The supernatural is a broad topic for horror, but absolutely one of the most important. I’m counting everything related to haunted houses, possessions (of people or things), and demonic/religious. This category was probably my first serious foray into horror starting with books by Stephen King and TV shows like Doctor Who (oddly, the mediocre episode Snakedance from 1983 might have given me more nightmares than most of the below horror movies).
The idea of an inanimate object being controlled by supernatural forces is as old as stories themselves. Animism, for one example, is the idea (or religion to some) stating that objects have a spiritual lifeforce or soul. Animism and other similar belief systems have existed for millennia (and still do in some parts of the world), so therefore it makes sense that humans would want to tell stories of their most valued or feared objects having lives of their own.
Houses, for one, have had stories about them for centuries (and probably oral stories for far longer). Books like Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) absolutely enraptured me as a kid — and still does to this day. But, just like in many of Poe’s stories, the house is a metaphor for one’s own mind. Taken literally, Poltergeist (1982), The Amityville Horror (1979) and The Shining (1980) are simple stories of an evil within the home (or hotel) attacking a family. But are they more than that? Probably, but let’s just say my young mind didn’t consider it. All three of those movies terrified me too much to wonder about any metaphors of a slow descent into madness. Amityville, foist on me by a cold and disinterested babysitter, might have been a little too much for my 6 or 7 year old self, now that I think about it.
Dolls might be the second more popular inanimate object in horror movies. And why not? Having something that’s normally a child’s plaything attacking you is disturbing. Probably the most popular of these movies is the Child’s Play series starting in 1988 (with the adorably murderous Chucky). I also loved the Puppet Master series (starting in 1989) for its interesting collection of dangerous “action figures”. What I loved about Puppet Master, in particular, is that the dolls weren’t necessarily completely evil — there was some shades of grey in there. The Italian horror Dolls (1987) was definitely far more frightening (to my 9 year old self) than the other two movies combined, though. Just the cover was enough to give me nightmares. Then there’s the Canadian cult classic Pin (1988). Oh, lovely Pin. Although it’s more of a psychological thriller, a medical ventriloquist’s dummy can definitely deliver the horror.
The last group of movies I wanted to mention are religious/demonic movies. There are so many in this category that it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few of my favourites. There are the big names, like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976) and Hellraiser (1987). These are all well deserving of their praise (just the music for The Exorcist, Tubular Bells, gives my heart a painful twist… just linking to that YouTube video was tough!). And, yes, you saw that right — I’m comparing Hellraiser to those other classics. Why? The concepts that Clive Barker imbued into the first two movies are amazing. On the surface they are simply tales of supernatural horror, but underneath we have the central idea that desire itself is the cause of all suffering (and that’s where the highly original and disturbing Cenobytes come into play). Later movies completely lost this concept, unfortunately.
But what about the lesser known gems? Children of the Corn (1984) had it’s wonderfully evil moments (though the plotting leaves much to be desired), while fantasy-horror The Prophecy (1995) had the wonderful Christopher Walken stealing the show as the angel Gabriel, even though the movie is packed with great actors ranging from Elias Koteas to Viggo Mortensen (as Lucifer).
One aspect about these movies is that they brought along a large amount of fear in the general public at the time. This fear, sometimes called Satanic Panic, was a phenomenon characterized by a widespread fear about the presence of Satanic (or witchcraft-based) ritual abuse. It wasn’t just movies, of course, since Dungeons and Dragons was a usual target by the media. Speaking of media, Geraldo Rivera had many episodes devoted to (and increasing the fear of) satanic rituals. One episode available on YouTube, titled Exposing Satan’s Underground, would scare anybody who didn’t bother to look deeper at the ‘facts’ (for example, Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan isn’t into true Satanic worship, but rather is an ironic performance piece valuing egoism and individuality).
Although Satanic Panic died down in the mid-90s, there have been stories like this one in recent years (and from reputable sources) that talk about a rising number of children being harmed due to so-called “witchcraft”, partly stemming from an influx of religious African and South Asian immigrants. The fear will simmer, just like the fear of The Video Nasties, rock music and so forth. Though, just like how the belief in the supernatural has existed for centuries, the fear of the unknown and especially the afterlife is deeply routed in our human psyche and will never completely go away.