That Old-Time Horror, Religion
Why is it that religion is so often a source of inspiration for horror tales? Two themes spring immediately to mind, complete with ready-made plots and stock characters: exorcisms and fanatical cults. The classic examples of both date back more than forty years and have inspired endless variations and cheap imitations: William Friedkin’s 1973 blockbuster movie “The Exorcist,” and Stephen King’s 1974 breakout novel Carrie. Put crudely, religion is seen as “good” when the priest is an exorcist battling demons, but religion is seen as “bad” when it comes in the form of a tyrannical cult.
In both instances, we might note that the religion in question is Christianity, and more specifically still, Roman Catholicism for the rite of exorcism. Harmful cults aren’t necessarily Christian, of course, but the obsession that seems to fuel many horror writers’ most powerful stories in this area is with the aversion to sexuality, especially women’s sexuality, embedded deep in the Christian mind all the way back to St. Paul. In Carrie this repression causes hundreds of gruesome deaths, a dark fantasy in harmony with the widespread insistence, during the “sexual revolution” of the 1960’s and 1970’s, that any form of sexual repression was unhealthy, even inhuman. The evil effects of Christian zealotry have continued to reverberate throughout King’s work, most recently in 2014’s Revival.
But religion is potentially a much richer source for horror fiction than just these two themes would suggest, because most of the world’s people are not Christians, and because religion is the wellspring of people’s most deeply held beliefs and fears. Even in increasingly secular societies like America and Western Europe, the great story is people’s quest for an alternative source of meaning, and since that often explains the appeal of ideologies such as nationalism and communism that have inflicted wide-scale horrors, I’d argue that religious or pseudo-religious feeling and its effects can inspire a much broader range of great horror fiction than many readers have been accustomed to.
I became aware of the power of religious themes for horror fiction only gradually as I wrote my four-book “Days of Ascension” series. Book 1, All Souls Day, is set in the fictional Philadelphia suburb of Chatham’s Forge more than twenty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis escalates into a global nuclear war. The town is ruled by Moloch, an ancient Canaanite/Phoenician god of human sacrifice, an element I originally introduced as a mere device to drive a dramatic plot in which one of the main characters, high school senior Suzie Mitchell, is threatened with becoming a “virgin sacrifice” unless she, her boyfriend Amos Ross, and her best friend Vickie Riordan can somehow defeat Moloch and his human worshippers. The real point as I saw it was a grotesque satire on the high school cliques I remembered from my youth, but religious satire crept in as well since Moloch’s Pastor organizes Black Masses and uses a blasphemous parody of the Bible in which, for example, Abimelech sacrifices his daughter Isabella to Moloch, instead of Abraham almost sacrificing his son Isaac to God. (The latter theme inspired the British poet Wilfred Owen, who was killed in World War I, in his poem “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”). Moreover, Amos and his family are Jewish but have to keep their religion secret at risk to their lives.
While the three friends succeed in overthrowing Moloch at the end of Book 1, in the next three books, Day of Vengeance, Day of Atonement, and the forthcoming Judgment Day, they are merely confronted by two other Canaanite/Phoenician gods who also demand human sacrifices, Asherah and Ba’al. I present more blasphemous parodies of some of the most troubling parts of the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament), as I raise the question of what brings people to religious belief. Vickie is a believer who is first drawn to and then repelled by Asherah, only to convert to Judaism and become much more zealous in that religion than Amos, who was born into it. Suzie remains an angry unbeliever, raging against the pagan gods but also against the Jewish God. In the same breath she insists that YHWH doesn’t exist, and cries out against Him for the horrible state of the world. In Judgment Day, Suzie, Amos, and Vickie track YHWH down to His hiding place in an abandoned 7-Eleven in New Jersey, and in a burlesque of the Book of Job they and their children confront Him with the question of why He allows evil in His creation. That there is no satisfactory answer to this question is, perhaps, a more horrible truth about the world than any horror writer could invent.
About The Author
Martin Berman-Gorvine (http://www.martinbermangorvine.com/) is the author of the four-book “Days of Ascension” horror novel series: All Souls Day (2016), Day of Vengeance (2017), Day of Atonement (2018), and the forthcoming Judgment Day, all published by Silver Leaf Books.
Martin is also the author of seven science fiction novels, including the Sidewise Award-winning The Severed Wing (as Martin Gidron) (Livingston Press, 2002); 36 (Livingston Press, 2012); Seven Against Mars (Wildside Press, 2013); Save the Dragons! (Wildside Press, 2013), which was a finalist for the Prometheus Award; Ziona: A Novel of Alternate History (as Marty Armon), an expansion of the short story “Palestina,” published in Interzone magazine, May/June 2006 (Amazon/CreateSpace, 2014); Heroes of Earth (Wildside Press, 2015); and Monsters of Venus (Wildside Press, 2017).
Martin lives in Maryland with his wife and the youngest of his three sons, four cats, and a sort of Muppet dog.