Book Review

Sacred Terror
Waco: Baylor University Press, 2008

Douglas E. Cowan
Reviewed by Joseph Laycock

Sacred Terror

Reviewed by Joseph Laycock

 [1] Sacred Terror is a ground breaking contribution to our understanding of religion, horror, and the relationship between the two. Douglas Cowan's survey of the horror genre is extensive, with filmography of over three hundred titles. The strength of the book, however, comes from Cowan's background as a sociologist of religion. As a sociologist, Cowan looks outside the film, exploring the relationship between horror films and the religious cultures in which they are created and viewed. This provides a different angle from which to explore the significance of the horror film.
[2] Cowan notes that horror films always have been replete with religion and that the most frightening films are often those with a religious component. This insight leads to two questions: "What do we fear?" and "Why religion?" Cowan argues that films can only frighten us if they tap into "sociophobics"--fears that are culturally specific and socially constructed. In fact, the horror genre relies heavily on a "cultural shorthand" that is the product of sociophobics. From here, Sacred Terror explores films in which the element of horror arises from a theological context. This approach transforms horror movies into "sociophobic windows" that reveal deeply held ideas about religion.

[3] This approach has several distinct advantages. Horror films are too frequently analyzed through a reductive psychoanalytical reading that completely ignores their cultural and religious context. Several essays have argued, for example, that The Exorcist frightens us because it plays on a subconscious fear of woman, children, the counter-culture, and so forth. Cowan, citing a Gallup poll in which 68 percent of respondents described their belief in the devil, suggests that The Exorcist actually points to a very real fear of possession. In this way, Cowan’s theory of sociophobics also presents an argument against the idea of secularization. If we acknowledge that films like The Exorcist actually do appeal to widespread religious fears, than we must also acknowledge that religion and the supernatural remain a powerful cultural force.

[4] Although Sacred Terror primarily looks at films appealing to a Western and Christian cultural context, the theoretical approach can easily be extended to non-Western cultures. We see some of this in Cowan’s treatment of Japanese “J-horror” films such as Ju-On, adapted for American audiences as The Grudge. Although American audiences were confused by the indiscriminate rage of Kayako, the film’s vengeful ghost, Japanese audiences, with a different cultural understanding of the relationship between the living and the dead, could understand the film’s cultural shorthand. Thus, Sacred Terror lays the groundwork for a new analysis of horror movies emerging from Japan, Hong-Kong, Russia, and other cultural markets.

[5] Sacred Terror explores six specific religious sociophobics. These are: fear of change in the sacred order; fear of the ambivalence of sacred space; fear of death, of dying badly, and not remaining dead; fear of supernatural evil; fear to fanaticism and the power of religion; and fear of the flesh and the powerlessness of religion. Cowan acknowledges that most films draw on more than one sociophobic and does not present the six categories as an exhaustive list. This structure offers, however, a useful demonstration of how the theory of sociophobics can be applied to religion and.

[6] The most compelling of these sociophobics is described in the first chapter, in which Cowan describes “the metataxis of horror” or “the shift in accepted or dominant taxonomies of the sacred.” Films that appeal to this sociophobic offer plots in which our assumptions about reality - what Peter Berger called “the sacred canopy” - are shattered. This destruction takes one of three forms: inversion, invasion, or insignificance. Inversion narratives include films like The Prophecy, Constantine, and Dogma in which angels renounce their roles as servants of God and conspire against mankind. Films like The Order and Lost Souls play on an old fear (dating at least to the Protestant Reformation) that the ecclesiastical hierarchy could betray those they are supposed to protect.

[7] Invasion narratives involve the destruction of our sacred order by an alternative and alien order. This can involve infiltration by an alien religion as in The Mummy franchise perpetuated by Universal and Hammer studios. The invasion may also take the form of an entire reality different from our own. This fear was most successfully evoked by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. John Carpenter’s Lovecraft-inspired In the Mouth of Madness, in which an insane fantasy becomes physical reality, is cited as the quintessential invasion narrative. Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond and Dagon also play on Lovecraftian invasion themes.

[8] Narratives of insignificance play on our fear that our sacred order is actually meaningless and incapable of shielding us from chaos. This fear is portrayed starkly in the Hellraiser series in which the demonic Pinhead (a figure that seems to hold an eerie fascination for Cowan) asks, “Do I look like someone who cares what God thinks?” Insignificance also appears in Exorcist: The Beginning, in which a German officer guns down ten of Father Merrin’s parishioners announcing, “God is not here today, priest.” Curiously, Cowan points out that films like Bless the Child and Omen III: Final Conflict, in which a deus ex machina saves the day, are panned by horror fans. Apparently, a benevolent and omnipotent deity has no place in a true horror film.

[9] Ultimately, Sacred Terror is as interesting for what it says about religion as about horror. The “secularization narrative,” in which religious belief will inevitably disintegrate in the face of scientific rationalism, has been under attack by religion scholars for decades. Despite this, belief in the decline of religion continues to thrive. By using horror films as “sociophobic windows,” Cowan presents a powerful and novel critique of the secularization narrative. The success of horror movies with religious themes proves that religion is very much alive in American culture.


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