When Sean Hall talks about symbols in This Means This This Means That he reflects on how meaning is tied to them: In one case, he calls to mind the swastika, a symbol that once stood for goodness, but was later perverted (and flipped) for use by the Nazi party during WWII. Although still used in India, across Europe and the Americas it’s easy to see why the swastika is a no-go in terms of using symbols.
In less severe ways, this idea is mimicked in horror film, where religious imagery is often used to degrade, shock, or insult audiences and/or characters. Surely one cannot forget the scene in The Exorcist where the possessed girl Regan violently masturbates with a bloody cross:
(Viewer Discretion Advised)
While less vulgar as the above scene, the cross is also often inverted in horror film. The Petrine Cross (or the Cross of Saint Peter), in Christianity is actually a religious symbol, not an anti-religious one. But horror film, novels, television and other culture likens it to Satanism, demons, animal (and human) sacrifice, and anti-Christian doctrine. This concept in and of itself is so pervasive anymore, one could argue more people consider the Petrine Cross anti-Christian than Christian in nature.
Of course, the perversion of religious symbols is not restricted to Christianity, although other religious issues often go past the mere idea of subverting religious iconography and often border on being culturally and racially offensive. Two especially popular concepts of this can be seen in the handling of Native American religion and Haitian Voodoo in horror.
Going past the more obvious choices of Pet Semetery and Poltergeist, we have The Amityville Horror, which goes beyond being casually problematic in its creation and story (by incorporating actual murders and being marketed as a true story), but goes one step further by implying these murders and the subsequent hauntings are caused by mystical possession in the form of crazed Native American spirits. And if we are to be truthful, like the Petrine Cross, what does the idea of Native Burial Ground signify to you: Years and years of subjugation of the Native Americans whose holy grounds (and otherwise) have been forcibly taken, or evil curses plaguing innocent (and often white) families?
I think you know what the answer to that question really is.
Haitian and Louisianan Voodoo have received much the same treatment: Voodoo is referenced in everything from children’s horror series Goosebumps and kids movies like My Teacher Ate My Homework to the popular horror film (or at least popular enough to always be on television) The Skeleton Key, where voodoo ideals, symbols, and concepts are appropriated to have an evil couple take over the body of Kate Hudson. There are also voodoo dolls in books by Dean Koontz, voodoo zombies in Wes Craven movies, and voodoo priestesses in American Horror Story: Coven. Despite all this, it is safe to say, most of the people viewing these movies probably have no real concept of Voodoo as a religious practice. Instead, voodoo is a catch-all for exotic and ethnic flavored evil.
Using powerful, religious symbols can make a statement in horror–or any–film. Which is undoubtedly why it is so popular, and why it works: But also why it can be offensive and even dangerous.