3 Scary Movies That Got Surprisingly Theological



Yes, it’s that time of year again, when my favorite color (purple) gets incorporated into the seasonal color scheme and my favorite activity (dressing up as someone else) becomes socially acceptable for 24 hours. I’m talking about Halloween, people!

My love of this quirky holiday happens to coincide with another guilty pleasure of mine: scary movies. I admit to having a particular taste for films about the paranormal. Spooky tales always fascinated me, even as a child, despite the fact that my actual belief in such things would have to be measured in atomic mass through a microscope. As a Christian, I’ll concede the existence of the demonic, but that’s different from saying that so-and-so’s family was haunted by the decapitated ghost of Mr. McSpookypants until a medium came with a vial of vampire saliva to cleanse the house.

In any case, as my library of spooky films has grown over the years, I’ve noticed something odd. A surprising number of them have messages I kind of agree with. Strangely, some of them seem almost theological in nature.

You may think I’m nuts. Horror stories are made for shock value, after all, not for Sunday School lessons. Some might think it irreverent with a side of blasphemy to suggest that movies about ghosts and aliens can speak to our faith. Some argue whether Christ followers even should watch them. All these things I understand and respect.

But at least hear me out before you dismiss my theory. Here, in no particular order, are the top three times that scary movies got surprisingly theological. (Spoilers imminent).

SIGNS (2002)

This one’s my favorite paranormal movie of all time, hands down, ballots counted, period. Straight up.

Plot: After losing his wife in a senseless accident, Reverend Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) leaves his faith. When mysterious crop circles appear all over the world, Graham refuses to believe the “signs” of an alien invasion. He attempts to convince his children, Morgan and Bo, and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) that aliens aren’t real. As the invasion draws near and Graham admits to its reality, viewers realize that Graham’s refusal to believe in aliens mirrors his determination to ignore God.

Why I Like It: First, I like the movie’s brutal honesty about life’s cruelty. We see a man in the throes of grief for his dead wife, and the world being turned into an alien buffet. The struggles in this movie are not half-hearted, and not all of them resolve happily.

Yet within that framework, Signs points undeniably to a divine provision that interrupts our broken world to rescue us from despair. In fact, God’s rescue comes right in the midst of that brokenness, comes through it, even. Each character in the story has a flaw, an Achilles’ Heel, if you will. Graham’s Achilles’ Heel is the grief that defines his life. Ex-baseball player Merrill is an obsessive batter who lost a promising career due to swinging too hard at every pitch. Morgan suffers from asthma that constantly limits his life. Even little Bo has a flaw in the form of OCD about drinking water, causing her to litter the house with half-finished glasses of “old” water.

At the end of the movie, the characters’ unlikely flaws work together to save the family from the aliens (you’ll have to watch the movie to see how). In the last scene, it’s strongly implied that the flaws aligned this way due to divine influence. God uses the characters’ weaknesses to reveal His strength. Why does that phrasing sound familiar?



This movie is a microcosm of the ultimate Christian quandary: we recognize the reality of God’s provision, yet also live with problems and questions that remain unanswered. We’re never told which questions will be answered and which won’t, just as viewers of Signs don’t know until the end that each character’s quirky flaw will turn out to have significance.

The final reason I love this movie is for its use of symbols. I delight every time I find a new hidden visual (such as the overhead driving shot, wherein the baseball field points like an arrow to a large cross shape). Water factors heavily into the story, and water is, of course, a Judeo-Christian symbol. And near the end of the film, when describing the aliens’ defeat, a reporter can be heard saying, “The battle turned around in the Middle East.” What other large-scale universal battle “turned around in the Middle East,” say, about 2000 years ago?

THE CONJURING (2013)

Rated R for pure terror, this film had me sweating in my seat the first time through. I thought the second time would be better, but I once again sloshed from the theater drenched in my own perspiration. It had an uplifting end, but holy crap, do you pay out the nose to get there!

Plot: Carolyn and Roger Perron move their large family into a farmhouse only to be tormented by unsettling paranormal events. Professional ghost investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (based on the real-life couple and played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), come to help the family. Ed and Lorraine discover the evil spirit in the Perron house wants to possess mothers and murder children. Can the Warrens stop the cycle before Carolyn Perron is possessed and used as a murder weapons against the five Perron daughters? This movie claims to be based on a true story, although in this case, “based on” seems to mean “we took the premise and wrote a new plot.” In fact, the real-life story seems much more complicated than the film, and the real-life Warrens seem a bit less clear-cut as level headed good guys. However, the film itself is what I'm concerned with here.
Why I Like It: This film isn’t afraid to give its viewers straightforward messages about God. The Warrens frequently allude to their faith. Early in the story, they explain to a curious reporter that their home is blessed once a month by a priest. When Ed Warren talks with Roger Perron about the troubles in the house, he explicitly asks Roger if the Perron family are churchgoers, and suggests they consider church and baptism as tools to fight what they’re up against. Ed and Lorraine speak of how God brought them together to fight evil and protect others. Finally, at the end of the film, this quote from the real Ed Warren appears onscreen: “Diabolical forces are formidable. These forces are eternal, and they exist today. The fairy tale is true. The devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow.”

Now, you could argue whether such a serious subject should be treated as a method of entertainment, and I think that’s a fair question. It’s also fair to acknowledge that some things in the film, such as Lorraine Warren being a psychic, don't fit neatly into the Christian spiritual worldview. And yes, it's even fair to point out that the real-life Warrens held some unorthodox beliefs about spirituality and may have even used the subject for their own gain at times.

Yet as far as the film itself is concerned, you can’t accuse the writers of presenting a paranormal paradigm devoid of Christianity, as so many horror films do. Writers Chad and Carey Hayes gave an interesting interview to the Christian Broadcasting Network about the faith elements in the story, and it’s worth the read.
Finally, the exorcism scene. Ho boy, that whole levitating chair thing. As my friend and fellow film connoisseur Kelcie said, “Never has a simple bedsheet been so terrifying.” A few levitation screen tricks, a couple tablespoons of red Kool-Aide, and you’ll never sleep again.


The conclusion of this scene clearly pits the power of love against the power of evil. Carolyn Perron is only saved when Lorraine Warren reminds her that love is worth staying alive for.

I admit that the technicalities of that are somewhat lacking. As a Christ-follower, I believe in the power of Jesus to deal with spiritual forces, not the abstract power of “love” as a concept. But then, God is love. So all in all, I felt that the message, incomplete as it might have been, still said something worthwhile.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007)

So the Observational Ginger made a good point about that last horror movie, but, c’mon. This one doesn’t feature protagonists of faith, and doesn’t mention Christianity specifically. It’s just a fright fest with demons as the antagonists. How can it possibly be worth talking about through a theological lens?

Plot: Young lovers Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat) buy a video camera to document a haunting in their home. But the entity at home isn’t a ghost; it’s a demon that is, ahem, hell-bent on possessing Katie. As things around the apartment grow scarier, Katie believes Micah’s fascination with the demon is allowing the entity more power in their lives and driving Micah to recklessness. The film ends in tragedy when the demon possesses Katie and uses her to kill Micah. Cue a string of sub-par sequels that bear a shadowy resemblance to their namesake.

Why I Like It: One simple reason. The moral of this story is that demons are stronger than humans and are nothing to mess around with.
As a Christian, can you argue with that? Can you say that’s an incorrect message? Can you fault this movie for making people think twice about calling up demons? No. The message of the story is clear: if you intend to go up against demons on merely your own human strength, price headstones first.

You see, it’s not just Micah’s interest in the demonic, but his arrogance, that makes their household vulnerable. Micah taunts the demon, invents ways to trick, trap, or document it, and swaggers about repeating variations of “This is my house and I will defend it!” He doesn't seek assistance from any sort of higher power, or even from other people who claim to know more than he does. Despite warnings, he refuses to admit his human limitations, and it gets him killed. This film invites a reality check for anyone who thinks they can “handle” paranormal forces.

Also, check the film’s interesting subtext about relationships. Astute viewers will notice tension between Katie and Micah even before the plot escalates. Micah doesn’t respect Katie. He scoffs at her ideas or gently makes fun of her. He often goes behind her back to continue his investigation. The film strongly implies that their unhealthy dynamic gave evil a foothold, and that Katie is the fool for staying with someone who puts her in danger. (Demonic infestation isn’t the most common outcome of bad relationships, but go with me here).


Finally, I draw your attention to the one scene that holds any shred of allusion to faith. Near the end of the film, as Katie slowly loses her mind to the demon, she goes in and out of trances. At one point, she clutches a wooden cross in desperation, so tight that it digs into her leg. Micah, who has held human strength in higher regard than spiritual strength throughout the story, snatches up the cross in frustration and flings it in the fire. The following scene establishes for the audience that Katie has reached the point of no return and gone completely under demonic influence. Micah’s refusal to believe in the authority of higher powers seals their fate.

Did this constitute a straightforward come-to-Jesus moment? No. Was it supposed to be a metaphor for refusing to accept salvation? I doubt it. I think it’s just a scene in a horror movie that made use of religious symbols. But it’s a scene with a message I can’t exactly criticize: if you are beset by demons, God might be a good idea.

So that’s it. My top 3 Halloween picks for the theologically curious. What about you? Have you ever been surprised by the messages in a movie that you thought would just be a cheap scare?