The best books on religion, horror, and the supernatural

Who am I?

Religion and horror have long appeared to me like the double helix of some mysterious, transcendental strand of DNA. This relationship has been lived out in my own life. I am simultaneously an author of supernatural horror stories, a critic and scholar of the field, and a student of religion and philosophy with a master’s in religious studies, a Ph.D. in leadership studies, and a lifetime of involvement in various Christian churches. As both a writer and a human being, I hold a special focus on the mutual implications of religion, horror, and creativity, which all seem to arise from and lead back to the same ultimate mystery.


I wrote...

What the Daemon Said: Essays on Horror Fiction, Film, and Philosophy

By Matt Cardin,

Book cover of What the Daemon Said: Essays on Horror Fiction, Film, and Philosophy

What is my book about?

This book collects a wide array of essays that I wrote over a span of 20 years, including half a dozen papers on the stories of Thomas Ligotti, a long essay on the iconic angel and demon of horror fiction and film, an examination of the ancient relationship between religion and vampires, and several reflections on the nature of cosmic horror. I treat these and other topics in the context of horror fiction and film ranging from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to George Romero’s “Living Dead” movies. The book also brings together a number of interviews that I have given over the years, providing insights into my personal vision and outlook, which have served as the basis of my own horror stories.

The books I picked & why

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The Idea of the Holy

By Rudolf Otto,

Book cover of The Idea of the Holy

Why this book?

This book is a skeleton key for understanding the fundamental relationship between religion, horror, and the supernatural. Otto was a German theologian and scholar of religions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and in this, his most famous book, he set out to interrogate the nature of holiness, understood not primarily as supernatural moral goodness but as the feeling of numinous dread that accompanies the supernatural, and that “first begins to stir in the feeling of ‘something uncanny, ‘ ‘eerie,’ or ‘weird.’” He explicitly states that it was this emotion in the mind of early humans that gave rise not only to religion but to the cultural traditions of ghost stories and horror tales. If you read only one book on religion and horror, make it this one.

The Idea of the Holy

By Rudolf Otto,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Idea of the Holy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"It is essential to every theistic conception of God, and most of all to the Christian, that it designates and precisely characterizes Deity by the attributes Spirit, Reason, Purpose, Good Will, Supreme Power, Unity, Selfhood. The nature of God is thus thought of by analogy with our human nature of reason and personality; only, whereas in ourselves we are aware of this as qualified by restriction and limitation, as applied to God the attributes we use are 'completed', i.e. thought as absolute and unqualified. Now all these attributes constitute clear and definite concepts: they can be grasped by the intellect;…


The Exorcist

By William Peter Blatty,

Book cover of The Exorcist

Why this book?

Blatty’s classic novel is recommendable as much for its cultural impact, which is of course inextricably bound up with its legendary film adaptation, as for its own content. With the story of young Regan, a 12-year-old girl in the modern technological world who becomes possessed by an ancient demon, Blatty, a committed Roman Catholic, deliberately set out to communicate a vivid sense of supernatural evil to a modern, skeptical, jaded audience. Many people don’t realize that The Exorcist is actually a Christian novel. As Blatty himself later put it, if he could get people to believe, even fictionally/emotionally, in demons, they would also know what it feels like to live in a universe where God and angels are real. The result, regardless of your religious beliefs, is unforgettable.

The Exorcist

By William Peter Blatty,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked The Exorcist as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Father Damien Karras: 'Where is Regan?'
Regan MacNeil: 'In here. With us.'

The terror begins unobtrusively. Noises in the attic. In the child's room, an odd smell, the displacement of furniture, an icy chill. At first, easy explanations are offered. Then frightening changes begin to appear in eleven-year-old Regan. Medical tests fail to shed any light on her symptoms, but it is as if a different personality has invaded her body.

Father Damien Karras, a Jesuit priest, is called in. Is it possible that a demonic presence has possessed the child? Exorcism seems to be the only answer...

First published…


Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King

By Edward J. Ingebretsen,

Book cover of Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King

Why this book?

With this book, Ingebretsen, a Jesuit priest and Georgetown English professor, wrote perhaps the most pointedly fascinating entry on my list. His subject is the strain of supernaturally horrific religious belief and accompanying demonism and apocalypticism that has threaded its way through American culture since the early European colonial days. His approach is lucid, well-informed, somewhat idiosyncratic, and thoroughly fascinating. Where else are you going to find a book that has a chapter devoted to comparing the stories of H. P. Lovecraft with the poetry of Robert Frost? If Otto’s book is a skeleton key for understanding religion and horror in general, then Ingebretsen’s is a skeleton key for understanding the shadowy supernatural-horrific underside of American religion and the American psyche in particular.

Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King

By Edward J. Ingebretsen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From its beginnings in Puritan sermonising to its prominent place in contemporary genre film and fiction, this book traces the use of terror in the American popular imagination. Entering American culture partly by way of religious sanction, it remains an important heart and mind shaping tool.


The Secret Life of Puppets

By Victoria Nelson,

Book cover of The Secret Life of Puppets

Why this book?

Nelson’s book became an instant classic when it arrived in 2001, and it has only become more relevant since then. Her thesis is that modern secular culture has ejected the innate human religious-visionary impulse from the belief system of above-board, “respectable” intellectual culture, and that this impulse, which is ineradicable, has now crept in the “back door” of popular horror, fantasy, and science fiction entertainments, which therefore increasingly serve as religious texts. But there’s so much more to her presentation than this. It carries the feel of a darkly electrifying spiritual revelation, as if it’s changing the one who reads it. At one point she states, cryptically, that the book became a kind of “Lovecraftian entity” during the many years it took her to birth it. Reader beware...

The Secret Life of Puppets

By Victoria Nelson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Secret Life of Puppets as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this work, Victoria Nelson illuminates the deep but hidden attraction the supernatural still holds for a secular mainstream culture that forced the transcendental underground and firmly displaced wonder and awe with the forces of reason, materialism, and science. In a backward look at an era now drawing to a close, "The Secret Life of Puppets" describes a curious reversal in the roles of art and religion: where art and literature once took their content from religion, we came increasingly to seek religion, covertly, through art and entertainment. In a tour of Western culture that is at once exhilarating and…


Religion and Its Monsters

By Timothy K. Beal,

Book cover of Religion and Its Monsters

Why this book?

Beal is a contemporary scholar of religion, and this brilliant book is one of my favorite things ever. In essence it’s a book-length application of Otto’s concept of numinous religious dread to a well-considered selection of classic and contemporary horror texts. Dracula, Nosferatu, Frankenstein, Lovecraftian horror, and also classic literature such as Beowulf and Dante’s Inferno, all factor into Beal’s examination of the way the primordial chaos of ancient religious mythology, which perpetually stands behind the scenes as a threat to cosmic order, shines through the eyes and shapes of various monsters and thus makes them carriers of Otto’s mysterium tremendum, the “radically other mystery that brings on a stupefying combination of fascination and terror.” Like Nelson, Beal enables us to see the religion in horror, and vice versa.

Religion and Its Monsters

By Timothy K. Beal,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Religion and Its Monsters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Religion's great and powerful mystery fascinates us, but it also terrifies. So too the monsters that haunt the stories of the Judeo-Christian mythos and earlier traditions: Leviathan, Behemoth, dragons, and other beasts. In this unusual and provocative book, Timothy K. Beal writes about the monsters that lurk in our religious texts, and about how monsters and religion are deeply entwined. Horror and faith are inextricable. Ans as monsters are part of religious texts and traditions, so religion lurks in the modern horror genre, from its birth in Dante's Inferno to the contemporary spookiness of H.P. Lovecraft and the Hellraiser films.…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the supernatural, exorcisms, and Christianity?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the supernatural, exorcisms, and Christianity.

The Supernatural Explore 239 books about the supernatural
Exorcisms Explore 7 books about exorcisms
Christianity Explore 414 books about Christianity

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Things Fall Apart, A Clockwork Orange, and Dracula if you like this list.