Religious Horror is a subgenre of Horror that relies on presenting the motifs of a real-life religion as fact within the story's universe. Since this is mainly a Western subgenre, that religion is Christianity (well, the only denomination that Hollywood knows of, at least).
Satan is the Big Bad in a typical Religious Horror story, although he's rarely shown. He is mediated through a human vessel, such as a Creepy Child or a degenerate rock musician. The protagonists are usually innocent people trying to live ordinary lives, not sensing anything wrong until their daughter or son starts speaking in someone else's voice, using foul languages she or he never studied, spewing Finnish pea soup, and/or chanting Satanic praises. Members of the clergy (most likely the Catholic variety; in this case it is justified by the fact that the Catholic church, of all the few that employ exorcism, is the most noted, although it does so very rarely) intervene eventually, with varying degrees of success. If there are human villains, they're evil cultists who facilitate Satan's activity on Earth (or, rarely, the Puritans of Salem, Massachusetts, if the author is less favorable toward organized religion in general). A variation is a woman giving birth to Satan's child. This type of horror is often written just to cash in on the popularity of The Exorcist.
Occasionally, the story revolves around a Religion of Evil that has nothing to do with Satan, which may or may not replace him with an Expy in the form of a God of Evil. These tend to be more creative than the Christianity-based novels, but not necessarily more bizarre, as you'll see.
Very rarely, you get a film that actually bothered to do the research, and includes horror either from the point of view of some religion other than Christianity, or more commonly have another religion as an antagonist. In the former cases, even if the movie itself is bad, the concept is very interesting. In the latter case, it ends up a variant of the non-Satanic Religion of Evil, with the added problem of sounding like something from a Chick tract.
Contrast Cosmic Horror Story, which is mutually exclusive with the first type of this subgenre. If a Cosmic Horror Story's Eldritch Abomination is worshipped as a god, then the story can fit into the second type.
- Arguably, Angel Sanctuary, which is also a subversion in that the demons are neither good nor evil and the Big Bad is God Himself.
- Bible Black
- For Western audiences, Neon Genesis Evangelion has some elements of this, primarily because it takes Christian/Jewish symbols traditionally associated with good (crosses, Angels, haloes, etc.) and turns them into symbols of fear.
- Many of the early one-shot Hellboy stories revolve around this, particularly The Chained Coffin. This as become less prominent over time, as subsequent story arcs have revealed more of the Hellboy-verse's cosmology, which is more like a mix of Gnosticism and 1920s weird pulp fiction than Christianity.
- William Blatty's The Exorcist, as noted above.
- Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby.
- The Omen. Because of this movie, many people think that the name Damien means "demon." It actually means "tame," which is used in the story in the sense meaning "kill."
- The Exorcism of Emily Rose
- Oddly enough, the Babylon 5 Direct to DVD movie The Lost Tales, in which a maintenance worker is possessed by what is implied to be a literal demon -- specifically not the Devil, but rather a lower ranking servant. Colonel Lochley calls an exorcist.
- Subverted because the demon wants to be exorcised... in space, aka "The Heavens". Lochley and the exorcist instead decided to ship his ass back to Earth first.
- Given that Earth in Babylon 5 has been visited by Sufficiently Advanced Aliens at least once for a sufficient timespan to leave their marks in the human genome in the distant past, whether the "demon" was a literal one or whether literature in turn and the practice of exorcism were inspired by events caused by him and his friends—whatever kind of entity they might "really" be—hanging out on the planet since who-knows-when remains somewhat inconclusive.
- The Backstory of Babylon 5 does seem to imply that demons were memories left behind by The Shadows.
- The Devil's Advocate featured Satan (Al Pacino) in the form of the head of a New York law firm, and the protagonist (Keanu Reeves) is his son.
- Constantine, the In Name Only movie adaptation of Hellblazer.
- Touch of Satan
- The House of the Devil deals with babysitter and a group of Satanists.
- The Last Exorcism
- In Zombie Cult Massacre, a sleazy cult leader pretends to be a compassionate man of God but is really in league with Satan, raising an army of zombies. It does not end well for him.
- The Prophecy (1995) and its two sequels. About another war in heaven with Christopher Walken (who's creepy enough even when he isn't acting) as the Archangel Gabriel.
- John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness, about a bunch of theology students trying to stop the Anti-Christ from releasing his father, the Anti-God.
- Kinda. Prince of Darkness is actually a fun exercise with or Deconstruction of the Religious Horror subgenre, because most of the characters weren't theology students. Instead they were scientists of one kind or another, four or five of which were under the direct tutelage of a physics professor who had been selected for a series of televised debates with a Catholic priest because of his philosophical beliefs on science. Those debates happened before the story begins, and the two characters seem to be very good friends when the movie starts. To be fair, when speaking of said professor, one student said that "he wants philosophers, not scientists," so it is a little open to debate or interpretation.
- The LDS-made film Brigham City uses elements of religious horror based on the LDS faith and puts them to work quietly in the background. This makes the film jarring to members of the LDS church without being over the top.
- Also the LDS-made WWII film Saints and Soldiers, in the context of the hallucinations experienced by Deacon (the only character implied to be Mormon). Understandable in that he accidentally killed a room full of orphans under the age of eight (and thus not accountable for their actions, making them unquestionable innocents) and a couple of nuns with a grenade while fighting Germans in a church, and is only being held together by his faith and desire to return home to his wife as he's dealing with his PTSD.
- The Shrine has an interesting twist. At first, the viewer believes the small Polish village is involved in Satanic rituals with Human Sacrifice, but it turns out that they are only exorcising the tourists who unknowingly approach a demon statue that possesses them
- Sin Eater, also known as The Order, starring Heath Ledger.
- Stigmata, starring Gabriel Byrne as the protagonist, Father Andrew Kiernan.
- End of Days, starring Gabriel Byrne as The Devil, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as the protagonist Jericho Cane, a retired cop.
- The Seventh Sign, starring Demi Moore and Michael Biehn
- From Hell, starring Johnny Depp, Based on the eponymous comic book series.
- Bless the Child, starring Kim Bassinger.
- The film adaptation of Left Behind is supposed to be this, but it's very easy to see it's more a Propaganda Piece for a very specific variety of evangelical Protestant Christianity.
- Dennis Lehane's Darkness, Take My Hand features a trio of serial killers who model themselves on the Holy Trinity and crucify all of their victims before killing them.
- The Cthulhu Mythos often falls into the Religion of Evil version below, but even its official stance is this. There is no God, nor is there a Devil. There are entities of tremendous power such that humans would call them divine and deific, but these entities, due to their scope and power, have no more concern for humanity than humanity as a whole would care for a dust-scurrying bug. Morality is a human creation, and humans are most certainly not special. Humanity must make worth of their own lives, they have no inherent worth as a race.
- "Officiality" is a bit subjective where the Mythos is concerned, however, as a lot of figures in the canon (perhaps most notably August Derleth) have put a more humanistic and/or Judeo-Christian spin on it.
- Parodied in the Gaiman-Pratchett collaboration Good Omens.
- David St. Clair's The Devil Rocked Her Cradle, a ceaselessly entertaining book that should probably not be sold as nonfiction. A young man kills his father, bruises a prostitute, rebels against his Catholic upbringing, becomes a thief, and hears demonic voices. He grows up to be an abusive husband whose daughter goes through on-and-off Satanic possession, especially after her newly widowed father starts living with his wife's sister. This leads her to projectile-vomit green stuff, recite Madness Mantras, and gesture obscenely at nuns and priests. It's Better Than It Sounds because it's So Bad It's Good. (The book's preface even includes the pricelessly redundant line, "[T]his book is not intended to be anti-Christian or pro-demonic.")
- Jeffrey Sackett's Candlemas Eve, a fun novel about a rock band that adopts two self-proclaimed witches to add something unusual to the act (plus, Evil Is Sexy). They turn out to be time-traveling Satanist Puritans who assumed the identities of two modern-day women because of some kind of curse that forced them to please Satan after their deaths. A faux-Satanic rock musician's kid and his friends let them in by casting a spell on Halloween.
- John Saul's Punish the Sinners is a subversion: the villain is not Satan but the principal of a Catholic high school.
- M.G. Lewis' Ambrosio, or the Monk, which not only makes this trope Older Than Radio, but manages to subvert it massively!
- Petaybee: Shepherd Howling's Nightmare Fuel cult is heavily influenced by Christianity, most evidently in the title "shepherd".
- Arthur Machen's short story "The White People" is a vastly more subtle example than most. The story combines The Fair Folk, Eldritch Location, Ultimate Evil, and Children Are Innocent with references to classic narrative poems to create a covertly religious horror tale. However, the frame story, in which one gentleman discusses the "infernal miracle" with a friend of his, reveals that Satan is afoot in the woods explored by the young heroine.
- Robert Anton Wilson's The Masks of Illuminati reads like a rather moralistic Religious Horror story right up until the very end, but if you're at all familiar with Wilson's other works, you should know that things aren't going to be that simple. Lets just say that it takes the Unreliable Narrator to new heights.
- The Blood Of The Lamb by Thomas F. Monteleone starts out rather mild, with a priest (Peter Carenza) discovering that he was cloned from the Shroud of Turin, and as a result had the power to heal, walk through fire unharmed, and even raise the dead. But it gets worse. After killing his best friend of jealousy, his personality becomes much darker, and by the end he manages to scare the ever-loving shit out of a pair of Jesuit assassins, kills the Pope, and has pretty much become the
toponly candidate for the Anti Christ.
- Many of Frank Perretti's novels have elements of this, one of the most prominent being The Visitation.
- Graphic depictions of Rapture fiction like Left Behind and the Christ Clone Trilogy series can easily become this, whether intended by the author or not.
- Easier for Westerners to get than the Higurashi example below, its sister series, Umineko, uses many different motifs from the Bible, including having characters with names related to Biblical characters' and blood runes written near murder sites with passages from the Bible written around them in Hebrew.
- The Binding of Isaac.
- While it's not immediately obvious, quite a few SCPs are clearly Judeo-Christian entities, such as Dr Clef's proposal for SCP-001, an angel guarding the Garden of Eden.
- The angels in Requiem Aeternam are hungry.
- The Fear Mythos gives us the Archangel, which is basically the ultimate perversion of Judeo-Christian beliefs regarding God and the afterlife.
- In Heaven, a man dies and learns that eternal life in Heaven may not be all it's cracked up to be.
- Five Visions of the Ascetic introduces us to a future version of Christianity devoted to the brutal weekly execution of a criminal codenamed "the Ascetic", who dies for our sins.
Religion of Evil Examples
- The original version of The Wicker Man has nature-worshiping pagans living in northern Scotland. The protagonist is a devout Protestant, and a bit of an asshole, but by the end, he's become very sympathetic.
- Interestingly, the ending of the original was almost meddled to have it start raining, putting out the wicker man. This was cut because it clashed with the whole point. A deleted scene showed that the sacrifice worked but it was deleted to leave the ambiguity in place.
- Stephen King's |Children of the Corn featured a cult based around "He Who Walks Behind the Rows," revealed at the end of the story to be a demonic-looking monster. In the movie versions, it's revamped to be an entire, nearly omnipresent (within and around the town) spirit whose influence increases when it starts to get dark. Though it is implied to be a devil-worshiping cult, it is never outright stated to be a demon or Satan. It's referred to with pronouns by those who don't worship it.
- While not exactly treated as a religion of evil, Voodoo is not framed in the best light in The Serpent and the Rainbow.
- Craig Skipp's and John Spector's The Scream, a novel that uses the 1980s Satanic Panic as a backdrop. The novel revolves around the titular rock band, which is accused of being Satanic, but actually serves a demon named Momma that the band's manager met in Vietnam.
- William Gladstone's Cat's Cradle (not to be confused with the Kurt Vonnegut novel [[Cat's Cradle|of the same name) is about an ancient cult whose religion revolves around Half-Human Hybrids. The cover is pure distilled Nightmare Fuel, and the novel itself is extremely violent.
- The Warhammer 40,000 setting occasionally veers into this; there's an entire chapter of the Inquisition devoted to hunting down Daemons and banishing them back to the Warp, supported by a specially-trained chapter of the Space Marines.
- Said Space Marine chapter number is 666.
- The entirety of the Imperium of Man has religious overtones, from the ten-mile-long space cathedrals with broadside guns to the priests that inspire the Imperial Guard to heights of courage to the flamethrower-wielding power-armored nuns.
- The Silent Hill games have this for the cult that summons/awakens the town's latent evil. The movie goes with vaguely Christian religious fundamentalists.
- Xenogears has an entire Religion of Evil to start, but it gets worse towards the end when you discover God, creator of humanity, is a malevolent interstellar weapon who created humanity to repair his organic parts.
- Somewhat closer to Christian horror, Deus, despite being responsible for creating most of that planet's human population, turns out to be a false god. The real "God" shows up in the form of the enigmatic "Wave Existence", who created the whole universe... apparently by accident, which, in some ways is even more terrifying, especially since he has no particular interest in His creations & just wants to go home. He's not a bad guy, though & does help our heroes along eventually.
- Resident Evil 4, the Los Illuminados cult mixes this with traditional zombie-styled horror.
- Blood, anyone?
- Again, the SCP Foundation have a few of these, most notably SCP-231-7.
- Archangel from The Fear Mythos embodies this for all religions. He is the afterlife and the only way to not become his slave after death is to sell your soul to the Slender Man.
- This was also a central theme of The Refugees, a Slenderblog revolving largely around a Fundamentalist Christian sect who believed the Slender Man was an angel. It was the central theme of supplementary story The Transcend Manuscript.
Eastern/Other Religion examples
- The Taiwanese film Double Vision is a religious horror in Taoist setting.
- Jigoku, a depiction of Buddhist Hell.
- Feng Shui (not to be confused with the tabletop game of the same name) is a movie of Taoism in the predominantly Catholic Philipines. A woman finds a ba gua mirror, which brings her luck, though the source of her good luck is a trade-off, sacrificing her neighbors and loved ones in order to bring her material fortune.
- Ghouls (2008) is from the perspective of Celtic Druids. Don't ask me what they're doing in what appears to be Eastern Europe, but it's an interesting film.
- The Wii survival horror game Cursed Mountain plays with the taboos, traditions, and underlying horrors of Himalayan Buddhism as its central theme.
- Although most western viewers (and probably the rest of the non-Japanese audience too) don't get it, part of the horror of Higurashi no Naku Koro ni for Japanese viewers comes from the Shintô temple with a history of human sacrifice. Shintoism places a high emphasis upon "purity". Shedding blood in a religious context is anathema to Shinto, as is touching corpses and bodily wastes. That Rika's ancestors (beware, really gross) presided over ritual sacrifices in which the participants ate the intestines of the victims makes their religion as much an inversion of Shintô as Satanism is an inversion of Christianity. To Western viewers, it's merely disgusting. To believers in Shintô, it's beyond blasphemy, much like sacrificing a pig on the altar of the old Temple in Jerusalem.
- There are lots of stories in Shintô about villages and shrines that did practice human sacrifice as a part of the religion. Mostly they tend to be moral parables of why this is not a good idea, though.
- For added irony, Oyashiro herself is not happy with it.
- Ditto with the Fatal Frame series, especially with the first and second titles. In Shinto, some deities are malevolent and must be placated, but the All-Gods Village take it to a whole new Squicky level, with a Human Sacrifice ritual gone horribly, horribly wrong. It's like a follower of an Abrahamic religion having to fight his or her way through an entire village of Satan-worshippers.
- With the exception of Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, the series feature Human Sacrifice in order to keep some sort of Hell Gate sealed up. Fatal Frame 2's sacrifice is probably the least squicky of the examples (Fatal Frame 1 involves a Virgin Sacrifice being torn apart by ropes attached to her legs, arms, and neck. Fatal Frame III: The Tormented is much worse.)