horror & the holy, part 1
I love horror. I really do. For my birthday I watched Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes and Michael Bay’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with several friends of mine. I’m currently working my way through the complete works of H. P. Lovecraft, hoping to present research on the topic in Rhode Island this year. As I write, I have re-runs of Kolchak: The Night Stalker playing in the background. I’ve made minor contributions to the nightmare-craft myself. And, with a growing stack of rejection notes, I’m going to keep going. Why, exactly?
In addressing why horror is relevant to me as a Christian, I have to begin by admitting the most foundational of things – I find it entertaining. At the end of the day, there are simply those of us who love ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night. The thrills of the unknown, the unexpected, and the ‘ought not’ are sometimes their own rewards. Those who feel as I do, you need no more justification in my book.
But to those who are skeptical, and rightly so, about the spiritual merits of the grotesque, let me first say that I’m not writing this article to try and convert you. Rather I hope to give you a bit more to consider, as you may roll your eyes and cross yourselves at those of us who love getting goose-bumps. Indeed, I suppose my audience here is mainly those who find the ideas of horror at-odds with sanctifying spirituality, especially considering my article on Philippians 4:8. In this short series I hope to offer another, more encouraging perspective by examining the relationship between horror and the holy. This first entry will examine some moral elements, and later I will discuss a more metaphysical side of the coin.
Most everyone is familiar with “classical” horror – Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, each of these stories is monstrous, but also fundamentally moral. The latter two explore the frightening limits of science in the hands of fallible humans in what Noel Carroll called the “underside of the Enlightenment”, while in Dracula, Bram Stoker explored more spiritual and psychological themes with the same hints of warning. This sort of moral teaching can certainly be seen as at least compatible with Christianity.
But there is another layer to horror, a more ‘cosmic’ element, to note the tradition that H. P. Lovecraft established in the 1920s. “The power of fear stems from the feeling that things are falling apart as the familiar and the comfortable yield to the unknown and the strange,” says Stephen King in Danse Macabre (1981). Horror, at its most effective, is an imposition of chaos more crippling than any single monster.
In his essay, ‘Through a Mirror, Darkly: Art-Horror as a Medium for Moral Reflection” (2010), Asbury Theological Seminary professor Philip Tallon perhaps says it best: “Think of just about any horror film and you will find that it works upon us by tearing down some boundary we had in place, but perhaps forgot was there… The key element is a sense of violation.” The main purpose of the horror genre, then, is to remind us of what ought not be. When Victor Frankenstein’s monster goes on a rampage, we know that the real crime lies in the doctor’s toying with the forces of life. Dracula’s power over human will in Stoker’s story is unsettling and irreverent, undermining what it means to be an individual. Even in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the storm of severed limbs in a way asserts the idea of human dignity – in presenting dismantled humans, Romero reminded us that humans ought not to be treated this way.
Horror prods at this sensitivity to transgression within all of us, and being afraid reminds us that there is yet a way things are supposed to be; that not everything is permissible no matter what we may argue.
For the Christian writer, horror presents the opportunity to battle back against the more unsavory or dangerous aspects of a pluralistic, relativist culture. Art allows us to engage in the impossible and the theoretical and, much like Romero, the Christ-minded artist can dig up great truths by exploring the dark side of the hypothetical. As Tallon says, the representation of evil itself is a vehicle for invoking the need for the good. This strategy has been used to great effect from within the Christian community – names like Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker are common enough in evangelical circles – but perhaps none have wielded such command of the “actual anatomy of the terrible” as Catholic author Flannery O’Connor. Foregoing the use of the overtly supernatural, O’Connor’s work explored human nature and the horrors we inflict on one another. O’Connor may not have written about vampires, werewolves, or Great Old Ones, but her fiction does have a ‘cosmic’ edge to it in the sense that its themes are very implicative: “If [Jesus didn’t raise the dead],” says The Misfit in ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’, “then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can – by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”
In my corner of cyberspace, we call this sort of thing “high octane nightmare fuel.”
If exploring these corners, the responsible Christian artist will engage the grotesque by using it to emphasize the lovely in some way, and in the horror genre, this often involves bringing the lovely under attack. As the Mosaic Law was less about achieving holiness than demonstrating human futility beside the holiness and grace of God, so the Christian treatment of horror should not be an end in itself – rather the evil of transgression should emphasize the holiness of what is being aggressed.
In the next part, we will discuss how horror not only works on a moral level, but also how it can serve as a Practice of the Presence.
In addition to writing horror stories, Lyle Enright also works with Relief Journal and has done much research on this topic under the advising eye of Relief editor-in-chief and Trinity International University professor, Brad Fruhauff. He will begin pursuing his MA in the fall, and hopes to continue exploring horror’s place in literary criticism.