On its opening weekend, I went to see the supernatural horror film, Stigmata. The focal point of the movie is a young woman who physically experiences wounds similar to those inflicted on Christ at his crucifixion.
In its first week, Stigmata finished number one at the box office. The movie it knocked into second place, The Sixth Sense, which is a film about a boy who sees dead people, had occupied the top spot at the box office for five consecutive weeks. The movie in third place - Stir of Echoes - was yet another supernatural thriller.
What is it about the supernatural that is drawing moviegoers in droves to films like these? Do people just like to be frightened? Or is it something deeper? The truth is that we live in a culture where people are seeking meaning in their lives. The result is that, for lack of something better, many are craving the transcendent. People want to believe. But they don't know what to believe in. In their search, they're flocking to movies with supernatural themes, eager for a taste of the great, mystical beyond.
Merely watching a movie, of course, usually does not lead to deep spiritual insights. There are no documented cases of epiphanies at screenings of Stigmata. In today's hectic world, however, people have little time to ponder the deeper questions of life, such as "Where did we come from?" and "Where are we going?" In fact, recent studies show that Americans spend more hours in the workplace than citizens of any other industrialized country.
Churches and synagogues are victims of this hectic pace, with attendance falling in the '90s. When Americans do attend a place of worship, many are focused on priorities other than religion - such as politics - at the expense of spiritual nourishment.
The result is that the great pageants once presented in houses of worship - creation, chaos, disaster, solitude and evil - are now played out in the twilight of the movie theater. It is now the priests of films such as Stigmata who recite incantations that resonate with a viewer's spiritual side.
As novelist Richard Matheson, the author of the book that Stir of Echoes was based on, pointed out, "As we come to the end of the millennium, people are becoming more sensitive to what's going on behind their daily existences. Movies are a great way for filmgoers ... to back into spirituality."
Horror films have an especially long history of playing this role. Back in the 60s, Rosemary's Baby told us that God was dead. This meant that the world was a meaningless flow of cause and effect. That same year, Night of the Living Dead, an apocalyptic vision of a plague of flesh-eating zombies, became the seminal work of modern horror because it treated death as a casual, amoral event.
In 1973, The Exorcist presented a new vision, though one just as frightening. This supernatural movie about a demon-possessed child was a departure from the moral apathy of the 60s. In The Exorcist, good was good and evil was extremely evil.
Horror films were just the beginning. The current fascination with extra-terrestrial life is another method of addressing the big questions. Fox's The X-Files envisions a world where truth is objective and human choices have meaning. It's a world where there is someone or something out there - an "other" that just might be able to answer the final questions of who we are and what our fate will be.
Young people are helping drive this trend. Looking around the theater during Stigmata, nearly every face belonged to a teenager or twenty-something adult. The WB television network has exploited the youth horror niche with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where most of the characters have an otherworldly connection. Buffy is a chosen messiah sent to save her town from the vampires that infest it. Her best friend is Willow, who dabbles in witchcraft.
Popular music, largely the domain of teenagers, has a spiritual side, too. Simply listen to the lyrics of Jewel, Alanis Morissette or Sarah McLaughlin. Joan Osborne's hit from a few years ago, What if God Was One of Us?, raised spiritual questions more thoughtfully than many pastors and priests. In fact, pop culture generally is the venue where spiritual questions are being resolved.
This thirst for the beyond isn't anywhere near being quenched. Nicolas Cage's next film is the otherworldly thriller Bringing Out the Dead. And Johnny Depp will star in two such movies: Sleepy Hollow, a twist on the Washington Irving story where Depp will play a scientist whose reason is challenged by an encounter with the supernatural, and The Ninth Gate, a thriller involving the search for a demonic book.
Spiritual hunger, which has been around as long as people have, is overtly evident in today's youth. However, it's become obvious that they won't settle for simply raising the questions. They've seen how their parents raised questions about life and transcendence in the '60s - yet never found the answers. But these young people want to believe. Hopefully, their search will end by finding the one non-negotiable in life - the truth.
(John W. Whitehead, Esquire, is the author of over 20 books, and has been published in national newspapers, magazines and law journals. He is the spokesperson for the national public service radio campaign, First Liberties. He is the president of the Rutherford Institute.)