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10 Movie and TV Killers with a Twisted Religious Justification – TheFantasyTimes

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By Jitin Gambhir

10 Movie and TV Killers with a Twisted Religious Justification



Throughout history, numerous killers have been inspired by religion in their heinous crimes. David Berkowitz, also known as “Son of Sam,” was a confused individual whose religious beliefs involved Satanism, Christianity, and witchcraft. Peter Sutcliffe, also known as “The Yorkshire Ripper,” claimed that God had instructed him to kill at least 13 women. Doomsday cults around the world have also incited their followers to commit suicide, but none have been as infamous as Jim Jones, who led over 900 people to their deaths in a mass murder-suicide in 1978.

This phenomenon has been going on since the time of the Crusades and continues to this day. In movies and TV shows, we see characters who justify their sins with their own twisted ideas of what they think their god is instructing them to do. Here are 10 examples:

1. The Night of the Hunter (1955) – Reverend Harry Powell
Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of Reverend Harry Powell in Charles Laughton’s 1955 noir classic, The Night of the Hunter, set the bar high for terrifying self-proclaimed preachers. His LOVE/HATE tattoos have reached iconic status all on their own. Powell is a serial killer who, upon his release from prison, sets out to find money hidden by his former cellmate. He tracks down the executed man’s widow and seduces her and the entire town with a sensuality that verges on creepiness, all while playing up the religious angle.

2. Justified – Boyd Crowder
Walton Goggins plays Boyd Crowder, a rocket-happy white supremacist who finds God in prison after being shot by his nemesis, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. Boyd is part of a notorious family crime syndicate in Kentucky. Although he doesn’t immediately go back to a life of crime, he assembles a ragtag band of like-minded, sort of born-again ex-cons, and they begin blowing up backwoods meth labs in the name of the Lord.

3. Pulp Fiction (1994) – Jules Winnfield
Samuel L. Jackson plays Jules Winnfield, a hitman with a penchant for screaming some of the scariest bits of the Old Testament at his terrified prospective victims just before pulling the trigger. After a hidden gunman has a whole round’s worth of opportunity to kill both Jules and his partner Vincent Vega, Jules decides that his survival could only be due to divine intervention, and he resolves to give up on murder-for-hire.

4. Se7en (1995) – John Doe
The biblical concept of the seven deadly sins is the basis for David Fincher’s 1995 thriller Se7en. The killer seems to be picking his victims based on their sins of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. The killer turns out to be John Doe, a man who believes he is doing God’s work by ridding the world of terrible sinners.

5. Children of the Corn (1984) – The Children
The children of Gatlin, Nebraska turn to a new god, “He Who Walks Behind the Rows,” who impels them to massacre the community’s grownups. The cult might have gone on to operate with impunity but for the accidental arrival of Vicky and Burt, who stumble into Gatlin by accident on their way to Seattle.

6. Midnight Mass (2021) – Father Paul
Mike Flanagan’s Netflix horror miniseries is set on Crockett Island, a tiny, struggling fishing village hoping for revitalization with the arrival of a young Catholic priest. Strange happenings are on the rise, including the mass deaths of feral cats on a nearby island, the seemingly miraculous healing of a wheelchair-bound teen, and the collapse, death, and resurrection of Father Hill. Things start to get weird when Hill reveals that he’s actually the monsignor, who regained his youth during an encounter with something during a sandstorm on his trip, something which could have been an angel or a demon.

7. Red State (2011) – Pastor Cooper
Members of the Five Points Trinity Church practice a conservative form of religion that is indistinguishable from out-and-out hatred, kidnapping, preaching at, and then ritually murdering those they believe to be sinners. A Waco-style standoff ensues after the leader, Pastor Cooper, attempts to blackmail the local sheriff by threatening to tell his wife of his closeted homosexuality.

8. The Sacrament (2013) – Father
Ti West’s found-footage horror film is inspired by the horrific true story of the Jonestown Massacre. A couple of VICE journalists head to a religious commune to film a documentary, but they are also on the lookout for the sister of a colleague who has joined the group. The Jim Jones character is known as Father, which is never really a good sign in terms of religion. Father seems welcoming at first, but soon he begins to exert his control over the residents.

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9. Hannibal (2013) – Francis Dolarhyde
Francis Dolarhyde, also known as “The Tooth Fairy,” is a character in Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon and was portrayed by Richard Armitage in the TV series Hannibal. Dolarhyde is obsessed with the William Blake painting “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun” and believes that he is becoming the dragon. He kills families and bites their victims’ bodies to achieve “becoming.”

10. The Stand (1994) – Randall Flagg
Randall Flagg is a character in Stephen King’s novel The Stand and was portrayed by Jamey Sheridan in the 1994 TV miniseries adaptation. Flagg is a demonic figure who is the embodiment of evil in the novel. He manipulates events to try to bring about the apocalypse and is worshipped by a cult called the “Followers of Flagg.”

In conclusion, these examples show that religion can be twisted and used as a justification for heinous crimes. It is important to remember that true faith does not condone violence or murder.

History has unfortunately shown us that a lot of killers have taken an oddly religious route as inspiration for their dastardly deeds. David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”) had some very confused religious leanings involving Satanism, Christianity, and witchcraft. Peter Sutcliffe (“The Yorkshire Ripper”) claimed to have been instructed by God to kill at least 13 women. There are doomsday cults around the world that have incited followers to suicide, although none as famous as Jim Jones, who led his followers to one of the worst mass murder-suicides in history, resulting in the deaths of over 900 people in 1978.

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It’s been going on since the Crusades and still goes on today: people killing in the name of religion. Here are 10 movie and TV killers who justify their sins with their own twisted ideas of what they think their god is instructing them to do.


The Night of the Hunter (1955) – Reverend Harry Powell

Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter
United Artists

Robert Mitchum set the bar high for portrayals of terrifying self-professed preachers as the Reverend Harry Powell in Charles Laughton’s 1955 noir classic, The Night of the Hunterwith the LOVE/HATE tattoos adorning his knuckles having reached icon status all on their own. Along with being a so-called man of the cloth, he’s a serial killer, who, upon his release from prison, sets out to find money hidden by his former cellmate, more of an accidental killer who was nonetheless hanged for his crimes. Powell tracks down the executed man’s widow, Willa (Shelley Winters), seducing not just her but the whole town with a sensuality that verges on creepiness.

He plays up the religious angle, refusing to consummate their marriage, but Willa overhears conversations between Powell and her children that make her realize that Powell is only after one thing, and it isn’t her salvation. Mitchum’s version of the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” is every bit as sinister as Omar in The Wiretrolling the streets of Baltimore with a sawed-off shotgun whistling The Farmer in the Dell.

Justified – Boyd Crowder

Walton Goggins in Justified
FX Network

On Western crime drama JustifiedWalton Goggins is magnificent as Boyd Crowder, a rocket-happy white supremacist who finds God in prison after being shot by his nemesis, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant). Boyd is part of a notorious family crime syndicate in Kentucky, and although he doesn’t immediately go back to the particular life of crime, he assembles a ragtag band of line-minded, sort of born again ex-cons, and they begin blowing up backwoods’ meth labs in the name of the Lord.

Boyd is a little bit like the Reverend Harry Powell (see above), a charismatic charmer with a knack for picking and choosing the Bible verses that support his less-than-Biblical acts.

Pulp Fiction (1994) – Jules Winnfield

Samuel L. Jackson as Jules in Pulp Fiction
Miramax Films

In Pulp FictionSamuel L. Jackson played a career-defining role as Jules Winnfield, a hitman with a penchant for screaming some of the scariest bits of the Old Testament at his terrified prospective victims just before pulling the trigger. Now, there is a lot about righteous vengeance in the Old Testament, it’s true. Although it’s likely that the text wasn’t initially meant to justify the career of a professional assassin.

However, after a hidden gunman has a whole round’s worth of opportunity to kill both Jules and his partner Vincent Vega (John Travolta), Jules decides that his survival could only be due to divine intervention, and he resolves to give up on murder-for-hire. (Hot tip: Director Quentin Tarantino went ahead and jazzed up Jules’ infamous Bible quote, the real text from Ezekiel 25:17 has the same feel, but perhaps isn’t quite as much fun to shout.)

Related: The 10 Deadliest Hitmen in Movies, Ranked

Se7en (1995) – John Doe

Kevin Spacey in Seven
New Line Cinema

David Fincher’s 1995 thriller Se7en took the biblical concept of the seven deadly sins and spun a dark and devious tale of two detectives (Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt) hunting a killer who seems to be picking his victims based on their crimes of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. We know this from the beginning, as in the midst of these elaborately gruesome crimes, the killer rather helpfully writes the particular sin of each victim at the crime scene (the only slightly heavy-handed part of this otherwise grimly tangled film).

The killer turns out to be John Doe, played with meek menace by Kevin Spacey, a man who believes he is doing God’s work by ridding the world of terrible sinners, and by perpetrating the killings in a flamboyant enough manner as to garner media attention about the terrible state of the world. It’s a grim, almost medieval story about evil, with one of the best twist endings ever to grace the silver screen.

Children of the Corn (1984) – The Children

children in a field in Children of the Corn
New World Pictures

The people of Gatlin, Nebraska used to pray for a successful harvest. One year, it doesn’t work, so the children of the farming community, led by Isaac and his sidekick Malachai, turn to a new god, one with the cheerful name of “He Who Walks Behind the Rows”, who impels the children to massacre the community’s grownups. The cult might have gone on to operate with impunity but for the accidental arrival of Vicky and Burt (Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton), who stumble into Gatlin by accident on their way to Seattle.

They also stumble across the last two innocent children in town, Sarah and Job, whom they battle to save from the bloodthirsty gang of indoctrinated kids. As with many cults, however, infighting leads to their downfall: Isaac kills Malachai, and Isaac dies when the good guys spray the cornfield with fuel and light the whole thing up.

Midnight Mass (2021) – Father Paul

Hamish Linklater as the priest Pruitt in Midnight Mass
Netflix

Mike Flanagan’s Netflix horror miniseries was the streaming event of fall 2021. The setting is Crockett Island, a tiny, struggling fishing village hoping for revitalization with the arrival of a young Catholic priest, who is ostensibly filling in for an aged monsignor on a mysterious trip to the Holy Land. Strange happenings are on the rise, including the mass deaths of feral cats on a nearby island, the seemingly miraculous healing of a wheelchair-bound teen, and the collapse, death, and resurrection of Father Hill (Hamish Linklater).

Things start to get weird when Hill reveals that he’s actually the monsignor, who regained his youth during an encounter with something during a sandstorm on his trip, something which could have been an angel or a demon. Each episode has a biblical title, and it shouldn’t be a spoiler that the final episode is “Revelation”.

Red State (2011) – Pastor Cooper

The pastor raises his arms in Red State
SModcast Pictures

Kevin Smith’s 2011 indie horror film is a little bit like if the killer in Seven had a whole church of like-minded friends. Members of the Five Points Trinity Church practice a conservative form of religion that is indistinguishable from out-and-out hatred, kidnapping, preaching at, and then ritually murdering those they believe to be sinners.

A Waco-style standoff ensues after the leader, Pastor Cooper (Michael Parks) attempts to blackmail the local sheriff (Stephen Root) by threatening to tell his wife of his closeted homosexuality. If all this feels a little too close to reality, you’re not the only one: the infamously hate-filled Westboro Baptist Church protested the film’s premierebelieving that the church in the film was based on their own.

The Sacrament (2013) – Father

Gene Jones holds a man's head in The Sacrament
Magnolia Pictures

Inspired by the horrific true story of the Jonestown Massacre, Ti West managed to take one of the scariest real-life news events and make it even scarier as a found-footage horror film in 2013. West’s version sees a couple of VICE journalists heading to a religious commune to film a documentary, although they are also on the lookout for the sister of a colleague who has joined the group. The Jim Jones character is known as Father (played by Gene Jones), which is never really a good sign in terms of religion. Father seems welcoming at first, and the commune residents seem happy enough, but soon enough Father begins to exert his will in unpleasant ways.

It isn’t long before the filmmakers realize (too late, of course) what they’ve stumbled into: a doomsday cult led by a dangerous egomaniac who is using religion for his own purposes. They find out what they should have known from the start, that this is not going to end well.

Related: Best Serial Killer Movies Based on or Inspired by True Stories

Saint Maud (2019) – Maud

Morfydd Clark in Saint Maud
StudioCanal UK

There’s a special kind of zealot to be found in a recent religious convert, as Rose Glass’s stunning debut film proves. Morfydd Clark is a devout hospice nurse named Maud with a dark past, caring for a dying woman named Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) whose lifestyle she doesn’t exactly approve of. After an initial burgeoning friendship, Amanda and her Bohemian friends begin to mock Maud’s faith, and she is eventually fired.

Maud increasingly leans into an antiquated version of Catholicism, believing that God is telling her she needs to show her faith, putting thumbtacks in her shoes, mortifying the flesh. Maud returns to confront Amanda with disastrous consequences, and the film’s final split-second will make you wonder if Maud’s faith was all in vain.

The X-Files

The substitute teacher in The X Files
Fox

Go back to the second season of The X-Filesepisode 14, and you’ll find The Hand That Hurtswhich spoofs the Satanic panic of the 1980s. A high schooler has been murdered, and the locals are sure there’s a satanic cult at work. Turns out, they’re right, and the cult members all conveniently work at the local high school, and they believe that they’ve been lax in their religious duties of late.

A demonic substitute teacher turns out to have been responsible for the initial killing that brought the agents there in the first place, and is also responsible for letting the agents get away in the end.

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