There’s nothing more that horror fans seem to love than debating whether or not certain movies fit the criteria for “horror”. Whether it’s because they feel it isn’t scary, or that it’s really more of a thriller, the overall definition of what makes something “horror” can be vague and is largely left up to interpretation by the individual.
So in the interest of that, we’re taking that same broad approach and analyzing a movie that at first glance is anything but a horror film. And for the purposes of this exercise, we’re broadly defining horror by the following criteria: creepy tone/atmosphere, tendency to show extreme gore, and intentionally unpleasant for the audience.
Back in 2004, Mel Gibson (before the world knew just how racist and insane he was) released his biblical epic The Passion of the Christ and it took the world by storm. It broke box office records, sparked endless controversies and debates about theology and morality. Whether you were religious or not, there’s no denying it’s a powerful film that holds nothing back.
So we wanted to take an unconventional approach with this movie (and one that’s likely to be very controversial as well), and define Passion of the Christ as a horror film. Admittedly, there’s a sliver of satire sowed in this statement, but we are at least being a little bit serious when we make the following arguments. And if you’re someone who is easily offended, just remember the first part of that statement about it being somewhat satirical.
Note: We’re analyzing the movie strictly as a movie and won’t be getting into the larger theological themes or commenting on any of its controversies. And while we may praise Mel Gibson’s directing, we are in no way praising him as a human being.
First and foremost, while Satan only has a mere couple minutes of screentime, he absolutely steals every scene he’s in, and in an incredibly creepy and disturbing manner. Portrayed by Italian actress Rosalinda Celentano, this iteration of Satan manages to be scarier than anything we’ve seen from the likes of other horror films like End of Days, The Devil’s Advocate, Constantine, etc.
There’s no over the top monologues, no horns or pitchfork, just a humanoid figure in a dark robe that you believe is the embodiment of all that is evil. Celentanto’s performance makes you believe that this is the same devil that possesses innocent people in movies like The Exorcist or The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
And don’t get us started on that brief but disturbing scene where Satan is carrying a child with an adult face that looks like a possessed Benjamin Button. Some have argued this is a reference to the antichrist, or just Satan taunting Jesus as if to say, “look how I nurture my child while your father abandoned you to suffer”. But either way, it plays into making this Satan one of the scariest portrayals in a movie ever, including the many horror films he does appear in.
Let’s just get this out of the way, The Passion of the Christ rivals Saw and Hostel in terms of its use of intense violence and gore. Granted, no one condemned (well, mostly no one) this movie for it like they did the horror films, because they felt here it was done for a greater meaning and purpose.
But the message doesn’t change the fact that a portion of this movie is just straight up torture porn. This movie features stabbings, slashings, eyes being pecked out by crows, whips ripping skin off backs, nails being driven through limbs, and blunt force beatings, all of which are done with an almost gleeful sadism by the people committing these acts.
If you didn’t know the title of the movie but were told all the violent acts that occur, you’d never think you were about to watch a religious drama, you’d think you’re about to see an Eli Roth movie. Obviously, violence alone doesn’t necessarily denote horror. After all, action and war movies can get pretty bloody. But the violence showcased here is torture, which is much more common when the goal of the filmmaker is to disturb the audience, and it’s very effective here.
The Passion of the Christ was praised by many for its religious themes, with some even citing it as an inspiration to be more spiritual. That being said, absolutely no one will argue that this is a fun or pleasant movie to watch. And it is in that regard that horror and (some) dramatic movies share something in common.
Granted, many horror films are lighthearted, campy, and fun. But some aren’t trying to do anything but disturb you for the sake of doing so. And even if a religious drama like Passion has a different reason for it, it’s still utilizing the same techniques to do so. In both cases, the audience knowingly looks at something they don’t want to, but can’t seem to look away. And that’s an odd thing for horror and drama to share in common.
But we’re not the only ones that this thought has occurred to. Even major horror YouTube channel Dead Meat covered Passion of the Christ in a podcast episode, because they (and their fans) knew how much of an overlap there was between horror and this movie.
It has the sadistic gore, it has the creepy demonic villain, and it even features creepy demon kids and a jump scare. Yes, The Passion of the Christ is first and foremost a religious drama, but it also fits several key criteria of horror, and should be considered equally such.
Do you think The Passion of the Christ counts as a horror film? Let us know in the comments!
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One thought on “Why “The Passion of the Christ” is a Horror Film”
Wow….and this whole time I thought it was a comedy.