Regular readers of my blog are aware that I am an ardent apologist for the horror genre, and have also written within this genre myself. Given my Christian faith, a number of my fellow believers find this unusual, and at times profoundly disagree or even take offence at my views. Said believers take a similar view of my horror novels, though I doubt they have actually bothered to read, say, The Thistlewood Curse, and judge the context rather than the genre.
The argument regularly trotted out by evangelical Christians is that horror movies, TV series or novels are unpleasant, unwholesome and ungodly. I have often heard evangelical preachers condescendingly berate congregations with refrains such as “Would you watch that with Jesus sitting next to you?” The standard Bible verse they like to quote, as if to prove their point, is Philippians 4 verse 8, which speaks of only meditating on those things that are noble, lovely and true. The problem with this argument is that it is used as an excuse for the wholesale dismissal of an entire genre, without regard for what is indeed noble, lovely and true within it. All genres contain stories that live up to that Biblical standard and equally all genres contain entries that fall short of it.
I for one have never been able to understand the evangelical Christian objection to the horror genre. For a start, the Bible itself is absolutely awash with some of the bloodiest, most horrific stories imaginable. If a Christian takes the position that the Bible is divinely inspired, then in choosing to use these stories for instruction, God definitely has a taste for horror.
Secondly, a common reason for disliking horror is an inability to appreciate or understand metaphors, and an inability to examine what a story is actually saying, rather than merely what it contains. The presence of disturbing scares, violence and gore should not in and of themselves warrant a dismissal of a work on purely aesthetic grounds. However, many Christians – indeed many people – cannot or will not take context into consideration and look past such elements.
Ironically I have had conversations with Christians who happily defend the likes of Mamma Mia! – a romantic comedy with a truly abhorrent spiritual message (essentially it doesn’t matter who your father is as long as your mother had loads of fun promiscuous sex) – because it is rated PG. At the same time, they dismiss something like Under the Shadow out of hand as “demonic”, regardless of the fact that it is a profound and interesting examination of the oppression of women under fundamentalist Islam. It is, I would argue, far closer to the noble, lovely and true ideal.
Let me be clear: it is entirely valid for someone to be repulsed and/or terrified by a horror story to the point where they do not wish to read or see it. Personality and temperament come into play here, and everyone has different raw nerves, not to mention different tastes. Some love the catharsis that comes from being emotionally terrorised by a good horror tale. Others cannot understand why someone would put themselves through such an experience, in much the same way that I cannot understand the appeal of bungee jumping and other extreme sports that flirt with death. Therefore if a Christian, or indeed anyone, feels that the horror genre is not for them then that is entirely reasonable.
However, I start to take issue when Christians make a doctrine out of personal revelation (ie “God says I can’t watch horror films and/or I don’t like them, so you shouldn’t either”). Such thinking is completely unbiblical to my mind, especially when taking into context passages such as the one in Romans chapter 14 about “debatable matters”. The stuff that needs to be clear in the Bible (thou shalt not steal, kill, commit adultery and so on) is there in black and white. However, I do not see “thou shalt dismiss the entire horror genre” in scripture, and to pretend it is there because some Christian leaders don’t much care for horror or find it disturbing is, to my mind, idiotic.
Accepting that the horror genre is disreputable and controversial, how then should a Christian approach it? Why do people like horror stories? Do they gratify some dark part of our sinful natures like a modern equivalent of watching Christians being thrown to the lions? Is it to achieve some kind of catharsis? Or is it rather rooted in the human need to experience stories of all kinds, some of which explore the darker aspects of our existence?
Let’s consider those questions one at a time. First, does the horror genre gratify the sinful nature? I would say that this can only be argued on a case by case basis, as with any story from any genre (see earlier example of Mamma Mia!). Certain horror films are indeed morally bankrupt. However, just because a story is gruesome or frightening doesn’t necessarily make it the embodiment of evil. Otherwise the final chapters of Judges (to cite just one of countless examples) would not be in the Bible.
Moving on to the catharsis question, if you think about it, watching any movie is weird. An audience puts themselves through emotions and experiences they would do anything not to experience in real life, regardless of the genre. In fact, the best comedies often contain some of the most excruciating situations. Audiences watch all kinds of movies time and again, not necessarily to see happy endings either. The viewer wants the right ending. How, for example, should The Godfather Part II end? Michael Corleone goes straight, forgives his brother, reconciles with his wife and lives happily ever after? The ending of The Godfather Part II is chilling, profound and spiritually true. It is the right ending, and it is also one of the most popular films ever made.
Though generally considered more disreputable than The Godfather, horror films can also be spiritually true, which brings me to my final question. Human beings are wired for stories of all kinds. We get meaning from them and are able make sense of the world through them. This is why Jesus used parables, and also why the Bible is filled with amazing stories, some of them eye-wateringly horrific. In a fallen world, sometimes we find meaning by confronting our darkest, deepest fears head on. Why else would anyone watch a film like Buried – a truly terrifying experience set entirely in a coffin, about a man buried alive. Horror films don’t just explore obvious fears either, they can be political allegories or satires, or, at their best, expose spiritual realities which potentially (and sometimes actually) glorify God.
Time for some examples. Let’s start with allegories. Vampires, werewolves and the like are frequently used as metaphors exploring the dark, sinful side of mankind. The battle between spiritual transcendence and baser instincts has been explored in everything from Jekyll and Hyde to Dracula, and countless movies since these classic gothic novels were written. Their popularity is understandable, as we all have our inner vampires, werewolves and Mr Hydes. Such stories are reflected in the Bible too – for example, when Nebuchadnezzar is transformed into a beast in the book of Daniel.
Frank Darabont’s take on Stephen King’s The Mist is an extraordinary allegory of Bush’s America in miniature (inside the besieged supermarket). It is not the monsters outside that prove the most terrifying thing about the story, but what happens inside as the humans turned on one another. The parallels to the Iraq war and other recent history were all too clear. Yet the ending was of most interest to me. It’s difficult to imagine a more punch-in-the-guts, feel-bad finale, yet I have come to the conclusion that it is (by accident or design), a profound moral warning about assisted suicide that Christians can applaud, if they can see past the blood and terror.
There are other good examples of allegory in horror, some spiritual (is Alien really about demonic possession?) and some political (Invasion of the Body Snatchers can be read as either pro or anti McCarthy). Then there are political satires, at which point I invoke the notorious George A Romero and his seemingly unending zombie movies. The original Night of the Living Dead is about civil rights, but Dawn of the Dead is about consumerism, Day of the Dead about genetic experimentation, and so on. Virtually all zombie movies are incredibly political and often make fascinating moral statements – again, if one looks past the splatter.
Throughout history, horror stories have often had fascinating subtexts, some more obvious (the dangers of playing God in Frankenstein, and more recently, films like Splice), some less obvious (The Wicker Man is either about the triumph of the Christian faith over Paganism or a condemnation of religious extremism in all forms). Then there are films that deal in more overt spiritual matters, such as genre classics The Exorcist and The Omen. Neither have great theological weight, which is a standard objection by many Christians. However, a film is not a sermon. In the case of The Omen, if it gets people interested in the Book of Revelation, that is surely a good thing. Regarding The Exorcist, (the greatest horror film ever made to my mind) for some years I criticised the finale, thinking that the defeat of the demon by the priest sacrificing his life was silly. However, I now think the ending makes sense because the priest is a metaphor for Jesus himself. Like Jesus, he has his Garden of Gethsemane moments, experiencing doubt and fear, but ultimately he acts sacrificially. The Exorcist may not be good theology (in stories of this kind, the power of the demonic is understandably exaggerated for dramatic effect) but it is very satisfying storytelling, metaphorically demonstrating the power of sacrifice to overcome evil.
More recent examples of exorcism are found in The Rite and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (the latter directed by Scott Derrickson, a Christian who also sees great potential for good in the horror genre). The Exorcism of Emily Rose refreshingly deals with the science verses spirituality debate by arguing they are not mutually exclusive ideas. Again, the theology police will find plenty to complain about, as they will with The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2. And again, picking such nits is to entirely miss the point. After seeing both Conjuring movies at the cinema, I walked out hearing muttered conversations of cinemagoers saying how they now wanted to discuss the film with their Christian friends, given that both were (very loosely) based on true stories. The Conjuring is the cinematic equivalent of a hellfire sermon. It even ends with a message onscreen that basically says: There is a God. There is a devil. Pick a side.
Ghost stories are another horror subgenre that evangelical Christians have traditionally condemned as being theologically inaccurate. Their argument is that ghost stories imply a purgatory that is not in the Bible, or that they violate scriptural prohibitions about summoning the dead. But again, this completely and utterly misses the point on a monumental scale. Ghost stories are not about “reality” but metaphorically deal with the sins of the past refusing to stay buried, and as such are spiritually fascinating. They are about spiritual unfinished business, or unsolved crime. The verse about Abel’s murdered blood crying out to God from the ground leaps to mind. Good examples in this subgenre include The Woman in Black, The Haunting, The Sixth Sense, The Orphanage and The Changeling. The Bible itself has a rather peculiar ghost story (Saul and the Witch of Endor towards the end of the first Book of Samuel) and Jesus himself spoke of ghosts when he walked on the water, meaning that he clearly understood the power of fables and folklore.
Psychological horror films are a particular favourite of mine, and recent years have thrown up two genuinely outstanding examples. Under the Shadow is one example, as I mentioned earlier, and another is The Babadook, which is not only a truly terrifying piece of cinema, but also one of the most moving horror films I have ever seen. The Babadook deals with repressed grief and guilt, and although it is traumatic and disturbing, it is ultimately redemptive and deeply cathartic. For me, The Babadook definitely stands up to the noble, lovely and true ideal, and to answer the afore-mentioned preachers, I would happily watch it (and the other films mentioned here) with Jesus sitting next to me. Indeed, I find The Babadook compassionate and comforting, in the manner spoken of in 2 Corinthians 1 verse 13: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort”.
In summary, I for one wish more Christians would see the potential in horror as a means of expressing and affirming faith. As for me, I have fully and unapologetically embraced the genre in my writing. This year I released The Thistlewood Curse (which can be purchased here) and I have three other horror novels sitting on the shelf awaiting release, including The Spectre of Springwell Forest, a ghost story which I wrote this year and intend to release next year. No doubt some of my fellow believers will brand me a heretic, but for those who enjoy the genre, watch this space.
NOTE: This article is an updated/revised version of a piece I wrote some years ago entitled In Defence of Horror.