Scary Stories as a Window to the Gospel
This essay is dedicated to my fellow geek (geeks will rule the world!), good friend, caped partner in fighting crime, media consultant, personal fashion director, multicultural resource, and reliable servant-helper in ministry, Maurice Broaddus. Never lose your imagination! Remember me when you make it big! BOO!
The horror genre provides a fertile field for creative, uplifting, and inspirational storytelling!
Read that first sentence again. I want the paradoxical nature of the sentence to sink in. Please note: I intentionally attached the word "horror" with "uplifting." If that were not enough, well aware of the feathers that would be ruffled, I deliberately brought the sentence to a climax by uniting "horror" with "inspirational!" This may sound like an oxymoron, but it is not a contradiction.
Allow me to explain...
At the most fundamental level, horror stories are intended to scare us. They do this primarily by playing on our fears, whether conscious or unconscious. Horror stories force us to face our fears, no matter how terrifying this may be.
Our culture is currently fascinated with horror. Not since the 1970's with movies such as Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, and The Exorcist has there been such a high level of interest in horror. From the atmospheric creepiness of The Sixth Sense, The Ring, The Others, Final Destination I/II and Underworld to the blood and guts laden Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Jason vs. Freddy, and Jeepers Creepers, horror movies are raking in large box office receipts. Even horror spoofs are doing well. At the time of the writing of this article, Scary Movie 3 just took in the largest October opening box office in history.
Why is our culture so fascinated with horror? Why do we enjoy being scared so much? Obviously, there are deviant movie-goers and movie-makers who simply revel in gratuitous violence and gore. But this certainly is not true for all who are drawn to these stories. Could there be positive reasons that our culture is so interested in horror? I believe so.
Unlike any other genre, horror has the ability to communicate deep truths concerning the supernatural and transcendent realities that pervade our lives. Horror presents a world where life and death hang in the balance as the destructive power of evil is pitted against the redemptive power of good in the grand cosmic battle that rages around and within us.
Sadly, those whose beliefs are most compatible with these deep truths - evangelical Christians - are least likely to accept the horror genre as an appropriate format for storytelling. The genre is viewed as too brutal, vicious, and terrifying to have any redeeming value. Christians are more prone to embrace the genres of action/adventure, comedy, drama, historical epic, western, romance, or even science fiction before they consider the positive value of horror stories.
Why is it that while our culture is drawn to horror, the church - the authority on the spiritual and transcendent, life after death, good and evil - runs from it? Do we care to address the questions our culture is wrestling with, or do we simply want to give tired answers to unasked questions? Horror and the issues it raises provide a window into the relevant concerns for our culture. If we care for our world, we ought to take note of the importance of horror as an "inspirational" genre.
Three Reasons Horror is Important
Three prominent aspects of horror stories reveal the importance of horror as a genre to communicate truth:
Horror stories embrace the supernatural. Most other genres (with the exception of fantasy and sometimes science fiction) largely ignore the transcendent realm for which we human beings so eagerly hunger.
In other genres, the experience of the transcendent is usually nothing more than an intensified experience of reality. For example, a man falls head over heels in love with a woman in a romantic comedy and experiences ecstatic bliss, or in a science fiction tale an alien injects a woman with a chemical that causes her to hallucinate and question reality. In both cases, there is no real interaction with another realm, whether supernatural or transcendent. Instead, there is merely a heightened sense of reality - a hyper-reality. What is experienced can be scientifically understood with sufficient empirical research.
In horror, characters interact with unknown aspects of reality. No amount of scientific observation can explain the supernatural mysteries that characters encounter. Horror presents us with a mysterious world full of transcendent realities and entities that cannot be explained or controlled.
This kind of world is closer to the world of the Bible than any other genre allows. We live in a world full of mystery, a world that is greater than our senses and bigger than our mind, a world that defies cold, precise, scientific explanations and demands that we admit our finitude. In this world, there is always more going on than meets the eye. Nothing is ever as it seems. Reality is bigger than the intellect. Mystery pervades all. Unseen personal forces - both benevolent and malevolent - interact with this world and its inhabitants. Whether it is an unseen army of angels (2 Kings 6:16-17) or evil powers and principalities that oppose all good (Ephesians 6:12), the Bible takes seriously the fact that the world is mysterious, supernatural, and charged with the transcendent.
Horror stories embrace the reality of both good and evil. Though conflict is at the heart of all stories, not all conflict is on the heightened scale of ultimate good versus ultimate evil.
In other genres, even when good and evil characters oppose one another, good and evil are usually limited to the individual's character rather than to a transcendent source of evil or good. In horror, the evil almost always seems to take on a life of its own. It exists in perpetual opposition to the power and cause of good. This evil is expressed in numerous ways, but always with the intention of bringing destruction, death, or even greater evil. It may sweep on a character unpredictably and strike with overwhelming power, or it might secretly and seductively camouflage itself for the kill. However evil attacks, its reality is unavoidable.
The Bible clearly paints a picture of a world where evil and good are ultimately real and in conflict. Evil powers rage against God - the ultimate source of good - seeking to steal, kill, and destroy. They employ deception and seduction to entice others to do their will, ultimately spawning more evil, bringing destruction and death in their wake. Just like evil monsters in horror stories who continually recover from seemingly fatal blows, the evil powers are flexible and powerful, refusing to "stay down." The ultimate source of evil, a fallen angel named Lucifer, Satan, or the Devil, prowls about the world like a ravenously hungry beast, seeking to devour and destroy all who cross his path. Like a caged and wounded animal whose arrogance refuses to allow him to admit defeat, his anger burns against all who would oppose him.
There really is an ultimate good and an extreme evil that stand in opposition. Clear battle lines are drawn and this world is the arena in which the war is waged. Though God and Satan are not equal forces (God is Creator and Lucifer is merely a creature), they are ultimate and eternal foes. The war is real, the consequences eternal, thus marking all present choices and actions with deep significance.
Horror stories embrace the tragedy of death. Other genres may deal with death, but horror is fixated upon it. At its most basic level, horror is about human fear of death.
Death brings life into focus. It is the "end" that forces us to evaluate all that preceded it. The one reality that no human being can ultimately escape is death. It is an inescapable experience that is common to us all. In spite of our every attempt to deny it, every one of us is slowly but surely creeping toward certain death. The body that provides us with so much joy and life will soon be a carcass, a rotting shell. This knowledge is overwhelming. We cannot bear it for too long. However, we must contemplate it regularly or we will deny the most certain reality of all. We will also miss out on all the wisdom that contemplating one's death brings. This tragic reality raises many important questions: What is the ultimate meaning of human life if every life ends in death? Can there be any meaning to life if death is the final straw that brings every house of straw crashing down? Is death really the end? Could there be life beyond the grave? If so, what is it like?
The Bible clearly embraces the reality of death. It teaches that human sinfulness incited through satanic deception has unleashed an avalanche of evil that leaves us all helpless in its wake. The climactic blow of the powers of evil is human death. Death is the sting that poisons our life until it finally takes it completely away. It is humanly impossible to escape the consciousness of this inevitable end. No matter how we try to remove this sting, it simply won't go away. All the distractions in the world cannot shield us from this ultimate - and horrifying - reality.
Perhaps one of the reasons Christians generally despise horror is because they - along with most of the world - prefer to remain oblivious to death. Failing to realize that the Christian religion provides the best answer to death's universal clutches in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christians tend to "think happy thoughts" rather than truly engage with reality. Scripture passages such as "Whatsoever is pure, whatsoever is noble, etc." are used as an excuse to neglect the most fundamental and observable aspect of the world we live in - the reality of continual, tragic, inevitable death.
We need horror to remind us of all we find convenient to forget. Horror's embrace of the supernatural, the reality of good and evil, and the tragedy of death reveal the importance of the horror genre as a communicator of truth.
The Fear of Death
The fear of death fuels horror stories. This fear is universal since death is immanent, inevitable, and unstoppable. At heart, every horror story is about our innate fear of death. Whether the fear is manifested through a random slasher, a mystery killer, a terrifying monster, or a perversion of immortality (e.g. Frankenstein, Dracula), the fear is the same: a person is endangered by an unspeakably powerful evil that threatens to destroy his or her most precious possession - life itself!
Many of the great classic monsters embody our fear of death, and even more importantly, our fear of the unknown, specifically, the uncharted territory of life after death. What life, if any, exists beyond the grave? If death must be experienced, is there any reason to hope that there is something better on the other side? If the classic monsters have anything to say to us, it is that immortality is a terrifying prospect, for death is simply the doorway to an even more frightening reality!
- Frankenstein represents the resurrection to death. Strewn together, a patchwork quilt of human remains, the Frankenstein monster exists eternally in a corruptible body. There is no hope of glory; only the experience of an eternal body of death.
- Dracula represents a resurrection to darkness - the life of an eternal parasite of humanity, killing in order to sustain his own perverted existence. Originally created by Bram Stoker as an antichrist figure, Christian objects such as a cross or holy water kept the vampire at bay. Born again into a life of eternal darkness, the parasite exists eternally as a carnivore of human meat, feeding on life in order to live.
- The Werewolf is a resurrection to a beastly existence. Eternal life is not the life of a god, but the life of an animal. Death is not an evolution to a more glorious existence, but degeneration into a beastly life.
- The Mummy is a resurrection to a cursed existence. Like Adam, those who set free the Mummy unleash the curse, bringing death in its wake. The eternally living-dead one, cloaked in the rags of death itself, exists only to bring misery and perpetuate the curse.
Whether it is a resurrection to an eternal body of death, unending darkness, perpetual beastliness, or everlasting cursedness, the message is the same: Death is not the end, but merely the doorway to an even more terrifying reality! The thing we fear most in this life - death - is not the end of agony, but simply the beginning of eternal torment. Life is tragic, followed by even greater tragedy. There are greater things to fear than death, namely, the eternal experience of death - a living death, a perverted immortality, a resurrection to a hellish existence that makes the worst moments of human life pale in comparison.
The classic monsters point toward an eternal hell consisting of death, darkness, beastliness, and cursedness. They remind us that there are worse things than our most feared reality - death. If the horrors of death were stretched out forever and experienced without end, as they are with the classic monsters, then our greatest fear would be multiplied by eternity, guaranteeing eternal torment without hope of change.
Central to the Bible's message is the message of resurrection. Death is not the final word because death has been swallowed up by life through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus fully embraced and absorbed the sting of death. He rose to incorruptible glory and promises his followers the same resurrection - a resurrection to glory. This hope takes away the fear of death by removing its sting. Though we will still die, death is not the doorway to an even worse reality, but the beginning of eternal joy, life, and love. Death is not eternal, but will eventually meet its own end (1 Corinthians 15:20-28; Revelation 20:13-14).
The classic monsters are somewhat dated in our contemporary culture. They don't quite have the "punch" they used to have. Perhaps it is because our culture is not concerned with life after death as much as it is with life before death. For this reason, many contemporary horror stories revolve around random slashers, serial killers, mystery killers, and monsters.
- Random slashers reveal our fear of unpredictable evil in a chaotic world. Out of nowhere, and for seemingly no reason, the slasher strikes out against innocent victims. With further analysis, we usually find out that the slashers' victims are usually not so innocent after all. Often, they are sexually immoral in some way. The evil is significant enough that the slasher metes out justice in a twisted way. The wages of sin is death and the slasher violently dishes out judgment.
- Mystery killers and serial killers reveal that the threat of death walks among us in business casual. They look like us, sound like us, and act like us, with one great difference: behind the harmless exterior is the mind of a killer. These stories play on our fears that evil is never far away, in fact, it could be as close as our quiet next-door neighbor. The idea of "evil in the ordinary" also fuels haunted house and haunted wood stories. What is more common than houses or woods? And yet, what rich sources of terror these ordinary places can be!
- Monsters embody our collective fears. Whatever our fear, when it is blown to monstrous proportions it can consume and destroy ourselves and others.
The Bible teaches that "senseless" and unpredictable evil can often inflict even the best of us. The book of Job is a perfect example of this. It also teaches that evil surrounds us and is found in the most unlikely of places - even the most ordinary of places. Finally, it also communicates that our own fears can be our own undoing, rendering us helpless and useless in life.
When horror stories are viewed as embodying our fears in all their multifaceted forms, we are better able to understand how they can communicate truth. Evil is real. Evil really opposes good. Horror takes evil and good seriously, just like the Bible does. Because of this, it is a fertile field for creative and uplifting - even, inspirational - writing.
Surviving the Horror
In order to survive the dangers presented in horror stories, characters must do at least three things: accept the horror, face their fears, and fight the evil. These three aspects provide a window into what it means to be good. In so doing, they present us with a strong narrative framework to guide our own response to evil.
Accept the horror. Evil is so terrifyingly horrific that it is certainly more comfortable to refuse to accept its reality. However, denying the reality of evil does not make it go away. If anything, it makes it stronger. When a character in a horror story is ignorant of evil or refuses to accept it, they are doomed. They will almost certainly end up dead.
Contrary to what one might expect, most Christians have a hard time accepting evil as a terrifying reality. This is why horror movies are largely neglected and rejected by Christians.
If we are to learn from horror survivors, we must first accept the reality and horror of evil. It steals, rapes, destroys, maims, dismembers, decapitates, invades, and drains the life of its victims. It is not a pleasant reality. It is almost always ugly.
Rising out of a trash heap full of decayed human remains a naked man writhes in agony on an ingeniously simple wooden torture instrument devised to maximize human pain and suffering. The man is surrounded by angry people who only seek to increase his misery, mocking him, spitting upon him, and tormenting him with their words and actions. Painful screams echo through the unnaturally dark sky filled with hosts of angels and demons warring for the soul of humanity as the only truly good man who ever lived suffers the torments of hell and the uninhibited rage of human sin. "Why, oh why have you forgotten me?" the dying victim pleads to God. His tortured lament does not deny God, nor does it deny human evil. Instead, his cry of abandonment embraces both the reality of God and the horrors of evil. His ordeal ends as the man, in spite of any observable signs of goodness or grace, commits his destiny unto God. What appears to be the triumph of evil is actually the triumph of goodness and righteousness. The man's bloody sacrifice brings redemption to the world! Light, life, and love spring forth - indeed, are found in the midst - of this truly horrifying scene!
Obviously, there is more here than meets the eye. The "ordinary" death occurs against the backdrop of supernatural realities. The transcendent power of good meets evil on its own turf and completely absorbs it. Death is embraced in all its ugliness and conquered by the only being who could do so - the sinless, spotless Lamb of God who refused to overcome evil with evil, but through self-denying, surrendered love overcame evil with good. Just as in good horror, evil is shown to be horrific - destructive, inhuman, and terrifying - and good is demonstrated as a greater power, bringing life, redemption, and hope.
It is only in light of the horrors of death that the greatness of Christ's sacrifice can be understood, appreciated, and embraced. Remove the horror and the cross becomes a sterile, sanitized, religious object. Accept the horror and the cross shines with the glory of a thousand worlds.
Perhaps we Christians need to learn to sing more lament songs (over 1/3rd of the 150 Psalms - the hymnbook of ancient Israel - are lament songs). Maybe this would put us more in touch with the horrible cries of a suffering humanity. Perhaps we simply need to seriously meditate upon what we confess is at the heart of our faith - the cross in all its ugliness, revealing human and demonic evil in graphic clarity.
Face your fears. Once the reality of evil is accepted, it must be faced. Some characters in horror stories come to accept the evil, but only in the shocked and immobile stance of fear that renders them easy prey to evil.
Likewise, it does no good to recognize evil and then hide from it. Most characters in horror stories that become aware of evil but do nothing about it (or worse, seek to run from it) usually end up dead. The moral: to be aware of evil and to do nothing about it eventually results in one's own undoing.
Christians are called to have courage in the face of fear. Fear immobilizes and leaves us quivering victims of our own unwillingness to act. For this reason, the Scripture repeatedly calls us to "fear not." We must learn to face our fears if we are to conquer evil. This calls for courage, which is never the absence of fear, but the willingness to act even though we are afraid. Evil remains ever threatening, but if we give in to our own fears, we are nothing but sitting ducks.
Fight the evil. Evil is not meant to be accepted but opposed. Evil must not be opposed with evil - which only strengthens evil - but with good. Even though we may not always agree with what defines evil and good in a horror story, the fact that evil must be extinguished by good is central to the horror genre - and to the whole of Christian ethics.
Christians are called to oppose evil with good, even to the point of death, if necessary. Many times in horror stories, the main character must give up their own life for the sake of others. In this way, they resemble Christ, losing their life that others may live.
People write and watch horror because we live in a world full of sin, suffering, and evil. No one is exempt from wrestling with the problem of evil. It is this universal problem that often finds its most graphic portrayal in the stories that horror writers create.
Horror's embrace of the supernatural, the reality of good and evil, and the tragedy of death reveal the importance of the horror genre as a communicator of truth. The human fear of death that is embodied in every major horror story sheds light on the human situation and helps us understand our responses to our own certain death. The means characters use to survive the horrors of evil - accepting, facing, and fighting - teach us how to engage with our own personal demons.
Horror is a fertile field for meaningful storytelling. Let us not neglect it simply because it seems so brutal, vicious, and terrifying. If we did the same thing in regard to our faith, we would never again reflect upon the cross - a brutal, vicious, and terrifying reality indeed!
© Richard J. Vincent, 2003
Postscript: Check out Brian Godawa's Theology of Horror Movies -- an article I discovered after writing the essay above.