This piece originally started out as a review of my favorite horror film, but as I began to take notes upon my umpteenth viewing of it, commentaries, essays and reviews flooded my head from seasoned critics and even the director himself articulating its meaning and subtext better than I ever could.
So instead I want to challenge myself to explore the question of how a devout follower of Christ explains the allure of dark themes and imagery found in the Horror genre.
I have at various times avoided obscene or grotesque imagery, but for a variety of reasons or for a new reason at each successive stage of my life, the horror genre has risen out the dark side of my brain like a ghoul awakening out of a crypt. My normal response to disapproving or concerned parties, would be to show that their logic could just as easily be used against their entertainment genres of choice.
But that isn’t good enough. I want to go through scripture and see if exposing myself to such media content compatible with the gospel I profess to believe.
Before I take the stand to present my case and dive into the horror genre, let me make something very clear: I am not recommending or advocating binge watching horror movies. Anything done excessively can be unhealthy be it physically or through entertainment. Nor am I arguing that watching horror movies will make you a better Christian or give you a deeper understanding of your faith. what I’m trying doing here is consider my personal experience with this genre: what it means to me, and how I process these movies. As with art in general, enjoying and understanding cinema is a very personal and individualistic experience. Horror is not for everyone. It is a genre full of exploitation, gore, sex, and violence. (The same can be said of many other genres, however I do feel horror gets a worse rap than most in Christian circles.)
I suppose I should start with how Horror and I first became acquainted.
My first job (after a brief stint at a fast food place I don’t really count and try not to think about) was working at the local Hollywood video. The oldest person working there was only 22 and I was the youngest. My co-workers caught on quickly that I had a bit of a sheltered, religious upbringing, so they magnanimously came up with the “Horror Science Theater” to fill in an important gap in my education.
Never did it feel like they were trying to corrupt me or destroy my faith. If anything they just found my facial expressions during the disturbing scenes hilarious (very much like Alyosha from The Brothers Karmozov, although I never put my fingers in my ears). At first it was pretty tame: Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm St, etc. By a few months in, we had arrived at the full scale bizarre, absurd and just plain disturbing. From Argento, Cronenberg, Tromaville, and of course Stuart Gordon.
But no matter how disturbing or horrific the movie was, I never really felt terrified by it or even concerned that I was participating in something sinful. Instead, we were just a bunch of kids laughing at each other’s reactions to the “jump scares” and mimicking death scenes (especially during zombie or exorcist movies). Several times we even had to pause a movie just so everyone could calm down enough to pay attention.
As long as I can remember I have been a social misfit, oddity, nerd. The term doesn’t matter so much as the experience of being ridiculed or just ostracized. Growing up in the church was a very lonely experience for me. I’ll save you the details of my school and neighborhood, but it was not socially acceptable to be Hispanic and into reading, much less comic books. The friends I made at the video store were the first people with whom I finally felt it was okay to be my weird, quirky self. It was the first time I just felt accepted.
They were just as passionate about comics and novels I was. It was such a breath of fresh air to have discussions about Robert A. Heinlein, Jack Kirby, Mike Allred, Grant Morrison, Orson Scott Card, J. Michael Straczynski and Frank Herbert. It was thrilling to be around people well versed in these stories that meant so much to me, and I’d go so far as to say it was a heart-mending experience. Even to this day I cherish those conversations.
Something else of note happened during my time at the video store that couldn’t have had I remained confined to my youth group circle: I got to share my faith on a personal level that I feel many Christians rarely get to. I learned more about talking to atheists and agnostics about my perspective and experience being a Bible-believing Christian during that time than I had from the various evangelistic methods I’d been exposed to in church, because we were having actual conversation, not antagonistic or confrontational debate! It was difficult, genuine, respectful dialogue among friends, from our own personal experiences. Did I have all the answers for them? Of course not. Most of the time I would just let them talk while I listened. Did I provide eloquent rebuttals using scripture? Not at all; I only was 16. But in this way I started piecing together how to.
This time spent watching Videodrome, ReAnimator, The Hills Have Eyes, and Return of the Living Dead with non-Christian friends made me a better Christian. The content that I watched and the conversations that followed, made me painfully aware of how little I knew about my own beliefs, which in turn made me interested in and grateful for apologetic resources like Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, The Case for the Creator and most importantly, drove me to searching through scripture for myself for answers to the questions that emerged.
Scott Erickson who directed the horror movies Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister, Deliver Us from Evil is a professing Christian. In the following quote he explains what I have also felt and experienced with the horror genre:
In my opinion, the horror genre is a perfect genre for Christians to be involved with. I think more compelling question is, why so many Christians find it odd that a Christian would be working in this genre? To me, this genre deals more overtly with the supernatural than any other genre, it tackles issues of good and evil more than any other genre, and my feeling is that a lot of Christians are wary of this genre simply because it’s unpleasant. This genre is not about making you feel good, it’s about making you face your fears. And in my experience that’s something a lot of Christians don’t want to do.
To me the horror genre is the genre of the non-denial. It’s about admitting that there is evil in the world and recognizing there is evil within us, and that we are not in control, and that the things that we are afraid of must be confronted in order for us to relinquish that fear. And I think that the horror genre serves a great purpose in bolstering our understanding of what is evil and therefore better defining what is good. And of course I’m really talking about the potential of the horror genre, because there are a lot of horror films that don’t do these things. It is a genre full of exploitation, but the better films in the genre certainly accomplish, I think, very noble things.”
(After putting in this quote, the article in which it came from, it was removed from relevant magazines backlog. I apologize for this.)
We can go through the old testament and point out all the disturbing things Israel did or God allowed, as Michele did in What is Bad art and are you Bad for Liking It , I mean did we really need to know that Amasa didn’t just get assassinated by Joab, but that he was viciously disemboweled, and even more so that he lay wallowing in his own entrails, so unsightly that they drug him out of view and threw a blanket over him. (2 Samuel 20) — However there is something I would like to talk about that I feel horror is the only genre that deals with: the threat of the Demonic.
Can we unknowingly raise the dead using a Ouija board? Are you going to find a book in an old cabin, recite an ancient incantation accidentally unleashing a demonic entity that takes possession of your girlfriend and then have to use a chainsaw to fight off demonic forces? In other words, are horror movies a reliable depiction of how the spiritual and/or demonic realms interact with the ordinary reality most of us are most familiar with? I wouldn’t count on it. I consider C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape letters a more helpful description of how we experience demonic influence, at least in the reason and empirical science-focused first-world.
These movies though take the biblically supported truth of the supernatural and exaggerate it for cinematic effect, some brilliantly, others not so much. I find it notable that nearly all directors of horror films are unbelievers, but they tell stories about this biblical topic that a large percentage of Christians don’t want to spend any time considering; the threat of the demonic; that it is real, it exists and that the Devil and his angels have it out for you.
The flip side of that point is the treatment of Scripture in those movies. Once again Horror is one of the few genres that present Scripture, pastors or priests in a heroic light. The demon possessed person writhes and groans in agony as the priest recites Scripture. Vampires scowl and wince at the sight of a crucifix. In one particular movie Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight, demons cannot enter the house once the blood of Christ has been poured upon the doorway.
The graphic material in horror that makes people squirm and cringe is often very surface level and shallow; it’s sensational dark fantasy and in a way it’s silly. The things I personally find disturbing are on full display on social media. The perverse use of Scripture for self-justification and self-serving ends gets especially loud every election season. I’m not going to get into which side is worse or who is more deplorable. That’s irrelevant. It is disturbing to see followers of Christ say truly disgusting things to not only one another but to unbelievers. The very people we are commanded to show unending compassion and grace towards.
That’s a digression, but I felt it had to be mentioned.
One more thing I would like to address is how much horror I intake. Nowhere near as much I did during that time working at Hollywood video. I attribute that to factors such as my age, that particular circle of friends, and the surplus time that I no longer have as an adult. Even when I have free time I could spend watching a movie, horror or otherwise, these days I would rather read a good comic book or novel. There is more originality and excellent social commentary coming out of the comic book medium; most cinema just can’t hold a candle to it. Of course that’s just my opinion, and I’m extremely biased.
I certainly cut my teeth when it comes to horror movies in those days. Never once have I regretted watching that much disturbing or grotesque materiel. I consider it to have been an essential time in my personal spiritual education. Like a fighter training for a fight, you need a good sparing partner, and in those days I had the best. I obviously do not endorse or recommended that approach to everyone (Romans 14:3). I’m just one strange little nerd. We all have our own path and experiences.
Here are my absolute top 5 favorite Horror films. It would take something groundbreaking to move these out.
- (5) Paul Anderson’s Event Horizon
- (4) Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein
- (3) Frank Darabont’s The Mist
- (2) George Romero’s Night of The Living Dead
- (1) John Carpenter’s The Thing