Scary movies with Catholic themes to watch this Halloween

15 mins read

Catholics are really good at looking unblinkingly at the dark. You don’t get through Lent and Holy Week without a deeper understanding of the struggle between good and evil. The Old Testament has horrors like the demon in Tobit, a plague of killer snakes in Exodus and a concubine hacked to pieces and sent all over Israel in Judges. Jesus spent plenty of time in spiritual combat as he went toe to toe with the devil and cast out demons.

With the arrival of Halloween, we’re given another way to consider good versus evil, the struggle for redemption and the cost of choosing the wrong side. Horror movies seem an unlikely venue for spiritual reflection, but the good ones make the darkness visible, give us a hero to follow and can help us face the battle.

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These movies are like fairy tales for adults, with plenty of shocks and scares — because they’re for adults — but the good ones have a deeper message, a point we can take away that can give us a clearer view of the meaning of life and a desire for redemption. It is larger than life, of course, but that helps us to see our own struggles with a renewed sense of the reality of the spiritual battle.

You do have to be careful which horror movies you watch. Not every one gives us a thoughtful story that is grounded in the true understanding of good and evil. A bad horror movie just goes for the gore and the scare. And not every movie works for every person. You need to know what is going to be too much for you to see. For example, I can’t stand to watch movies about possession. Zombies, ghosts, monsters — yes. Possession — no. However, “The Exorcist” makes every list of horror movies that tell a powerful spiritual truth about good and evil. It is OK for some, just not for me.

We’re going to look at 10 terrifying movies that contain Catholic theological themes. They’re all great stories that will take us face to face with evil in many guises, with things beyond our understanding and control, and that make us open to redemption. Be prepared. Sometimes evil will win. If we don’t face the worst that can happen, we can’t face the truth of our need for God.

As Pope St. John Paul II said in his Letter to Artists, “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption” (No. 10).

Let’s see what aspects of good and evil we find below the surface in these movies.

‘The Sixth Sense’

“I see dead people.”

Sixth SenseEight-year-old Cole is haunted by a dark secret. He’s too terrified to tell anyone, except for Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist who gradually wins his trust. The consequences for both of them lead to something harrowing.

This is an old-fashioned ghost story that pivots on psychological suspense. Underneath the scares, there are the stories of three relationships here: Cole and his mother, who is worried about his odd behavior; Cole and Dr. Crowe, who is trying to redeem a previous failure with a similar patient; and Dr. Crowe’s relationship with his wife, who has grown distant. Part of the message behind the interwoven relationships is that we all need one another and are here to help one another.

Director M. Night Shyamalan says the key to understanding his 1999 film is based in real-life fears: “Ultimately, it’s about learning how to communicate those fears. … As we all have seen, not communicating with, or keeping secrets from people we love can destroy marriages, careers, families and even lives. That in itself is horrifying.”

Redemption, self understanding and coming to terms with life and death are all woven into this thriller.

MPAA rating: PG-13 for violent imagery and intense thematic material.

‘Pan’s Labyrinth’

In darkness, there can be light. In misery, there can be beauty. In death, there can be life. …

Pan's LabyrinthDuring the Spanish Civil War in 1944, 11-year-old Ofelia and her frail mother move to their new home with the mother’s new husband, cruel Captain Vidal. When Ofelia explores, she discovers an underground world where a Faun (in his labyrinth) offers to help her if she’ll complete three treacherous tasks. As Ofelia begins her tasks, the viewer is left with the question of whether this alternate reality really exists or is imaginary. And if it is real, can the Faun be trusted?

“Pan’s Labyrinth,” which was released in 2006 and won three Academy Awards, tells a story rooted in two realities. One is the Spanish Civil War and Ofelia’s cruel stepfather. The other is a fairy tale in the style of the original Brothers Grimm. This is grounded in childlike fears and wonders but with the choices, quests and violence amped up to adult levels. Although fairy tales often end with “they lived happily ever after,” we don’t know if we can trust the director for a happy ending.

Like the best fairy tales, “Pan’s Labyrinth” reminds us that courage, truth, hope and love can spring from the darkest places. We must live with the consequences of our actions, and sacrifice is required to stand up for good. God and the Church are dismissed by some of the characters in the movie, but the underlying themes are found throughout Catholicism.

MPAA: Rated R for graphic violence and some language. (Warning: the captain is an extremely violent and cruel character. If you think that he is going to do something terrible, just figure that he will. You won’t miss any important dialogue in the subtitles.)

‘Attack The Block’

“What kind of alien, out of all the places in the whole wide world, would invade some council estate in south London?”

Attack Block“Attack the Block” is a monster movie with a basic puzzle that must be solved in order to get rid of the monsters. In this case, the twist is that the alien monsters land near London council blocks (what we in the United States might call “the projects”). The only ones to realize what’s happening are some young thugs who must battle the aliens and escape from the police who believe the resulting destruction is from gang violence.

The story’s simplicity makes the timeless truths easy to see. Young Moses’ natural leadership gains depth as he tackles a problem with bigger and nobler dimensions than petty theft. We see previously wasted abilities used on behalf of the group while individuals display real nobility and friendship as they battle the aliens. Moses earns the attributes of his namesake as he leads his embattled group to a higher calling than the only one they have known before. Struggles and suffering not only test us, but teach us.

As a fun touch, you can tell the aliens are not computer generated. The young actors said that they were actually frightened during action sequences because they were acting with real, unpredictable “creatures”; it both shows and enhances the film, released in 2011. Low-budget movies must be creative in ways that often add value to the movie overall.

MPAA: Rated R for creature violence, drug content and pervasive language. (The actors use real slang and authentic “council” accents. You might want to watch with captions on to catch all the dialogue.)

‘Let The Right One In’

“I’m 12. But I’ve been 12 for a long time.”

Let the Right One inOskar is a lonely and bullied 12-year-old. Eli is a 12-year-old girl who moves next door. They form a friendship except that, as Eli tells Oskar, she is not a girl. He must discover for himself that those puzzling words mean she is a vampire. Naturally, one cannot have a vampire in the neighborhood without missing people and murders, which leads to an interesting and telling side plot about someone who is attacked but lives through it.

This 2008 film is a Swedish vampire movie and, as such, is somehow completely Swedish with contemplative photography, neutral colors and the square, Ikea-ish buildings. It is also completely a vampire movie in the truest sense of the word, with evil dominating everything. Simultaneously, and much more immediate, is the bullying that Oskar endures, which is an interesting contrast to the unworldly vampirish domination.

This movie is worth seeing for the unflinching examination of how true evil uses our strongest desires to slowly offer attractive things and edge into our lives. We have the power to turn evil away or invite it into our lives, but can we make a properly informed decision? By the time Oskar sees the truth about Eli, he can’t judge her clearly anymore because she’s crept so close. Oh, and watch it for the cats scene in the apartment. Never have cats been so ennobled in the fight against evil.

MPAA: Rated R for some bloody violence including disturbing images, brief nudity and language. (Most of the violence is telegraphed well enough that you can look away if you want. There is an American version, but the original is best.)


“There are two kinds of people: those who see signs, miracles, and those who see coincidences. Which kind are you?”

SignsGraham Hess is a former minister and widower living with his two small children and younger brother. When crop circles mysteriously show up in his cornfield and then around the world, strange events occur that hint at possible alien invasion.

Released in 2002, this quietly frightening movie uses everyday things to ratchet up the suspense — a barking dog, rustling in the corn, weird sounds coming over a baby monitor. The very ordinariness of the setting brings home the personal nature of the story. If the end of the world is just around the corner, what will one family do? This family, as we learn, has already suffered a big loss. Are they strong enough to withstand a possible alien invasion? What resources do they have to help them?

The primary theme of the movie is Hess’s loss of faith. It clearly affects the entire family. Above all, it affects Hess’s own ability to think about anything out of the ordinary. Director M. Night Shyamalan takes the theme of coincidences and “signs” and uses them on multiple levels to consider questions that Christians ponder in their own lives.

MPAA: PG-13 for some frightening moments.

‘Train to Busan’

“Dad, you only care about yourself. That’s why mommy left.”

Train to BusanHe’s forgotten her birthday, he’s forgotten to show up at school for her special song, but Seok-woo is going to make sure his little daughter safely gets from Seoul to Busan to visit her mother, his ex-wife. It’s just their bad luck that a zombie virus breaks out while they’re on the train. The passengers must fight for their families and their lives against the zombies.

This 2016 zombie movie has the requisite amount of gore and fast-running zombies, but in a lot of ways, it feels like a fun, action thriller as everyone comes up with ways to escape.

“Train to Busan” is deeper than the average zombie movie. Beginning with a selfish father and broken family, there are many small “families” to contrast and compare from young love through impending fatherhood and old age. When the emergency begins, Seok-woo tells his daughter, “At a time like this, only watch out for yourself.” He learns that isn’t the way we should live — or something we should pass down to our children. We are shown characters he can emulate in self-sacrifice or those who are the monsters he will become if he follows his own selfish inclinations. It is difficult to see our actions honestly sometimes, but “Train to Busan” gives us a mirror for seeing the damage that just living for ourselves does while asking what we sacrifice for others.

Not rated. This is a zombie film, so it is intense, bloody and violent.

‘Cat People’

“I like the dark. It’s friendly.”

Cat peopleIrena and Oliver have a whirlwind romance after meeting outside the panther cage at their local zoo. Oliver becomes concerned about Irena’s notion that she is cursed and may transform into a large cat in the heat of passion. Is it neurosis or real? Will one little kiss really trigger Irena’s curse?

This movie uses shadows, sound and suggestion to convey the overtones of inherited evil and unspoken, simmering sexual tension. Released in 1942, “Cat People” cost about $135,000 but made $8 million in two years, making it a genuine blockbuster.

Part of what makes it so effective is that it was one of the first horror movies that was thoroughly modern. Ancient curse aside, it looks at divorce, psychotherapy, loneliness in a big city, working women, immigration and how an easy life doesn’t prepare us to do the right thing.

Set against these is the invisible reality of the spiritual battle that Irena is fighting all alone. She is struggling against temptation in order to save not only lives but her own soul. In modern fashion, the battle is largely internal. The battle between good and evil doesn’t make sense through modern eyes. This adds up to a movie that looks like a classic monster movie but with timeless themes we can relate to.

Not rated. MPAA ratings did not begin until 1968.

‘The Witch’

Evil takes many forms.

WitchThe film opens with a 1600s Puritan community banishing a family because they are too strict in how they practice their faith. That’s not what we’re used to seeing in modern stories with Puritans, but it prepares us for how all normal assumptions are going to be turned on their head.

Proudly scorning the judgment, the father moves his family to the edge of the woods where they can live more purely. On their own, the family encounters a series of disasters, which they blame on each other. Meanwhile, the younger children, all of whom are unbaptized, begin talking about the witch of the woods. Soon, the question becomes urgent: Are they really being stalked by a witch, or is the evil coming from the family itself?

Among other things, “The Witch,” released in 2015, looks at what happens when a family decides that they are the sole judges of orthodoxy. In the Bible, the wilderness is a place far away from God, where spiritual chaos and evil have sway. This family has deliberately moved into a dangerous place.

The family pray fervently, but their prayers do not seem to be answered. Is this because they cannot recognize it? Is it because the father insists that his will is right and won’t return to the community and humble himself? Is it because they ignore the sacraments, which leave the unbaptized younger children more open to evil than the adults? The Christianity being practiced is a sterner and different version than Catholicism, but there is plenty in “The Witch” for the viewer to consider.

MPAA rating: R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity.


“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

JawsWhen a shark unleashes chaos on the beaches of a small New England island, it’s up to a local sheriff, a marine biologist and an old seafarer to hunt the killer down. What emerges is an epic battle of man versus nature.

Beyond the shock of shark attacks, what makes this 1975 movie interesting is Sheriff Brody’s personal journey. He’s an unlikely hero, to say the least. He left New York because it was too dangerous. He’s a fish out of water because he’s new to the island, so he’s easy to ignore. His ideas will hurt local business, so he’s unpopular with the authorities. All this not only is difficult for him personally, but it winds up costing a child his life. Like some of the heroes of the Old Testament, Brody seems a misfit with everything against him, but once he sees the right path, he stubbornly pursues it to the end.

“Jaws” raises the question of what to do when we know something is real but no one else can see it and won’t take the clues seriously. How do we rise to the occasion, using our abilities even when they may not seem adequate? Can we achieve redemption for past misdeeds if we are willing to sacrifice ourselves?

MPAA rating: PG. (This was rated in 1975 before there was a PG-13 rating, which might have been applied today because of drug use.)

‘The Exorcist’

“The power of Christ compels you!”

ExorcistAfter playing with a Ouija board, a young girl begins levitating, speaking in tongues and exhibiting even more troubling behavior. Following a full battery of medical and psychiatric tests, a local priest suspects she is possessed by the devil. Her mother isn’t religious, but she’s willing to try anything. It takes two priests to battle with the devil for the girl’s soul.

This 1973 makes every “top horror” list and is still terrifying after almost 50 years. It stands the test of time because we are shown an unflinching spiritual battle between good and evil. The evil shown is horrific because it really is more terrible than we can imagine. The offenses committed on the girl remind us of the devil’s hatred of the innocent and, indeed, all of us. The exorcists’ struggle reminds us that victory often requires sacrifice. Yet, in the end, good prevails.

At the beginning, “The Exorcist” establishes themes of good versus evil, faith versus doubt, and science versus religion. These are woven throughout the rest of the story. The takeaway? The devil is real, redemption is found through suffering, and when spiritual suffering gets tough, turn to the Church. It is that terrifying and that simple.

MPAA rating: R for strong language and disturbing images

Julie Davis writes from Texas.

Family-friendly movies

Pop the popcorn, turn off the lights and huddle up on the couch together. It’s fright movie night for the family! These scary movies are lots of fun.

Half the fun of watching a movie together is talking about it afterward. Besides sharing your favorite parts, this is a chance to talk about some of the underlying messages. In movies skewed toward kids, those messages are going to be broad and straight-forward, but we’ve included some talking points to make it easy.

Our viewing guidelines are general because no one knows your kids like you do. Use your best judgment, and don’t show a movie you haven’t previewed to check against your family’s “scare factor.” A sensitive child may run from what might not bother a younger sibling. Teens can also handle these selections from our list above: “Jaws,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Signs,” “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Cat People.”

‘Monsters Inc.’
Monsters IncMonsters are in children’s closets, but that’s because they’re on the job — collecting screams and taking them back to power their city. In a nice bit of turning norms upside down, children are considered toxic, and every monster is terrified of them. When one adorable tot, Boo, sneaks into the monsters’ world, two friendly monsters discover she isn’t dangerous at all. Getting her back to her own world safely becomes job one.

This movie may make your children so fond of monsters they’ll never ask you to look under their beds again. There are plenty of good examples for your child such as loyal friendship, doing the right thing even when it goes against community opinion, and bravery. Heck, they even promote tooth brushing!

Little kids, rated G.

‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’
Night before ChristmasThis is a full-fledged musical with clever, catchy songs and choreography. In this world, each holiday has its own town. In Halloween Town, run by Jack Skellington, residents busily prepare for the most important day of the year — Halloween. When Jack accidentally stumbles upon Christmas Town, he is enchanted by the joy and warmth of Christmas. He is inspired to take over the holiday and let the whole town experience it. Although Jack has good intentions, he gets everything wrong, and soon Christmas is in danger of becoming the most dangerous holiday of the year.

“The Nightmare Before Christmas” is a good way to discuss celebrating the gifts God gave you and the problems that can come from just chasing what seems new and cool. It’s also the perfect time to talk about where Halloween really came from. The kids will know that Christmas really comes from the birth of Christ, but they probably don’t know that Halloween is also attached to the Church’s liturgical calendar. It began as All Hallow’s Eve when it was a combination of prayers and merriment, the day before All Saints’ Day.

Big kids, rated PG.

‘Little Shop of Horrors’
Little Shop of HorrorsThis campy, sci-fi take on 1950s horror movies comes with a wonderful soundtrack and backup singers. Seymour is a flower shop assistant on Skid Row when a very unusual plant appears in the window. This leads to unbelievable good fortune that proves to have a price when the plant suddenly demands that Seymour feed it human blood or it will die. When it needs more than Seymour can provide on his own, how will he find more blood?

This movie isn’t for the squeamish and definitely should be previewed. However, it somehow also manages to be innocent and sweet, largely thanks to Seymour and Audrey’s own inherent goodness. The squirm-inducing elements are the very things that make for good reflection later. Do the ends justify the means? Seymour is a nice guy who wants to help others. But the power he is offered comes at a dreadful price. How do we resist small temptations that may lead us down a path where we feel we have no choice but to make big decisions we’re not equipped for? What does it take to help us remember that God always offers forgiveness and the strength to do the right thing?

Tweens, teens, rated PG-13 for mature themes, language and violence.

GhostbustersGhostbusters fuses humor and scare scenes in an action movie that is now classic. When they’re kicked out of the university, three scientists start a “supernatural elimination” business — ghostbusting. When an ancient Sumerian demon threatens the city, they take it on.

The main vibe is light but doesn’t ignore religious implications. New hire Winston talks about how he believes in God and wonders if there are so many ghosts because the days predicted in the Book of Revelation, the end of the world, are here. Ray hears him out with tolerance. That’s more than a lot of movies would do today.

It is cynical, cheerful and goofy. In a movie like this, it can be hard to find a deeper message. The ghostbusters don’t run from the demon. They risk their lives to destroy it. It raises the question of what makes a hero and whether only one type of person is capable of risking their life to save others?

Finally, the most important question of all: Do you believe in ghosts? The Church has never definitively settled this question, and major theologians have disagreed about it. Whatever your answer, don’t forget to remember that Halloween comes just before All Souls’ Day, a good reminder to pray for the souls of the dead.

Tweens, teens, rated PG — this was rated in 1984 before there was a PG-13 rating, which might have been applied today because of language and sexually charged scenes.