Creative Projects

Ian Alexander Cuthbertson
Baker Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Religion

22278497_10159335178135587_155972462_nThis post originally appeared on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog.

For the last four years I have taught RELS 161: Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture at Queen’s University. RELS 161 is a large full-year course that usually attracts between 150 and 180 students. I have already written about this course elsewhere but have never described one of the more successful and rewarding components of the course: creative projects.

I first introduced a creative project option, somewhat reluctantly, in 2014. Previously, the final project for the course asked students to observe a ritual and then analyze the ritual using theories and approaches discussed in class. I had considered replacing this project with one that I’ve subsequently used (with mixed results) in a course on religious fundamentalisms that I teach at Dawson College in Montréal. The replacement project I considered asks students to create a single image, infographic, or one minute video that explores and explains a key term or concept from the course to a general audience. But the more I thought about this new project the more worried I became: Could I really require first year students to make images or videos? How would I evaluate these?

I vacillated all summer, writing and re-writing the syllabus as I drew ever closer to September and the start of term. I liked the idea of mobilizing students’ artistic talents but was uncomfortable requiring and potentially evaluating artistic skills that I did not teach in class. I take seriously the dictum that evaluations should only evaluate actual student learning: unless I teach students grammar, grammar should not be something I evaluate in student assignments. A day or two before my syllabus was due I finally decided on a compromise: I kept the ritual analysis project and included an optional creative project.

Basically, the creative project invites students (either individually, or in groups) to demonstrate their mastery of one or more of the course learning objectives however they want to. The format is open. Although I suggest possible project formats (essays, images, videos, short stories, interpretive dance…), students are free to suggest their own. Similarly, there are no set requirements for length or duration. The benefit of this open format is that it allows students complete freedom to imagine new ways of demonstrating learning that match their interests and abilities. The risk is that students will attempt to complete projects that are not feasible, that do not actually demonstrate mastery of course learning objectives, or that I am ill-equipped to evaluate. How, for instance, would I evaluate an interpretive dance? The guidelines for the creative project, which have remained unchanged since I first included it in the course, are structured to address and manage these risks. The creative project option has three components:

1. Proposal

Students who decide to pursue the creative project option are asked to submit a formal proposal in February in which they describe their project’s format and size or duration; provide a detailed timeline to show the project can be completed by the April deadline; imagine potential complications that might arise along with solutions to these; explain exactly how their proposed project will demonstrate mastery of course learning objectives; and finally propose how I will evaluate whether or not the project actually demonstrates this. While the proposal is an essential component of the larger project, its real purpose is to structure the face-to-face meeting I have with students to discuss their proposals. In this meeting, the student(s) and I talk about the format and scope of the project and work together to determine whether the proposed project actually fits their interests and goals, whether it is feasible, and whether I will be able to properly evaluate their mastery of course learning objectives. Often, this meeting necessitates partial or complete revisions of the proposed projects as the student(s) and I work together to imagine a project that fits their interests while providing me with material I can effectively evaluate.

2. Project

The project itself is submitted in April. Given the freedom this option allows, student projects are unique expressions of student engagement with course materials and learning objectives. In the last four years I have received videos, slam poetry presentations, short stories, one act plays, formal research papers, paintings, drawings, poetry, sculptures, musical compositions, and yes… an interpretive dance.

Typically, students submit additional materials that explain their projects and link their work directly to course learning objectives. Sometimes these explanations are brief. But students sometimes surprise me with the attention they pay to these. Grace Hart, for instance, who recorded herself and other dancers interpreting liminality, submitted a recording of the dance piece she choreographed along with a detailed breakdown that tied each movement back to liminality. This breakdown allowed me to evaluate Grace’s understanding and interpretation of liminality rather than the choreography itself. Grace also submitted a hand-written creative journal in which she recorded her artistic choices concerning music, choreography, lighting, and costume along with her rationale for these choices and for the revisions she eventually made.

3. Reflection

One week after the projects are submitted, I ask students to submit a short reflection in which they consider whether or not their submitted project met their expectations. Sometimes, when the projects are successful, reflections are cursory. When projects do not turn out as originally planned, reflections provide students with an opportunity to explain how the material they submitted still demonstrates their engagement with and mastery of course learning objectives and allows them to revisit evaluation criteria to ensure I am still able to evaluate the project they actually submit to me.

The creative projects I have received have nearly always been brilliant expressions of student learning. Sometimes, these projects are later presented outside of the classroom. Grace Hart, for instance, submitted her choreography to a peer reviewed blog hosted by the University of Toronto and Kaitlyn Hollander submitted her drawings to a larger exhibition of creative expressions of teaching and learning at Queen’s University. Receiving these projects has been a highlight in my career as an educator. I am routinely amazed by the talent and deep understanding these projects exhibit. Although I was hesitant, at first, to include this option in my syllabus, it has proven to be the most effective and rewarding evaluation situation I have ever used in the classroom. Typically, somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of students choose to submit creative projects. But I suspect that even if the entire class chose the creative project option, I would be eager to meet individually with all 180 students to determine how they might best mobilize their talents and interests to creatively demonstrate their grasp of the key terms, core concepts, and central ideas we explore together in RELS 161. Below are three examples of creative projects I’ve received along with comments from the students who submitted these.

Defining Religion by Kaitlyn Hollander


Kaitlyn’s project consists of three large images, each of which depicts two contrasting definitions of religion. In the image above, Kaitlyn contrasts Freud’s view that religion is the product of psychological needs with the sui generis view that religion involves some special contact with ‘the sacred.’ Her piece is interactive: each separate image is only visible when viewers put on coloured lenses.











I asked Kaitlyn to reflect on her experience completing the creative project in RELS 161:

“Making a creative project for my religion class was exciting, though at times challenging. To start, I thought about what had the most impact on me during the course; how religion cannot be monolithically defined. To my first-year brain, the idea was revolutionary because I learned more broadly that definitions are fluid rather fixed concepts. I spent a great deal of time researching and understanding each scholar’s definition to make sure I could make a piece where both the viewer and myself could clearly understand these definitions. It was wonderful having the opportunity to expand my range of conceptual topics in my fine art work as well as create a piece to display outside the walls of the studio.

Visual Notes for RELS 161 by Rhiannon Allen-Roberts


Rhiannon’s project consists of a very large banner on which she drew interpretations of multiple course topics. The project is a visual map of the entire course. Rhiannon also submitted a detailed explanation of her project that connected the concepts she explored to one another. Below are a few photos of specific segments of the larger whole.











I asked Rhiannon to reflect on her experience as well:

“My experience with the creative project was probably the best academic experience I had in my first year. It really allowed me to engage with the material and that made it personal to me, ensuring that I didn’t just memorize the material but actually learned it. I still find myself referencing topics and readings from that class. It really helped me to understand and engage with the learning material. I’m still really proud of the project and believe it was the most rewarding academic achievement I had in my first year.”

Becoming by Grace Hart


I described Grace’s project above. The video she submitted can be viewed here. I also asked Grace to reflect on her experiences:

I loved doing the creative project. It helped me to engage with the material more that I would have in written format. And I wanted to. To this day, it has been the project that I have been the most passionate and involved in throughout my four years at university. And doing it in first year made all the difference. I thought of university to be this scary, academic institution, but in doing the creative project I was able to put myself into my education and really run with – and looking back now that’s what I would consider what university is supposed to be at every moment but unfortunately under all the readings and essays it doesn’t always get to be. 

It was such an effective way to engage with the material. I could still tell you what Liminality Theory means, but still have trouble explaining the neoliberalism, realism and constructivism – and I’m a politics major! It gave me a way to contextualize – and through dance, visualize – the theory in the broader scope of the course. I still struggle to read academic articles and I get nervous speaking up in my fourth-year seminars and but had I been given more opportunities to do creative projects that allowed me to engage with course material in a way that appealed to the way I learn, I think I would have retained much more information from my courses and felt more confident in my understanding of course materials. 

I was so proud handing in this project. I worked so hard on it and dedicated so much time and energy to speaking with my professor, doing the research and putting the project together that I felt like I really accomplished something – more than just the A grade that I got. It really motivated me to want to engage with course material in this course and others, and to really take every learning opportunity – academic and otherwise – that university had to offer. I will always remember this course and Professor Cuthbertson for giving me the opportunity to do my creative project, but even more so the drive, commitment and hard work that I put in to this project and how rewarding, both academically and personally, it was to complete.



The Handmaid’s Tale is Back

Dr. Bill James
Professor Emeritus
School of Religion


The Handmaid’s Tale is all over the place these days in a remarkable resurgence that Atwood herself declares as “weird.” It feels a bit that way to me too, as I recall the novel’s appearance in the mid-80s. I taught the book for several years in RELS 161, Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture. Its immediate referents were, as I recall, the AIDS epidemic, the Cold War, and feminism. Then and now, the strong underlying themes of religion and the state and of totalitarianism loomed.

This retrospection got me to dig up an article I had written and published in Japan in the early 90’s, “Narrative as Prayer and Politics in The Handmaid’s Tale,” which was reissued in 1994 for students in RELS 161. A scanned version is available here. I was relieved to reread it and find that it isn’t entirely an embarrassment. In fact, its focus on the narrator’s inner monologue as a form of prayer strikes me as perennially relevant. Augustine, in The Confessions, first helped us understand that one’s relation to the deepest aspect of the self is akin to the relation to the divine.

atwood1This inner monologue—which novels represent so well and which movies often fail at or ignore—disappeared as a feature of the 1990 film by Volker Schlöndorff. Though the film starred an illustrious quintet of principals, and though the screenplay was written by renowned playwright Harold Pinter, it was lamentable in many respects. Due to changes in midstream, Pinter felt the film became a “hotch-potch.” Natasha Richardson, the female lead, thought the Offred’s interior monologue would be handled by voice-over narrations, but then these were cut out, reportedly because Pinter was against them.


thehandmaidstale1The American television series of The Handmaid’s Tale by Bruce Miller just began airing in April 2017, in Canada on the Bravo network. The tv series is acclaimed as a visually impressive and an emotionally suspenseful drama representing the best of what television can offer. Elisabeth Moss, in the role of Offred, expresses her innermost thoughts in voice-over in assertion of rebellion against the totalitarian control and distortions of the regime. From the beginning as a viewer I felt that the novel had been restored to life.

The discussions about The Handmaid’s Tale continue in various media, usually revolving its relevance in the Age of Trump. But some of the tangential issues are fascinating too. For me it’s the revival of challenges to Atwood’s feminism as she continues a decades-long resistance against being called a feminist. An article in Jezebel recently challenged Atwood’s view that women’s rights are human rights. The Jezebel piece went on to query how Elisabeth Moss could belong to Scientology while portraying a woman living under oppression. Moss has refused to talk about the negative aspects of her religion, with the allegations of forced abortions, confinements, and various accounts of physical and sexual abuse.

Again, memories of old controversies return. It was in 1988 that I reviewed Russell Miller’s critical, though popular and unauthorized, biography of Scientology’s founder, Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard. At the time I wondered whether the religion would survive the founder’s death but here it is, still with us, and still the subject of movies and articles and investigations. Atwood’s feminism and Moss’s religion are versions of the old question of whether a bad person can produce good art. Or of literature and belief: What’s the fit between the worldview of the text and its author’s beliefs? In the Church it was the Donatist controversy: Is the Sacrament still efficacious when received from the hands of an unworthy priest? In some ways contemporary celebrity culture, which reveals all about about any public figure, augments the problem. The answer, too, may be an old one. As D. H. Lawrence said: “Never trust the teller, trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.” Fascinating, recurring, and age-old questions.



Running A Religious Studies Tutorial

Alissa Droog
MA Student
School of Religion


Teaching is a creative enterprise, and if there’s one thing I learned about it this year, it’s that you have to be willing to try a variety of methods that may or may not work. This year I had the opportunity to run a tutorial for RELS 161 Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture. Students were introduced to topics like defining religion, religion and modernity, fundamentalism, new atheism, ritual studies and new religious movements and I, having a more traditional education in Christian thought and culture, learned along with them.

The most valuable learning experience from teaching this tutorial was about how to nurture an environment for discussion in which students felt comfortable participating. When I started the tutorial in September with a couple of discussion questions, I was met with nervous glances and the “don’t pick me” look. As a result, I had to scale back on the amount of discussion I planned in my tutorials and slowly added it back in when my students were ready.

obi-canuelIn my final tutorial, I am happy to report that we had a semi-structured discussion which my students largely led for 45 minutes. The topic that week was new religious movements and we debated whether members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster should be allowed to wear a colander on their head for official photographs. The discussion ended up going for 20 minutes and I had to cut it off so we could move on. It was amazing to see how far my students had come. They took turns, they didn’t talk to me but to each other and came up with some strong arguments for and against the colander. While that discussion may have been a lucky moment, I’d like to believe that it was the result of a variety of strategies that I tried to create an inviting classroom for discussion.

With that said, here are some of the teaching strategies I used to invite discussion:

  1. Making participation count: I made discussion participation worth almost half of my students’ tutorial participation grade. As students left tutorial each week, they reminded me if they had participated in discussion and I marked it down on an attendance sheet. This created accountability for the students to speak.
  2. Talk to your neighbour first: Before starting a whole class discussion, I asked students to discuss the question with their neighbours. This allowed students to share their ideas in a low-risk setting. It also developed and validated their thoughts, making it easier to share them with the class when I opened the question to the whole group.
  3. Brainstorms: I used brainstorms to get my students to think of the key terms and arguments for different course readings. I would only explain a key term once it had been added to the brainstorm so the onus was on the students for doing their readings and adding to the discussion. Adding a key term to a list is also an easy way to participate.
  4. Group Activities: These can take some time to organize, but the photo below shows the setup for a group activity that I ran one day. I created 5 charts with key terms and discussion questions on topics we covered that week. Each group got about 5 minutes to fill in as much as they could on the chart before passing it to the next table. I spent each 5-minute increment with a different group which allowed me to answer questions and gauge how well the students knew the material.




Breaking Out Of The Guild

Dr. William Morrow
School of Religion

9780802868657My new book on biblical law has just been published: An Introduction to Biblical Law (Eerdmans). This was my first comprehensive effort to write something in my field for people who don’t belong to the guild, i.e., for more than “the twenty-five people in the world who care.”Actually, if you are schooled to the point of becoming a creature of the academy, it can be pretty hard to break out of the guild.

That insight struck me forcibly after recently giving a public lecture on the nature of the Islamic State. I used a number of theories current in the academic study of religion and violence to explain what I thought was going on. My audience, however, was not particularly interested in the theoretical perspectives I used. Q &A quickly moved to discussion of the current military and social challenges posed by ISIS. I came away from that experience wondering about the connection between scholarship and the needs of a general readership or public.

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For example, in Religious Studies we tend to spend a lot of time agonizing about the definition of religion—or whether there is one. But, I don’t think my audience cared very much for such nuances. In fact, I am sure they were confident they knew what religion was; if they didn’t like the religious vision of ISIS, they knew why. In part, I think that might be a function of the fact that I was addressing something of immediate concern. That’s one of the reasons why I prefer to discuss historical events rather than current events in my course on “Religion and Violence.” Time gives a certain kind of distance that allows for reflection and theorizing. Nevertheless, we scholars in religious studies have an obligation to speak to the publics that don’t belong to the guild.

I have undertaken that commitment in writing my new book. I am not sure what the experts will say about it, but I hope it says something to a public that needs to know how the knowledge we create can benefit them.



Dr. Ian Alexander Cuthbertson
Postdoctoral Fellow
Adjunct Assistant Professor
School of Religion

The term ‘religion’, as James Miller has pointed out on this blog, is inescapably tied to power. But decisions as to what counts as religion have consequences. These decisions cause some groups to become eligible for tax-exempt status (but not others) and some individuals benefit from constitutional protections of religious freedom (but not others).

Religious Studies presents itself as a neutral scientific investigation of a particular object of study: religion. Yet in grouping some individuals, practices, and institutions under the label ‘religion’ while excluding others, we scholars participate in a normative project. We adjudicate. We help determine which individuals and institutions merit the label ‘religion’ and which do not. In other words, the academic study of religion involves a process of religionization.

Religionization is perhaps unavoidable. I religionize each time I include a particular object, practice, or institutiojn in my syllabi. But I hope I have been successful in reframing the guiding question in my courses away from ‘what is religion?’ and toward ‘why does this count as religion?’ and its corollary, ‘why doesn’t this?’


Teaching in an Age of Islamophobia

Dr. Brett Potter
Adjunct Professor
School of Religion

Last month, a Canadian university student walked into a mosque in Quebec City and gunned down six innocent people – critically wounding five more – who had simply been there to pray. This horrific event in a place of worship followed a grim week where the United States government issued a travel ban against seven Muslim-majority countries, a decision widely condemned as religious discrimination and resulting in countless stories of mistreatment, confusion, and fear. The American Academy of Religion’s official statement on the “Muslim ban” points out the way this policy “poisons the public’s understanding of Islam in particular and religion in general.” The fact is that many people in North America, including parts of Canada, have little understanding or experience of Islam, which creates an opening for fear-based distortions and mischaracterizations – in short, for the rising tide of Islamophobia which has resulted in escalating violence, threats, and assaults against Muslims in recent years in both the U.S. and Canada.

Such stories of xenophobia, exclusion, and violence against religious minorities, particularly Muslims, are uncomfortably close to home. Especially in our generally tolerant and pluralistic Canadian context, we find these events shocking and surprising. One thing they ought to remind us of, though, is just how important teaching and learning about religion is, especially for university students. It is not too much of a stretch to say that education – learning how to think – is the best countermeasure against propaganda, which tells you what to think. A university course in world religions offers the opportunity to correct misperceptions and allow students of whatever religious or non-religious background to engage with complex spiritual traditions like Islam from a non-reductive, non-ideologically driven perspective. Religious studies is the polar opposite of the online propaganda that has “radicalized” white nationalist killers like Dylann Roof and Alexander Bissonnette to enact terrible acts of violence on faith communities – it opens up questions rather than closing young minds.

In a media-saturated world where misunderstandings, inflammatory rhetoric, and distortions of truth are ubiquitous, teaching about the diverse array of global religious traditions is thus itself a subversive act – cultivating knowledge instead of ignorance, critical engagement instead of sound bites. Exploring religion from an inclusive, integrative, yet critically rigorous perspective works against ideologies of nativism and xenophobia by exposing students to differing points of view and alternative narratives – in short, to diversity rather than narrow-mindedness.

I would even go so far as to say that the academic study of religion also helps cultivate empathy and understanding, two qualities seemingly in short supply in 2017 but desperately needed in a political situation marked by fear and suspicion. In the Religion and Social Ethics course I taught at Queen’s this past fall, we took as a central image the figure of the stranger. Hospitality to the stranger or alien is a theme common to all major religious traditions – from the Jewish imperative to treat the stranger with respect since the Hebrew people were once themselves “strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33-34) to the Buddhist emphasis on kindness and welcome to all, regardless of class or creed. Though in practice religions can and certainly have become dangerously exclusive – trading in hospitality for hostility – the majority of religious communities hold out the ideal of embracing the other, not harming them, as a central ethical tenet.

Religious studies as a discipline does not ask students to become religious, or to choose a particular religious tradition or community; it focuses on context and change rather than doctrine and law. Yet at its best, religious studies, much like the belief systems it investigates, encourages open-mindedness and hospitality, especially to the “stranger” who may act or believe differently. I have been have fortunate to have students ranging from committed atheists to just about every religious orientation – Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Mormon – a benefit of teaching in diverse Southern Ontario. Teaching and learning about religion is a means to a deeper understanding of why the world is the way it is, and why people live, love, and pray the way they do. This understanding, paired with empathy and open-mindedness, helps cultivate students of any or no faith who are not easily swayed by ideologies of hate and prejudice.

Religious Cultures and the Elusive Secular School

David Emory
MA Education and Society, McGill University


Secularism, when considered in relation to education, seems to be one of those terms that means completely different things depending on who you are talking to. To some, it represents the idea that schools can be open places, neither favouring nor disregarding any one specific faith. To others, it is equated with atheism or even represents a threat to all religion, not just in public spaces, but personally. Again, to others, it is the absolute removal of all spiritual elements from learning and schools. Many academics have worked to explore this concept in relation to the modern, western world but in spite of the growing library of academic writing and research on secularism, the concept itself remains elusive to many Canadian teachers. Speaking from experience as a substitute teacher in several public schools in suburban Montreal and a student teacher in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, I can attest to a wide variety of interpretations and understandings of secularism. In Quebec, public schools are considered to be secular spaces where students’ guaranteed rights to freedom of religion are respected.

15227969_10153901384021640_1258036755_nNo one religion is meant to be privileged above any others, but it is still considered important that students are exposed to the different tenants of various world religions and spiritual perspectives. Religion is not to be removed from the curriculum, but explored from a neutral stance. The document that governs (for lack of a better word) a teacher’s approach to religion and spirituality in the school is the ERC (Ethics and Religious Cultures) program, which expects teachers to “be discreet and respectful, and to not promote their own beliefs and points of view.” The three competencies of this program are that students reflect on ethical questions, demonstrate an understanding of the phenomenon of religion, and engage in dialogue. Teachers are expected to step away from their own religious perspectives when teaching any subject area, but religion is not to be absent from schools in Quebec. It is to be explored and reflected upon.

Even with our professional obligations towards the ERC program, many of the teachers that I have spoken with seem to skip over the second competency and focus primarily on the first and third in the small bloc devoted to ERC each week. In some cases this is an act of rebellion from a teacher of the old guard, still clinging, however weakly, to the catholic or protestant school system that they grew up and were trained in. For the most part, however, I do not believe this to be the reason why religious cultures are ignored. One of the justifications for the religious cultures aspect being often left out is that there is a concern for misrepresentation. Teachers are afraid to discuss something like religion, particularly a religion that is not their own, for fear that they will misinform their students, and many opt to avoid the topic altogether rather than risk making a mistake. Another reason for its omission is that religion might seem to come with the potential for controversy. I do not know if this is related to schools being secular spaces, coupled with a misunderstanding that secularism = no religion, but it’s very possible that this idea is looming over the hesitation. In some cases, the degree to which religious cultures are explored is directly related to the diversity of the school population. In a homogeneous community, some teachers are less likely to explore different religious cultures simply because it seems less relevant to their student population.

Having a document that outlines expectations towards religion in relation to secular schools puts Quebec a step above many other provinces, where schools are secular in that religion is absent from the curriculum or even avoided outside of, in some cases, an optional world religions course. Much of the confusion over secularism in Quebec schools might come from the lack of clarity towards it in other provincial curriculums, and a simple lack of exploration on behalf of the teacher, but in spite of the existence of a document that emphasizes the understanding of religion without privileging it, there is a struggle to foster such an environment in many Quebec schools.




Teaching Religion Through Bollywood Horror Films

Dr. Aditi Sen 


As a horror film aficionado, I have often wondered if Indian horror films, particularly, successful Bollywood films, could be used as a source for teaching Hinduism. Horror films are rich in themes like mythology, witchcraft, folklore, and it can even help open dialogues about issues like secularism versus sectarianism, western education versus traditional knowledge, and the conflict between religion and science.

purana-mandir-horror-vintage-bollywood-poster-1First, I will very briefly trace the history of horror cinema in Bollywood, and then focus on a few horror films that I consider to be excellent texts for teaching Hinduism.

How do we define horror cinema? Here, I find Noel Carroll’s definition, where he categorically differentiates between natural and art horror, to be useful.[1] In this case, the presence of the supernatural qualifies as a horror film. I will focus on monster flicks and films about evil spirits and witches, a genre that only became popular in Bollywood in the 80s. Before the 80s, horror was not even a recognized genre. There were scary films, but they were mostly murder mysteries and suspense thrillers. These films often had spooky content, but there was always a rational explanation for the supposedly supernatural events. In fact, the protagonist was almost always a man of science who investigated the inexplicable occurrences and solved a mystery. In fact, a very common dialogue that appears in most horror films is, “How can you believe in ghosts when you are educated?” In films, believing in ghosts has always been viewed as a sign of ignorance and lack of education. It is only natural that in the Nehruvian era of nation building the belief in the supernatural was seen as a hindrance to progress, and the film industry reflected that mindset.



So, what changed in the late 70s and 80s? The answer is neither simple nor straightforward. First of all, films like The Exorcist, Omen, and Evil Dead, did extremely well at the Box Office. These films included themes that Indians could easily relate to. Specifically, the idea of possession appealed to the audience. There are many Indian films on possession, but let me expand on two films. Gehrayee (Depth, 1981) is an excellent documentation of different types of exorcisms, and the continuous struggle between traditional knowledge and modern medicine. Another film on possession called Bhoot (Ghost, 2003) takes place in an apartment in Mumbai, thereby making possession commonplace and an urban event. Both the films explore folk shamanistic traditions, black magic, and also have an engaging storyline.

Another reason for the popularity of horror films is put forward by Valentina Vitali who maintains that the late 70s and 80s were a very difficult time for the nation. India witnessed the emergency, followed by tensions rising in Punjab, which eventually led to Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, followed by the retaliation against the Sikhs. Vitali points out that horror films helped people cope with that stress, because the population increasingly felt that they had lost control of their lives and their surroundings.[1]

Horror films are also inherently subversive in nature. They often give voice to the ones who have been ignored by mainstream politics and religion. Priests are replaced by shamans, folk traditions replace yajnas, and exorcism replaces science. These films provide a platform for discussing these paradoxes. For example, in Vikram Bhatt’s Haunted (2011) the evil spirit is a Brahmin and only a Sufi fakir knows the way of dealing with him. This film is also a very rich resource for studying secularism, and how Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity find a common ground for fighting evil through compassion.

Horror films are an untapped resource that can be a very useful tool in Religious Studies. My favorite films for teaching apart from the ones I have mentioned are Purana Mandir (Old Temple),Veerana (Deserted) Raaz (Secret), Raaz 3, 13B, Raat (Night), and Ek Thi Daayan (There was once a witch).



[1] Vitali, Valentina. “The Evil I: Realism and Scopophilia in the Horror Films of Ramsay Brothers. In Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood: The Many Forms of Hindi Cinema, ed. Rachel Dwyer and Jerry Pinto, 77-101. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011.

[1] Carroll Noel, The Philosophy of Horror, 12, New York, Routledge, 1990.