Religion was one of the main ingredients for Indonesian horror films during the authoritarian New Order regime (1966-1998). Religious figures, in particular, were often presented as hero at the end of a story in line with the government’s guidelines for filmmakers to guard the nation’s moral values and promote devotion to God. As a result, horror movies produced during the regime can be seen as a reflection of the government’s propaganda efforts to maintain social order and control.
Cinema was deemed crucial by the New Order regime, which was led by the late dictator Soeharto, as a political tool to influence a wide range of people, and, thus, strict rules were enforced regarding its content. At that time, film was put under the supervision of the Minister of Information, which was known as the regime’s “architect of propaganda and control” (Nugroho & Herlina S., 2015). The government relied on censorship to prevent local films from raising topics related to anti-theism and foreign ideologies such as communism, Marxism and Leninism, as well as from depicting behaviors or events that could negatively affect the social order (Pasaribu, 2014).
The Film Council, under the then Minister of Information Ali Moertopo, even issued in 1981 the code of ethics for national film production, which was formulated by eight commissions, including the commission for “film and the nation’s morality”, and the commission of “film in its relation to devotion towards the one and only God” (Suyono and Arjanto, 2003). As pointed out by Suyono and Arjanto, the latter commission made many recommendations, one of which was “the storyline must be composed in such a way that it makes an impression for the audience that the bad will definitely receive/endure the consequence and suffer, and the good will surely get a reward of happiness”.
The government’s tight control and monitoring subsequently forced local horror filmmakers to include religious symbols or leaders in order to prevent a movie from being banned, especially considering that the genre was notorious for its violent and erotic scenes. Indonesian horror films, which were often based on the country’s mystical traditions, began to exploit violence and sex in 1970s to attract moviegoers (Lutfi, 2013).
Nevertheless, after the implementation of the code of ethics in 1981, “there evolved a bizarre situation under the New Order wherein the horror film genre was at once equated with sex and with religious mission” (van Heeren, 2007). As suggested by van Heeren, many horror movies used a “deus ex machina” in the form of religious leaders, mostly of Islam, since the 1980s. Ferry Angriawan of the movie production house Virgo Putra Film also stated that his side was often forced to insert a kyai (Islamic teacher) character to restore order late in a movie, even though it did not make any sense in the story, to ensure that the film could pass New Order’s censor body (Suyono and Arjanto, 2003).
Religious figures were ultimately the unlikely heroes in Indonesian horror films during the New Order regime due to the Soeharto’s government efforts to use movies as medium of propaganda to maintain social order and control, including through censorship and code of ethics. Filmmakers, as a consequence, were forced to juxtapose violence and sex with religion, sacrificing logic in pursuit of artificial morality and devotion to God.