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Published: October 1, 2019

Luther and the Horror Film

I ran into an odd pattern a few years ago. It began one October when I was watching a few old scary movies from the 1930s. I noticed an actor named Irving Pichel—he played a homicidal psychopath in Murder by the Clock and the vampire’s assistant in Dracula’s Daughter. The name seemed vaguely familiar. When I looked him up I was rather shocked—this relatively minor horror actor went on to direct what is probably the greatest film biography of Blessed Martin Luther, the classic 1953 Martin Luther film. (In that film, Pichel also played the Lutheran theologian John Bugenhagen—a long way from Dracula’s daughter’s assistant!)

Then it occurred to me that Joseph Fiennes, who played Luther in the 2003 film (shortly after helping to snatch the Oscar away from Saving Private Ryan by starring in Shakespeare in Love), had gone on to play a semi-evil Roman Catholic priest in American Horror Story: Asylum. (Luther haters would probably see those two roles as practically identical!) At this point I was really intrigued. How many connections between Luther films and horror films are there?

The answer turns out to be—almost beyond counting. The Luther in the 1953 film, Niall McGinnis, played a Satanist priest in Night of the Demon (aka Curse of the Demon), one of the greatest horror films ever made. Stacy Keach, the Luther in the American Film Theater version of John Osborne’s play, also appeared in The Man with the Screaming Brain (not one of the greatest horror films ever made). Jonathan Pryce, Luther in Martin Luther, Heretic, played Mister Dark in Something Wicked this Way Comes. Night/Curse of the Demon also featured Maurice Denham as an ill-fated professor. Denham played Luther’s spiritual father von Staupitz in not one, but two films (the American Film Theater Production and Martin Luther, Heretic). Bruno Ganz took on the Staupitz role in the 2003 film—a few decades after he played Jonathan Harker in Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu.

Tetzel, Luther’s arch-foe, was played in 2003 by Alfred Molina (who was also in Species), in the American Film Theater production by Hugh Griffith (who also was in the Dr. Phibes movies), and in Martin Luther, Heretic by Clive Swift (who played in a version of Dr Jekyll and Mister Hyde). Perhaps most epic of all, Max Schreck, the vampire in the 1922 version of Nosferatu (perhaps the greatest horror film of all time) played Luther’s opponent Alexander in the 1928 silent German film Martin Luther. (And weirdest, perhaps, is Leon Askin—General Burkhalter from Hogan’s Heroes. He played Luther on Steve Allen’s Meeting of the Minds, and also appeared as Herr Waldmann in Young Frankenstein).

The most recent film, Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World, is narrated by Hugh Bonneville, who played in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. The Luther, Padriac Delaney, acted in Dark Touch.

And…finally…Rosemary’s husband in Rosemary’s Baby is an actor who serves as Albert Finney’s understudy in the Broadway production of John Osborne’s Luther. (And I will now resist the temptation to look up any horror movies that Albert Finney may have been in!)
Okay…well, all that is kinda weird. But does it mean anything? Or is it all just random coincidence?

Actually, in a world controlled by an almighty God, there probably are no random coincidences. So what possible message could this strange interlocking of Luther cinema and horror cinema have for us?
Remember what day the Reformation began? October 31, 1517! The date that we call Halloween! A date when we tend to think about spooky movies. But it’s also the date when Blessed Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Luther, of course, was not dealing with vampires and werewolves. He was dealing with a church that had gone astray on the issue of forgiveness. People were encouraged to look to the relics of the saints rather than the merits of Christ for their hope. All Saints Day was when the veneration of relics reached its high point—and the day before All Saints is All Hallow’s Eve, i.e., Halloween. So the interchange between Luther film and horror film is a reminder of the day when the Reformation was born—the day that Luther posted his defense of Christ as our source of hope.

Even more importantly, this cinematic link reminds us of one of the major themes in Luther’s teaching: the defeat of the Devil. Jesus saves us by dying for our sins on the cross—He also saves us by crushing the Devil’s power. We are guilty—our souls are stained with sin. But we aren’t just guilty—we’re also enslaved. We are captives of the Devil. Christ’s task is to wash away our sins…but also to liberate us from the Devil. The two tasks are related—after all, it’s sin that gives the Devil power over us. By taking away our sins, Jesus breaks the Devil’s power.

The signature Lutheran hymn is, of course, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” (also known as “The Theme From Davey and Goliath”). Interestingly, this hymn is not about sin and guilt, important as those concepts are in Lutheranism. No, it’s about the world being under the Devil’s power…how we need a champion to defeat the Devil for us…how Christ comes to be that champion…how His victory is our victory. Lutheranism, then, is not about forgiveness alone, but also about the crucified Christ breaking Satan’s power through His cross.

So the cross-fertilization between Luther cinema and horror cinema reminds us of a great Lutheran belief: the Evil One has been defeated.
It’s odd that in this same month we have the birthday of Lutheranism and a scary holiday. But maybe it’s not so odd after all. The scary holiday reminds us that evil forces are afoot; and the Lutheran birthday reminds us that Jesus has triumphed over evil!

God loves you and so do I!
Pastor David W. Anglin

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