America's Dark Theologian

The Religious Imagination of Stephen King

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Douglas E. Cowan
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , June
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


I am both a lifelong lover of horror stories, and a Professor of Theology and Religious Studies. As far back as I can remember, I have asked myself questions such as: what happens when we die?; if there is anything in the dark?; what is the nature of evil?; and if there is evil, how to control it? Like many people, I have answered those questions for myself through the lens of a traditional Christian denomination. Though that is not what happens for everyone. What if there is something more that lurks in the dark? Could it be worth imagining? Perhaps there is an extraterrestrial being that has waited millennia to destroy all that is good, and appears in the form of a spider or a clown, feeding off of children in a small town in Maine. On the other hand, could there be a sinister being living beneath cornfields who has the power to manipulate children into killing their own parents? Who can know for sure?

Some literary critics do not believe such stories are worthy of our consideration, or that this genre is not worthy to address the deeply existential questions of humanity, many of which are considered to be religious in nature. For example, in 2003 Harold Bloom decried the decision of the National Book Foundation to award Stephen King the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Among the many criticisms levied at King, Bloom said King’s books “do little more for humanity than keep the publishing world afloat” (xi). Douglas E. Cowan disagrees. He argues that King, who has written more than fifty books since 1973, has spent more time than most authors contemplating the fear that underlies the existential questions of humanity and how humans cope with that fear.

Cowan does not argue that King attempts to author a systematic theology through his stories. Instead, Cowan correctly sees King as exploring questions that religion attempts to answer about the nature of reality, the relationship between the seen and unseen world, managing the forces of good and evil, the nature of faith, and the functions of ritual. Cowan makes his case, writing chapters centered on categories and concepts central to both Religious Studies and Theology. Much as a Religious Studies scholar might apply categories of the discipline to the religious experiences, beliefs and practices in our world, Cowan applies them to the experiences, beliefs and practices in the lives of King’s characters.

For example, in chapter 6, “Forty Years in Maine: Stephen King and the Varieties of Religious Experience,” Cowan explores “[f]our varieties of religious experience, four personal stories of the ways men and women understand and respond to the demands of the divine” in King’s works (6). These four characters span the entirety of King’s career, beginning with Margaret White of Carrie (Doubleday, 1974), and concluding with Reverend Charlie Jacobs in Revival (Scribner, 2014). Although the characters’s experiences and responses create and participate in the dynamics of a unique story, they are not unlike the people we meet in our own lives, or even ourselves. When reaching the end of a story like Carrie, the reader may wonder if people they know are creating environments that result in broken, abused, and ultimately rage-filled teenagers, such as Carrie White, who may punish their tormentors with supernatural retribution.

Although Cowen’s analysis relies on categories generally reserved for Religious Studies and Theology, this book should be accessible to readers of all types. Certainly fans of King, of the horror genre, or those wondering what in the world horror has to do with religion, will find this text readable. At the same time, the academic rigor of the book makes it a worthwhile scholarly read. Even for those who have not read much King, common references to his books in American pop culture, the manageable sample of books that Cowen has selected to use as examples, and Cowen’s descriptions of characters and story lines renders the text and the connections he makes within very understandable. In fact, some of the examples given may be useful for teachers of Theology and Religious Studies who are trying to elucidate scholarly concepts and terminology to students who may be more aware of the story of Carrie than the contents of a traditional religious text.

One of the things I found most helpful in this book is the way that Cowen expands possible ways to answer or manage the existential questions that humans have. Early in the book, he discusses how shared storytelling may be the basis of religion, and the solution to our existential fears. Myth and fables work similarly, preparing us to respond to a myriad of realities. Why is it so inconceivable that horror could work similarly? Why couldn’t reading about the Loser’s Club standing up to and defeating Pennywise prepare us to face off with evil, much in the same way reading about David standing up to Goliath does? 

The answer is—it can; and perhaps this is part of the reason for King’s overwhelming success. No matter how long or how short his books are, whether they are traditional horror, drama, or fantasy, his fans return. Perhaps the “constant reader” returns, not just in that the books are entertaining or a good scare, but also given that it adds something to their lives, and helps them answer—or at least mitigate—the questions with which they struggle. If that is even remotely possible, then this book is worth reading.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Melissa L. Smeltzer is Assistant Professor of Theology at Ancilla College in Donaldson, IN.

Date of Review: 
June 15, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Douglas E. Cowan is Professor of Religious Studies and Social Development Studies at Renison University College. His previous books include Sacred Space: The Quest for Transcendence in Science Fiction Film and Television and Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen.


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