Redeeming the Screaming

Being close to Halloween, with fright fests and Michael Myers marathons abounding, it seemed wise to drop an excerpt from my upcoming book – Cinemagogue – as it features a section dealing with the horror genre:

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” 
– C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Do you have that allegedly healthy “Christian disdain” for horror movies? Do you spit on films like Hostel and refer to them as torture porn? Do you lose sleep when the Harry Potter films come out, trembling that little children will be lured into the occult? You might be right that certain films are more trouble than they’re worth, but when we find ourselves writing off an entire genre of film, we’ve strayed into yet another pitfall of judgment and legalism. Even worse, Christians might be missing some of the best chances available to engage those who don’t share their hope. Still, the hot button genre with the highest temperature seems to be horror, and how Christians should – or shouldn’t – interact with it gets some people screaming louder than Jamie Lee Curtis.

As I mentioned in the previous post “horror, gore, fear and the Christian“, I grew up with the basic premise that all horror movies were of the devil. I definitely grew up confused about the right and wrong of scary movies, and the Christian’s interaction with the “horror” tale. What gives many Christians fear and outspoken apprehension to horror is the depiction of the supernatural. From ghosts, goblins, undead killers with hockey masks, and killers that attack you in your dreams, the horror genre is indeed fraught with the unnatural… or at least the frightening possibilities of what comes after death. But why is this so terrible? Writer/director Scott Derrickson, who has contributed one installment to the Hellraiser series and directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose, is a professing Christian. His take on the subject is fascinating to me, and in my mind right on the money:

“In my opinion, the horror genre is a perfect genre for Christians to be involved with… 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.”

Do you know of anyone who became a Christian because of the Pixar movie Cars? Probably not (although that would be awesome). However, I do know someone who came to Christ after seeing the chilling vision of hell’s dimension in Event Horizon. There may be a wealth of garbage in the horror realm (as with all other genres) but that doesn’t mean there aren’t worthwhile tidbits (as with all other genres). A movie that illustrates the most violent and scary things can be a good reminder that such things exist in the world, and that we need a savior. Horror is one of the few genres consistently wrestling with life after death, demons, and even God: a conversation Hollywood almost entirely avoids. The avoidance of these topics leaves most people engaging stories that focus solely on the material world. While not glorifying the supernatural or hell, our primary fictional diet depicts characters who live their lives as if these things aren’t even part of humankind’s thought or conversation, that they have no relevance or reality.

By omission, we’re implying the natural world is all there is, and that there is nothing else to be concerned about.

If Christians are all about movies existing for their own warm, fuzzy desires to feel good and self-gratify, it’s easy to justify exiling horror movies to the cultural dumpster. By contrast, if we want storytelling to permeate our culture in a way that causes coffee conversations and meditations on what truly comes after death, this genre is one of the few places it may be generated. It can also remind the Christian that there is nothing titillating about playing with Ouija boards or dabbling in the occult. Paranormal Activity also does this brilliantly.

Maybe these stories won’t be a needed genre in the kingdom to come, but they are extremely useful in this world to provoke thought and discussion. Derrickson’s film The Exorcism of Emily Rose was actually written with this in mind. Watching a story about demonic activity and then elaborating on how different people respond, and what humans need to combat it – i.e., Jesus – is not a lot different than having a pastor tell real stories about demonic activity and then preach Jesus. It’s using a cinematic narrative instead of oratory vehicle to transmit a portion of the message. A movie like The Exorcist strikes a subliminal chord (that a non-Christian might deny), in that it presents a fictional account of a force that is real rather than fairy tale, chronicling a modern-day version of possession that has occurred in the past (and may still occur today).  William Friedkin‘s film has power not because the film itself is demonic, but because it deals with something—deep down—we all know to be real.

The horror genre is not off-limits, but rather has been beneficial over the years in Christian conversation; like all areas of life, it should be engaged with godly discernment, and more Christian involvement would be helpful and fruitful.

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