Growing up as a Southern Baptist (i.e., the kind of Christian that shows up to church hungover and 20 minute late every Sunday morning), pretty much everything I knew about Catholic customs was culled from horror movies. If it wasn’t for films like The Omen and The Exorcist, I probably never would’ve found out what the “eucharist” or “mass” was as a kid; they sure as hell didn’t list those as vocabulary words on the kind of spelling tests my elementary school was doling out, that’s for sure.
Of course, seeing as how there’s only about two billion Catholics on the planet, I suppose it makes sense that the Catholics get the most representation in genre movies. And shocking as it may be, the Catholics historically haven’t been too fond of how they were depicted in some of these movies–nor were they too cheery about their general supernatural, sexualized and oftentimes hyper-violent content.
Enter The National Legion of Decency, a now-defunct Catholic group that tasked itself with safeguarding the masses from any kind of entertainment they deemed objectionable or in bad taste. From the early 1930s, all the way up until the early 1980s, the NLOD kept a running list of movies they forbade all good Catholics from screening. Whereas the MPAA kiss of death was the dreaded X-rating, the NLOD upped the ante by branding films with a C rating–with the C, naturally, standing for “condemned,” which meant if you saw it without immediately asking Jesus for forgiveness, you were going to hell. Sheesh–and you thought the penalties for pirating movies was harsh!
A lot of movies have been bestowed the C rating by the NLOD, and that includes several beloved (and not so beloved) horror films. Below you’ll find a selection of ten genre movies the Catholic Church once warned viewers would condemn their souls to the fiery pits of hell–although, as you will soon see, the explanations as to why do seem more than a little opaque …
The 13th Letter (1951)
Otto Preminger’s adaptation of the 1943 French film The Raven was one of the first pure genre films to arouse the NLOD’s ire. Interestingly enough, it seems that what angered the Legion of Decency the most wasn’t the central plot about a mysterious man revealing a small town’s secrets and goading its inhabitants into suicide and murder, but a rather minute subplot about a woman allegedly having an affair. Yeah, it’s small potatoes now, but back in the day such themes weren’t just scandalous–in the eyes of organizations like the NLOD, they were downright sacrilegious.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
I suppose there’s no surprise the Legion wasn’t too happy with this one, huh? There’s no singular scene that garnered this film a spot on the NLOD’s “burn in hell” list, but I take it the film’s general theme about a New Yorker getting seduced into an unholy cult and giving birth to the Antichrist didn’t exactly have them jumping for joy. Ironically enough, this is believed to be the movie that effectively broke the Legion’s spell on Hollywood–despite being condemned as sinful rubbish, Rosemary’s Baby nonetheless went on to become a big box office hit, with Catholics themselves making up a large swath of the ticket-purchasing audience.
The Devils (1971)
On the surface, it appears the Legion despised this film for its sacrilegious themes, rampant nudity and scenes of intense torture (two words, kids: boiling douches.) Alas, Ken Russell’s cult classic likely miffed the NLOD for another reason: because it blamed the real-life execution of 17th century priest Urbain Grandier on the Church’s steep paranoia and intolerance of sexual looseness. Needless to say, it’s no surprise the Legion wasn’t flattered by the film’s depiction of the Catholic orthodoxy as totalitarian, sexually-repressed maniacs …
The Exorcist (1973)
Even though The Exorcist scribe William Peter Blatty was a practicing Catholic who went out of his way to show good triumphing over evil at the end of the film, the NLOD still wasn’t too keen on the 1973 mega-hit. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that probably had something to do with the scenes involving crucifixes being used as masturbatory props–that, or the scenes in which a possessed 12-year-old tells a priest to engage in procreative activity with his faith’s chief figure head shortly after vomiting on him.
Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973)
Now this one is perplexing. For starters, there’s nothing explicitly Catholic about Lemora whatsoever, which makes the NLOD’s accusations that it contains a fervid “anti-Catholic” bias all the more head scratching (I guess that means they just didn’t like Richard Blackburn’s depiction of the canonically non-denominational reverend?) Furthermore, Lemora isn’t exactly a film festering with blood, guts or graphic sexual content–how this film earned their wrath while Blacula and Salem’s Lot get free passes is just bamboozling.
The Wicker Man (1973)
I’ve always read Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man as a rare pro-Catholic horror film – what, with its heroic, straight-laced virginal protagonist and depiction of sexually liberated pagans as bloodthirsty heathens and all. Alas, the Legion saw it differently and condemned the flick for promoting all sorts of occultic and promiscuous activity. I assume they weren’t big on Sgt. Howie’s iconic demise at the end of the film, either–after all, his exit from the mortal coil did ring a little messianic, didn’t it?
The Omen (1976)
What’s not to love about Richard Donner’s horror classic? Well, pretty much everything that made the movie memorable–the hangings during children’s birthday parties, priests getting impaled by weathervanes, the hounds of hell ripping apart people’s flesh, not to mention the legendary decapitation sequence. Then again, did anybody expect the Catholics to react favorably to a box office smash starring the son of Satan as a main character?
J.D.’s Revenge (1976)
What an obscure movie to picket, no? For those of you who never got around to seeing it, J.D.’s Revenge is a blaxploitation horror offering about a young college student possessed by the spirit of a dead gangster. Routinely cited as one of the worst demonic possession movies of all time, what’s shocking here isn’t so much the Legion condemning it–it’s figuring out how they even heard about the movie in the first place!
Presumably the Legion wasn’t too happy about the Tampon bombardment in the shower or all those teenagers getting electrocuted at prom, but I’m guessing it was Piper Laurie’s performance as Carrie’s mother that really got their rosaries in a bunch. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, it seems like the NLOD was rather keen on “condemning” films that just so happened to posit Christianity in a negative light, regardless of their sexual and violent content. So while the pig massacring and butcher knife crucifixions may have been their stated grievance, I think it’s safe to say the characterization of Mama White as an abusive, religious nutcase was what truly pushed this one into solid “condemned” territory.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
By the time Dawn of the Dead came out, the Legion was already on its last legs and barely two years away from shuttering their doors altogether. With their influence on Hollywood waning, few filmgoers (Catholic or otherwise) paid much heed to the NLOD’s criticism of George Romero’s zombie epic, which I’m guessing they didn’t like because of all that tomfoolery involving exploding heads, screwdrivers into the ear and the occasional depiction of exposed intestines. Which raises an intriguing hypothetical; if the Legion considered that enough to earn eternal damnation, can you imagine what they would’ve thought of the horny, blaspheming, brain-eating priest in Dead Alive?