Inspired by this excellent article by Kayleigh Marie Edwards, I will discuss a cliché that I would like to see go by the wayside, as it’s become such a tiresome theme in not just horror, but genre fiction in general: the cliché of the Hypocritical Christian.
For reasons that go beyond the scope of this piece, modern culture has elevated hypocrisy to the unofficial Eighth Deadly Sin, despite how common it is. We are all hypocrites in some fashion or other, but when it comes to religious hypocrisy, where the sinner has the guff to quote Scripture to explain the basis of his beliefs, that’s somehow a bridge too far. This has an element of gotcha in it, as the rulebook for Christians is so widely available: the Bible. It’s easy to point out sections of the Bible that aren’t followed and demand that the offending Christian follow them or be damned as a hypocrite. That this all-or-nothing approach is never required anywhere else in modern life is immaterial: the accusation is what counts. Religious hypocrites are, to some, particularly galling, and must be denounced. Especially in fiction. More especially in horror fiction. Even two of horror’s most famous authors have indulged in it: Clive Barker and Stephen King.
I’ve mentioned this at length in my review of Clive Barker’s The Scarlet Gospels: “If there is one central theme running throughout The Scarlet Gospels, it’s explicitly anti-Christian. Every time Christianity is mentioned, it’s linked to hypocrisy, abuse, and evil. Carston Goode, the ghost who brought both Norma and D’amour into the events of the story, was one such hypocrite. Despite ‘a deep-seated faith in the generosity of the Lord his God,’ Goode is a sorcerer with a secret life of sexual deviance.”
In Stephen King’s Carrie, The Mist, and The Shawshank Redemption, the greatest (human) antagonists often quoted the Bible as a motivating factor in their menace.
Films like The Last Exorcism also carry this theme forward; indeed, it’s difficult to find a positive representation of Christianity in contemporary horror movies at all, and you’ll have to go back to the 1970’s and 1980’s to find examples. In The Exorcist, Father Karras sacrifices himself to save the possessed Regan, and in Omen 3: The Final Conflict, we see a vision of Jesus Christ at the end, when Damien is sent back to Hell. It’s a safe bet that if there’s a pastor in a horror movie made within the last thirty years, he’ll be a bumbling incompetent at best, or if he’s wearing a black cassock and white collar, a sexual deviant.
There are occasional exceptions, of course: From Dusk Till Dawn‘s Jacob Fuller, for example (note that this movie is almost twenty years old). Graham Hess in 2002’s Signs. The Rite. Nevertheless, Christianity has been used as a punching bag for writers either looking to plant an ideological flag or are too lazy to find a more interesting antagonist. For the sake of that ever-elusive originality, if nothing else, it’s time to put this cliché to rest.
It’s no longer daring or trendy or cutting edge to see a sinning priest. The pendulum’s swung so far that way that it’s rare to see, in genre fiction, a priest who isn’t a criminal or idiot or hypocrite.