A Case for Horror Stories

When I became a Christian it was made very clear that horror books and films were, by definition, unChristian and should be avoided. So I avoided them.

But must a horror story be unChristian? Granted that many are, I don't see why they must be.

The Bible tells terrible stories of sin, violence, murder, suffering, evil, ghosts (I'm thinking of Samuel), demons, possession, and the devil. In so doing, it creates space for a certain kind of horror story - a story that does not use horrors to titilate, like the so-called 'torture-porn' movies of recent years, but to expose the utter repulsiveness of evil and to oppose it. Stories that bring readers to reject darkness and embrace light may use the portrayal of horror to that end. They may even employ mythical creatures to that end.

Take Dracula by Bram Stoker. It is a great novel (and, for the record, I do not believe that Vampires exist :-)). In the novel we have a powerful, demonic character (the Count) who brings suffering and death to those within his orbit. The Count is not set up as a model for wannabe Vampires to emulate, but as an anti-model to be spurned. He is the bad guy and the book tells the story of his defeat. In this case it is a defeat at the hands of those, such as Van Helsing, who see themselves as opposing him in the name of Christ. They may not be conventional Christians (at least in the evangelical sense) but I have long seen Dracula as verging on being a specifically Christian horror story.

It is a long time since I have seen The Exorcist (and I confess to finding it rather dull) but from memory it certain seemed like a Christian movie - Priest defeats demon in an act of Christ-like sacrifical love. And I seem to recall reading an interview with the Producer who certainly saw it in those terms. So why were so many Christians up in arms about it? Ironically I think that I read some evidence to the effect that Church attendance increased slightly as a direct result of people viewing The Exorcist. If that is so, then I can certainly see why.

So perhaps we can even imagine a day when local churches arrange a trip to the movies to see a horror film. Indeed, if memory serves me right, I can recall a certain Mel Gibson slasher movie that elicited precisely such a response. Perhaps the future is here!


Teresita said…
The Bible tells terrible stories of sin, violence, murder, suffering, evil, ghosts (I'm thinking of Samuel), demons, possession, and the devil. In so doing, it creates space for a certain kind of horror story - a story that does not use horrors to titilate, like the so-called 'torture-porn' movies of recent years, but to expose the utter repulsiveness of evil and to oppose it.

The bible also "creates a space" for horror movies such as Rosemary's Baby and the Omen series by establishing the mythology of a modern day Anti-christ as the literal son of the devil. To unbelievers (or hyperpreterists) such movies become pointless. Movies such as Friday the 13th are almost biblical in their morality...wicked teenagers engage in pre-marital sex, and suffer a gruesome death at knife point for their sins. The "Saw" series which ignited the so-called torture-porn craze is based around a very sophisticated premise. The villain is actually the hero in that his victims, who are teens contemplating suicide, fall into traps which become a gateway to embracing life again, if they can manage to sacrifice a limb or other body part to escape. It is Mel Gibson movies, which nearly always feature some horrible torture, which is the true torture-porn to me. One half of a verse in the gospels mentions Christ's scourging, but Gibson turns it into a 45 minute spectacle so gruesome one wonders how our Lord even made it to the cross without bleeding to death.
Robin Parry said…

I did wonder about The Omen. The trilogy is absurd but the character of Damien is (very loosley) based on the anti-Christ character in the Bible and at the end of part 3 Jesus returns and kills him. The theology is a bit "up the creek without a paddle" but it is at least semi-Christian (and total crap ... except that part with the sheet of glass ... eeek).

Well I have never seen any torture porn because, to be honest, I cannot bear to watch that kind of stuff. Indeed, and I am perhaps pulling back from my somewhat brash claims in the post here, despite some of the intellectual-sounding 'justifications' given by the directors of such movies it is hard not to see them as revelling in the perverse enjoyment of dreaming up ever-more grotesque ways to dehumanize people. I find it very hard to imagine that such horror movies could count as ethical. They seem profoundly unhealthy to me.

I found 'Seven' to be deeply disturbing (and I would not watch it again) although I can see that it was trying to offer some kind of analysis of sin. I guess it might even fit my definition of a horror film worth watching. It certainly presents evil as utterly horrible and it also turns the tables on the good guys to see the roots of evil in the mundane lives of ordinary people. Still - YUK.

There was indeed more blood in Jesus' body in the Gibson film than I think a human body could contain.

My feelings about that movie are more ambiguous though. I saw it once and would not watch it again but I think there is plenty of good stuff about it as well as stuff I was not happy about.

Ironically I think that the level of violence was so absurdly high, as you indicate, that it had the effect of making the horror unrealistic and unbelievable. I found myself disengaging from it.

Maybe I like tame horror stories such as Dracula and Frankenstein. I think there is a place for Seven (though perhaps not for a church outing) and I think torture porn movies are obscene and without any virtue.

Am I whimping out here?

I hope you'll discover TheoFantastique and some of the blogs linked from it, which offer appreciative analysis of horror and related genres from a Christian perspective.

For some Christians, on the other hand, that very notion is scarier than most horror films... :)
Robin Parry said…

Thanks for that - I have added it to my list of blogs to check out.

Kind Regards

I have a Christian friend who, now after getting his MDiv, hopes to do doctoral work in film studies on the horror genre. For him, that genre represents better than almost any other themes and issues for rich Christian reflection.

The Christian reaction against horror films is like the Christian rejection of "The Da Vinci Code" or Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials": it misses the forest for the trees. There is a lot in these stories, even the ones that purport to reject Christian orthodoxy, for deep theological reflection. It baffles me why Christians who claim to want to transform and convert culture are so easily persuaded to boycott such movies, as if they are beyond the scope of redemption. Rubbish!
The Pook said…
I enjoyed reading Dracula many years ago. The problem with Dracula is not the horror content, but the humanist theology. In these kinds of stories, even when they acknowlege the Christian categories of evil, sin, and even a personal Devil, it is never Christ who defeats them, but a very human hero, using human devices. In reality I as a human being am no match for old sooty foot.
Anonymous said…
All, I have an interesting new colleague here at Judson University, Terry Wandtke. He is an english prof whose speciality is on comic books (the depiction of the heroic in graphic novels and how this functions in society...) - this alone makes him interesting. However, he is also a bit of a specialist on zombies and zombie movies... As I hate blogging, so I don't want to write long about this. But zombies are indeed a social commentary that evolve and chance as society changes and the issues that plague us chance, these stories are interesting social commentaries that help me as a christian to analyze society better. And they are fun.
Robin Parry said…

I agree although we also need to be clear when such stories are trying to undermine a Christian worldview. Pullman is overt about seeking to do so. All the more reasons for certain Christians to take his stories seriously and engage with them intelligently (I recommend Tony Watkins' excellent book on Pullman's triology - "Dark Matter". It is full of deep appreciation for Pullman's work as well as critique).

Robin Parry said…
The Pook,

You may be right but I would not be so fast in making that judgement. Three things to bear in mind:

1. They use weapons like holy water and crosses and these - whilst they reflect superstitious beliefs - are not obviously humanistic weapons but 'holy weapons'.
It is interesting, for instance, to see how modern Vampire stories have fallen over backwards to try and de-Christianize the Vampire tradition (e.g., the Blade movies). Modern vampires do not fear crosses or holy water (or, if they do it is not because of the truth of the Christian narrative that they symbolize but for some other reason). Bolts through the heart and garlic are still OK. This shows how deeply 'Christian' the tradition was.

2. The characters do pray for help (if memory serves me right).

3. It is the Bible itself that sets the precident for the idea that God can deliver people from evil by using human agents. Consider how God saved Israel through various hero-judges. It sounded like you were thinkiing that any salvation that is not miraculous but mediated by people is humanistic. But is that a biblical idea?

Robin Parry said…

good to hear you made. Hope life in Judson is going well. Your zombie prof sounds very interesting. I'd be interested to know what he thinks.

Tracing the changes in Vampire movies over the decades is also fascinating (I went to a lecture on it once - as you do).

BTW - the best Vampire story I have ever read (and I have not read many but any others would have to be outstanding to beat this one) is "The Historian" by Elizabeth Kostova. It is outstandingly good.

The Pook said…
1a. Holy Water, etc, are still human inventions (unless you accept the Roman Catholic view of Tradition).
1b. Dracula was killed by a hunting knife to the heart if I recall correctly, not by any pseudo-Christian means.
1c. I agree that later vampire mythology has removed any Christian overtones they possibly can.
2. You could be right about that.
3. I never meant "that any salvation that is not miraculous but mediated by people is humanistic." The death of Jesus on the cross is (at one level) the most "natural" non-miraculous means of salvation you could think of. In fact Jesus specifically repudiates the use of supernatural means and refuses to call down legions of angels in his defense.
Robin Parry said…

Holy water is only efficacious in the mythology because it is diveinely blessed. I don't believe in holy water but that is not the point. This is fiction. And in the world of the novel it is not 'humanistic' but a means of divine engagement.

Some Vampires were killed with holy water, some with crosses and some with sunlight (none of which are human means of killing them).

Dracula himself was stabbed through the heart with a Bowie knife. However, God saved Israel from King Eglon when Jephtah stabbed him. It need not make the story humanistic. (I'd have to re-read it to comment any more than that).
The Pook said…
I guess what I'm saying is that the general ethos of horror stories is that it's God and humanity on one side and the Devil on the other, and usually (with or without Divine help) the human hero wins over the forces of darkness. This just reinforces the humanist belief in the fundamental goodness of human nature, whereas the bible presents fallen humanity as having made ourselves enemies of God and in need of switching our allegiance from the Evil One to Christ.
Robin Parry said…
the pook

It depends on which horror story. The silly thing about this discussion is that I hate horror films and will almost never watch one. Be that as it may, some horror films do not portray humans as fundamentally good - quite the opposite. "Seven" is the classic example there.


Thanks for the book recommendation. In many ways, I think Pullman is beneficial to Christianity in spite of himself.


I fail to see the point of your tirade against horror films. Do you like any movies at all? No film can truly show the divine, because the divine is spirit and incapable of being captured on celluloid. But it seems like you also misunderstand the basic point of the incarnation: God became human. God didn't defeat sin and death through divine power, but through human weakness. Moreover, the most beautifully theological films are the ones that don't pretend to show the divine at work, but which capture the truly human -- Babette feeding her neighbors, for example. In short, I think you misunderstand both the nature of Christian faith and the essence of good art.
The Pook said…
And David W. Clongdon I fail to see the point of your unprovoked, inaccurate, self-righteous and rude tirade against me.

For a start, what I wrote was not a 'tirade' but a carefully measured criticism of one aspect of the horror genre.
Second, in my initial post I said that I enjoyed reading Dracula. I said nothing about not liking films. Of course there are movies I like, and no they are not all filled with sweetness and light.
Third, how absurd and sanctimonious to conclude that because I think horror stories have a tendency to glorify human nature that I "misunderstand the point of the incarnation" and even "the nature of Christian faith." I understand very well. It is you who has misunderstood what I was saying. Nor do I misunderstand "the essence of good art" (though admittedly if you lock ten artists in a room and ask what that is you will get 11 different answers!) For your information I am an artist. Your post is ill considered and it is you who have not read properly or understood what I have said but just come in with this unwarranted kneejerk reaction.
Robin Parry said…
For the record - and to restate the point in the original post - I am not defending all horror stories but only a certain kind of horror story. The kind in question is explained in the original post. How many actual horror stories fit that criteria I have no idea (I don't actually watch horror films unless I can help it. Not my cup of tea - I take mine with milk not blood).

I am open to the claim that some horror stories that do not fit my criteria might also be worthy (e.g., Seven).

I am away for a few days now so please be nice to each other in my absence :-)

"I fail to see the point of your unprovoked, inaccurate, self-righteous and rude tirade against me."

Did you read the same comment that I wrote? This sounds like a better description of your response to me than my response to you.

Whatever. It looks like you're trying to find an enemy to argue with. I don't have any interest in engaging in verbal warfare with you.
The Pook said…
Whatever. It looks like you're trying to find an enemy to argue with. I don't have any interest in engaging in verbal warfare with you.

Wow, talk about a classic case of projection! That so does not describe my posts. You're the one who started the personal attack for no apparent reason. I'm surprised you can't see that. I'm only engaging with ideas. Say what you like, that's the last time I respond to your rudeness.
Glen Davis said…
The interview you mentioned is likely this one.

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