Can Christians watch Horror or does the entire genre have nothing redeemable about it? I had never given it much thought till a conversation with a friend recently who got me thinking about the issue. It needs to be said from the outset that your own ideas of how art is supposed to function as well as what you think about culture is going to have a huge impact on how you read this article. If I had thought about this in my more fundamental days, I would come out with a totally different conclusion than I have. So in that vein, I want to say that I understand the perspective of those who are totally against horror, and I am by no means suggesting that people should go against their conscience or do something that makes them uncomfortable in any unhelpful way (yes, there is a helpful way).
What is Fear? One of the biggest elements in the Horror genre is fear but what is fear? The dictionary defines fear as: an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm.. So at face value it may seem odd that we would want to ignite this emotion. It’s rather strange when you think about it, but humans enjoy stories that bring about the negative and uncomfortable emotion of fear. What happens psychologically when we provoke fear in ourselves? Grant Horner a Christian author explains it like this, “Anytime we watch a movie, we manage quite an amazing feat. On the one hand, we know that what we are experiencing is fiction; it is carefully constructed, produced, and presented as if it is naturally occurring in our conscious experience of the real world.” This is how movies (a type of art) actually ‘transport’ us. That is one thing which art is meant to do. When we watch a film, we are really multitasking and we don’t realize it. We function as two different people, one grounded in reality, and one wandering in fantasy. What happens though when we are in a fantasy land of terror; even though we know it’s not real? To grasp this we need to understand the source of a very different kind of fear: the fear of God. There are two kinds of fear of God; there is the reverential, awe and fear that trusts in the all powerful God of the universe.And then there is the fear unbelievers have of God, they fear that they may be wrong or in the fear of judgement, even if it is only vague feeling. The attitude we have towards God – respect, submission, awe, thankfu lness – has been suppressed. Thus instead of fearing God, people find a number of other things to fear instead; however if we rightly feared God, we would not incorrectly fear anything else. Consider how Calvin explains this:
They all, indeed, look out for hiding-places where they may conceal themselves from the presence of the Lord, and again efface it from their mind; but after all their efforts they remain caught within the net. Though the conviction may occasionally seem to vanish for a moment, it immediately returns, and rushes in with new impetuosity, so that any interval of relief from the gnawing of conscience is not unlike the slumber of the intoxicated or the insane, who have no quiet rest in sleep, but are continually haunted with dire horrific dreams. Even the wicked themselves, therefore, are an example of the fact that some idea of God always exists in every human mind[i]. (emphasis my own)
As Calvin points out there is a God whom we ought to fear naturally, but as Romans 1 says we have suppressed this truth. However powerful truths like this cannot be totally and constantly suppressed. This is how the art of fear brings pleasure: “If God (and fear of him) has been removed from the forefront of our conscious minds, yet we are “built to fear” something infinitely greater than ourselves, something awesome, terrifying, mysterious, and incomprehensible, then we find ourselves predisposed to replace fear of him with fear of something.[ii]” Thus the fear of God is meant to bring pleasure in the goodness of God, but since unbelievers can’t fear God in a pleasure bringing way, they create other things to fear instead. Fiction is a coping mechanism through which suppressed truths slowly re-emerge in bits and pieces, despite our attempts to bury reality. The very powerful, reality-replacing narrative art of film, can present to us an entirely convincing object of fear that has nevertheless been controlled, restrained, and cheapened to a manageable package. One moment we are terrified in the dark theatre—the next we are walking to the coffee shop laughing with our friends. Not so with God.
Ok, But What Can We Learn? Firstly, horror can be used as a teaching tool. Over the centuries horrors has been used to teach morality. In fact the best horror stories have an underlying morality that it is trying to feed its audience. Think about Frankenstein; here we are taught about the repercussions that may occur if man tries to play God by creating life and how society reacts to the unknown/strange. Horror has been used by many a dispensationalist Christian in the past by sharing a literalistic view of revelation and thus trying to scare people to the cross through film (consider the ‘Thief in the Night’ or the more recent ‘Left behind’ series).
Secondly, horror can be used as a warning. Who wants to be like Hansel and Gretel? ‘Oh, so you don’t want to end up as food to a wicked witch, then don’t take candy from strangers.’ This story uses dread to teach children right and wrong actions.
Thirdly, God uses horror. In Deuteronomy 28:37 we Read, “You shall become a horror, a proverb, and a taunt among all people where the Lord drives you.” Notice here how God is putting horror together with proverbs and taunts. God knows people use horror and is saying here that he will turn Israel into a horror story. (cf. 2 Chronicles 30:7, Jeremiah 42:18, Ezekiel 5:15)
Fourth, horror externalizes evil. It shows a more realistic picture of what our sin looks like. Proverbs 7:26 describes a prostitute like this, “Let not your heart turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths, for many a victim has she laid low, and all her slain are a mighty throng. Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death.” Every monster, every villain in a horror movie with their ugly faces and destructive ways are showing us something about sin. It’s a loud blaring siren saying, “this is what your greed looks like, this is what your lust looks like….”. Horror helps us grasp the truly ugliness of sin. A further but related point, horror helps us understand the consequences of sin. If evil in a horror is an externalization of evil, than the death, pain and terror the evil in a movie evokes is a pale comparison with the destructiveness of your own sin. In a horror film we are able to see that evil wants to destroy us, and those around us, and we see it in a very vivid, gripping way.
Lastly, if horror shows us an externalisation of evil, it also teaches us something about mortification. Mortification is a word which means ‘put to death’, and in Scripture it is used in relation to sin. In the horror movie, the protagonist can not deal with the evil antagonist in a lackadaisical way. The hero has to kill and destroy the villain at any cost, using all their might. In the same way you have to put to death the enemy of your own and other people’s souls. We are taught how seriously to take our own sin, lest it destroy us and others.
Philippians 4:8 commends us, “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” When we consider this passage, we have to admit that Horror can reveal truth, honour and righteousness. Horror can clear the lines between what is lovely and good and what is not. There may be some horror out there that is totally unredeemable, like the kind that has been termed ‘gore porn’, but there is definitely some out there that is beneficial to those who follow Christ.
So next time you are at the movies, and you happen to watch a horror, use it for God’s glory. Remind yourself that the evil in this film is not half as ugly or destructive as your own sin, that’s what Christ came to defeat and free you from. Remember that there is really a spiritual battle going on, as you see fictional darkness portrayed in art, know that there is a real spiritual battle that is just as tenacious. As you see the lengths people have to go to in order to defeat the wicked menace, remember that fighting sin requires just as much dedication and sacrifice.