Catholicism’s rites, dogma, and liturgical traditions range from intricate to impenetrable — and often, Catholic religious horror follows suit. This April, why not commemorate the crucifixion with the best of them by indulging in some Catholic horror? Follow up your Easter festivities with all sorts of terrifying religious thrills of the “Our Father” variety.
The Pope’s Exorcist, which stars Russell Crowe and is based on the real memoirs of Father Gabriele Amorth, is just the latest film in a long lineage of Catholic horror, displaying the supernatural threats of Satan and the secretive, domineering façade of the Church.
Some ground rules as we look back at the past 50 years of Catholic horror: This list won’t include unspecified Christian religious horror movies like Carrie (1976) — it’s never stated which evangelical sect of Christianity Carrie White’s mom practices under — nor will it feature Satanic-panic flicks like Rosemary’s Baby, since Satan isn’t a strictly Catholic construction. Sorry about your baby, Rosemary, but it wasn’t the Catholic Church’s doing.
Get ready for some stories of Catholic priests, Hail Marys, and Vatican-sanctioned sanctifying. Grab your holy water and down some sacrificial wine — we’re about to make the rest of April horrifyingly beatific.
The Exorcist (1973)
This list couldn’t exist without The Exorcist, undeniably the quintessential Catholic horror film. In it, the demon Pazuzu possesses a little girl, Regan, after she plays with a Ouija board, causing her to mutilate herself with a crucifix and expel vulgarities at her family. The film reinforces the Catholic fear of the Other — Pazuzu is the king of demons in the ancient Middle Eastern Sumerian religion — and pits the patriarchal powers of God against the patriarchal powers of hell. Through it all, Regan has no agency, and her body becomes a battlefield for men’s faith — a truly relevant horror in today’s political climate.
William Friedkin, a notorious perfectionist, helmed this adaptation of William Blatty’s novel, and he had a clear vision of how its events should unfold. Mirroring the dogged determination of The Exorcist’s priests, Friedkin often pushed his actors past their limits, even resulting in injuries for Linda Blair, who played Regan. For more insight into his methodologies and the story behind the production, go watch the documentary Leap of Faith on Shudder.
The Omen (1976)
U.S. diplomat Robert Thorn, played by the impeccable Gregory Peck, has made some questionable choices. While he and his wife are living in Rome, her pregnancy ends in a stillbirth at the same time another woman dies during childbirth. At the hospital chaplain Father Spiletto’s behest, Thorn swaps out the babies without informing his wife. This initial horror — of a husband lying to his wife about the identity and fate of their child — foreshadows the terrors to come.
Five years later, mysterious tragedies begin to unfold; a hellhound appears to keep guard of their son, Damien; and his nanny hangs herself at his birthday party after shouting, “It’s all for you, Damien!” That’s just the beginning — Thorn revisits Father Spiletto and deduces his child is the Antichrist. How could God let this happen? It’s a betrayal akin to Thorn’s original choice, setting the stage for an approaching apocalypse.
Prince of Darkness (1987)
The great John Carpenter is celebrated for films like Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982), but his oft-overlooked Prince of Darkness is one of the stranger entries in his filmography, and that’s saying something. After a container of ancient liquid is discovered in a monastery, a Catholic priest, played by genre favorite Donald Pleasence, enlists the help of some quantum-physics students to pinpoint what exactly this eerie green substance is made of.
After deciphering a text accompanying the liquid’s canister, the group discovers it’s Satan in juice form. Soon students get possessed, students murder other students, and Jesus was actually an alien? Carpenter explores the idea that science and religion are merely two different ways of interpreting the same phenomenon — and though that phenomenon is both real and reducible to its concrete parts, it is still inescapable.
The Exorcist III (1990)
We don’t talk about Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977). The first Exorcist sequel, which follows Regan’s adolescence following the first film’s possession, was such a disappointment that it took 13 years to get William Blatty’s novelized screenplay Legion (the final installment in his “Faith Trilogy”) adapted to the screen. When a final cut of the Legion adaptation did make it to the studio, higher-ups balked since it contained no actual exorcism, and the film underwent more shoots and extensive edits.
Considering all of the fiascos with production, the final product, serving as direct sequel to the original and ignoring Exorcist II entirely, not only features genre favorites like George C. Scott and Brad Dourif but contains one of the best jump scares ever put to screen. It also ponders a couple big questions: Even if a person is selfless and devout, are there forces after death that will punish them for their piety? Is God truly the only power, or does Satan have a say too?
The Day of the Beast (1995)
In Madrid, a priest named Ángel starts sinning in any way he can, even employing the help of Satanist and metalhead José María to scale his efforts. Why is this priest racking up sins at high speed? To be invited to the private viewing party of the Antichrist’s birth, of course.
But Ángel’s motives are pure: He intends to murder the child before it can destroy the world. A frantic, frenzied plot unfolds as Ángel and José María kidnap a televangelist and attempt to summon Satan. It’s a satirical take on the role of faith and devotion in present-day believers — would any modern Catholics sacrifice themselves for the salvation of all? And if so, would they expect a reward in return?
The Rite (2011)
What’s better than Anthony Hopkins playing an eccentric mentor to a young protégé attempting to delve into the darkest parts of humanity? Hopkins is Father Lucas, an experienced exorcist who has seen the work of the devil and still finds himself questioning God from time to time. A skeptical seminary student goes to him to learn the craft of exorcism and experiences his own dark night of the soul.
Don’t let the PG-13 rating fool you — what this movie lacks in gore it makes up for in tension and all-around creepiness. It examines facing fears of the misunderstood, reclaiming the power of doubt, and transforming that doubt into spiritual curiosity. Plus, watching Anthony Hopkins yell in Latin is certainly a treat.
The Conjuring (2013)
Although Ed and Lorraine Warren — two real-life paranormal investigators from the ’70s and ’80s — weren’t Catholic priests themselves, they recognize a demon when they see it and know when an exorcism is the best course of action. In fact, they appeal to the Catholic Church in the original The Conjuring movie and are denied a priest since the family experiencing the possession isn’t part of the congregation. Gatekept in the bowels of Catholic dogma, the strict rituals and rules for a successful exorcism will not be used to aid outsiders. The price of piety must be paid for protection — gotta love Catholic dogma.
To overcome the Church’s indifference to their plight, Ed Warren takes it upon himself to perform the dangerous exorcism despite his lack of priesthood. Aided by Lorraine, Ed proves expelling demons isn’t just a priestly pastime — and it takes more than a religious habit to dispel evil.
The Borderlands/Final Prayer (2013)
The British film The Borderlands, released under the name Final Prayer in the U.S., isn’t your typical Catholic horror. Instead of focusing on demons and exorcisms, the plot of this film begins with a miracle in a church located in the Devon countryside of South West England. The Vatican sends a group of investigators — whose number, notably, does not include a priest — to verify the claims and assess the supernatural events. Quite quickly, the environment within the church and surrounding town grows sinister, and the local priest dies by suicide.
Making deft use of the found-footage setup, The Borderlands uses science and technology to take viewers on a wild ride through skepticism tested by measurable evidence and the outcome of only subscribing to “seeing is believing.” After all, what if you find out your assumptions were wrong much too late?
Evil is the modern successor to The X-Files, a frequently horror-tinged case-of-the-week series complete with a skeptical female doctor and the devout believer. But, Evil trades The X-Files sci-fi spooks for Catholic creeps. Psychiatrist Dr. Kristen Bouchard is tasked with differentiating demonic possession from mental illness alongside David Acosta, a former journalist turned Catholic priest-in-training.
Outside of the scary moments and demonic images contained in each possession-of-the-episode storyline, the overarching terror comes from Dr. Bouchard’s rival Dr. Leland Townsend. Leaning into the ever-present specter of Catholic guilt, Dr. Townsend revels in bringing that guilt full circle and enticing others to commit evil. And, he’s particularly intrigued by the seemingly incorruptible Acosta — Dr. Townsend, like the devil, loves a challenge. At its core, Evil examines temptation and corruption — and what happens when good people are led astray.
The Cleansing Hour (2019)
In this day and age of content creators and livestreams, isn’t a fake priest streaming fake exorcisms to sell merch (including fake holy water) basically a given? That’s the premise of The Cleansing Hour, and “Father” Max and Drew, the two friends behind the sacrilegious scheme, have managed to amass a large following doing so. Their viewership loves the spectacle of the Church without subscribing to its rigid dogma.
But when the actor hired to play the possessed person for the next episode doesn’t show, Drew’s fiancée reluctantly agrees to stand in. Unfortunately, a demon decides this is the night to convert The Cleansing Hour into reality and possesses her. As the night wears on and more and more of the crew dies, the demon forces Max and Drew to reveal secrets to the streaming audience — from the true nature of the show to Catholic-school atrocities to interpersonal infidelities. It’s the creeping dread ingrained into any lapsed Catholic — or any denomination, for that matter — that their abandoned belief system will prove real and the guilt, shame, and truth of amassed wrongdoings will come out in a public forum. Today, that public forum is the internet.
Midnight Mass (2021)
The miniseries Midnight Mass marries Catholic doubt with piety when a young and charismatic priest comes to a small town on Crockett Island to revitalize the community’s waning Catholicism. As he mysteriously heals illness and helps a paralyzed girl walk again, the people of the island split into factions of evangelists and skeptics.
Created and directed by horror maestro Mike Flanagan (known for his Netflix horror series The Haunting of Hill House and The Midnight Club), Midnight Mass combines Flanagan’s penchant for atmospheric gothic with disturbing religious iconography and asks the question that should plague any devout believer: How do you know if you’re following a false prophet?
The Seventh Day (2021)
A well-versed exorcist with a renegade streak, Father Peter Costello, played by Guy Pearce, accompanies an inexperienced newcomer for his first day as an exorcist. Pearce’s Father Costello uses unconventional — even for exorcists — methods to track down and expel disquiet spirits and nefarious demons. Father Costello bears resemblance to John Constantine of the Hellblazer comics; both fight supernatural evil with the occult and challenge the politics and processes of the Catholic Church.
With a story that takes place over a single day and a twist that may or may not go over well for certain viewers, The Seventh Day’s polarizing ending seems to reinforce the norms of the church as the only way forward — and demonizes anyone who strays from it.
The Pope’s Exorcist (2023)
Starring Russell Crowe as the titular exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth, The Pope’s Exorcist begins with a bang — the exorcism of a young man. During this sequence, Father Amorth’s cunning and wit is on full display, proving this exorcist has modern sensibilities and unorthodox methods against ancient evils. But, it turns out, this first exorcism is purely “theater” put on by Father Amorth to quell the disturbed young man’s troubled mind. The rest of the exorcisms are decidedly not merely theater.
In today’s age, possessions tend to be explained away with mental illness or temporary psychosis. The Pope’s Exorcist acknowledges this but then counters: — What about the instances when it’s not a malady of the mind? Pair this with a secret conspiracy within the church uncovered by our exorcist and the stable foundation of Catholic dogma wavers as Satan steps onto the scene. A pious person’s worst nightmare.
This article has been updated to include Evil and The Pope’s Excorcist.