To be honest, I’m not sure there’d even BE horror movies without Christianity. I used to do a show for HBO called Tales From The Crypt. Among my executive producers — my bosses — were some of the biggest filmmakers working: Joel Silver (the Lethal Weapon movies, the Die Hard movies among other Big Budget Thrillers), Bob Zemeckis (the Back To The Future movies, Forrest Gump, Castaway), Walter Hill (48 Hrs, The Warriors, Southern Comfort) and Richard Donner. Donner directed the first big Superman remake the 1978 version with Christopher Reeve. He also directed The Goonies, Scrooged, the Lethal Weapon movies, Assassins and 1976’s The Omen. For the record, while doing Crypt, I also got to work with William Friedkin, director of that other testament to the horror-worthiness of Christianity, The Exorcist. I’ll get to that momentarily. The very cool thing about working with the people I got to work with is that I got to pick their brains. Donner is a big, animal-loving puppy dog of a guy, a stoner from way back. In talking about The Omen — and why it succeeded the way that it did — he was pretty clear. After experiencing the movie, plenty of people went home, opened their Bibles (probably for the first time ever) and found — right their IN THEIR OWN HOMES — the very words that had just damned the characters in the movie that scared the crap out of them. The movie’s mythology was their religion’s mythology. That fact itself touched something down deep in them. It made the horror more personal.
Alas, I did not get the chance with Billie Friedken to talk specifically about “The Exorcist” but working with him was both challenging and rewarding. Billie directed a terrific episode called “On A Dead Man’s Chest” — about a mysterious tattoo artist whose tattoos literally come to life. We put the episode in the world of garage rock bands and hard luck music clubs. The rapper Heavy D played the tattoo artist (a small part actually). Gregg Allman and Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones also played small parts, giving us rock ‘n roll “authenticity”. Billie didn’t want big names for the rest of the cast. He wanted good actors who could play because they were rock musicians too. We cast Yul Vasquez and Paul Hipp. Tia Carrerra was the female lead and the wonderful Sherrie Rose was a groupie.
When my partner at the time — Gil Adler — and I told executive producer Joel Silver (the most actively engaged of the Crypt Partners in our quotidian lives) that we wanted to hire Billie to direct an episode of Crypt (Billie was experiencing a down period at the time), Joel — a firecracker of a human, apt to go off at any moment — warned us that Billie was a firecracker of a human, apt to go off at any moment. Gil and I — having learned how to handle a firecracker of a human as this was now our second season doing the show — told Joel we’d take our chances. For the most part, working with Billie was great. He saw Crypt as a way to get back to his bare bones, documentary-making roots. He didn’t want the band we were forming from our actors to sound in any way “produced”. If it sounded unpolished — good! If the sound quality was less than optimal — also good!
Our natural inclination was to pre-record our band’s music then play the tracks back during production with the actors pretending to play and sing. Billie wanted no part of that. We had our first creative fight. I argued for the better sound quality. Billie argued that he didn’t care about that. He wanted authenticity. Billie was, shall we say, persuasive. Quickly, too. About thirty seconds in, I surrendered. Billie didn’t care. He continued his argument — with increasing intensity and volume for another two minutes.
Finally, I managed to outshout him: “Jesus, Billie, you won the argument ten minutes ago! Stop already!”
Billie stopped. And smiled. He’d been having a blast watching me, waiting for me to finally do what I did.
But, back to Christianity and horror. If you Google “Christianity” and “Horror Movies”, the question that pops up is “Should Christians watch horror movies?” as if their tender sensibilities needed protecting (while, apparently, no one else seems to have this “tenderness” problem with their sensibilities). That framing fails to take into account how important Christian mythology is to having horror movies in the first place. Christianity did two things that Judaism didn’t as it emerged like the alien from John Hurt’s chest in the first Alien movie —
— For starters, Christianity promised that, if you believed in it, you could defeat death just like Jesus. In inventing Christianity, the Apostle Paul (Jesus had zero to do with it) focused not so much on Jesus’s “do unto others” teaching and more on the idea (not the fact since it did not happen) of Jesus rising from the dead. Consider the Big Names in the Jewish story — Abraham and Moses. When they die in the text, they die. There’s no coming back. No rising from the dead is even contemplated. On the other hand, with Christianity, zombie-fication of its hero was there at the start. The sales pitch was “Jesus is a good zombie!” Believe in him the way we tell you to and you, too, can be a good zombie just like Jesus. Judging by Paul’s results, he read the room brilliantly. People loved the idea of beating death. They still do. The second clever innovation: Satan. Hell — the way Christians think of it — really doesn’t exist in the Jewish mind. A guy who lives there like he owns the place — that doesn’t exist in the Jewish mind at all.
The closest thing Jews have to “hell” is “Sheol”, a bleak, shadowy place — “The Pit” or “The Land of Forgetfulness” — but wholly without any concept of “judgment or reward and punishment attached to it”. Aside from movies about overbearing Jewish mothers (Portnoy’s Complaint comes to mind though more because of the book than the movie), the only Jewish-inspired movie monster is the Golem. Even with plenty of “help”, the Golem ain’t much of a monster — movie or otherwise. It’s an empty vessel. Fill it with evil, it becomes evil. Fill it with good, it becomes good. As monsters go, Golem’s a total shnorrer compared to Satan.
I’m not sure human beings ever created a better character than Satan. When it comes to evil — and horror — Satan is one stop shopping. He’s also part of Christianity’s first innovation — defeating death. If that’s the carrot, Satan is the stick. If you don’t defeat death via Jesus, Satan awaits you, so, you might as well throw in your lot with Jesus. Where did this need for punishment come from? Suffering for one’s sins is not in any way organically Jewish. Guilt is — but that’s not born of paranoia. Jews are supposed to feel “guilty” for not living up to their obligation to make the world a better place for having been in it. Jews, if they’re being “proper Jews”, should feel every last bit of the world’s injustice deep down in their “souls” which should be the trigger mechanism for them doing something to change that injustice.
Movies have been especially good at pilfering bits and pieces from polytheism to create monsters. The problem almost always comes down to complexity. Make the villain too complex and the audience loses interest. That’s why Christianity’s “Satan v God” dynamic has been so successful for so long. God is good and Satan is bad. Who can’t get that?
The Catholic Church invented a whole hierarchy of good in response to the evils they perceived as threatening them. Paul invented the idea of the “Christian Soldier”. “Armored with faith”, these “heroes” set out to defeat a monster — the infidel. Hovering above and around it all, the specter of death.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula goes right at that Christian fear of death and turns it on its head. Dracula already lives forever! The thing that will stop that from happening (aside from garlic and sunshine): a cross! Christianity will stop a creature who, like Jesus, has found a way to defeat death. Oh, the irony — it burns!
My late friend Scott Nimerfro worked on Tales with me. Scott was much more an aficionado of horror movies than I am. Frankly, though I made a good living in horror, it’s not the genre I look to when it’s quittin’ time. Scott came from Minnesota. His family was kind of religious; if I remember correctly, Scott’s mom was born again. While Scott and I never talked about our religious feelings when we wrote together (we wrote several episodes of The Outer Limits together plus numerous pilots — some that we even sold — and a couple of screenplays), Scott always brought an insider’s sense of what scared Christians and what didn’t. Scott died in 2016 after a year-long battle with angiosarcoma. He would have laughed at the idea of Christianity and horror movies being a match made in either heaven or hell.
Can’t ya see it up there on the screen? Christianity and horror movies are a match made in Hollywood. But all the prerequisites for a bang-up relationship were there at the start. Throw in a talking snake and call “Action!”