By Danny Anderson
Growing up a low-church Protestant, I had a tragically shallow liturgical education. When I moved to New York City in my mid 20s and first saw Catholics with ash on their foreheads on that particular Wednesday, I was utterly confused and thought I had wandered into an episode of The Twilight Zone.
For us, we basically had Easter Sunday. Even Good Friday was a rather muted afterthought in my religious tradition, let alone Lent, which was received as idolatrous and straight out of the Middle Ages. Now, as you might guess, I adore Lent and many others from my religious ghetto have adopted it as well.
I love Lent so much that I want more of it.
I also love Halloween, so here I want to advocate a new tradition: a Lenten buildup to All Saints Eve.
While I have not yet come up with a name for this new tradition, I have a cinematic liturgy pretty well-figured out; where Lent is about abstaining, Hallow-Lent will be about consuming – movies in this case. The movies will offer the believer a chance to contemplate the Christian Virtues through horror. Seven nights, seven Virtues. Note, that many of these films will explore the virtues through their absence in these films.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Prudence is defined as “the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.”
John Carpenter’s seminal slasher film, Halloween, is on my annual viewing list and it seems to me that it has a lot to say about Prudence. While the mainly centers on Laurie Strode discovering that the Boogie Man does indeed exist and her desperate attempt at surviving this fateful encounter with evil, the figure of Dr. Loomis has always been a puzzle for me.
He is a man of science who is obsessed with the Devil. His single-minded quest to keep Michael Myers in his cage gives way to a fanatical quest to destroy him once Myers escapes back to Haddonfield. The film offers no rational explanation for Michael’s pitiless rage, and Loomis, with an abundance of prudence, dispenses with the logic of his profession in his response. Michael’s evil is unexplainable, so Loomis abandons the useless explanations of science and vows to simply destroy that evil.
Justice (Trick ‘r Treat)
Michael Dougherty has quietly assembled a fascinating career as a horror director. Recently, he contributed to the Godzilla franchise with Godzilla: King of Monsters and, before that, he introduced Krampusto popular audiences. His early film Trick ‘r Treathas become a classic Halloween film, serving as that holiday’s version of A Christmas Story for many people, myself included.
Though it is a dark, even pagan form of Justice, the film depicts a world ruled by devotion to the Law, thus earning its place on this list. The Catechism defines Justice as “the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.” Trick ‘r Treat dispenses with care for our neighbors for a brutal, single-minded focus on paying dues to the god of Halloween, Samhain.
Samhain is depicted as a pumpkin-costumed child who, on the surface, innocently seeks his candy while trick or treating through the town on Halloween night. Beneath the mask, however, is a monstrous pumpkin-monster who ruthlessly enforces the liturgical rules of sacrifice on Halloween night.
The comedic, horrific short stories of a night in Sam’s world are intricately intertwined to depict a spectacle of a rule-based world without grace, making the Christian viewer appreciate all the more our theology of Justice tempered by divine mercy.
Temperance (Twins of Evil)
Each year, I am sure to include a film from Hammer Studios in my Halloween-watch. The supernatural horror of Hammer’s vampire films lend themselves nicely to theological meditation, but none with such depth as Twins of Evil.
Perhaps Peter Cushing’s greatest screen performance, the film is part of the so-called “Karnstein Trilogy,” a moment in the early 1970’s when Hammer re-invigorated its gothic vampire mythology with an injection of eroticism. The results of the first two film’s experimentation with nudity and sex (The Vampire Loversand Lust For a Vampire) are mixed, but Twins of Evil is one of Hammer’s highest artistic achievements.
Furthermore, it offers a profound reflection on the virtue of Temperance.
Cushing plays a sternly religious Puritan who leads a local group of clergy on an extended campaign of witch-burnings. His twin nieces come to live with him and are put under the thumb of their uncle’s cold totalitarianism. Cushing’s character is brutal and monstrous, but we learn that his worldview is a reaction to the incarnate evil of Count Karnstein, a hedonistic aristocrat who offers his soul to Satan in his quest for ultimate physical pleasure, becoming a vampire in the process. Cushing’s nightmarish fears about the world are understandable, if not acceptable. One twin joins Karnstein, while one stays pure, providing the bulk of the film’s drama.
With Temperance being “the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods,” this film provides a bounty of ways to consider it. First, Karnstein’s sin is ultimately one of willful intemperance. He becomes a literal monster in his endless pursuit of earthly pleasure. That aspect of the film is obvious. However, Cushing’s portrayal of Gustav Weil and his maniacal pursuit of justice is also a lesson in intemperance. Though one doesn’t get the sense that Weil experiences pleasure in the physical sense in his brutal murders of innocent girls, the spiritual satisfaction he receives is obvious.
In the end, the village must be rid of both men, extremes of good and evil, untempered by either justice or mercy.
Fortitude (The Wolf Man)
The classic Universal horror films form the foundation of the very genre and are a must for any responsible Halloween viewing list. Here, I will recommend Lon Chaney’s timeless portrayal of The Wolf Man as it might apply to the Christian virtue of Fortitude.
Referring once again to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Fortitude “strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life.” Larry Talbot provides us with a character arc that obsesses over Fortitude.
At the beginning of the film, Larry tiptoes his way through an uneasy return home after years of estrangement. In the attempt to heal a fractured relationship with his father, he reaches out into the local village and, showing a failure of Temperance, attempts to seduce Gwen, a local woman currently engaged to another man. This failure to resist temptation ultimately leads to his being bitten by a werewolf. The irony of this is that the nature of the beast he has become is to seek out his lusts with murderous ambition. The werewolf is the fruition of Larry’s lack of Fortitude in resisting his desires.
By the end of the film, knowing that Gwen is cursed to be his next victim, Larry finally comes to terms with his shame and sets into motion the events that will lead to his own destruction at the hands of his father and that mighty silver cane. This is the tragic character arc of the werewolf and Larry accepts death in his final attempt to develop the Fortitude to overcome the obstacles to his own moral failings.
Faith (Fright Night)
Fright Night remains one my nostalgic pleasures and each year I return to the film and all its cheeky humor. In addition to the comedic gold that the cast, particularly Roddy McDowall, provides, director Tom Holland manages to tell an exciting story filled with genuine scares. Both an homage to the great gothic legacy of Hammer Films and a biting social commentary on life in suburbia, the film has a natural appeal to me.
Young Charlie, an all-American boy obsessed with horror films and girls discovers that a real vampire has moved in next door. Furthermore, the vampire is out to get him next. In his desperation, he seeks out the aid of his move hero, Peter Vincent (named by Holland in honor of Peter Cushing and Vincent Price), who has made a career of killing cinematic bloodsuckers.
Vincent’s relationship with the monsters, however, is a fictional one and he doesn’t really believe Charlie’s story. Later, in the battle with the beast, Vincent whips out the crucifix that was so useful in his films, only to find it useless again Jerry the vampire because Peter has no faith. Charlie, the true believer, takes the cross and it immediately works to repel Jerry. Later on, inspired by Charlie’s faith, Peter Vincent too develops the appropriate faith to repel the monster.
It’s a simple application of the virtue of Faith, but it is powerful nonetheless. Christians too often fall in to lazy reliance on the symbols of the religion and rob them of their power. Charlie shows Peter how to engage life’s monsters with a reinvigorated Faith.
Hope (The Ninth Gate)
I understand that director Roman Polanski is probably #canceled, but the 1999 horror film he made with Johnny Depp about a book merchant’s quest for a Satanic manuscript is one of my favorite Halloween treats. As an English teacher, the idea that old books have real power is irresistible to me, I suppose.
The film also explores the Christian virtue of Hope, but strictly in the negative. Hope as the Catechism defines it is “the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help and grace of the Holy Spirit.” The Ninth Gate almost completely inverts this definition.
Dean Corso is contracted by wealthy publisher and Devil-enthusiast to authenticate his copy of a book supposedly written in collaboration with Satan himself. Along Corso’s journey he meets a number of bizarre and enigmatic characters, all obsessed with old books and magic. Corso, a strict materialist who at the beginning of the film believes only in “my percentage,” slowly comes to believe in the promise of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows. In short, he develops a form of Hope. The obvious difference is that his Hope is built not on the desire for the kingdom of heaven, but for the power of eternal life serving the Prince of Darkness. Also, where the Christian relies not on our own strength but on the “help and grace of the Holy Spirit,” Corso too places his Hope on a spirit, a dark angel, known only as Green Eyes, who makes his journey possible.
The film’s ending is horrific as it seems that Corso’s Hope is fulfilled.
Charity (Silver Bullet)
A favorite from my childhood, Stephen King’s Silver Bullet is based on King’s novella Cycle of the Werewolf. The cast of the film is wonderful, with standout performances across the board, particularly Gary Busey, whose portrayal of Uncle Red, the kindly drunken uncle to the film’s child-stars is utterly adorable.
The werewolf priest of the film, Reverend Lowe, is its most theologically rich feature, however. In particular, Lowe offers a powerful meditation on the virtue of Charity.
Charity is fulfilled when we “love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God,” and it absolutely permeates this movie.
The film opens with a gruesome werewolf murder, but quickly establishes the town, Tarker’s Mills, as a lovely place where “people cared about each other as much as they cared about themselves.” The willingness to love neighbors is also evident in the can-collection drive for charity that persists in the background of the story.
The werewolf’s sudden appearance, however, drives a wedge between Tarker’s Mills’s citizens and causes that virtue of Charity to crumble. That it is the town’s chief clergyman who is the source of the failure is all the more tragic.
But in true Gospel fashion, it is the town’s lowly who restore what was lost. Wheelchair bound Marty, his service-minded sister Jane, and their drunken-yet-lovable Uncle Red band together and give of themselves (their time, their silver jewelry, their craftsmanship, up to the point of their very lives) to save the town from its werewolf priest.
I humbly offer to you this list. Mine will change from year to year, and I trust yours will too.
Happy Halloween, saints.
Dr. Daniel Anderson teaches English at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA. He received his Ph.D. in English from Case Western Reserve University. He teaches a range of Rhetoric, Literature, and Film classes at the Mount, including classes on the Jewish American Novel, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Franz Kafka, the Literature of Pittsburgh, and the Classic Horror Film. He also produces and hosts the Sectarian Review Podcast, which investigates art, pop culture, politics, and religion.