I’ve been considering this question for some time and was recently struck with the closest thing to an answer I’d had so far. It was during a walk and I had decided to venture into an episode of an unknown podcast series (separating the wheat from the chaff with podcasts is equally demanding and rewarding). The title of the episode was ‘The Omen vs. The Witch’ – or ‘The VVitch’ as they insisted – and I was taken with the concept. To top it, the show (‘Soundtrack Showdown’) was solely focused on film scores. This is a topic for which I find great analysis difficult to track down, and one of the most fascinating aspects of cinema to me. So I embarked upon its cross-examination of these two masterworks and got lost in the dissection of instrumentation, uncanny effects achieved through the score, and a general celebration of the technique of synergising the moving image with sound, all to instil horror in the audience.
As I walked, Ave Satani (the theme to The Omen) played through my headphones, and I could barely contain a huge grin at the contrast between the ordinary rows of houses I was passing and the deranged, doom-laden turbulence of this ‘Black Mass’, recalling a similar sense of defiant, almost demonic catharsis as when I first discovered the band Slayer. As I walked to the glacial, striding rhythms and baroque choruses, it struck me that this gratification might be intrinsically linked to the notion of religion itself on a personal basis, not just the spirit of Jerry Goldsmith’s score or Slayer’s maniacal, buzz-saw guitar work and hellish subject matter. It seemed possible that this path I’ve followed into the macabre offerings of film and music might owe to my being raised in a religious setting, my dad being a minister and living in a scenario with a high sense of propriety, as well as a stringent mythology that didn’t add up when I peeked into the regular world.
Growing up with the instilled belief in an all-knowing personality who maintains the world invisibly, but is wired into one’s thoughts, can create a binary opposition of possessing faith, juxtaposed with the ‘othered’ factions entailing anything outside of what you know as a churchgoer. Once adulthood had removed these shutters, or at least made them more transparent, there was – and is – a maladjustment from the ideas of certainty and meaning of before, to the chaotic notion of confronting a potentially godless world. Hearing Ave Satani and revelling in its evil madness suggested to me that the plunge into the horror genre channels unresolved parts of the disconnection between someone’s ‘before’ and ‘now’. After all, the ultimate change is existential, weighing up notions of eternal life with secular rationality and biological transience. This shift is honestly incomprehensible, much like the events depicted in horror fiction seem to its protagonists. When the characters therein drastically need to overcome an unfathomable reality, barely able to conceive of the notion of the monster, supernatural or otherwise, it might echo the fracture and stark terror of shifting from a structured belief system, to what ostensibly appears to be an abyss. Furthermore, in horror there is often an appeal in the threat itself, although it is dualised with the fear-inducing. For example, Barbara Steele’s Asa in Mario Bava’s 1960 Mask of Satan, who exudes sexuality at once with the capacity for violence and evil, or the nightmare setting of Dario Argento’s 1977 Suspiria comprising some of the most opulent and vividly beautiful lighting and cinematography ever captured, or even in The Witch, when Thomasin, portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy, is so downtrodden by her puritanical family that the satanic offerings and feral sisterhood proposed in the final act are set up as logically preferable, and even elicit support from the audience – certainly this viewer.