A lot of Christians I know love science fiction. Even more like tales of the heroic – comic book heroes or action figures fighting for justice on a big screen. That’s not to suggest that a lot of Christians I know don’t love drama, the low-budget indie, or comedy… though what’s appropriate in comedy is harshly debated. Still, the hot button genre with the highest temperature seems to be horror, and how Christians should – or shouldn’t – interact with it.
I grew up with the basic premise that horror movies were of the devil. I remember with fascination seeing part of The Fog with Adrienne Barbeau on Prime Time (edited) television before my parents realized I was peering out from behind the couch. I also remember that certain fairy tales for kids – Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel – contained horrific elements (contingent on the version you read) which felt incongruous with a general disdain for horror. Monster movies like Them! and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms were acceptable, but anything dealing with the supernatural was not… unless, of course, it was a chain-smoking Rod Serling with The Twilight Zone. I definitely grew up confused about the right and wrong of scary movies and the Christians interaction with the “horror” tale. As a young man, I became obsessed for a season with the writing of Clive Barker. My Dad even burned a copy of “The Great and Secret Show” he found in my school bag. While no longer a big Barker fan as an adult, I have enjoyed some King novels and share a fondness for Lovecraft and Poe. I always find – particularly with movies – that some Christians are baffled to why Christians have anything to do with horror at all.
The three chief complaints – particularly with cinema – are that horror movies are bloody and gory, often contain nudity and sex, and often glorify the demonic. I’ll tackle these three areas as they pertain not simply to the horror genre, but in and of themselves…
On Blood and Gore
The horror genre is filled with monsters that rip and tear people apart. Still, I’m hard pressed to find any story as violent and gory as our Bible. Not only did Jesus’ crucifixion earn an R rating, we find disturbing stories of murder, disembowelment, decapitation, and defecation in the Old Testament scriptures that – if depicted on screen – would definitely earn an NC-17 rating. Moreover, we’ve become pretty disaffected by the written word in American culture, but in “the olden days” (before big screen televisions) people would swoon and hurl at the reading of such grotesquerie. Does that mean we should feel free to visually ingest massive quantities of snuff and slasher films? Certainly not. But it’s hard to make an argument that the subject matter isn’t fit in any quantity for a Christian when it’s in our Holy Bible. Our aversion is more cultural than Christian, and we’re equally apt to see the same quantity of bloodshed in Saving Private Ryan.
There’s a lot of “negative images” in your Bible; to be honest, very little in Sin City beats the book of Judges, or the life of David, with his extended family and supporting cast, chronicled in scripture. This begs the question about how we often mix cultural propriety with the gospel. I’m not ashamed to admit I haven’t figured out exactly why I needed to know that Amasa didn’t just get assassinated by Joab, but that he was viciously disembowled, and even more that he lay wallowing in his own guts, so unsightly in his death throes that they drug him out of sight and threw a blanket over him (2 Samuel 20).
I also am not entirely convinced why I needed to know that King Eglon of Moab was so obese that when Ehud killed him, “The handle also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the refuse came out.” (That last part in Judges 3, translated appropriately, tips us to the important fact that Eglon’s bowels emptied upon death – which isn’t abnormal, mind you, but a crappy way to go).
And please, don’t get me started on David’s bride-price for Saul’s daughter Michal (shudder)… God apparently deemed these intimate, gory details to be of importance and included them as part of His inspired Word. Christian critics claim that our collected Bible represents one of the most gory and violent books in all of history, and I can’t disagree. It also contains the most wisdom ever written, the steamiest piece of sensual literature ever written, some of the most depraved acts of man ever chronicled, and – most importantly – the revelation of the One True God.
Certainly, the horror genre has been fraught with topless actresses and gratuitous sexual situations. The reputation overshadows the reality, however. Many horror films have come out in the last decade with PG-13 ratings and tamed sexuality, hoping for a wider audience and subsequent ticket sales. The reality is that any genre, from American Pie comedy to steamy behind-the-scenes courtroom drama, contains a fair amount of sex in it’s content. We can critique film in general, but can’t pigeonhole horror.
Even more poignant, the “Scream” trilogy brought something very true to light, pointing out the formula of horror films wherein characters caught in flagrante were often killed by the film’s horrifying antagonist. The virgin, or most virtuous character, often survived… so what did this say to the audience? Sex before marriage equals death? Promiscuity brings a bloody judgment? Horror director Wes Craven has even stated that he believes he is telling our modern day “cautionary tales”, much like the Grimm’s fairy tales of old. While I think the titillating way Craven directs some of his material belies this claim, there is a kernel of truth in there.
On the Demonic
From ghosts, goblins, aliens, undead killers with hockey masks and leprechauns in space, to killers that come in your dreams, the horror genre is indeed fraught with the unnatural, or at least the frightening possibilities of what comes after death. Writer/Director Scott Derrickson, a professing Christian, had this to say:
In my opinion, the horror genre is a perfect genre for Christians to be involved with. I think the more compelling question is, Why do 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, it distinguishes and articulates the essence of good and evil better than any other genre, and my feeling is that a lot of Christians are wary of this genre simply because it’s unpleasant. The genre is not about making you feel good, it is about making you face your fears. And in my experience, that’s something that a lot of Christians don’t want to do.
To me, the horror genre is the genre of non-denial. It’s about admitting that there is evil in the world, and recognizing that there is evil within us, and that we’re 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 talking about, really, the potential of the horror genre, because there are a lot of horror films that don’t do these things. It is a genre that’s full of exploitation, but the better films in the genre certainly accomplish, I think, very noble things.
That said, we can’t dismiss horror as a genre any more than we can dismiss action, comedy or romance. There might be a wealth of garbage in the horror realm, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any nuggets. Being scared isn’t inherently sinful. A movie that depicts violent and scary things can be a good reminder that such things exist in the world. Horror is also one of the few genres that consistently wrestles with life after death, demons, and even God a conversation Hollywood almost entirely avoids in other genres.
A movie like Final Destination can prompt a discussion about mortality and fate. A movie like The Exorcist can shake the atheist who, despite a vociferous outcry that God doesn’t exist, knows deep down in a rebellious heart that not only does God exist, but that there are demons afoot as well that he or she is susceptible to. It can also remind the Christian that there is nothing titillating about playing with Ouija boards or dabbling in the occult. A movie like “Frailty” can polarize audiences about the existence of a God who brings judgment to the wicked.
“For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
– Hebrews 10
Christians can be startled and get a burst of adrenaline from horror films, even walk away with disturbing thoughts to explore and meditate upon, yet rest in the fact that God is sovereign, no force prevails against him, and that apart from his grace the only thing to fear is His wrath. The genre is not off-limits; like all areas of life, it should be engaged with godly discernment.