Horror: A Christian Perspective

­ID-10090392Can 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. ID-100200762 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  how-long-would-you-survive-in-a-horror-film-jun-6-2012-5-600x400 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.

[i] Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christians Religion. Chapter 3
[ii] Taken from chapter 5 of Meaning at the Movies: Becoming a Discerning Viewer, by Grant Horner (Crossway).

  8 comments for “Horror: A Christian Perspective

  1. Kyo
    February 11, 2014 at 8:40 am

    Hi Tyrell,
    I thoroughly disagree. From personal experience and from seeing the effect horror has on others I have met. A horror watched once, maybe, ok. But this article makes an excuse to watch a horror “whenever”. And by my own understanding you do not interpret Philipians 4:8 correctly. What about “eyes the windows to the soul” and why were there laws to kill anyone partaking of certain sins in the OT, and those things which you should not speak of and Romans 16:19 about being innocent of what is evil.
    Have you looked at [secular] studies on the effect of horror (or just movies for that matter) on the viewer? I had a friend who “liked” to watch horror and at one stage watched SAWIII, the next few days he was almost psycho! Now (generally) if one watches horror of a mild kind you eventual will go and watch things like SAW and the exorcist.
    From a personal perspective I watched a few horrors (as an innocence back in the day), things like Urban Legend, 300 (moral horror) and even horrific anime. This puts evil thoughts in ones head… I won’t be graphic here… the BIBLE has enough.
    Do you know what studies say about most serial killers in the USA?
    On the other hand dwelling on things that are beautiful, the night sky, flowers, kindness etc. help one better appreciate God and His Glory and moves one to praise him about things He created.
    No. Don’t watch horror.
    Rom 16:19 For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.
    Php 4:8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

    • tyrellh
      February 11, 2014 at 9:18 am

      Hi Kenton.

      Thanks for your engaged response. I do thing you are being slightly disingenuous by saying that this makes a case for watching it whenever, I do begin by saying, “…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).”

      Furthermore you mention the SAW franchise despite my point that, “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.”

      Other that that, I would appreciate your reasoning as to why my interpretation of Phil 4:8 is off, and that squares with the content of the Old Testament? Like the story of the raping of Tamar or Lot’s daughters making him drunk and sleeping with him?

      I think there is room for movies like the Exorcist. But it will come down to filters in a persons mind. Not everyone can deal with the art form and grasp the lessons learned. Hence my opening statement.

      regarding the effects it has on people. You will remember Jesus said, its not what enters a man that defiles him, but that which comes from within. people who are negatively influenced by horror either dont have the right kind of filters and worldview to handle it, or are just being shown an outlet for something they are already disposed to in their heart.

      dwelling on beautiful things is great and important, and art helps us do that, but that is not the only thing that is ‘True’, suffering is true, as is violence, corruption creed, injustice. That is reality, and as Christians we do want to be engaged with reality lest we have an unrealistic picture of a world without God, and soon lose the need for Him altogether.

      having said that, Let me end where I began: don’t go against conscience, don’t do things which cause you to stumble. I appreciate where you are coming from and will give it more thought. We need to be careful however to give our applications of Scripture, the same authority as the content of Scripture, otherwise soon we may be condemning men who pluck grain on the Sabbath.

      • deeprkyoo
        February 11, 2014 at 8:38 pm

        Yes, ok. I think you have clarified one or two things better here and I agree with your last paragraph specifically. And yes, I admit some people are better at dwelling on the “Holy” things after watching a horror. But I do think, even with a “mild” horror one needs to be cautious, and if given a choice avoid watching the fantasies of some psycho writer. Ultimately the Spirit is our Guard and I understand that He causes us to feel convicted if we dwell too much on that which is not of God… (I trust this is Biblical?). On the other hand, those few acts of those in the BIBLE were “approved”, if you will, for the conviction of people by men of God. Horror movies are made by evil people meditating on horror to conceive wicked movies for the masses to watch. (OK I am generalizing a bit, as the passion of Christ, although not 100%true-to-the-event, is in a way horrific too).
        Maybe the best example I can give is Harry Potter… not exactly horrific in the beginning (and I read the first 4 volumes twice). I did not know this at the time I read the books and thought they were really well written books, which they are. But. After a elder someone (in his 80s) told me about the story and its effect I went back and studied my own (apparently unchanged) “attitude”. I was horrified to discover the truth of my change in thinking and remembered how at first, before reading them, I thought they were evil.
        Plucking grain on the Sabbath, and eating the show-bread was for the nourishment of God’s people.
        My reasoning for reading the Harry Potter books was exactly inline with your reasoning here. But I am convicted for associating or equaling myself with the world that enjoys the books. We should be in the world but not of the world and dwell on those things that nourish us. Lot was in a bad place but I understand he despised that acts of the people there? As with Nehemiah and Jeremiah etc.( and Jesus)
        Although you may not know all, you know better that anybody some of the struggles I went through… movies and books like this were part of the reason. Joining with God’s people in fellowship and “good” things and spending time with God in prayer and the Word is what caught me from this path to Sheol. I think there is more wickedness that will do to us by watching (obvious) movies written by people who are not of God. Maybe living in the type of environment I do, things like horror and gangster and crime movies are more real as we deal with it at least once a day here.
        Anyway, let my words not convict anyone, but let God’s words. I do think we should seriously consider what we do and whether we can better spend our energy somewhere else. We should strive to be Holy and this is one area I too, fail terribly. I love you brother and I appreciate your blog, it is way more than I could do. God bless you.

      • tyrellh
        February 11, 2014 at 8:59 pm

        Thanks for your comment. Ther is alot I could say, but let me enourage you to get hold of a book called Lit! About how Christians can engage with non-Christian literature. i think you are not giving enough crdit to the truth o the image of God in all mankind.

        Also, I know of a number of directors of horror movies who ar self proclaimed Christians seeking to create an awarness as I havr described above.

        And lastly, you best example of using Harry Potter is par of the reason I write posts like this. J.K. Rowling is not a self proclaimed satanist at all, in fact she passionatly denies this, if you can produce one credible source showing otherwise I will be surprised. That idea has been coined by fundamentalist Christians who refuse to have a carefully considered view on things, not that I am saying you dont have one, just those who start such pernicious rumours. The witness of the gospel is I am sure serverly damaged in her life as a result of these kinds of claims.

      • Kyo
        February 12, 2014 at 12:21 pm

        @Geoff. You should come live were I am for a while
        @ Tyrell
        Lit. Ok.
        My comment about JKR was based on some reading on her website i did about 8 years ago and also a TV interview. It is possible that I got the “self proclaimed” part wrong. Will try find it again to check… 8 years on the web is long though…. Anyway does not detract from the point that her books do influence a large number of people to search into magic and the black arts. Will post references I find.

  2. David Wade
    February 11, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    Very interesting read Tyrell

  3. Geoff L.R.
    February 11, 2014 at 9:40 pm

    Hi T. Great blog. keep it up..!! I feel that (some) of these movies portray a sense of Spiritual warfare that is happening within peoples lives (sometimes quite over the top), as you say: “Remember that there is really a spiritual battle going on”. Do you think it is possible to “see” or “feel” this warfare? Do you think it is possible for people to have a tangible connection to this spiritual barrier – in this day in age? or is this a perverse (or fake) illusion created via today’s media. I was just thinking about these kids that killed that girl in Linmeyer. (set her a light for a satanic ritual) – Is this apart of that “war” or were these children just VERY misguided? Sorry for the hectic comment – but need some clarity on this issue.

    • tyrellh
      February 17, 2014 at 9:41 am

      Hey Geoff. I do think it is possible, and have been involved in some of that years ago for quiet a while. However, what seems odd to me is that in the New Testament, the demonic which would have been far more active before the cross didn’t seem to manifest or work in the same way people claim it does today. I think a lot of it is illusion, as well as psychological trickery (we all know the way out imagination goes wild after a scary movie, how much more so if one thinks they are summoning Satan?).

      So those kids are really misguided, perhaps led on by demons in the end (demons gave them the desires of the heart), but no more so then a person how blows themself up as a sacrifice killing for another respected religion, or a man who sits in his own waste and filth for years neglecting his family because he thinks he has achieved enlightenment.

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