A woman watching a scary movie

Do you like scary movies?

Professor Shaheed Nick Mohammed explores how writers and directors of horror films deal with themes that are unfamiliar to a larger audience.
By: Therese Boyd

Across the world, horror stories have always been a part of human culture. Themes are universal—spirits, murderers, monsters, aliens, apocalypses, and the list goes on. Scary stories are widely read and shared through books, film, and even around the campfire: whether it’s Frankenstein’s monster or pod people, wolves gone wild or sharks in tornadoes, the scraping noise on a car roof all night long or the White Lady of Wopsonock.

Shaheed Nick Mohammed, associate professor of communication at Penn State Altoona and a horror movie fan, says, “There are secular horror (“killer”) movies. But with anything to do with supernatural ideas, it is almost impossible to separate them from religious influences.” Most Americans are probably familiar with films such as The Exorcist, where a child is possessed and a priest must exorcise the demon out of her, or when a priest is summoned to bless a house to remove evil spirits, such as The Amityville Horror. These particular films are sprinkled with symbols of the Catholic faith, such as holy water, stigmata, and crucifixes. Non-Catholic audiences have seen those plot devices enough to understand what they are.

Now, in part thanks to easy availability through streaming services, Muslim-based horror films are growing in popularity. Mohammed has written an article, “Religious Hegemony and ‘Muslim’ Horror Movies” (Journal of Religion and Film 26, no. 2 [2022]), that examines this relatively recent genre of horror films. “I was always a big horror movie fan,” he says, such as “Freddy Kreuger and the Hellraiser franchise. It’s always been one of the things I liked.”

Once Mohammed began watching horror movies that were outside “the Western Christian tradition,” he asked how writers and directors would deal with themes that would be unfamiliar to a larger audience. His research assistant for the project was Penn State Altoona graduate Joe Compton, another fan of horror movies, who worked on a volunteer basis. “Joe would find them and be my second set of eyes and ears.”

The first horror film from the UAE was Djinn (2013), which some online commenters described as “the same old horror movie just set in a different place,” Mohammed says. It’s directed by Tobe Hooper, one of the icons of Hollywood horror. In that movie they went to great lengths to set it in their cultural environment. The mythic figure of the djinn is the basis for the movie. They used their actual folklore, which is also rooted in Islamic tradition.” But, as happens so often in film, the writers also used artistic license: “One of the complications is that the djinn predates the Islamic religion by centuries. If anything, it was codified into the religious group.”

The function and personality of the djinn can vary widely. “In Wishmaster, the djinn is evil, but all the other djinn he’s trying to bring into this dimension are evil, too,” Mohammed explains. “Islam believes djinn can be good or evil. In some cultures, people are just aware of them, [and know to] be careful not to mess with them, don’t upset them. There are several cases of people having relationships with djinn.” Of course, for those watching these films, “part of the challenge is if you’re not from that culture, you might not even know that.”

Directors work to make sure their audiences understand. For people not familiar with the djinn, “Hooper has someone explain the myth to a visitor at the beginning of the story,” Mohammed says, a technique utilized in a lot of films. In the Persian-language psychological horror film Under the Shadow, for example, “a woman goes to the neighbor and picks up her daughter and talks about djinn.”

Another hurdle: “There are also a lot of similarities in the traditions. They talk about angels as supernatural beings in the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions; they share notions of a single united God and even some commonalities in ideas about ‘hell’ … that sort of negotiation of commonalities in their traditions sometimes complicates things. Some of the stuff that shows up would blow your mind.”

Having seen so many of these films, Mohammed can’t resist being a critic: “I was surprised at how bad a couple of these were. The filmmakers’ challenges with negotiating the potential of a global audience and their own cultural realities were sometimes evident. The End (Kuwait) has a random Bollywood number. They gave almost no thought to how it related to their setting. Somehow the vampire turns out to be a white guy from England. They did not even account for their own cultural background.”

Mohammed recognizes that without today’s technologies, these movies would not get seen—or even made. “People in these countries who didn’t have the resources can now make the movies and have them viewed globally. In both COMM 150: Art of the Film and COMM 101N: Mass Media and Society, we stress how media—including film—today is made all over the world and reaches global audiences. It is relevant to what we do.” Popularity is growing, too. A month-long Muslim horror film festival Halaloween is free and online through the end of October.