: a basic religious illiteracy that is pandemic in our society; the sociophobic power of the word ‘cult’; and three decades of media stigma and stereotyping that has contributed to both of these.”

While exploring these topics, Cowan mentions Stephen Prothero’s recently released book “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-and Doesn’t” (which I’m currently reading) which posits that religious education has deteriorated to dangerous levels in our society. As a side effect, many people learn about Catholicism through films like “The Exorcist” or Wicca through “The Craft”.

“People who watch The Exorcist or The Craft – the former allegedly based on a true story, the latter which had a real Witch as a consultant on the production – cannot discern which are the ‘real bits’ and which are pure Hollywood. In The Craft, actual lines from the First Degree Initiation into Gardnerian Wicca is mixed with more sensationalized action sequences. The problem is that many people seem unable (or unwilling) to make adequate distinctions between these, and this is something filmmakers can exploit.”

I suggest reading the entire interview, which goes into quite a bit of depth on these subjects. You should also check out the first interview (part one, part two) Moorehead conducted with Cowan that covered similar ground. Douglas Cowan also has a book coming out soon entitled “Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen” that explores these subjects further. Perhaps Cowan’s work (and Moorehead’s) marks a positive step towards de-emphasizing the unhealthy “sociophobic” effects of these films on minority faiths by encouraging a more critical attitude towards religious themes exploited for popular entertainment, and advocating for better religious literacy across the board.