Why Christian Movies Are Like Horror Films

Yes, today is Halloween – the day you can feel festive about type two diabetes and scary movies. In honor of October 31, I thought it’d be nice to write something about scary movies. But to be honest, I’m not much of a horror film buff (feel free to recommend your favorites to me in the comments). Even though I haven’t seen that many scary movies, I am fascinated by their unique place in cinema.

Among other things, they have ultra-specific genre tropes and a passionately loyal fanbase. Funny enough, the only other genre that shares the unique qualities of horror films is probably the one you’d least expect…

Faith-based films.

Yeah, faith-based films aren’t all that different from horror films. Obviously, the target audience and cultural associations are almost polar opposites. But for all the ways audiences consume them, they’re an almost spooky resemblance.

They Both Involve Overt Spirituality

This is possibly the lowest hanging fruit in this comparison, but interesting regardless. Christian and horror films both include strong spiritual themes. But they tend to approach this subject matter from opposite sides. In most horror films, spirituality is set up as a menacing force: a ghost or evil spirit. For Christian films, spirituality is the force that brings peace and reconciliation.

A lot could be said about this, but for now, I’ll settle to argue that any movie with overt spirituality in some form tends to connect with us in a powerful way. Even if you’re not religious, we all seem to have a built-in curiosity or reaction to spiritual themes. Because horror and faith-based films bring these themes to the forefront, that reaction becomes more palpable, which may provide the basis for the next similarity.

They Have Ultra-Loyal Audiences

If you or any of your friends are scary movie buffs, you’ll know there’s an odd sense of pride and loyalty to the genre. People will line up at midnight to catch the opening showtime of the latest horror movie. I have at least a dozen friends with some sort of October tradition of watching a long list of scary movies together. Among horror fans is this weird compulsion to watch every scary movie which rarely exists in fans of other genres – other than faith-based films.

In a similar way, religious people often feel a sense of duty to go out and support every Christian film, especially if their pastor/church endorses it. Both horror and faith-based films have the types of audiences that will take an almost blind interest in any film associated with their genre. Because of this, it’s possible for small films in these genres to break out and do big things.

Small Budgets Can Go a Long Way

As risky as the indie film business is, it’s well-known that some of the more conservative investments in this industry are low-budget horror or faith-based films. There are dozens of examples of low budget (and arguably low quality) horror films that have broken out for a big box office win – Friday the 13th, Saw, and Blair Witch Project to name a few.

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Though the faith-based genre is newer, the successful films in it are almost exclusively low-budget, for example – Fireproof, God’s Not Dead, and War Room. Or, most noteworthy of all, Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was made independently for $30M (higher than these other budgets but still low by Hollywood standards) and grossed over $600M, making it the highest grossing rated-R movie of all time.

christian-poster-collage

For many of these examples, you can make an argument that the budget and quality of these films is irrelevant, so long as they fulfill their primary purpose.

There’s an Obvious Agenda at Hand

It’s usually tough to pin down exactly what makes a movie good or bad. There’s a wide range of criticisms or praises that can be applied to the acting, directing, writing, production design, etc. that all weigh into whether a movie “worked” or not.

For horror films, it’s not so complicated because there’s only one definitive question the audience is going to ask…

Did it scare you?

And similarly, faith-based films are only really concerned with the question…

Did it encourage your faith?

If a film in these genres can provoke a “yes,” from their respective questions above, they will be considered successful. The acting could be bad, the story contrived, and the production amateur. But if they accomplished these simple goals, their established audiences will leave the theater satisfied because they got what they came for. Of course, with these simplified targets, it’s easy for films in these genres to fall back on the same tricks that have worked a thousand times before.

They Rely Heavily on Genre Tropes and Formula

While there’s a wide range of different types of horror films, most of them have a pretty consistent story template. How many horror movies include a group of friends going to a remote location, only to discover a terrifying monster or ghost that ends up killing them off one by one?

How many faith-based films are the story of a non-religious man or woman making friends with a Christian who leads them toward a faith that solves all of their health, career, and/or family issues?

For the reasons I’ve already established, it’s pretty natural that horror and faith-based films would want to guide their audiences toward a place of familiarity and comfort, though for different reasons…

Horror films benefit from formulaic characters and storylines because the more an audience feels like they know where the movie is going, the easier it is to surprise and shock them. The supposed familiarity is really a bait-and-switch that leads to effective jump scenes.

On the other hand, faith-based films tend to settle for predictable stories and characters at face value. Because many fans of religious movies are looking for some sense of stability and clarity in what they feel is a crazy, misguided world, filmmakers are less motivated to subvert genre cliches. In fact, it would almost work against their cause to do so.

What Does This Mean for the Industry?

In a business as unpredictable as indie film, it’s nice that there are a couple of genres that can consistently draw an audience and make a profit – even if neither of them are my favorite. And as much as faith-based and horror films are often seen as the ones that can “get away with” being bad movies, both genres have produced some great films over the years.

It would be nice if more genres or styles of film had the loyalty and camaraderie around them that faith-based and horror films do. Of course, sometimes this blind dedication to a genre can allow filmmakers or studios to grow complacent and put out less-than-stellar films. But overall, it enables producers to get more movies made, which in turn increases the chances of creating something truly great. So, no matter what your favorite genre is, get behind it and be an ambassador for the movies you want to see more of.

Like I said, I haven’t seen many horror movies. Tell me your must-watch movies in the comments. Also, let me know if you can think of any more similarities or key differences…