The rise of Christian propaganda in indie horror

Posted by brilokuloj on Jun 25, 2024

As of June 24, 2024, the YouTube unfiction horror series Valle Verde has uploaded its third chapter. One of my friends took to discuss it in my Discord server, where they bemoaned that while the series was indeed one of the most interesting “fake spooky video game” series active on YouTube right now, it had also crested the peak of being undeniably Christian.

As a matter of fact, I had made the same complaint in the same server only half a year ago. I asked my friend if the series had somehow become more Christian in the meantime, and got confirmation that yes, somehow the series had jumped the bar it had already set.

I sat down on the couch and watched the latest installment. I was disappointed, but not surprised, to learn that my friend had made a massive understatement.

In this article, I take a dive into a worrying trend: what is with the trend of Christian propaganda in modern indie horror? What is it doing to us socially, and what are the long-term consequences of this going to look like?


For some context, let’s start with Valle Verde – it’s a “found footage” series created by Alluvium that covers gameplay footage of a lost PlayStation game from 1997. The “creepy but fictional video game” story has been around since the dawn of urban legends, but it’s picked up steam recently with hits like Petscop, a video series that threw off the typical “scary pre-existing game” shackles in favor of true originality. Valle Verde takes it a step further by depicting a game that almost looks playable.

Any amount of watching will show it’s not hard to see why it’s popular, even if it’s not your taste. Visually, it’s accomplished; perhaps at times a bit too modern to be mistakable for a true classic game, but it intentionally evokes familiar designs from the likes of The Misadventures of Tron Bonne, Studio Ghibli, and Animal Crossing. If this was a real game, it would have been a cult classic, covered on this blog many times over.

The series’ story, separate from the in-game one (if one even exists), is conveyed through a nonlinear series of gameplay clips. The in-universe Valle Verde is a game utilizing a specialized experimental peripheral device called the THBrain; this device comes with a keyboard that allows you to talk to characters in the game, and it might be the technology driving the game’s mysterious artificially-intelligent adaptive worlds (the main driving conflict of the series).

One of the most memorable scenes is a “spontaneous level generation” event wherein the main character travels through 7 hallways, each with their own thematic decor: cake and sweets; eyeballs; paintings and gold coins; bloody fetuses and surgical implements; record players that make you walk slower in their presence; statues cowering from a larger one; and, finally, mirrors.

It managed to go over my head the first time because I was too distracted by the effort put into the graphics, but it’s a quite heavy-handed seven deadly sins allusion, complete with lust being equated to abortion. The sequence even ends with the character crossing the threshold into a green field with angelic statues, where they encounter a giant cross.

Tumblr user dyke-donkey has far keener eyes and a better understanding of history than I, because without their analysis I wouldn’t have picked up on the underlying message of Greed; other than the gold coins, we are also shown a gallery of abstract and expressionist paintings by artists notably featured in the Nazi Party’s Degenerate Art exhibition. In the far back of the hallway is a dumpster with Titian’s Christ Carrying the Cross and Michelangelo’s David; the latter especially being not just a work of art historically beloved by Nazis for its stark whiteness, but repurposed by modern neo-Nazis for Fashwave, an aesthetic that repurposes Vaporwave’s originally ironic and critical usage of Roman marble busts.

There’s plenty of other eyebrow-raising moments in the series, such as a literal appearance from Jesus Christ Himself. But all of them have already been outdone by the entirety of the third episode.

Part 3 opens with a fighting game-style minigame against Isaac the robot. Isaac is crumpled on the floor and cannot be interacted with, but after a few seconds, the fight ends with the player having lost. The player gives up after two tries and departs for “Alamo”, a fog-filled empty grey map we’ve seen before; in Part 1, this map houses an encounter with a demon that attacks the player. This time around, the demon is back, but the player blocks it with the “compass” item – actually a rosary. It disappears, and in its place, flowers bloom.

The player now uses the compass to find light-up paths on the ground. These lead them to Morfelius Oraculum (literally, Morph Oracle), a… well, I don’t know how else to say it… a green-skinned, hook-nosed, magic-wielding goblin.

Look, I’m not here to talk about green-skinned Taako or any other accidental faux pas you can think of. I don’t go hunting for this kind of thing. I don’t think a stereotypical witch character like Gruntilda, who this character is obviously based on, is made out of any kind of deliberate malice – people copy things they see, and they frequently don’t know where those things started. But when you add this together with every single other thing this episode is about to drop on you, it has to be brought up. Bear with me here.

After Morfelius shows the player a confusing vision of a kaiju-type monster attacking Buenos Aires, the video cuts away to a new scene.

This time, the player is back in the town square, where the villagers stand on the sidelines wearing golden calf masks. The mayor and his assistants stand in the middle. They recite their own virtues: Knowledge, to break free of the chains of ignorance; Progress, to guarantee freedom, equality, and fraternity; Leadership, to lead the blind to a prosperous world.

The ritual commences, and they summon a golden, bull-headed deity. They present this deity with a sacrifice of Isaac, the robot child. The god rejects it and pulls Dr. Neetow into a steel cage, conveniently framed in a camera angle that makes it look like a Star of David, where Neetow burns alive in the most graphically violent scene in the series.

Let’s be clear and thorough about this one. A group of freemasons prays to a bull-headed false God and sacrifices their children. This is quite literally blood libel, the antisemitic conspiracy belief that Jews sacrifice Christian children in religious rituals. You might remember blood libel featuring as a topic in 2017’s political climate, when hate group QAnon came up with the theory that liberal celebrities were harvesting adrenochrome from Christian babies.

As an aside, this ritual is stated to take place on March 22, 1997, the same day in real life that the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide. The absolute best, most optimistic thing I can say is that this is in bad taste.

After an unrelated and less coherent series of events, the player enters an open area where they find the mayor again, standing in front of the church. He has a favor to ask you:

This old structure is barely holding on… It’s a true hazard to us all. Perhaps some supports will help it survive the passage of time. Hey… Wanna make some extra coinage? Could you install these inside the Church?

And then he gives you a mason’s square.

I am not kidding. The player now goes inside the church and, quite literally, inserts masonic imagery into the church.

Afterward, the priest has this to say:

Even though it was filled with unclean beasts and unholy smells… …The ark was able to carry eight people to salvation. The Truth still lies firm, here, upon the rock for all who seek it. Even though those who covet the wisdom of a Great Architect… …Can’t stand the humbleness of a simple Carpenter. This tribulation, too, shall pass.

A video clip plays of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen speaking about his intents to continue working for God even after he dies. The video ends.

Death of the author?

I’m not the only one to notice these themes. YouTube commenter Cooe gets into a bit of a fight with the creator:

@Cooe.: Sooooo much potential and amazing artistic and technical work wasted on such an absolutely fucking dogshit message… 🤦😞…

(That democracy, science, and secular education/the pursuit of knowledge & enlightenment are inherently evil and demonic/antithetical to god and that traditional Catholic extremist deliberate ignorance & subservience are how one becomes closer to god.)

There better be some kind of twist where god in this universe actually ends up being evil, but I really don’t see how that would square with the pro-democracy, freedom, & education secularists commiting literal ritual sacrifices to Moloch.

@-Alluvium-: You truly didn’t understand a single thing, did you. From your previous comment, I see that you have a very strange definition of “propaganda”. Saying that something is good or favorable, and another thing is bad, does not constitute propaganda, it’s simple discernment, If you are ignorant about the story of my people against the political mafia (left AND right) and the struggles of my country, that’s ok, but don’t let that ignorance come accompanied by violence, manage that anger and learn before spewing your echo-chamber opinions, not every country is your country, we also exist and our struggle might be entirely different.

Alluvium’s stance, in short, appears to be “only God is real” pseudo-centrism. While I’m sympathetic to his plea to not view his series from a USA-centric lens, he commits a form of cultural attribution fallacy by asserting that the implications of his work are somehow untouchable by other cultures, especially when he dabbles in such loaded imagery as the Freemasons and Heaven’s Gate.

Also, making a work of art to say that “one thing is good or favorable and another thing is bad” … is literally what propaganda is. It is the cut and dry definition of what propaganda is. I’m sorry, my head is going to explode.

Regardless, how am I supposed to accept that a series about the church being infiltrated by masonic imagery is not antisemitic propaganda? How is it that multiple viewers are coming to this conclusion independently, based on different scenes? I know fully well that immature viewers are capable of materializing hateful imagery out of nowhere, but this is the series that represents Lust as screaming abortions. If Valle Verde had anything compassionate to say, it has long since used up all of its chances to say it.

Moral guilt on the rise

So why are popular internet horror stories becoming more and more reliant on Christian theology and morality?

This phenomenon first became clear to me with the 2021 release of Mandela Catalogue, the YouTube series that was one of the first to popularize “analog horror” as we know it today. Its story is not necessarily pro- or anti-Christianity; it merely presents a fictional world where Christianity is indisputably real. However, even the very first video has this disclaimer:

Alex Kister and The Mandela Catalogue do not intend to offend or oppose any Christian beliefs.

Indeed, Mandela Catalogue has a sizeable Christian fanbase, who find the plot (Satan has overthrown God and created Hell on Earth) to be a tasteful use of horror that they can relate to.

In a more recent example, we can find “The Boiled One,” the story of a hazardous recording that infects anyone who watches it with a vision of the titular Boiled One, eventually leading to a quite callous depiction of locked-in syndrome. This entity is proposed to be demonic; there is a ritual listed to protect yourself against it, and it requires having a bible opened to Psalm 91:10.

(Incidentally, through researching for this article, I learned that The Boiled One is canonically supposed to be the demonic reincarnation of a real life Japanese war criminal from World War II. Are you fucking kidding me? This is “great” news for my upcoming related article about Asian fetishism in modern horror…)

What’s the big deal, though? Demons can be found in just about any work of fiction with even a slight supernatural or fantasy bend, and depending on how far you’re willing to stretch the definition of the word, they are present in most all major religions even beyond the Abrahamic. Yes, this is true, but I take issue specifically with the tendency to go back to Christian values as the method for the characters to protect themselves from harm.

Though I am agnostic, I am capable of enjoying stories about cultures and religious beliefs other than my own. But I am bothered by the tendency for these stories to present Christianity as verified physical fact, with absolutely no lead-in or implications for the greater setting, as if the viewer was expected to be Christian already. Christianity is treated with a veracity and respect, whereas cultural beliefs such as Algonquian folklore are merely pools of characters that can be drawn from for shock value. Not only that, but the nature of Christian belief in itself is the assertion that all other religions are false; there is no Christianity without assimilation.

Precedent

Let’s go even further back. In the early 2010s, an idea was born in the public consciousness that modern Christian angels are somehow watered down for the public masses. They were contrasted against “biblically accurate angels”, a modern invention inspired by the likes of ophanim (chariot wheels with eyes) and seraphim (six-winged angels). Indeed, the idea of a truly accurate angel has become a six-winged many-eyed wheel. I am sorry to let you know, if you didn’t know, that a Christian angel is just an ordinary man. They don’t even have wings.

I’m sure there was precedent even before 2010 for this fascination. Christianity has always been a factor in horror, after all, from The Exorcist to Dracula; it’s just a fact of life for most of Anglophone culture, whether I like it or not. But I would truly and genuinely blame the rise of it on Superwholock, a Tumblr fandom for 3 popular TV shows – most prominently Supernatural, a series featuring Christian angels and demons. I believe Supernatural is the reason why Tumblr gained a fixation on learning ways to artistically depict angels.

This social meme was so prevalent that even I fell for it as a teenager in 2013; I had multiple “angel” characters depicted as seraphim with wheels circling their heads, a confabulation from my mind alone. This, along with my following participation in the fandoms for OFF and Neon Genesis Evangelion (both series I still enjoy to this day that were not pro-Christianity, but their communities exposed me to these things), were enough to convince me that Christianity had enough of an occult appeal to be compatible with my lifestyle.

In 2014, I saw the release of Five Nights at Freddy’s, a true cultural reset in the form of a video game. Scott Cawthon is a deeply Christian man; he spoke in interviews of how he had lost faith in his religion after praying multiple times to God while his family suffered in poverty, but making the Five Nights franchise had shown him the way back onto the path. I was emotionally touched by this, and I did not recognize the absurdity of “God is real because I am making a lot of money off of my violent Chuck E Cheese video game.”

In 2015, I started going to church. It’s hard for me to look back on and understand, because I was never truly Christian and I knew even at the time that they would never have accepted me, but I had a lot of internalized guilt and shame – it became strings that were easy to pull me around by. I just couldn’t escape it, when I was surrounded by imagery of angels and Christ and demons and burning in Hell for all of eternity. Every week, I listened to the sermon and sung along with the hymns and was told how beautiful my singing voice was, and then I hid in the basement and washed dishes. I stayed out of sight.

I don’t want to present my unique situation as if it represents a broader societal danger. I was quite literally psychotic. But I know I’m far from the only one who’s been affected in this way – and if it was that easy for me and many others to get pipelined by media that accidentally promoted Christianity, what’s going to happen with the amount of horror media nowadays that wears its Christian morality as a badge of pride?

I know I can’t protect every teenager who happens to like watching creepy videos online. But I can at least start a critical discussion.

How to recognize it in the future

First off, let me preface this by saying that in the context of this article, I am referring to propaganda’s more restrictive definition – that is to say, political material that emotionally manipulates the viewer by presenting them with subjective facts and loaded language. Broadly, propaganda as a term merely refers to any material that promotes a certain ideology, which is something I believe is the right of even belief systems I disagree with. I chiefly take issue with selectively presenting falsified information to get a reaction out of the viewer.

It’s hard at the best of times to spot propaganda of this nature, especially when it puts in so much effort to obfuscate itself. I don’t believe the average Valle Verde watcher recognizes the themes, least of all the people excitedly posting about it on Tumblr. I don’t even know if Alluvium himself fully recognizes the neo-nazi messages he’s presented in his work, since he genuinely seems to believe he is a centrist.

Critical reading is a skill you can develop, however, and it doesn’t have to require throwing yourself in the deep end. Here are my tips for strengthening your critical lens:

  1. Nobody is immune to propaganda. Don’t let this turn you to despair or hypervigilance, but don’t let yourself grow comfortable in your friend groups either. If you have a trusted figure in your support network that you look to in order to scope out the “vibes” of a work first, even if that person is me, now is the time to dismantle that in your head. Everyone is vulnerable and we are all learning.
  2. A work of media that relies predominantly on evoking nostalgia is a razor’s edge away from a moral about conservatism. I know, it sucks shit and I’m sorry, but you have to keep it in mind every single time. If your life is anything like mine, I know things are a lot harder than they were when you were a kid; still, the answer is not to regress and retreat into a fantasy world, but to work together for a more bearable future.
  3. At every turn in a story, ask yourself: what is the message being presented here? What is the author trying to say? And who, in the story or in real life, benefits from this message? Ask this no matter what. Even the most incoherent “nonsense” story will have dynamics if it has characters and themes.
  4. Ask these where applicable: What are the goals of the protagonist? What are the goals of the antagonist? Is the good side presented as cute, pretty, or wholesome, while the villains are crude or horrifying or “bad to look at”? Are the villains given non-White ethnic traits while the heroes are not?
  5. If you’re uncomfortable, ask your friends. Open a discussion. It’s possible that someone else you know feels the same way, but doesn’t feel comfortable saying anything.
  6. Sometimes you will find yourself in the position where a work of media is unambiguously promoting an ideology that you do not agree with, but you still enjoy it for other reasons. Every single person in the world will experience this dissonance, and there is no use getting depressed over it. The best thing you can do is understand your own personal boundaries.
  7. The excitement, peer acceptance, and group unity of fandom is a trap. My life has gotten a lot more tolerable ever since I swore off fandom FOMO in favor of media skepticism. This doesn’t mean you can’t have fun ever, but it does mean that a friendship forged solely on a mutual interest in a work of media might lead you places you wouldn’t like to go.

Further reading

If this whole thing bummed you out a bit, I can personally recommend these stories:

And yes, these works are the broader definition of “propaganda” – for not killing yourself just because you are a member of a marginalized group.

Categories: gaming horror

Tagged: indie horror horror