The horror film and religion go hand in hand – after all, aren’t both, at their foundation, about overcoming evil? In the new Blumhouse nerve-jangler THE VIGIL, which has been described as “The Conjuring with an Orthodox Jewish twist”, religion is the crux of the plot: set over the course of a long, dark night in Brooklyn’s Hassidic “Boro” Park neighborhood, Yakov, who has lost his faith, is approached by a rabbi to be a ‘shomer’ – to watch over a body before the funeral. Shortly after arriving at the dilapidated house for his vigil, Yakov realizes that something is very, very wrong.
Here are some of the scariest horror films that, along with The Vigil, mix religion and frights to devastating effect. The ‘say your prayers’ moments give you an idea of when to put the popcorn to one side and drop to your knees in supplication…
Ari Aster’s follow-up to his terrifying Hereditary is an equally unsettling tale, about a group of American anthropology students visiting a secluded Swedish village, to enjoy the traditional mid-summer festival. To begin with, the place seems blissful and benign, but the group soon realise that the villagers’ pagan beliefs are somewhat extreme, and appear to involve sacrifice to appease their god.
Say your prayers moment: The eager students are taken to witness an ancient ceremony at a cliff’s edge, involving a pair of village elders. It is not what they expect.
THE EXORCIST (1973)
One of the greatest, and most successful horror films of all time, upon release this story of a 12-year-old girl, Regan (played by Linda Blair), being possessed by a demon, was decried as sacreligious. In fact, William Peter Blatty, the author of the bestselling book that he adapted for the screen, was a devout Catholic, and the story is about forgiveness and finding good in everyone. In the end, the film did for religion what Top Gun did for navy recruitment: people queued around the block to get tickets to see it, then formed an orderly queue to attend church the following Sunday. Because as the film suggests, only Christ can save you.
Say your prayers moment: When Regan’s head rotates a full 360 degrees and then she chuckles, the audience knows things just got real.
THE NUN (2018)
This chilling spin-off from the Conjuring universe sees a priest and a novitate doing battle with a possessed nun. Using The Exorcist’s theme of the power of prayer to drive out evil, The Nun will make a convert of you yet. If you’re looking for Sister Act, you’ve got the wrong film.
Say your prayers moment: As Father Anthony and Sister Irene are shown round an abbey in deepest Romania, the hundreds of crosses surrounding the holy site start to turn round of their own accord…
THE WICKER MAN (1973)
This classic British horror film sees Edward Woodward as a cop who travels to a remote Scottish island in search of a missing girl. Instead he gets tangled in the locals’ devout pagan beliefs. A big influence on the aforementioned Midsommar, and featuring Christopher Lee in one of his finest roles, The Wicker Man shows how fanaticism in religion can override everyday civility and reason.
Say your prayers moment: Woodward wakes in his room in the local pub, to find a candle shaped like a human hand, aflame on the bedside table. Wakey wakey!
THE OMEN (1976)
This classic Seventies shocker stars Gregory Peck as the American ambassador in London, who starts to believe the boy he has adopted is the Antichrist. Released a few years after The Exorcist, the film was a worldwide smash, spawned three sequels, a remake, and even a TV series, not to mention countless rip-offs – suggesting religious horror really chimes with audiences.
Say your prayers moment: When a priest comes to a cropper at a church, of all places, you know all bets are off and the Devil means business.
DEADLY BLESSING (1981)
Horror maestro Wes Craven’s rural frightener, featuring an early performance by Sharon Stone, sees the great Ernest Borgnine as the fearsome head of a strict Hittite sect, haranguing the widow of an apostate.
Say your prayers moment: There’s a scene with a snake in the bath that’ll have you switching to showers for good.
THE WITCH (2015)
The Queen’s Gambit’s Anya Taylor-Joy stars in this slow-burning masterwork from Robert Eggers. Taylor-Joy plays the eldest daughter in a deeply religious family in 17th-century New England, who finds herself torn between devout Christianity and forces of witchcraft that seem to lurk in the woods nearby.
Say your prayers moment: The strong, stoic head of the family (the brilliant Ralph Ineson) comes out second best after a bout with the family goat Black Phillip. You’ll never look at Finchy from the office in the same way again.
THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979)
The Lutz family moved into a new home on Long Island. They get their dream house for cheap because it was the site of a mass murder. Big mistake. Like Yakov in The Vigil, they can feel there is something not right about the place. It’s not the renovators they need to call in, but the local priest, Father Delaney, to drive out the evil spirits that are making life for the Lutz family literally hell.
Say your prayers moment: The film is said to be inspired by actual events, meaning you’ll have goosebumps through the whole darn thing.