This past weekend, The Nun scared up over $53 million at the domestic box office, and over $130 million worldwide; both numbers are record highs for the Conjuring universe, which has two more films in production (potentially three, depending on whether The Crooked Man gets off the ground or not). And while The Nun’s success is a product of the popularity of its parent franchise (a series of successful, well-made films will do that), there’s also something to be said about the movie itself; this is the first film in the Conjuring universe to explore religious horror, and there’s something wickedly appealing about that.
Whether you’re devout, atheist, or somewhere in between, there’s a twisted pleasure to be had in flirting with the dark side of religion—in imagining that, beneath the piousness and the virtue and all that, there’s this nasty darkness just waiting to get out. Sometimes it’s the devil, sometimes it’s the past sins of the faithful themselves, but horror has always had a fascinating, and oftentimes terrifying, relationship with religion and faith.
Here’s a look at five other horror films that, like the The Nun, explore the frightening possibilities at the border between the sacred and the unholy.
This is, without a doubt, my favorite of the bunch (I know, I know: The Exorcist). Directed by the late, great Bill Paxton, Frailty follows a man (Matthew McConaughey) who’s confessing to a series of murders committed by his brother. The story flashes back to when he was a kid, when he and his brother were raised by their father—a man who believed God spoke to him, instructing him to kill demons in human form on Earth. It’s a disturbing, chilling film that explores faith in a smart and unnerving way. While the twist is kinda predictable, it takes nothing away from the Frailty’s effectiveness as a great horror movie.
Black Philip! I mean, what else needs to be said? This is a movie that gets under your skin from the very first moments. Expertly directed by Robert Eggers (in his feature-length directorial debut, no less), The Witch follows a family who part ways from their Puritan community and go it alone in the new world. What could possibly wrong? Well…everything. What follows is the family’s descent into hell, and the film is every bit cerebral as it is visceral. Great directing, great score, and a terrific, breakout performance by Anya Taylor-Joy.
Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight
Okay…so, this movie may not carry the same thematic weight as the previous two entries, but it stars Billy Zane and it’s a ton of fun. Zane plays The Collector, and he’s on the hunt for a man, played by William Sadler, who’s in possession of a powerful artifact. What follows is…well, there’s demons, there’s Thomas Haden Church, possessions, flirtations with religious mythology, and more. It’s a silly affair, but like the best Crypt stories, it doesn’t pretend to have gravity that isn’t there.
Based on the events of the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, The Sacrament is a found-footage horror flick that arguably came too late in that craze. Still, I’m a Ti West fan (The House of the Devil is terrific, and could have certainly made this list), and his exploration of this religious cult and its leader is truly disturbing. West, through the device of found footage, presents the story with an even hand, even as we race toward the inevitable conclusion—and a horrifying one at that. The Sacrament presents a fevered look at the zealousness of a cult, and that alone is enough to make your skin crawl.
There’s practically nothing that needs to be said at this movie, but it would be ridiculous to leave it off the list. William Friedkin’s masterpiece is not only one of the greatest horror films of all time, but also one of the greatest films ever made in any genre. Without The Exorcist, it’s hard to imagine The Conjuring or its spinoffs existing; both films not only deal with demonic possession, but they also trade on the creepy cachet of being based upon true stories. That aside, The Exorcist is mandatory viewing, and though it was made over 40 years ago, it’s still as terrifying as ever.
Because the number of horror movies dabbling in religiosity is so robust, there’s plenty of other films that could have easily made the list: The Reaping, Carrie, The Omen, The Prophecy, Rosemary’s Baby, Prince of Darkness, The Exorcism of Emily Rose… and even that’s just scratching the surface.
What are some of your favorite religious horror movies?
Michael Moreci is a comics writer and novelist best known for his sci-fi trilogy Roche Limit and his most recent comics series, Wasted Space. His debut novel, Black Star Renegades, is available now, with a sequel, We Are Mayhem, coming in April. He’s currently living his dream, writing Star Wars Adventures for IDW. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelMoreci.