Why is Religious Horror So Compelling?

Religious horror, or horror that contains religious themes, draws on the rich tradition of humanity’s connection with the fundamentally unknowable. Where do we go when we die? What is the meaning of life? How do we control the seemingly whimsical forces around us when they are utterly indifferent to us?

Questions such as these have ignited the imagination for millennia. We only have about 4000 years of recorded history to draw on, but throughout that span, the human imagination has shown both a remarkable confluence of ideas and an almost impossible diversity of ways of expressing those. What these stories signify and what they mean to us are deeply personal and yet they persist even as we perish.

For as long as their have been mythologies there have also been stories that have conjured out of fear. While the more cynical among us might claim that fear is the origin of all of our stories, but when we talk about horror, we’re talking about stories that indulge that fear. These are stories that go out of their way to provoke that fear. Perhaps because religion is so deeply ingrained in our cultural memories it is such a rich resource to mine for horror stories. Perhaps that can be explained by the fact that religion itself is built on fear. Perhaps what we fear most of all is that our life is meaningless, our passions are no different than animals, and the universe truly is indifferent toward.

Or, consider that religion focuses on death. We create stories to explain what happens to us when we die. The Greeks had the notion of Hades which was both a god and place. Tartarus was a place set aside for the evil and became the foundation for Christian ideas of Hell. Those who offended their capricious gods found themselves tortured in ways that were tailored to their own psyches. Tantalus for exampled was condemned to hopelessly grope for precisely what he desired only to find it elude his grasp at the last moment. There are two elements to this. The first is everlasting want. The second is the illusion of hope. Sisyphus faced a similar fate. He could never quite get that boulder over the top of the hill, but the illusion of hope forced him to try indefinitely.

If that’s your religion, then your religion is horror and for so many of us, that’s exactly what religion is. The terror of an omniscient eye keeping score under the threat of everlasting torment.

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