page contents

Finding the Sacred Among the Profane: The Strangers Franchise
Sean Woodard

Image © Rogue Pictures 

Image © Rogue Pictures 

Horror represents the ripest genre to provide commentary on contemporary issues. Not only do horror films appeal to our basest emotions, they are the most malleable in terms of form and content. Stephen King writes in Danse Macabre that the three levels of Horror—revulsion, horror, and terror—not only conjure up a wide range of emotions in viewers, but also allow themes to grow out of the narrative—including those that wrestle with spirituality, faith, and morality. This column will explore how faith and religion are represented in particular staples of the horror genre. The first of these will examine the recent Strangers franchise.

In writer-director Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers (2008), a couple are subject to escalating terror when they are preyed upon by a trio of home invaders. Out of this simplistic premise, elements of faith are introduced that balance its otherwise nihilistic tone.

At the beginning of the film, we see two boys walking their bikes down a road. Wearing white dress shirts with black slacks and carrying religious pamphlets in their hands, they are instantly recognizable as members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. They come across a house with the door open. From there, we hear a phone conversation between one of the boys and a 911 operator. In this brief scene, viewers are filled with a sense of foreboding. What the kids discovered—conveniently offscreen, save for a few shots of blood splattered on walls of the house—is of such a hideous a nature that it directly conflicts with their notion of the goodness of God.

The film then flashes back to the previous night. We are introduced to James and Kristen (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler). Upon returning from a friend’s wedding, the couple is at an impasse in their relationship. James had proposed to her privately during the reception; to his dismay, she says she’s not sure she’s ready for marriage. All his plans for a romantic evening, complete with rose petals and champagne, are shattered. Whereas marriage would united them as one person from a Christian perspective, the engagement ring has torn them apart.

After a random knock on the door by a stranger asking if Tamara is home, James and Kristen are subjected to terror by three unnamed assailants — the film’s credits list them as Man in the Mask, Dollface, and Pin-Up Girl based on the masks they wear. While trying to survive, James and Kristen grow closer together. A close up of their hands clasped focuses on Kristen’s engagement ring and their love for each other is reaffirmed in the face of death. However (to borrow the phrase), they both literally had to go through hell to get to heaven.

The film is effective in how it perpetuates the notion that these events can happen to anyone. Everything we don’t publically share—our fears, our familial problems, our religious proclivities, if any—that we believe are locked away safe in the privacy of our homes is intruded upon by this unknown force of evil.

For example, in the film’s sequel, The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018), the family central to the conflict is presented as a typical white suburban family with problems. The teenage daughter Kinsey is dealing with issues that got her kicked out of school and her brother seems to be the only one close to her. While their mother Cindy (Christina Hendricks) tries to figure out “where did we go wrong” with raising Kinsey, she and her husband decide a mini road trip vacation might fix everything.

In a revealing scene outside a gas station, Cindy speaks with her daughter. Although the family has cliche issues, the manner in which they are presented is effective. The tension feels genuine as the dialogue and actions subtly suggest at what is lying underneath. An interesting addition is the costuming decisions for Cindy’s character. Throughout the film, she is shown wearing a cross around her neck, suggesting that they belong to a Christian household. Although the subject of faith never comes up in conversation, the tension between family members suggests that it is a major underlying issue.

Whether how devout certain members are in their faith is a matter of debate. However, once they start getting killed off by Man in the Mask, Dollface, and Pin-Up Girl, one wonders whether they deserve their fate based on whatever undisclosed sins they may have committed.

When Kristen in the first film asks Dollface why they chose her and James to terrorize, she flatly replies, “Because you were home.” Dollface gives Kinsey a similar response of “Why Not?” before Kinsey kills her with a shotgun. These responses represent a morally nihilistic point of view shared by the three assailants — not only do the responses elicit an ambivalent sentiment toward the crimes being committed, but they can also be construed to mean, on an existential level, that to them God does not exist and Christian notions of good and evil are immaterial.

Whereas Christianity and sin are merely referenced in the sequel, the conclusion of the first film addresses them directly. The narrative circles back to the two Mormon boys walking down the road. After killing James and Kristen, the killers climb into a truck and drive away. Upon seeing them the truck stops and Dollface gets out.

She asks the boys if she can have one of the pamphlets.

One boy questions her: “Are you a sinner?”

“Sometimes,” she says.

The boy hands one to her.

As the truck drives away from the boys, Pin-Up Girl tells Dollface, “It’ll be easier next time.”

This short exchange suggests that Dollface is in a transitional phase. The viewer can infer that she is relatively new to the group and to the act of killing. Her reply of “sometimes” can mean that she perhaps had some religious upbringing in her childhood and that its moral teachings may still have a slight hold upon her conscience. However, the more murders she commits in the sequel suggest that whatever conscience she once had has now disappeared.

For the two boys, discovering James and Kristen’s bodies is a traumatizing experience. To return to Stephen King, not only are they revolted by amount of blood everywhere, they are horrified by the sheer immensity of violence before them. They are unable to comprehend what they are witnessing and respond with tears and apprehension. This perhaps represents the closest they have ever been to evil, in direct contrast to any teachings they may have already received about the goodness of God. The terror aspect is what’s offscreen. We never see these boys again after they are shocked when Kristen jolts awake and screams before the scene cuts to the credits sequence.

At this impressionable age, the kids are left with an imprint of this event for a lifetime. How it affects them, shakes their beliefs, and changes their outlook on life is uncertain. “But if a people of faith reach the lowest point of despair and lose hope in the goodness of God—as is effectively portrayed in Robert Eggers’ The Witch—then that must be the most terrifying thing for them, because it nullifies everything that has informed their existence up to that point in life. It would be no stretch of the imagination that this encounter with evil may affect those boys in a similar manner.

Although The Strangers franchise relies on a bunch of jump scares and unpredictable behavior in order to terrify its characters and audience, they imbue the minimum amount of characterization and backstory to allow certain religious and other themes to develop. Although overtly nihilistic, these ideas of Christianity and sin add a layer of depth to these thinly constructed, dour stories.

Sean Woodard is a graduate of Point Loma Nazarene University and Chapman University.  Focusing on a wide variety of interests, Sean’s fiction, film criticism, and other writing have been featured in Los Angeles Review of Books, Found Polaroids, and Los Angeles Magazine, among other publications. He is a journalist for Addiction Now and serves on the Film Department for Drunk Monkeys. A native of Visalia, CA, he now resides in Orange County.