By Tim Winterstein –
Amid recent high-profile defections from formerly prominent Christians, one would think films would have long begun to move away from religious—and specifically Christian—imagery. But as we discussed on a recent episode of Saints and Cinema, with the Reverend Scott Stiegemeyer, horror movies in particular continue to focus on the religious aspects of a mythic battle between good and evil.
Some seem to be attempting to capitalize on the popularity of other malevolent-spirit films. For example, The Crucifixion, Incarnate and The Devil Inside—none of which I have seen—all have sub-25% scores on Rotten Tomatoes. The Nun has a slightly higher score, but not by much. On the other hand, there is the success of The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the Conjuring films (minus The Nun, apparently). Nearly all of them (at least from trailers and synopses) engage religion’s use or abuse in some way or another.
I had been intrigued by The Curse of La Llorona since I saw the poster at a theater. The trailer alone was terrifying. I finally got around to watching it as a rental. It is not terrible, though I did not love it. More interesting was how religion—namely the Roman Catholic Church—got pulled in. While this is usually the case, considering Rome has official exorcists, La Llorona utilizes its priests in both predictable and (literally) unorthodox ways.
The first priest shows up after about a quarter of the film. Anna (Linda Cardellini) asks him if he has ever heard of La Llorona and he recounts to her the legend. She says, “So it’s a folk tale?” And he says, “To some.” On this point La Llorona is typical: a person who does not believe in, “that sort of thing,” who is not religious (she says, “My husband was the religious one,” when the priest offers her a crucifix), who is then convinced of the reality of whatever evil thing is troubling people. There are, as we expect, jump-scares, dark hallways, and look-behind-you-no-don’t pointing children, but overall, the acting is passable, and the story is relatively well-told.
La Llorona has religion, but to what effect? The priest does not actually seem to believe his own religion. Sure, it is fine, he seems to be saying, but it and the Church cannot deal with everything. When they see Rafael (Breaking Bad’s Raymond Cruz) “smudging,” or wafting spiritual smoke to purify people of their negative energy, Anna says the priest must not believe in that either. He responds that it does not matter what he believes, it is what they believe, and if they believe in this, then they must believe in that (gesturing toward the steeple of his church). Well, not quite. I am not sure how the line of reasoning follows, unless the priest believes either all of it is superstition or all of it is equally true.
So, when the distraught mother comes to the priest to seek the Church’s help in dealing with the Weeping Woman, he says it could take weeks to run it through the archdiocese in order to find someone to help her. Now I have no idea how the Roman Church works when it comes to the possibilities of possession or evil spirits. Is it like a government bureaucracy, where the wheels of exorcism move slowly? Is this really what a priest would tell a woman who comes with evidence of evil spirits? I do not know. But the priest says, “There is another way.” She could go to a former priest who is now a sort of shaman, combining Christianity and indigenous folk magic. So, she does.
The former priest is Rafael. After they unpack suitcases of trinkets, candles, and other items, Rafael begins to pray. When she hears him praying, Anna says she thought he left the Church behind. He says, “The Church, yes; God, never.” His words could come just as easily from the mouth of any number of, “spiritual-but-not-religious,” formerly famous Christians. He then mixes up his own blend of anti-Llorona antidotes, including her tears “sanctified.” He might, in fact, be the perfect emblem for post-modern religious people, trying to fend off the darkness with their own magical concoctions, taking this from there and that from here.
The item he claims is most powerful against La Llorona is a cross carved from a tree which blooms red, appearing as if it is on fire. He says those trees were the only witnesses to the crimes of the woman who became La Llorona, so the wood and seeds of the tree can ward her off. But in the end, it is not the cross which keeps her from her murderous designs; it is Anna stabbing her in the chest with the cross.
This appears to say something not in favor of Christianity, via the cross, but about the power of a mother’s desire to protect her children. If that is correct, then the religious items do not actually have much power against the malevolent spirit. Everything Rafael puts out to defend the family, La Llorona passes over in one way or another. Is this a statement about the weakness of religion? Or is it instead a (possibly unwitting) hint how such self-determined use of religious imagery is ineffective?
Whatever the filmmakers are going for, the interaction between good and evil remains a perpetual theme of horror movies. While most have good winning in one way or another, either by outright victory (as here, although there are hints La Llorona might not be finished) or martyrdom (as in The Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose), there are a few where evil appears to win. The Wicker Man (1973, not 2006!) shows a pagan cult rejoicing in its apparent victory over the Christian policeman (along with any other outside authority). Hereditary is even more terrifying, because there is not even a claim anything good or salvific might exist.
In some ways, however, those are truer to our lived experience. How often does good seem to overcome evil? We have not yet seen the final victory for ourselves. It feels like weakness and helplessness as the Wicker Man collapses on its sacrificial victims. Where is the ultimate Good? Where is God in the face of overpowering evil (as Patricia says bitterly in La Llorona)?
That is part of the tension of horror films. We want the good to win and we are happy when it does. But then we compare this to the world in which we live, and it does not quite ring true. There is no superstition or self-made religion which can make it true. For now, it is either faith or sight. Sight gives us no guarantees and no assurances. Faith does, but it requires holding on to a promise. And whether or not the promise holds true depends on whether the One promising is trustworthy. Christians believe He is trustworthy, regardless of what we see and regardless of who appears to be victorious now.