Let’s face it, we’ve all read at least one book that felt like it took on a life of its own. Because art imitates life imitates art, books within books have become a timeless storytelling tool that audiences have been tuning into for years. The trope of the fictional book, or the book within a book, can be found all across genre, from The Princess Bride to Sherlock Holmes to Harry Potter and beyond.
Case in point — the wild world of cinematic horror has offered us its own unique and seemingly endless parade of mystical grimoires acting as catalysts for catastrophic events. From the found diaries of The Fog and The Cabin in the Woods to the pop-up children’s book of terror in The Babadook, horror loves itself a good fictional book, and so do we.
The most commonly referenced of all of the evil books of horror cinema is the Necronomicon, which made appearances in Evil Dead and its many sequels and remakes, as well as such timeless classics as Jason Goes to Hell and Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings. Based on the famous Necronomicon from the works of H.P. Lovecraft, the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis translates to The Book of the Dead, not to be confused with the real-world Book of the Dead, which is significantly less evil. In the Evil Dead franchise, the book is bound with the flesh of a group called The Damned Ones. The story hinges on Ash’s discovery of the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, which unleashes the monstrous Deadites on the world.
Similarly, 1989’s Warlock featured The Grand Grimoire. A Warlock is put to death in the late 1600s by a pilgrim named Redferne who then travels to the future in order to help put a stop to his resurrection. Restaurant worker Kassandra teams up with Redferne, and the two of them desperately race against the clock to keep the Warlock from obtaining the all-powerful Grimoire and reassembling it from its three parts, which will unmake all of creation. Though this plotline doesn’t make a ton of sense, the Warlock is a genuinely terrifying villain, and the Grand Grimoire possesses the same reality-altering powers of the Necronomicon.
In 2017’s The Babysitter, the villainous Bee confesses that she made a deal with the devil as a child, one that ensured she would always bring him new victims and spill their blood on his book which was capable of resurrecting her at various points in the film. This book helped Bee become essentially unstoppable, and she terrorized the kids she babysat throughout the entire movie and well into the sequel.
Empowerment Through The Magic of Reading
Grimoires aren’t always used for evil, though. Sometimes they’re used for morally dubious but still empowering revenge. For instance, in The Witches of Eastwick, the main trio of characters, Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie, all fall in love with the same man. At first, he helps them achieve new heights in their lives, but soon they realize that he is a creep through and through. In spite of his manipulations, they find their power in sisterhood with each other. They steal his book full of spells titled Maleficio, which they use to punish him for his evil deeds.
The lead of 2015’s The VVitch. Thomasin, achieves a different sort of empowerment via an evil book after her family is forced to move to the deep forest due to a dispute between their father and the rest of the town. When mysterious events start happening, including the disappearance of her younger brother, Thomasin’s parents blame her and consider sending her away. As her family slowly disappears or dies off, Thomasin becomes more susceptible to the call of the witches. The family goat, Black Phillip, transforms into a man (widely considered to be the devil himself) who asks her to sign her name to his book if she wishes to live. When she does, she becomes one of the witches.
Paperbacks of Evil
Then again, evil books aren’t all mystical ancient texts, either. 1989’s I, Madman follows a young bookseller named Virginia Clayton who is sucked into her favorite tawdry horror novel, which tells the tale of an evil doctor obsessed with a famous actor who kills people and sews their face onto his own. People around her begin disappearing, killed in the same way as characters in the book. The line between fantasy and reality blurs as she is plagued by a series of gruesome murders.
For the characters in Stephen King’s Misery, it’s not the book itself but rather its readership that brings the threat. When novelist Paul Sheldon is found by disturbed megafan Annie Wilkes and allows her to read his new novel, which effectively concludes his long-running series following the protagonist Misery Chastain. When Wilkes realizes that he’s going to kill off her favorite character, she flies into a rage and attacks Sheldon, breaking his legs so that he is unable to leave. She forces him to burn his manuscript and write a new one. In the end, it is his new manuscript that he uses to save himself, but he is left with lifelong injuries and trauma from his so-called “number one fan.”
In the Mouth of Madness had a unique take on the evil book trope by telling us the tale of a paperback horror writer who became consumed by the shared universe in his own novels. Also inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s macabre, otherworldly horrors, this film revolves around a freelance insurance investigator attempting to track down the mysterious horror novelist Sutter Cane, whose books have caused violent outbursts across the world. In his efforts to locate Cane, our protagonist discovers that he is only one of many people who have become a part of the books. The edges of reality fray as fiction becomes indecipherable from fact.
Meanwhile, The Babadook sent us into the world of children’s literature. When widow Amelia tries to comfort her volatile child Sam with a nice bedtime story, she discovers the horrifying tale of Mister Babadook. Sam knows that the Babadook is real and Amelia is unwillingly dragged into the darkest recesses of her own psyche as she attempts to combat a monster that is only strengthened by the knowledge of his existence. Trying to destroy the book multiple times to no avail, Amelia and Sam must make peace with their demons in order to fight them.
Helpful How-To Guides of Horror
Still, spooky books aren’t all destructive tomes to demons. In fact, some of them are actually helpful. In Beetlejuice, Barbara and Adam Maitland die suddenly and are left to try and figure out their bizarre new reality as ghosts. While few tips or tricks are learned, they do discover the incredibly helpful Handbook of the Recently Deceased, which instructs them on many things, including how to pull off a good old-fashioned haunting. Though they quickly find themselves derailed due to the appearance of Beetlejuice, their handy guide to being undead does them a lot of favors. It’s easily the most helpful of all the haunted books.
There is no way we’ve seen the end of evil books in horror, but that’s OK because they’re unfailingly one of the most entertaining tropes of genre. It does give us reason to pause before we start another book, though. Are we prepared by what our next read could unleash?