Demons, cults, possessions, Anti-Christs — horror sure does love its full on manifestations of evil. Where exactly our collective notion of evil comes from is a bit debatable. One person might view evil as a concrete oppositional force to good, while another might see it simply as the absence of goodness. The notion of evil as an oppositional force seems to come largely from monotheistic religions. Polytheistic religions, with their vast pantheons of gods, cover a whole lot of grey areas and tend to stay away from the absolutes of good and evil. But a singular God, the very embodiment of goodness, requires a polar opposite – an embodiment of evil.
The idea of evil as an concrete absolute becomes the source of much of our modern horror. Demons seek out our immortal souls; humans eager to please their Dark Lord commit unspeakable atrocities in his name; a strange child harbingers the End of Days. We see a lot of Christian tradition referenced in these stories, with God and the Devil forging a clear line between good and evil. The depiction of demons and, in particular, Satan, has its roots in some of the earliest horror films. Georges Melies (of Trip to the Moon fame) made his short film, “The Manor of the Devil,” in 1896. As we explore this very tangible form of evil, we also need to examine evil in its abstraction.
While the idea of evil as an absence of good may seem a more “modern” or perhaps even atheistic notion of evil, it was St. Augustine who actually championed the idea that evil is neither a part of God, nor created by God, but a result of those who choose not to do good. Essentially, it’s a by-product of free will. More than a few recent films explore evil in the absence of religion, or at least calls the authenticity of that religion into question. Possession stories in particular have undergone a kind of revision over the past few years, with more and more of these stories throwing the authenticity of the possession into question. Paul Tremblay’s startling novel, A Headful of Ghosts, is a remarkable example of ambiguity in horror.
Finally, this Topic also explores other ways in which faith or belief intersect with horror. Witches were demonized by Christian churches, and so much of modern horror’s fascination with witches comes from that tradition, but there are other explorations of pagan traditions in horror that must also be discussed. And what about the nature of cults? We have classics like Rosemary’s Baby and The Wicker Man and newer favorites like House of the Devil and Sacrament that show us the power of groups small and large driven by singular belief.
As we build out this topic, look for deep dives into the origins of the Devil across multiple cultures, explorations of cult mentality, examinations of possession stories, and so much more.