Religion often plays a part in horror. Whether it’s a demon from Christian mythology trying to break its way out of hell, or some kind of ancient and wicked cult whose faith compels them to perform awful deeds, it’s a facet of the horror genre that many will take for granted. Because Christian faith is often used in horror, with some of the most famous films in the genre such as The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Exorcist all being heavily steeped in faith, it’s easy to see how some people who hold religion to be important to them could have a hard time connecting with horror.
This is something that video essayist and podcaster Tyler Smith is trying to tackle in his latest documentary film, Valley of the Shadow: The Spiritual Value of Horror. The film is hosted by Bill Oberst Jr., himself a man of faith who is also an actor with almost 200 acting credits to his name, the vast majority of which are horror. Oberst takes the viewer through an expansive evaluation of the various different sub-genres of horror, going into detail about the more famous films and how these particular projects handle their horror content, before finally talking about Christian faith, and how the two are tied together.
The film clocks in at a long two hours and twenty minutes, and the majority of this is dedicated to looking at the different aspects of the horror genre. There are sections that look at how animals and nature play a part in horror, but rather than bundling it all in together it takes the time to look at horror films about sharks, spiders, and alligators each on their own, reminding the viewer that there are actually a lot of horror films just for these select animals. It also talks about snakes, and brings up how a serpent was the first monster in the Bible, when the snake in Eden tempted Eve. This is the first real connection to faith for the first part of the film, and one of the few times the film will do this.
From here Oberst will take us through films about infection and replacement, talking about the paranoia of The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The film discusses how the evolution of zombies has changed over the years, not just in the genre as a whole, but even specifically in the George A Romero films, and how they’ve been used to discuss certain themes like the civil rights movement in Night of the Living Dead, consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, militarisation in Day of the Dead, and the increase in online life and voyeurism in Diary of the Dead.
The film also spends a decent amount of time looking at two of the most popular creatures in horror: the vampire, and the werewolf. These are areas where I expected a more religious viewpoint to be discussed, especially in regards to the vampire and is connection to the religious imagery of the crucifix. But that doesn’t really happen here. Instead we’re given an examination of how eternal life can at first be seen as a wondrous thing for the vampire, before transforming over time into a curse; as well as how the opposite can be true for the werewolf, where at first people are terrified of the curse put upon them, but can eventually come to embrace the animalistic nature of the werewolf.
Throughout these sections we get a selection of films from across the years, with some of the earliest horrors being featured being The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Nosferatu, whilst also getting discussion of films from just last year. However, whilst this selection does show that writers Tyler Smith and Reed Lackey obviously have a broad knowledge of the horror genre they have a very westernised interest in or view of it.. The only films that the documentary references or talks about that aren’t English language movies are old German films, and there’s not a solitary mention of a single Asian horror, despite these being some of the most popular horror films in the world. Perhaps this is because of the low levels of Christianity in Asian countries, or at least the fact that Christiainity isn’t informing horror films there. But as the film references other horror films that have no real connection to Christiainity, other than being made in countries where it’s a majority religion, it’s disappointing that more care wasn’t given to include these films too.
After spending the first two hours talking about the various parts of the horror genre, the film then turns its sights to Christianity. We get clips from films such as The Last Temptation of Christ, The King of Kings, and Passion of the Christ, and the discussion finally turns to talking about how horror and faith intersect, and how they believe that many of the morals that horror tries to impart on the audience, of striving to do better, of sticking together and helping each other, are all good Christian values. And whilst this section of the film is certainly interesting, the fact that this discussion, the main topic of the film, doesn’t happen until two hours have gone by meant that it felt in some ways almost tacked on at the end.
I’m no stranger to long video essays, I’ve watched hours long breakdowns on franchises I’ve never even seen because I find analysis interesting, and HBomberGuy’s ‘Sherlock is Garbage, And Here’s Why’ is a video I’ve watched multiple times, despite it clocking in at almost two hours itself. But the thing with these YouTube video essays that I enjoy, and that keep bringing me back, is that they analyse their topics well, they make their points across the entire essays, and they keep me entertained. In contrast, Valley of the Shadow: The Spiritual Value of Horror failed to keep my attention. It was interesting to examine horror as a genre, but looking at the genre separately to the point the film was trying to make, then coming back round at the end to outline the views, made it feel like a two hour introduction to a twenty minute essay.
I really wanted to like this film. It seemed like it was going to try to look at horror from an interesting perspective; that it would examine the way that faith and Christianity have been used in horror, and how horror isn’t necessarily bad just because of the subject matter it includes. But it ended up being an overview of horror with a short message at the end that having good values is nice, and that horror does well with faith. I’m sure some will enjoy this message, but it felt like it was delivered in a very long, not completely entertaining way.
Valley of the Shadow: The Spiritual Value of Horror is out now on VOD.