After generating a list of my top 10 most disturbing horror films, it occurred to me that it might be fun to do a different sort of list, one focusing on the scariest depictions of Christians in film. There are so many to choose from here, and it was particularly difficult to make my selections because some of the best depictions of fundamentalist Christians are not really scary, at least not in the horror sense. They are scary more because they remind us of people we know or used to know in real life. Anybody remember John Lithgow's performance as the dad in Footloose? I remember turning to my best friend in the theater and exchanging a knowing look because the character reminded us both of a mutual friend's father. Now, that was scary!
For this list, I decided to limit myself to the five of the scariest Christians I have seen on film and to think of the depictions that were truly frightening, disturbing, or unsettling in a general way and not simply because they reminded me of someone. On to the list!
1. Jesus Camp. As I've noted elsewhere, this has to be the most disturbing film I've ever seen. While nearly all the Christians depicted in this one are scary (I can't be the only one who finds the idea of evangelical fundamentalist Christian children terrifying), the idea that adults would do this to children was what struck me as truly horrifying. I went into this one without much idea of what to expect. I love documentaries, and this one sounded interesting. I wish someone had warned me that I would be watching the emotional abuse of children here. I cried, nearly threw up, and could not get the film out of my head for several days. I haven't been able to get up the nerve to watch it again after that initial viewing. It breaks my heart to confront the fact that I am surrounded by people who proudly do this to their children.
2. Frailty. Not only was this a scary flick with some great acting, but the idea of a fundamentalist Christian having visions that led him to kill has enough of a basis in reality to be quite disturbing. It did not seem like too much of a stretch to imagine something like this happening. This one really blew me away the first time I saw it. It has lost some of its impact on repeated viewings, but my appreciation has grown for how well they depicted the manner in which religious conviction can lead to unspeakable acts of brutality, acts which are easily justified in the mind of the perpetrator.
3. The Mist. I read most of Stephen King's horror books while growing up. I read The Mist on a cross-country flight right after it first came out. I remember thinking as I read it that this would be a tough one to turn into a film; however, this is probably my favorite of all his book-to-film adaptations. While the film was quite different from the book, it contained one of the best depictions of how quickly religious tribalism can unfold in times of stress and the dire consequences it can have. The fundamentalist Christian woman, played by Marcia Gray Harden, was such a perfect depiction of small town Christian extremism, and the manner in which the other characters responded to it was certainly unsettling. While I did not find the film itself to be all that scary, I found myself thinking about Harden's performance days later.
4. Red State. I wasn't initially sure what to make of this one. I went into it expecting a traditional horror film because that is what I had been told it was. What I found was much less horror and more action thriller. I had a hard time evaluating it without feeling disappointed that it wasn't what I thought it would be. And yet, the film did manage to depict some armed Christian extremists quite well. The manner in which the protagonists in Frailty could cloak their depraved acts in Christianity and convince themselves that they were doing divine work was extended here in a manner reminiscent of Waco. This is one I want to see again in order to give it a fair shake, but one of the early scenes in the church was scary enough that it belongs on this list.
5. Carrie. This was not my favorite of the classic films adapted from Stephen King's books, but I think that was because I needed to do some growing up before I would fully appreciate the slow-burn of the psychological horror present here. But even as a child, I recognized that the scariest thing about it was Carrie's fundamentalist Christian mother, played to perfection by Piper Laurie. As I wrote in 2010 right after watching Carrie, it doesn't quite have the impact it used to, and the reason why strikes be as being far scarier than any movie could be.
I discovered something interesting while pulling this list together. Nearly all of these films were controversial among Christian fundamentalists when they came out because they did not like how they were being depicted. Evidently, many evangelical fundamentalist Christians object to being depicted as...well...crazy. I suppose that is fair in that these depictions tend to be at least a bit exaggerated.
The thing is, I've known people like Carrie's mother and the woman in the grocery store in The Mist, we've all seen the Phelps clan protesting funerals like the extremists in Red State, and some of us are surrounded by the sort of thing on display in Jesus Camp. Frailty is a bit of an outlier in that it may seem unfamiliar to those who have not spent much time in mental hospitals or correctional institutions, but those who have will see something familiar there too. The point is that these depictions of fundamentalist Christians may have been somewhat exaggerated, but they were also immediately recognizable.