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Power in the Blood:
Hollywood and the Myth of Religious Violence


ON OPENING NIGHT of the 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival, I stood at the end of a line that wrapped around a couple blocks of downtown Austin, Texas. I was in town primarily for work, not festival fun, but I had finagled a free pass, so I was determined to stay in line even as I kept a running list of reasons to leave. It was cold, it was raining, I was exhausted, and I was pretty sure the theater wouldn’t hold us all. But the opening night film was something involving Joss Whedon, the pop culture savant and creator responsible, in part or whole, for Toy Story, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and the then-forthcoming Marvel Studios superhero mega-movie The Avengers. I’m no Whedon disciple, but I had known for years that his fans were the feverish kind, and I wanted to see if I could catch the fever.

I made it in—barely, and only to be balconied in one of the last remaining seats—and learned that we were about to watch the premiere of a long-delayed fright film called The Cabin in the Woods. Whedon had co-written and produced it, Drew Goddard directed, and then studios shelved it for three years. Now, Cabin was finally scheduled for a nationwide release, and we were its first full audience—a fact which gave Whedon pause. “I want you to enjoy the film tonight,” he said, “and then forget everything you saw.” Cabin is a meta-film with a secret, a horror film that slowly reveals itself as the ultimate horror film, and Whedon acknowledged that there’s no way to talk about it—or, to the studio’s dismay, market it effectively—without ruining the experience for anyone in earshot.

Cabin is by now widely available on DVD and online, but even if there is no statute of limitations on Whedon’s spoiler embargo, I hope I’ll not ruin the film by saying that I caught Whedon fever that night because he proved himself capable of asking grand philosophical questions even in the silliest pop culture guise. Cabin does not just playfully tweak the horror genre, à la Wes Craven’s Scream series; it challenges us to ask why we watch horror in the first place, and it even asks itself to consider the dark source of its own pleasures.

Most interestingly to my mind, it does so by turning to religion. Indeed, Cabin in the Woods invents a religion, and an archaic one at that, one with angry deities that can be appeased only by the terrible offerings of ritualistic blood sacrifice.

Cabin is replete with clever metaphors for creating, watching, and enjoying horror movies, but its religious content is straightforward. The movie’s story logic depends on our accepting that religion is the reason we are drawn to horror tales in the first place—the ineffable aspects of our life experiences are what motivate our most extreme behavior, including inflicting and receiving violence, suffering, and death. Religion—the stubborn plane of the extra-rational—gets us in touch with our most irrational vices and gives us permission to revel in the same.

Meta-films like Cabin work only insofar as they invite us to toy with something very familiar, and Cabin’s religious context is familiar indeed. Angry gods, complicit disciples, the bloodiest of blood sacrifices—this is the stuff popular movies are made of. From the fledgling days of film until today, the big screen has been filled with the dark side of religion. And usually, it’s not just God or gods who are the source of the problem, but the frightening faithful—murdering ministers, psycho preachers, and all sorts of believers behaving badly. Mainstream movies have always needed bad guys, and religion—especially Christianity—has been a particularly useful storehouse of villainy.

Early Hollywood was occasionally critical of religious figures, showcasing hucksters and hypocrites in clerical clothing. In the 1920s, two prominent films, Body and Soul (1925) and Hallelujah! (1929), depicted preachers whose religious passions merged with their earthly ones to inspire sudden acts of violence. (Robert Duvall’s The Apostle [1996], a celebrated portrayal of a Pentecostal fugitive, plays like a remake of Hallelujah!) Such depictions faded during the Production Code era from the 1930s to the 1960s, when negative representations of clergy were declared verboten by Hollywood’s self-governance bylaws. But after the Production Code was replaced with a new ratings system in the late 1960s, Christian villains began to trickle back into film—think of the blood-soaked christening scene in The Godfather (1972), where Michael Corleone embraces his family’s violence as he participates in a baptismal ritual, or of the knife-wielding fundamentalist at the heart of Brian de Palma’s classic horror film Carrie (1976).

As conservative religious voices filled the public square during the rise of a new Christian right in the 1980s and 1990s, Hollywood films brought forth a long list of new Christian killers. From hugely popular, Academy Award–winning movies such as Misery (1990) and Contact (1997) to heavily marketed flops like Escape from LA (1996), contemporary cult classics like Pulp Fiction (1994) and From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), and standard box-office hits such as Seven (1995), modern American cinema has made the correspondence of Christianity and violence a distinct and recurring theme. Sometimes, Christian violence has been depicted as a kind of redemptive and necessary justice, as with Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider (1985) or Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995). But in most of the films where believers employ brute force, the violence is villainous—religion is the evil that must be overcome before the movie can end.

Take a beloved modern classic like The Shawshank Redemption (1994), a film much on my mind in recent years because the college students I’ve taught cite it more than any other as their “all-time favorite movie.” Frank Darabont’s prison-system weepie is uplifting and inspiring, and there are certain joys in watching Morgan Freeman’s philosopher-convict befriend Tim Robbins’s earnest, wrongfully convicted everyman and in seeing the two men struggle toward freedom. But, as my students can now explain (however grudgingly), Shawshank is also sentimental and simplistic. It tells us exactly what we’re meant to feel at every moment and doesn’t permit us to think two ways about any of its characters, especially its bad guys.

Shawshank being a prison movie, the main bad guy is the warden—an authoritarian, malicious, and finally murderous bully named Samuel Norton. Warden Norton is also a fundamentalist Christian, a fact the movie indicates as soon as he steps onto the screen. “Rule number one,” he tells a group of newly incarcerated inmates in the film’s opening act, “No blasphemy.” He pauses for a beat. “The other rules you’ll figure out as you go along.” Moments later, Norton’s henchman pounds a man who asks about dinnertime. By way of explanation to the other inmates, Norton comments, “I believe in two things: discipline and the Bible. Here, you’ll receive both. Put your trust in the Lord. Your ass belongs to me.” And so goes the warden throughout the film—thumping his Bible, abusing his power, and generally being the corrupt, corrosive figure that our movies have taught us to expect a fundamentalist Christian to be.

Let me pause here to say that I write about this issue advisedly. It is vexing to complain about Hollywood’s stereotypical portrayals of Christians, because in our popular discourse about religion and society, such complaints sound stereotypical, a surefire way of being labeled a combatant in our interminable culture war even when you would prefer, as I would, to be a conscientious objector. Indeed, calling out Hollywood for its offenses against religion—especially Christianity—is itself a tried-and-true maneuver in the culture war. For much of my lifetime, entire nonprofit organizations have existed largely to complain about Hollywood. The American Family Association, the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, and now a legion of blogs and websites find their raison d’être in Hollywood’s presumed antagonism toward them and their “values.” Bestselling books have been written about Hollywood’s anti-religion bias by conservative commentators such as David Limbaugh (Persecution) and Michael Medved (Hollywood vs. America), and more are sure to come.

The complaints that come from these quarters are typically angry, tit-for-tat diatribes, fogs of fear-mongering that—here’s the rub—obscure the discomfiting accuracy of their core claims: whether out of ignorance, prejudice, or pure-and-simple spite, Hollywood movies are in fact hard on religion, especially Christianity. But in most public discourse, that basic fact receives far less notice than the tired rhetoric of persecution coming from the religious right.

Sometimes, the movies themselves speak back—usually in order to double down. Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991), for instance, is a revenge film that is itself a work of revenge against conservative Christian rhetoric. Scorsese’s thriller is a remake of the 1962 Cape Fear directed by J. Lee Thompson and starring Robert Mitchum as a paroled convict who seeks to torture and kill the defense attorney who failed to get him freed fourteen years back. Scorsese’s remake was intended as a thank-you to Universal Studios, which had stood by him three years earlier when The Last Temptation of Christ was boycotted by figureheads of the Christian right in a much-ballyhooed media campaign. In the original Cape Fear, Mitchum’s villain has no religion—the film exists in what appears to be a completely secular world. In Scorsese’s version, the villain, now played by Robert De Niro, is reinterpreted as a Bible-quoting, snake-handling, tongues-talking Pentecostal bumpkin. The villain in the second film is an analogue of the villain of public square Christianity.

The movies also speak back by habitually representing a particular kind of Christianity—culture-war Christianity appears with regularity in Hollywood film, while other expressions of the faith are rarely to be found. Indeed, in the simplistic narrative worlds of many mainstream movies, no religion exists at all apart from villainous religion—religion is the problem that must be overcome so that order can be restored, heroes can win, and credits can roll. The only religious voice in The Shawshank Redemption is that of the corrupt prison warden, who is also the main force behind the unjust incarceration of Andy Dufresne (Robbins). Everything else—every character, every space—in Shawshank seems to exist in an entirely secular context. When Warden Norton is finally overcome, the moment is pointedly a rejection of his twisted Christianity and a re-sealing of the film’s secular world: a world without religious authoritarianism is a world left in peace. In the new Cape Fear, the villain’s religious rhetoric becomes more pronounced as he closes in on his prey in the climactic scenes. When he is finally overcome by drowning in a river, he shouts and sings—with a crazed smile emblazoned on his face—a familiar Christian hymn: “On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand / Oh, who will come and go with me? / I’m bound for the promised land!” Again, the death of the villain constitutes the complete removal of religion from the narrative world of the film. When secularity is secured, peace is restored.

Films like these depend on what the political theologian William Cavanaugh has called “the myth of religious violence,” a widely accepted notion that religious faith and practice have a particular tendency to promote violence. Cavanaugh argues that this notion is a founding myth of the modern nation state—polities are successful insofar as they are able to cleanse themselves of the corrosive effects of religion. This idea is motivated in part by our collective memory of events such as the Crusades or the “wars of religion” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, conflicts that are assumed only to have happened because of the religious motivation of the combatants. In more recent times, abortion clinic bombings and the crimes of Islamist organizations are seen as essentially religious acts. Even acts of terrorism such as the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and the Norway shooting massacre of 2011 are frequently understood as religious in nature, though the perpetrators of those crimes (Timothy McVeigh and Anders Behring Breivik, respectively) bore only the slightest evidence of fidelity to any kind of religious creed or community. Religious violence has loomed ever larger in our lifetimes, it seems, and prominent works of recent scholarship by the likes of Mark Juergensmeyer (Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence) and Charles Kimball (When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs) have sought to explain why religious belief is uniquely suited to promoting aggressive, transgressive behavior against innocent victims.

When Cavanaugh argues that religious violence is a “myth,” he means that the idea of religious violence is formational in modernity. He does not mean that religious groups and people do not really kill—they do, of course, and many do so in the name of their god. But we’ve mythologized religion’s role in history and society, giving it the wrong kind of explanatory power. What we call the “wars of religion” in Europe, for example, should more rightly be called theopolitical conflicts, because those wars involved power struggles among new modern nation states that were more complex than simple doctrinal disputes. The Thirty Years War may have pitted Protestants against Catholics initially, but it grew into a battle between Bourbons and Habsburgs—one Catholic dynasty warring against another. To refer to such conflicts as “wars of religion” is to dramatically oversimplify the history and encourage a misunderstanding of how religion has shaped the world.

Modern civilization has come to see “religion” as something that must be quarantined or bracketed off because it is irrational and therefore dangerous. We even look for religious motivations to violence where there are none to be found. Again, Timothy McVeigh had virtually no contact with traditional Christianity, and Anders Behring Breivik self-consciously styled himself as a cultural Christian only to pit himself against Islamic immigrants in Europe (he wrote that he does not accept Christian doctrine), yet the acts of both men have been studied as essentially Christian—the myth of religious violence gives us a way to understand these mysterious events. In the real world as in the movies, religion must be tamed or removed altogether in order to rid the world of its violent tendencies.

Ironically, the myth of religious violence is related to another myth, one identified by the late Walter Wink as “the myth of redemptive violence”—the belief that certain acts of violence can and do set the world to rights. In our day, this redemptive violence is usually secular in nature. Cavanaugh argues that while we want to bracket off religion from public life because it is irrational and potentially violent, we are fine with employing secular violence without worrying overly much about the consequences. One hundred thousand dead Iraqi civilians do not loom large in the imaginations of most Americans, because the violence performed on Iraqi soil since 2003 has been seen as redemptive—has been seen, in fact, as useful in rooting out an irrational Islam in order to replace it with a secular nation state.

In the same way (though of course with much less serious consequences), the movies employ the myth of redemptive violence in order to bring stories to resolution. The violence of Robert De Niro’s Pentecostal killer in Cape Fear can only be fully addressed through a final act of violence against him. In many mainstream films, violence is the only way out, the only way for the story to come to a satisfying conclusion. And thus the movies continually play out an old, old story—as the literary critic and anthropologist René Girard has argued over the course of his career, the idea that violence can be redemptive was a basis for the cohesion of most every ancient society. When conflicts arose between two groups the only resolution to the strife was the identification of a scapegoat to blame for the problem, followed by the sacrifice of that scapegoat. All archaic religions, says Girard, are rooted in the ritualization of such a sacrifice—an original lynching that solves some crisis and later becomes divinized and performed over and over again. (I just summarized the plot of The Cabin in the Woods, not to mention the framework for a great number of popular stories.)

So in Hollywood, we have films that employ the myth of religious violence—postulating that religion is somehow particularly prone to do harm—but that also employ the myth of redemptive violence—believing that the only way to overcome villainous religion is by extinguishing it through more rational acts of violence. Most of the films that involve Christian killers behave in just this way—they employ the stereotype of dangerous religion in order to create a viable villain, then follow the pattern of removing religion in order to deliver a happy ending. In other words, they reflect and reify the basic terms of our ongoing culture war, and ensure a typical response from their public square combatants.

But not all films featuring Christian killers paint by these numbers. Thankfully, some filmmakers take seriously the tragic irony of the real-world fact that so many Christian individuals and groups have employed violence—that is, they use film to creatively investigate how violence can arise in a religion whose founder rejected violence. Some films stop the Christian killer tradition dead in its tracks, questioning whether religion (qua religion) is really all that violent at bottom, and whether violence must beget more violence. Indeed, the high artistic points of this representational tradition interrogate this whole system and find that Christianity is capable of dealing with its own villains and of critiquing its own violence. They see Christian hypocrisy and corruption not as an occasion for culture-war skirmishes, but as a problem to be addressed artistically and imaginatively.

This is especially true of the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter, which is perhaps the foundational film in the cinema of Christian villains. I first viewed Hunter a few years ago after coming across myriad references to it while reading about Christian violence in the movies. In most of the literature on this topic, Hunter is regarded as a kind of urtext, an original critique of corrupt Christianity that set the standard for cinematic approaches to Christian killing. And so it is at one level. Based on a 1953 Gothic novel by Davis Grubb that reads like a William Faulkner fairy tale, Hunter focuses on a fraudulent revivalist preacher. For much of the film, only the audience can see his fraudulence—every other character in the story is drawn to his charismatic qualities. The story condemns not just Christian violence, but all Christian duplicity—if the faith is corrupted, Hunter seems to suggest, it’s not just because of a few bad eggs, but because Christians are generally corruptible. At the same time, Hunter finds in Christianity’s own resources the tools needed to repair the damage the religion has done.

The “hunter” of the title is the Reverend Harry Powell, named “Preacher” in the screenplay. We meet Preacher in one of the film’s opening scenes via a high overhead shot that soars toward a car rumbling down a country road. With a jump cut and screech of violins, we confront the man behind the wheel, who is praying aloud: “Well, now, what’s it to be, Lord? Another widow? How many has it been? Six? Twelve? I disremember it. You say the word, Lord. I’m on my way.” We know the man’s intentions immediately, but we will come to see that almost no one else is wise to his ways.

No one, that is, but Rachel Cooper, a widow and keeper of orphans who serves as Hunter’s unambiguous hero. Rachel occupies the film’s first shot as we see her, during a brief prologue, reciting the Sermon on the Mount to the orphans in her care. She also closes the film—she has the last line, and she looks directly at us as she delivers it: “Lord, save little children.” In between, she boldly confronts Preacher. She sees his deception immediately (no beguiling sermons for this one), understands his murderous intentions, arms herself, and stands her ground in order to protect her children. In the film’s most dramatic and memorable moment, Rachel and Preacher sing a strange duet of the famous hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Preacher has sung it throughout the film while stalking his prey, but Rachel sings with true heart. She recovers the hymn from its thieving charlatan, then shoots him, maiming him well enough for the police to capture him.

Preacher, who like the villain in the original Cape Fear is played by Robert Mitchum, has become a legendary character in the history of cinema; references to him abound in contemporary film and television, from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to Do the Right Thing to The Simpsons, where the recurring character Sideshow Bob (who is forever stalking Bart Simpson) is an homage to Preacher. Scorsese’s Cape Fear is also a tribute to Hunter—De Niro’s villain in the remake is poured into the mold of Mitchum’s Preacher.

But culture creators’ memory of The Night of the Hunter seems to begin and end with Preacher, as if he were the film’s final word on religion. When people think of Hunter, they seem to think only of the murdering minister, not the gentle but brave Christian protector—references to Preacher abound in contemporary film, but references to Rachel Cooper are nowhere to be found. Note what’s happened here. If Hollywood films have represented Christian killers in order to perform a wish fulfillment that the cycle of religious violence against the world would finally end, they’ve done so not only by a kind of collective scapegoating, but also by a collective forgetting of religion’s good graces.

Laughton was no fan of contemporary Christianity, and notes from the making of Hunter confirm that he intended the film to be a presentation of the faith’s perennial faults, from the gullibility and fickleness of the faithful to the cynicism of crooked clergy. But unlike many of its cultured despisers, Laughton understood that Christianity is more than the sum of its faults. Laughton, who was born and raised in England, spent several years touring the United States as a successful Bible reciter. Outtakes from Criterion Collection’s 2010 release of The Night of the Hunter reveal that Laughton intended to put this experience to good use in the film, and he shot an opening of himself reading from the Sermon on the Mount for the film’s prologue. Ultimately, he decided to give this opening to Gish’s Rachel Cooper instead—again, Hunter opens with a surrealistic shot of Cooper reciting the Bible verse to a group of rapt children, and closes with a shot of Cooper that echoes the opening. Laughton does not use his Christian saint as a token or easy narrative solution to the wickedness of Preacher; he allows her to open, close, and thereby define his film.

While most cinematic nods to Hunter celebrate only Preacher, the best and most accurate cinematic reference to and reflection on The Night of the Hunter comes from Joel and Ethan Coen. Their 2010 take on the old-fashioned western, a remake of the 1969 John Wayne vehicle True Grit, is a faithful adaptation of Charles Portis’s terrific novel of the same name, but it’s also an occasion to acknowledge a debt to The Night of the Hunter and to think openly about the problem of Christian violence.

The first thing we see in True Grit is its epigraph: “The evil flee when none pursueth. Proverbs 28:1.” In Portis’s novel, the heroine Mattie Ross tosses off the verse as a justification of the violence she means to pursue. Her father was killed by a drunken rascal named Tom Chaney, who got off scot free. Mattie—fourteen years old at the time of the story, though she narrates it as a grown woman—will not let this aggression stand, and she looks to the Bible and her Calvinist faith to construct an ethic of vengeance. “You must pay for everything in this world, one way or another,” she tells us, in another justification for her actions against Tom. “There’s nothing free but the grace of God.”

The Coens’ film uses much of Portis’s original language, which is to say that the film, like the novel (though unlike the John Wayne film), comes from the mind and mouth of Mattie. She sees her violence as vital—a good man has perished unjustly, and the criminal is unaccountable. But by the story’s end, Mattie has to grapple with the wrongdoing that all violence is. She’s a flint-faced woman who never apologies for her determined ways, but she suffers for her efforts and causes others to suffer alongside.

After the epigraph fades, we see, deep in the distance of the frame, light from a window that hovers over the visage of Mattie’s father’s corpse. The camera moves toward the corpse slowly, floating up and past the body in a Steadicam effect that causes us to simultaneously focus on the corpse and begin to look beyond it. The light floating over the body forms the shape of an unmistakable cross. So as the film opens, we get a Bible verse, a dead man, a narration claiming religious reasons for vengeance, and a cross. All this is delivered over the sound of a soothing and familiar hymn—“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” The hymn grows in volume as Mattie’s opening narration proceeds, and as she finishes, it rises toward a crescendo, drowning out all other sounds.

Those with ears to hear will recall Charles Laughton’s use of “Leaning” in Hunter, and are thus invited into a cinematic environment rich with the flora of associations and allusions. The Coens are always deeply intertexual, drawing from and riffing on the film and literary traditions that shape their work. And in this film about a religious pursuit of violence, they call attention to the masterwork of Christian killer cinema. The allusion itself is a masterwork, too, because with it, the Coens acknowledge that the hymn used by Preacher Harry Powell as a killer’s theme is the same one used by Rachel Cooper to express a longing for God’s protection. Mattie Ross could sing the song both ways—she is a Christian killer who also needs to be defended. She’s often more like one of Rachel’s children than Rachel herself, and she finds her own protector in Rooster Cogburn, a broken and tough tracker for whom violence is sustenance. Mattie begins by believing that she needs a man like Rooster, then comes to know his depravity, then comes to rely on this dreadful man for her very life.

Part of the genius of True Grit is that while Mattie is successful in her pursuit—her wicked game flees far, but does not get away—she never revels in her success. Maybe she would have, given the chance, but her own act of vengeance results in a grave injury. She’s a Christian killer, and while not a wicked one, she still has to pay the price for an act of violence.

Then, a short while later, the film quietly ends. We neither see nor hear from Tom Chaney after Mattie’s shot hits his chest. The act is done. There was no pleasure in her pursuit of the wicked, and now there’s no celebration of her victory. In the moment of Mattie’s kill shot, its religious justification and its Christian intention fall completely to the wayside.

The Night of the Hunter and True Grit are both concerned with Christian violence, but they ground their unique perspectives in the stories of individuals who are neither villains nor simplistic heroes. They interrogate Christianity gone wrong, but don’t seek to vanquish it. They reveal the standard, scapegoating approach to Christian violence in Hollywood and offer another way that refuses to reduce the complexity of the world.

In Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods—forgive me one final spoiler—the only imaginable solution to the ongoing ritual of religious violence is the end of all things. The problem is so total that it cannot be overcome but through a grand apocalypse. That’s as honest a statement as we’re going to find about Hollywood’s standard grasp of the problem of religion, where the only thing to do with it is to rid ourselves of it entirely. But films like True Grit and Hunter show another way—not a vanquishing of religion, but a call for vigorous and brave acts of renewal that take on bad religion and demand that it become good.

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