In this new series of “Top 5’s” our vice-president and COO Adam Janke will share what he thinks are some of the best books, podcasts, movies, and tv shows of today and yesterday with commentary on how they can be used to evangelize (if it isn’t already obvious). Disclaimer: our top 5 lists are subjective, fallible, and probably wrong. You’re welcome to tell us why they’re wrong in the comments.
All Saints and All Souls Day are coming up, so we start with the Top 5 scary movies for evangelization.
Who doesn’t like getting spooked as part of the good-natured fun of Halloween? From Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion and its 999 Happy Haunts, to old fashion movies like Dracula and Frankenstein to modern classics like The Exorcist there’s something about having the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, but also knowing you really are safe that’s part of our cultural experience.
The problem with scary movies is it’s easier to cross a line where we derive entertainment from something truly terrible like the mutilation of the human body, or we get too unsettled by the depiction of evil. So, we have to watch ourselves and make choices with careful discernment. We don’t have time for a full lesson on the morality of scary/horror movies (or the arts in general), but I’ve chosen 5 movies here that scare, teach good lessons, and (with the probable exception of one) are not objectionable to most people.
5. The Exorcism of Emily Rose
I can hear your comments now: how dare I pick The Exorcism of Emily Rose over the 1973 masterpiece The Exorcist? All in all, The Exorcist is a better movie, but for sheer catechetical and evangelistic talking-point power, I give the edge to the Exorcism of Emily Rose. 2022’s Nefarious also simply doesn’t fall into the horror genre and can’t be included in this list. All exorcism movies fall short on the Catholic teaching on demonology, possession and exorcism. For an accurate portrayal of the subject that is rooted in orthodox Catholic teaching nothing beats the 2023 podcast The Exorcist Files by Fr. Carlos Martins. That is the single most outstanding piece of media ever produced on the topic. Alas that’s not a movie and doesn’t count for our Top 5. The true story of Anneliese Michel, her exorcisms, her death, and the legal trial afterwards make for a downright scary movie and a lot of material to talk about regarding the nature of evil, the possibility of possession, freedom through exorcism, mental illness and possession, and the accuracies and missteps the movie makes. Rated PG-13.
4. The Witch: A New-England Folktale
This 2015 folk horror movie set in the 1630’s features a Puritan family who are banished from their settlement over a religious dispute and become subject to the evil of a witch in the wilderness. At the start of the film, we see how the movement away from the protection of the Communion of the Saints puts people in great spiritual peril. The family is isolated by a series of schisms: the Anglican schism from the Catholic Church (not depicted), the Puritan schism from the Anglican Church, and the family’s schism from the local Christian community in the New World. Once isolated in the wilderness, each family member succumbs one at a time to the witch in the woods, according to deadly sins like greed, pride, and lust. The movie shows that in our free will we can follow the devil and indeed choose hell; and that harsh Calvinist forms of Christianity can themselves be evil and destructive. It also makes for a great discussion on the Catholic Church as the bulwark of truth and the importance of ecclesial communion. It’s a terrifying and tragic tale with little to no redemption for its characters. It should serve as a stern warning to viewers.
I don’t actually advise watching this movie for the most part. It’s presentation of radical evil can be overwhelming for vulnerable viewers. It has instances of brief nudity, and it can give false impressions to viewers unable to recognize the themes mentioned above. What I do advise, is evangelizing those who may have seen it, by bringing its various lessons to bear in conversation. One can learn enough about the movie to have a conversation about it, without actually seeing it, by reading plot summaries online. Rated R.
M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense was a cultural phenomenon with a twist ending so good it propelled him to becoming one of the most well-known directors in the country. Unfortunately when your first movie is just that good it’s hard to keep the momentum going. Thankfully his 2002 film Signs about aliens invading the earth is a lot of fun, scary, and all about faith. We meet former Episcopal priest Graham Hess who lives on a farm with his children and brother. Graham, we learn, has lost his faith in God because of a freak car accident which took the life of his wife. Aliens invade, Graham and his brother seek to protect the children, and he is confronted with an existential crisis. While searching for a way to fight back against these foes, the story brings about a powerful redemption arc. Battling to save his family, we find out that Signs is not just about the crop circles, but is a play on words. Signs is also about the evidence that God is really there, that He loves us, and that he’s with us in the midst of the battle here on earth. Rated PG-13.
Few screen monsters have been recreated as often as Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, but the 1931 black and white version remains one of the best. While this old adaptation doesn’t have much in common with the book, it’s a morality tale of trying to usurp the author of life by creating and controlling life ourselves. Whenever we do that, like Frankenstein’s monster, things go terribly wrong. Frankenstein is an opportunity to talk about God as Creator, the dignity of man in the image and likeness of God, the problem of sin and disobeying God who is the author and giver of life, using sinful technology to control life, and the possibility of redemption through Jesus Christ. Rated TV-PG.
1. Nosferatu the Vampyre
The Dracula story in many ways suffers in the same way that Frankenstein does at the hands of Hollywood with too many over-the-top, crappy remakes to cash in on the popularity of the story. I am partial to Werner Herzog’s 1979 adaptation for its hauntingly beautiful cinematography and well-produced story. The connection to faith is obvious in this movie, with the battle between good and evil and the aversion of the Dracula character to religious objects, such as holy water and crucifixes. In this life each of us is ultimately locked in battle, as Satan battles for our soul and Jesus offers us redemption. Battling evil may even cost us our life, but that is a worthy gift to the rest of humanity. Here on earth we are the Church Militant and we fight on, running the race, hoping to hear the words “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Rated PG.
As a father of 7 kids I love every moment of watching my children grow up. Family movie night is a tradition in our house. Now that I have older teens, we’ve been watching some of these horror movies together, talking about the lessons they each offer. We agreed that our all-time favorite Halloween movie remains It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, which in its own simple way has something to say about the childlike innocence and simplicity of faith. We watch it every year with apple cider and donuts, before donning saint costumes (and the occasional Jedi Knight costume) for our All Saint’s parties and Trick or Treating. Happy All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints and All Souls Days!