Each year, people debate whether Catholics should watch horror films, but The Exorcist, one of horror's top flicks, is also deeply Catholic (the book and script were both written by Catholic William Peter Blatty).
So, we turned to our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., also a movie buff and a graduate of USC film school, to weigh in on this annual question.
In general, should Catholics watch horror films?
The debate resides in the realm of theological opinions and not doctrine. My opinion is that Catholics can watch horror films. However, I respect the opinions of Catholics that might have a different perspective.
What value is there for Catholics in watching horror films?
By watching horror films, Catholics begin to discern the difference between fear and faith. They’re frightening elements within horror films, for sure, but the best ones, especially the Conjuring Universe films, end in hope and an increase in faith on the part of the characters.
What sort of films are OK for Catholics, and which are better to avoid?
The best horror films are those that tell the truth of the fear they are representing, irrespective of whether there’s any overt religious content or not. So, exorcism stories, done well, represent the best of the faith genre.
For a secular-themed horror film, I thought the lesser-known Kristy was pretty good. It tapped into the fear of being the only student left on campus over break, who then has to outwit a murderous cult. I remember vividly returning from fall break early my freshman year at Notre Dame and being the only student in my wing of the dorm. Haley Bennett’s character also overcomes her opponents in a swimming pool. As a collegiate swimmer, I’m sure I would have done the same.
Secular horror films without a sense of their story’s inner logic should be avoided. I saw Hereditary on a screener years ago and thought it was all over the place.
Are there any films in the genre suitable for whole-family viewing, or is it something for younger family members from high school and up?
I saw The Exorcist on TV syndication as a child, and I was definitely too young. I turned out OK, however ... I think. Generally, I would recommend following the MPA ratings as to age suitability. Although, some films rated PG-13 have less gore but more psychological terror, so take the ratings with a grain of salt.
What lessons can be taken from the best in the horror genre?
Horror scares on a visceral level. There’s almost always a moral or even faith lesson beyond the surface scare elements, at least in the most well-done horror flicks.
Several horror films from the past and present have explicitly Catholic themes. What are the best of those and why?
The aforementioned Conjuring Universe, the original Exorcist film, and the first season of the Fox TV version of The Exorcist (you may omit season two). I also enjoyed The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The German film Requiem (2006) considered the same subject, the possession of Anneliese Martin. Given the same quality horror elements, it’s also a fascinating study to contrast American (“Hollywoodized”) and European (stark and minimalist) styles of filmmaking.
Do horror films have any role in evangelization?
Of course. I will go to my grave saying the best American evangelist in the 20th Century is William Freidkin, director of the The Exorcist (with a big assist from devout writer Blatty). Even some teen-slasher films from the ‘70s and ‘80s usually have a good message on chastity embedded within the gore. I cautiously recommend them, though -- I referred to them once in a homily and a few school moms complained to my pastor.
What would be on your wish list for any future Catholic-themed horror films?
A screenwriter friend of mine brought me in for my first consult in the industry seven years ago. Since demonic spirits are not bound by our sense of physics, he had the idea some spirits follow the first manned mission to Mars. Studios executives couldn’t wrap their minds around a film with two genres: sci-fi and horror. It’s like walking and chewing gum at the same time, I suppose. The original Alien film blended the two well, so there’s always hope for the story in the future.
Name your top three choices for a Halloween-weekend horror film festival.
The Conjuring (2013)
Beyond the Hills (2012, Romania), a subtle European-styled demonic possession film (advisory for profanity and sexual content).
Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.