Film

Are big-budget horror movies becoming more conservative?

Horror will always on some level be about conservatism, because violence doesn’t happen in a political vacuum

THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER (from left) Angela Fielding (Lidya Jewett) and Katherine (Olivia Marcum)

Angela Fielding (Lidya Jewett) and Katherine (Olivia Marcum) in The Exorcist: Believer, directed by David Gordon Green. Image: Universal Pictures

Fifty years ago, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist offered a realistic horror about agents of Christ fighting an evil that contradicts itself at every turn, making it impossible to purge. More than little girls swearing in low registers or pea soup vomit slamming into priests, its legacy should be a creeping doubt about the nature of God and the Devil.

Now, with Exorcist: Believer lionising original cast members and doubling the number of demonic kids, it seems we’ve got another reboot celebrating the aesthetics of a classic rather than expanding its thematic complexity.

Exorcist: Believer isn’t the only cash-grabbing religious horror out this spooky season, though. The Nun II just tried to convince us that demonic entities are much scarier than what real nuns are capable of. But with memories of institutions such as the Magdalene Laundries still painfully fresh, it’s clear horror has found a new home with nuns.

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

Our haunted Sister made her debut in The Conjuring-verse – a loose franchise of spin-offs and sequels about real-life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren – back in 2016. Both The Nun and The Conjuring depicted evil attacking sacred people from the outside; omitting how real religious power abuses actually happen.

In the films, religion is allowed to remain valiant in the face of a crudely defined evil. And it’s probably what the Warrens would have wanted: Ed and Lorraine were arch-Catholics and massive grifters. Yet after their deaths, their legacy as righteous defenders of conservative Christian family ideals has been enthusiastically committed to celluloid.

Big studio horror films are always going to err on the easy-to-digest, non-radical side. They are made by conservative corporations that don’t want to upset their Christian customers. Thankfully, other 2023 scary movies show more interest in undermining conservatism’s home in the genre.

M Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin and Lee Cronin’s Evil Dead Rise subject their characters to violence that may not be spelled out as political, but provoke questions about conservatism’s place in horror. The genre has always been political: an aggressor targeting a vulnerable victim is the archetypal power dynamic.

There’s a weird tension in classic slashers – since they clearly delight in butchering troublesome characters (often promiscuous women or minorities), do they embolden the moralistic messages of conservative society? Or is the veiled brutality in mainstream conservative beliefs being externalised through a monster? 

Modern horror is eager to take what used to be subtextual and bring it to the foreground. There is something compelling and unnerving about the horror of the real world finding a home in heightened, fantastical stories.

In Knock at the Cabin, religious fanatics take over the quiet holiday of two gay men and their daughter, announcing that visions have told them that unless one of the family is sacrificed, God will cause a world-ending apocalypse. The film received criticism for the suffering its queer characters go through. But Shyamalan, as a person of colour, understands the testing nature of assimilating into a world that says your othered status will only be “accepted” (read: not ostracised or attacked) if you’re willing to sacrifice some of your values and happiness.

It leaves a sick feeling in your stomach – even after the family do the unthinkable, they do not feel suddenly welcomed; when the radio plays a song they sang along to in the opening scene, it’s clear God is playing a sick joke.

Reboot Evil Dead Rise comments on the implicit bigotry of the 1981 original, giving an intentional update to messaging that Sam Raimi and co. never fully considered as young exploitation filmmakers. The Evil Dead is loaded with gendered violence – after a young woman is sexually assaulted by demonic tree roots, her possession spreads to all the other women present, turning them into cackling crones who can only be dispatched with complete dismemberment. Women are violated, and for their transgression are punished by being brutalised.

In Rise, it’s a single mother who becomes possessed; Ellie is an encouraging anchor for her trans son Danny and anarchist daughter Bridget. She is a model of acceptance, and when she taunts and attacks her children, their politicised statuses feel targeted too. If the demon in the original was misogynistic, it is now homophobic, taking advantage of humanity’s darkest impulses to attack beliefs and identities that are seen by the right as abnormal.

Horror will always on some level be about conservatism, because violence doesn’t happen in a political vacuum. It’s up to filmmakers to interrogate how it influences society. Horror movies may not be getting more conservative, but the ones with the biggest reach are content to let its domineering influence fester for another generation.

Rory Doherty is a freelance screenwriter.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
From The Iron Claw to Opponent: How wrestling films began grappling with real issues
Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson and Zac Efron as the tragic Van Erich wrestling family in The Iron Claw
Film

From The Iron Claw to Opponent: How wrestling films began grappling with real issues

Civil War director Alex Garland on ChatGPT, 28 Years Later and why Britain is like a 'pet cat'
Civil War, Alex Garland
Film

Civil War director Alex Garland on ChatGPT, 28 Years Later and why Britain is like a 'pet cat'

Gillian Anderson, Billie Piper and Rufus Sewell on recreating Prince Andrew's car-crash interview in Scoop
Rufus Sewell as Prince Andrew and Gillian Anderson as Emily Maitlis
Film

Gillian Anderson, Billie Piper and Rufus Sewell on recreating Prince Andrew's car-crash interview in Scoop

Io Capitano director Matteo Garrone on why a refugee's journey is so much more than small boats
Film

Io Capitano director Matteo Garrone on why a refugee's journey is so much more than small boats

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know