Post Author: Jo Schonewolf
This post contains descriptions of the plots of The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) and Gokseong (released as The Wailing in the US, 2016), including brief mentions of death and implied abuse. Please use discretion.
The author would like to thank Rev. Ahnna Lise Stevens-Jenning, CJ McCrary, Rev. Drew Ensz, and Rev. Ethan Shearer for their thoughts on these two films, which led to the writing of this article. You can hear their discussion on the "Horror Spectacular!" episode of the What the Hell is a Pastor podcast.
From connecting with pastors over the years, I’ve discovered that there are a number of them out there who adore horror. While I haven’t been able to nail down a complete explanation for this phenomenon, I have found one recurring, resonant theme: belief.
Horror movies are obsessed with belief. It’s the concept we’re grappling with when we yell at the screen to tell the characters not to go into that dark basement or roll our eyes at the one character who insists on being a skeptic even though they’re in a horror movie: Why don’t these people believe that the danger is real? Why don’t these people believe in the supernatural? How can they doubt the existence of nightmares when they’re living in one?
It’s no surprise that the themes of belief and skepticism run throughout a genre that found its modern beginnings during the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment itself followed a century of intra-Christian warfare born out of the instability that led to, sparked, and proceeded from the Protestant Reformation. We can see stereotypes that persist today about “religious people” take shape during this time of upheaval: the Catholics are superstitious, believing in angels and demons and purgatory. The Protestants have set aside all that pesky ritual and are guided sola scriptura. There’s a growing push and pull between concepts like logic and superstition or reason and belief. We see the broad strokes of these arguments everywhere in our time, mirrored in things like those yard signs that say, “In this house, we believe in science.”
As pastors (and especially young clergy women), we encounter this tension between logic and belief often, whether it’s with a stranger who pushes back on our faith, thinking that we must be naive to believe in something as silly as God, or with a parishioner who can’t understand why we might doubt a belief that they’ve held all their lives. More to the point, sexist ideas of the past paint women as being more credulous, superstitious, and illogical but also more mystical and precious. As clergy women, we more than likely have been theologically trained by denominations that value scholarship and reject noncritical readings of scripture or folk belief. We’re easily stereotyped as uncritical acceptors of a religious tradition or faithless faith leaders who need to get back to prayer and scripture. We find ourselves living smack-dab in the middle of the exact conflict many horror movies explore: when should you doubt and when should you believe?
The Exorcism of Emily Rose sets this question center stage in a courtroom drama starring Laura Linney and Jennifer Carpenter and based on the real-life story of Anneliese Michel, a twenty-three-year-old German Roman Catholic woman, who underwent 67 rites of exorcism before dying of malnourishment and dehydration. In the movie, as in the story of Anneliese Michel, the priest who performed the exorcism of Emily Rose is put on trial for negligent homicide, with Linney playing Erin Christine Bruner, the defense attorney for the priest, and Carpenter playing the titular Emily. The movie flashes back to scenes of Emily’s last days as testimony is given on the stand, while Erin is haunted throughout the nights by a dark presence.
The movie invites us to identify with Erin as she wrestles to square her lack of belief with what she’s seeing with her own eyes. Are there truly demons out there? What counts as fact or truth in cases like these? Into whose care are the possessed best entrusted? Does it matter that the priest was doing what he truly thought and believed was best? Does it matter what Emily believed? Does it matter what Erin believes? We’re left to decide the answers to these questions on our own, as the jury convicts the priest but reduces his sentence to time served, a combination of following the “objective” (rational) law and honoring the “subjective” (emotional) story of Emily.
The tension between logic and belief becomes more apparent when we look at a film influenced by but not originating in post-Enlightenment Europe and North America. Gokseong (released as The Wailing in English-speaking countries) is a 2016 South Korean horror film starring Kwak Do-won as Jong-goo, a policeman and father of Hyo-jin, a young girl played by Kim Hwan-hee. Rather than the clean-cut courtroom of Emily Rose, Gokseong is set in a small mountain village, where an unexplained illness has begun to spread which causes the infected to murder their entire family. Instead of two clear options (guilty or not guilty, belief or doubt), Jong-goo must investigate the source of the illness, the consequences of becoming infected, and any potential cure, with doubts and convictions being challenged at every turn. After Hyo-jin becomes infected, Jong-goo and his family do everything in their power to save her, but in the end, fail.
Gokseong is a gorgeous movie, using the mountainous setting to set the brooding, introspective tone that the viewer will need as they, like Jong-goo, investigate the film’s events and their origins. Christianity is a side character in Gokseong–a young Catholic deacon is consulted only as an attempted Hail Mary after the elders, the police, and the village shaman all fail to combat the illness, and the deacon has no more success than the rest. Jong-goo is visited by the village’s guardian spirit, but is unable to trust her amid all the other sources of information around him. The viewer is presented with psychological and sociological explanations for the phenomenon, as the apparent patient zero for the illness is a Japanese man who’s settled near the village, who also has a brief encounter with Hyo-jin before she becomes infected. But the film refuses to explain whether abuse, corruption, and xenophobia are the true source of the sickness and violence, whether any one religion could have saved the village, or, in its theatrical ending, whether the village’s protective spirit was truly protective after all.
Of course, these are just movies. I’m not here to comment on the existence of demons or the particularities of belief in a pluralistic society absent of Christian hegemony. But I maintain that horror films are an incredible way to work through questions of belief and doubt and to grapple with the epistemological crisis begun by the Enlightenment. Through Gokseong’s Jong-goo and Emily Rose’s Erin Bruner, we are able to open ourselves up to deep questions: How do I handle horrific situations? What do I do when the pain of the world is too much for me to heal? What do I trust when everything else is stripped away? What do I believe?
So if you’re able to this Halloween, take some time to watch a horror flick and ponder the deep questions of belief and its consequences (and maybe enjoy a scare or ten while you’re at it). I think you’ll find it good for your soul and good for your ministry. Because even if horror isn’t your thing, when we take the time to ponder these questions for ourselves, we’re more able to sit with and guide those in our care as they ask questions like this too.
What to read after reading this: A Prayer for the Doubting
Jo Schonewolf left a ministry call at the end of 2020 and has been wrestling with church, ordination, and Christianity ever since. She currently works as YCWI’s administrative assistant, among other things, and hopes to use her MDiv and MSc in Science and Religion professionally one day. You can find more of her writing at ajschonewolf.com and more of her thoughts on the ministry podcast she cohosts, What the Hell is a Pastor.
Image by: 2jenn via Adobe Stock
Used with permission