Most horror movies come baked in with the assumption that any supernatural evil proves the existence of an equal and opposite good — namely, the Christian God. The A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, for instance, presents Catholicism as the inverse of Freddy Krueger.
In the first movie, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) hangs a crucifix on the wall after Freddy knocks it off, and that seems to protect her. Later in the movie, she prays “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” before confronting Freddy. The later movies make this even more blatant, with Freddy being defeated by consecrating his grave in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987), the fourth movie climaxing in a church and his nun mother trapping him in the fifth movie. And yet, across this series, skeptics like Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson) only ever consider the power of Christ in binary with science — not with other religions.
The same can be said for other famous horror franchises. Michael Myers’s druidic roots in the Halloween series are rarely contrasted against opposing religious faiths, but when they are it’s in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) when Reverend Jackson Peter Sayer (of Dumont County!) compares Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) to a pilgrim and advises, “You can’t kill damnation, mister. It don’t die like a man dies.” Similarly, when the Friday the 13th series offers up a (strange and haphazard) explanation for Jason’s invincibility in Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993), his defeat sees him not only dragged down to Hell (it’s right there in the title), but a divine light from the sky helps push him into the dirt.
Religion doesn’t always come up with modern horror movies. But if it does, the default is Christianity. The heroes will reach out to a higher power for assistance, and it’ll be the Christian God Himself intervening — in mysterious ways.
The presumption of God and Christ as the good answer to absolute evil that is your movie villain has precedent in the Universal Monsters, and especially Dracula. Certainly it goes back even further than that. But in the United States of the 1980s, you could be safe in assuming that your audience was predominantly Christian. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority had helped get Ronald Reagan elected, Evangelicalism and Conservatism had taken over the Republican party, and being a God-fearing American had gotten all tied up with capitalism and democracy against the godless communists.
For that reason, it’s surprising now to watch Phantasm II and Hellbound: Hellraiser II, both released in 1988, and see their utter rejection of Christianity. Both movies offer up personifications of evil — actual tangible, paranormal evil — but no antithetical higher power. In fact, both movies deny the existence of a reward in the afterlife and, consequently, a loving God. Instead, Phantasm II and Hellbound offer an ethos that humanity is capable of morality without belief in God and can solve problems through reason.
The original Phantasm (1979) doesn’t even raise the question of Heaven and Hell. The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) clearly has superhuman abilities — he’s immortal, unnaturally strong, can shapeshift, has some low-level telekinesis and may even have influence over reality or dreams — but he and his dwarf minions are implied to have a science fiction origin. The little revealed of the Tall Man’s motivation is that he’s shrinking dead bodies and using them for slaves on his home planet that is hotter and has a stronger gravity than Earth, and is accessed through portals. As well, writer/director Don Coscarelli shows his hand with several references to Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune, with a a bar named “Dune” and a pivotal scene when Mike confronts his fear by sticking his hand into a box that inflicts pain.
The sequel, however, confronts Christianity head on. There’s an entire subplot of Father Meyers (Kenneth Tigar) attempting to stop the Tall Man that is almost completely isolated from the rest of the movie. First he stabs a dead body in the heart, like one might a vampire, and later attempts to sanctify the mausoleum with the sign of the cross. The Tall Man dismisses this, saying, “They have no need of your services.” Meyers’s response of “Who are you to question the word of God’s servants?” not only leads to the Tall Man choking the priest with his own rosary beads, but also one of the series’ most iconic lines: “You think that when you die, you go to Heaven? You come to us!” The Tall Man himself confirms it — within this cinematic universe there is no Heaven.
Of course, Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994) somewhat muddies this. At the beginning of the movie, Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) is in a coma and near death. A nurse (who, tellingly, turns out to be one of the Tall Man’s minions) whispers to him, “It’s all right, it’s natural. Just relax. You see the light now up ahead, don’t you? Go to it. Go to the warmth of the light.” And the scene transitions to Mike walking with a crowd, seemingly toward the gates of Heaven.
The movie itself, however, sheds doubt on the promise of a happy afterlife. For one, Jody (Bill Thornbury) stops Mike, saying, “I want you to go back. You’re not with these others. Stay away from the light.” You might think this is Jody’s spirit, and that he is acknowledging the existence of other spirits, but the movie later reveals he is a telepathic projection from his brain, trapped in one of the Tall Man’s flying spheres. As well, the Tall Man himself blocks Mike’s path. What is the Tall Man — the byproduct of alien experimentation, or an actual lord of the dead?
While the third movie blurs the existential lines between those two concepts, six years earlier Coscarelli was hammering home that consciousness ends with the body. In the first movie, Jody and Reggie’s friend Tommy is killed and transformed into one of the dwarfs, with no trace of his former personality. Phantasm II doesn’t even hint that Jody could still persist on Earth. Instead, there are scenes dwelling on lifeless flesh lying on slabs in cold, clinical morgues. There’s a particularly pointed scene where one of the Tall Man’s minions, dressed as a mortician, hammers out chunks of bone left in a box of cremated ashes. Coscarelli wants you to consider the impermanence of life’s spark.
In that same vein, he also celebrates the power of human achievement within a secular humanist framing. Mike uses his ingenuity to escape from his bedroom by rigging up a shotgun shell with a hammer in Phantasm. The second and third movies continue these DIY gadgets with Reggie’s four-barrel shotgun and Tim’s various traps around his house. As well, Mike and Jody defeat the Tall Man by tricking him into falling down a mine shaft at the climax of Phantasm, and Reggie and Mike pour acid into the yellow liquid that revives the Tall Man and his minions in the second movie and freeze him in the third. It’s the power of the mind, absent of any divine spark, that gives them a fighting chance against the Tall Man.
Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) also survives by her human ingenuity in the first two Hellraiser movies. “Seemingly, Kirsty interacts with Hell as a secular humanist using her intellect to temper desire for virtuous ends,” explains Gavin F. Hurley in his essay “Between Hell and Earth: Rhetorical Appropriation of Religious Space within Hellraiser,” published in The Spaces and Places of Horror. Not only does she lure her Uncle Frank (Sean Chapman) into a false sense of security with a kiss, so she can turn the tables on him, she fools Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham) at the end by wearing the skin of Clare Higgins’s Julia.
Of course, there is something supernatural going on in the Hellraiser movies. Hell is in the title, after all. Souls are referred to several times — in the first movie, Pinhead famously proclaims “We’ll tear your soul apart!” and in the second, Julia tells Dr. Channard, “Why do you think I was allowed to come back? It wanted souls,” referring to Leviathan. And she calls Leviathan, the giant diamond in the center of Hell, “The god that sent me back. The god I serve in this world and yours. The god of flesh, hunger and desire. My god. Leviathan, lord of the Labyrinth!”
But this obviously isn’t the Christian Hell, and Leviathan is not Satan. According to the first two movies, souls aren’t weighed on a cosmic scale and sent to Hell if they are evil. They have to be lured there by the promises of the box, the Lament Configuration, and rounded up by the Cenobites. And, most importantly, they enter Hell as flesh and blood beings, not as non-corporeal specters.
Hurley suggests, “Christianity is softly acknowledged but never explored. Christianity is appropriated for an inclusive philosophical conversation about desire and reason and desire: one that is inclusive toward Christians and non-Christians, religious and nonreligious viewers alike.” I would argue, however, that Hellbound does indeed reject the existence of Heaven and a Christian God. Much like Phantasm II, it’s all down to one line, uttered by Frank: “Oh come on, Kirsty. Grow up. When you’re dead, you’re fucking dead.”
Consider the logistics of traveling to Hell and how screenwriter Peter Atkins and director Tony Randel pull a fast one over on the audience. Kirsty only wants to travel into Hell because she believes her father, Larry Cotton (played by Andrew Robinson in the first movie), has sent her a vision that he’s trapped there. Considering how he dies in Hellraiser, murdered by Frank, his being in Hell would follow a traditional Christian ideal — his flesh expired, his soul left his body, was found wanting and, consequently, damned to Hell for eternity. But when Kirsty finds Frank, she discovers it was all a trick.
Ironically, this wasn’t always the filmmaker’s intentions. There’s an earlier draft of the script when Kirsty does find her father in Frank’s crypt, grafted onto his brother’s body like a Siamese twin. Robinson, however, was not pleased with the direction for his character and chose not to return, so there was a last-minute rewrite. Real-world constraints resulted in massive ramifications for the Hellraiser mythos. Perhaps that’s why the movie itself can’t seem to decide if ghosts exist or if the flesh is the end-all, be-all. Certainly the later movies, such as Hellraiser: Inferno (2000) that depicts the Cenobites as punishing a corrupt cop for his sins, can’t settle on coherent rules.
So what was going on in the late ’80s that makes these two movies feel so significant? There was, of course, the “Satanic Panic,” an ersatz witch hunt that spread across the country in the ’80s and ’90s. The religious right claimed that there was a worldwide conspiracy of human sacrifices, pornography and child prostitution, especially in day cares. Part of this conspiracy theory was accusing secular humanists, who had only recently become more vocal, of secretly plotting to take over the world.
As the American Humanist Association explains, “The 1980s saw the beginning of an onslaught of attacks by the Religious Right against secular humanism and the AHA. In an attempt to counter the smears, the AHA began its own campaign, which included media appearances, public debates, nationally published articles, press conferences, lobbying, and legal action. Interested in this debate, world-renowned author Isaac Asimov joined in as the elected president of the AHA in 1985.”
Funnily enough, Coscarelli reveals in his memoir, True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking, that he was a big fan of Asimov: “In sixth grade there was a bookmobile library, basically a big van full of books that would pull up to my elementary school. I read every science fiction novel in their collection, including books by Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, and Isaac Asimov.”
Secular humanism is not incompatible with agnosticism. It simply states that human beings can do the right thing, and define the nature of the “right thing,” without Providence to guide their decisions. It seems clear that Coscarelli, whose healthy respect for human achievement most likely stemmed from years of reading science fiction, agrees with this sentiment. The minds behind Hellbound: Hellraiser II, on the other hand, were most likely conceptualizing their mythology by the seat of their pants. The result is still the same — good is possible, even in horror movies, without God.
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