Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: Religious Reversals

The horror genre really doesn’t get enough credit. But then, it’s also pretty hard to produce something that is genuinely scary for an audience over the age of twelve. It seems like most horror films have gone the gore route, manufacturing reactions of shock and revulsion to explicit violence. Others go for the “jump” scare, named for how it makes the audiences literally jump in their seats when the trope works. Older horror movies usually go the suspense route, slowly building up to a big reveal, where the monster is mostly in the mind of the audience. Usually the best horror movies use a combination of tactics to get that scare.

But on a more fundamental level, a large part of what makes a horror film or television show or book horrifying is an inversion. You take something meant to be good or happy or safe and you make it evil or sad or dangerous. Clowns causing fear and destruction. Dead people or animals coming back to life and not being fully alive. Sweet and innocent children turned serial killers. Horror ultimately makes us feel unsettled, makes us say that something is wrong, that’s not how it’s supposed to be.

Reversing religion is one of the more common and effective horror tropes. Religion is a group of beliefs and practices that are supposed to bring the believer comfort, assurance, and peace in the face of suffering and death. It’s the ultimate “good thing” for the believer, against the ultimate “bad thing.” Usually Supernatural is my go-to “horror” and “religious elements” show, but it doesn’t really work to illustrate my point about religious reversals. Religion is part of the setting, a tool to be used to “gank demons” and other nasty monsters that go bump in the night. In later seasons, angels and demons of varying shapes, sizes, and choirs become regular characters. Heaven and Hell and Purgatory are places in the Supernatural universe. In Supernatural, religion doesn’t function chiefly as religion; it functions as part of the universe itself. So instead, I’m going to look at two new shows: Orphan Black and Hannibal.

Sarah’s British accent helps people keep track of when she’s herself, and when she’s someone else.

Orphan Black is the show BBC America was pushing on Doctor Who fans this season, airing it right after Doctor Who series 7.2 episodes. It follows Sarah, a British punk who comes to New York City to turn her drug-dealing life around so she can start a new life with her daughter, Kira, and her foster brother, Felix. In the first episode, Sarah sees a young woman who looks exactly like her jump in front of a train. Sarah assumes the woman’s identity, becoming Detective Beth Childs. Sarah initially plans on cleaning out Beth’s bank account and fleeing the country, but soon discovers that she, Beth, and others are actually experimental clones, and someone is killing them off.

Working as Beth, Sarah meets a clone named Helena. Helena is clearly mentally unstable, with wild blonde hair and angel wings she cut into her own back with a razor blade. Helena was raised by Ukrainian nuns, and is deeply religious. She believes that the clones are abominations, and believes she is on a mission from God to kill the clones so that she can be redeemed. Helena is similar to the albino in Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code. She has pasty white skin, bleaches her hair within an inch of its life, and uses pain as a means to commune with God. She paints Bible verses on the walls and decapitates a Barbie doll in a pseudo-ritualized manner. Helena’s creepy not only because she’s a strange, female serial killer, but because she’s the nightmare religious fanatic. She’s a monster living under the bed of a secular humanist: a psychotic religious fundamentalist using her religion as motivation to commit grave evil. There’s no reasoning with someone who thinks they’re on a mission from God.

Apparently, they eat the rude.

Hannibal, on the other hand, is more subtle with its use of religion. Hannibal is NBC’s latest crime drama, and is chronologically set before the events of the book Red Dragon. It follows FBI serial killer profiler Will Graham as he investigates a series of rather creative murders, while enlisting the help of his sometimes-friend, sometimes-psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. Will’s autism-spectrum disorder gives him the ability to get into the heads of serial killers, but the more he becomes involves in cases the more unstable he becomes. Will starts hallucinating, often seeing a giant black elk or stag. Fans have dubbed the animal the “Ravenstag.” Will sees the animal when he gets close to a breakthrough, or when he sleepwalks. Hannibal also happens to have a black stag sculpture in his office.

The giant stag is very similar to the Horned God in Wiccan and neo-pagan theology. The Horned God is sometimes called Cernunnos, Pan, or Herne the Hunter. The Horned God is chiefly the masculine counterpart to the Mother Goddess. He’s usually connected to nature, wilderness, hunting, and the life cycle. He usually has the head of stag and the body of a man (theriocephaly), representing the union between animal and divine (humans, of course, included in animals). The medieval Catholic Church adopted the form of the Horned God as one of the many personifications of the Devil. King Arthur represents the Horned God in the Mists of Avalon, a feminist retelling of the Arthurian legend.

Many of the things the Horned God represents are found throughout NBC’s Hannibal. Hunting and the life cycle are huge motifs. The first killer (The Minnesota Shrike) is a hunter, and sets the tone of “hunting” for the rest of the season. Both he and Hannibal believe that one must honor the killed beast. The hunter is careful to use all parts of any creature he kills, including stuffing pillows with human hair. Hannibal creates meticulously and intricately detailed feasts for his guests out of his victims. Will finds that he prefers the company of animals, namely dogs, to people (he has at least seven in the first season). Will sees the stag the more unstable he becomes. Instead of religious figures being guides toward spiritual enlightenment, Will Graham’s “Ravenstag” brings him closer and closer to a total psychotic breakdown.

In both Orphan Black and Hannibal, religion is used in a way to increase the horror of the show. Orphan Black takes a familiar religion (Christianity), and turns it into motivation for death, destruction, and insanity for Helena. Hannibal takes a god of an unfamiliar religion (Wiccan or Neo-Pagan worship), and turns it into a harbinger of death, destruction and insanity for Will.