In Holy Horror: The Bible and Fear in Movies, Steve A. Wiggins aims to examine the portrayal of the Bible in American horror cinema. Outside academia, discussions of horror and religion remain somewhat shallow in scope. However, Wiggins, most recently author of Nightmares with the Bible: The Good Book and Cinematic Demons (Lexington Books/Fortress Academic 2020), demonstrates that while horror’s use of religion is often misconstrued, there remains plenty of rich discussions to be had on the topic. With Holy Horror, the author has crafted an engaging text that is both informative and fun to read.
Wiggins makes it clear early on that horror films rarely engage with the biblical text in a coherent way. He rightly points out that horror creators like to draw on made-up scripture, such as in the opening title of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (83), or extrabiblical ideas, such as the antichrist. Wiggins thus argues that horror films’ primary use of the Bible is as an “iconic text,” meaning that the Bible is primarily engaged as a cultural symbol rather than a written text with words and ideas. The Bible is treated as an “unknowable, unexplainable” object or “Ding” with a potential to magically affect situations (13–15). Wiggins highlights the three major ways the Bible (as a Ding) is present in horror films—visually, vocally or “performatively,” and thematically (20).
Understanding the Bible as an iconic cultural symbol, Wiggins finds a surprising amount of uses (and abuses) of the good book in American horror cinema. In chapter 2, Wiggins argues that the iconic Bible is understood in Protestant evangelical terms. It is a magical book that provides salvation and prophecy in the face of danger. In chapter 3, the iconic Bible becomes abusive by participating in the physical abuse of Carrie (65–66) or becoming a weapon in Red State (76). Chapter 4 shows that the magical qualities of the good book are often adopted by other iconic books—the “false Bible” and the “Anti-Bible” (82). The iconic Bible can even become a living person, such as in Cape Fear. Since the Bible in horror is strictly a Protestant evangelical text, Catholic horror, such as The Conjuring and The Last Exorcism of Emily Rose, has its own iconic text in the Roman ritual (147). Providing plenty of evidence in a plethora of films, each chapter provides interesting and well-argued points about the good book and its place in horror cinema. Holy Horror is simply oozing with fascinating ideas.
Holy Horror also delivers its content in an easy-to-understand language. Wiggins’ undemanding and oftentimes comedic writing style serves to deliver his most academic ideas via fun, digestible content accessible to a wider audience. As the book is devoid of the pretentious jargon that continues to plague academic writing, it is refreshing to read. The book certainly makes the case that even with a playful writing style, scholars can accurately and thoroughly explain their arguments and ideas. Wiggins’ expertise on the subject, especially on the biblical text, is never simplified. In fact, his lucid writing style further complements his ideas and research, which keeps the reading experience clear and straightforward.
One aspect where Holy Horror might let down scholars of the field is in its lack of a proper theoretical framework. For instance, the discussion of what constitutes as horror is brief and buried within the book’s preface. Wiggins seems rather disinterested in the philosophical exploration of the horror genre and finds satisfaction with the conclusion that “horror is in the eye of the beholder” (3). As a result, the included films are justified as participating in the horror genre simply because they feature gore or violence. Furthermore, it is unclear which theorists the author is drawing on throughout the book. While Wiggins seems to be using concepts from Stephen R. Prothero and Douglas E. Cowan, there are little to no mentions of any scholars by name in the book’s seven chapters, no proper bibliography, and no in-text citations. There is “A Note on Sources” at the end of book, which talks about the author’s sources and inspirations, but it makes finding sources tedious. While I do prefer Wiggins’ informal style, there must be a way to have open academic theoretical discussions in an accessible manner without concealing them within the book.
Regardless, Holy Horror is a great addition to the ever-growing field of horror and religion. Wiggins’ expertise on the biblical text and his cheeky writing style makes this an easy recommendation for academics both new and old to the field as well as a more casual audience who might be interested in the subject. Filled with plenty of fascinating ideas about the understanding of the Bible in American horror cinema, Holy Horror comes strongly recommended.
Zachary Doiron is a PhD student at the University of Waterloo.
Date Of Review:
January 29, 2022
Steve A. Wiggins is an independent scholar who has taught at Rutgers University, Montclair State University, the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, Carroll College, and Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary. He is currently an editor with an academic press in New York City.
Reading Religion Newsletter
Subscribe to our newsletter and receive updates on new books, new reviews, and more.
You can unsubscribe at any time. We will never share or sell your e-mail address.