Redeeming Horror

How the Genre Can Be Tamed and Reclaimed for Good

Unofficially, October is horror season. I took an informal poll among friends the other day about it, and most of the responses I got were of the “No, thanks” variety. This isn’t so surprising, since most of my survey group identifies as Christian and skews toward the Boomer end of the spectrum. I don’t gravitate toward the genre myself, but plenty of others do. Variety magazine reported that box office receipts for it surpassed the $1 billion mark in 2017. And, so, since it has its fans, I want to ask that we not eschew it too quickly.

First, a personal story. About a year ago, I got to talking with a young friend, a Gen Z-er, about horror movies. He’s a big fan, you might say an aficionado, and he invited me to watch one with him, because, he said, he wanted to hear what I thought of it. “Okay, sure, I’m game,” I said. “Only no slashers. I’m not into gratuitous blood, guts, or gore.”

About a week later, we watched Hereditary, a 2018 blockbuster about, at the risk of oversimplifying it, deceased family members haunting their survivors. I didn’t exactly “enjoy” the flick (horror is still not my cup of tea), but I did very much enjoy the conversation we had afterward. We talked about whether there might be life after death. We talked about good and evil and whether there might be unseen spiritual realities in the world. These themes literally drove the storyline and pervaded nearly every scene. He’d said he wanted to hear my thoughts, so I gave them to him unfiltered – all from the perspective of my politically incorrect, Judeo-Christian-informed worldview. He listened, pushing back here or there, but in a friendly back-and-forth kind of way, and we’ve talked further about these matters since. None of this would have happened if I had said, “No, thanks. I don’t do horror.”

One thing that can be said for horror is that it openly defies stifling materialist presuppositions. Its themes are often psychological or spiritual in nature, and this can provide ripe ground for exploring deep, existential questions about reality. Here are two examples of Christian thinkers who have taken that approach. They are both worth reading in full, but here’s the gist of what they wrote:

American Nightmare: Hew Hit TV Series Is Haunted by Infidelity and Abortion: In this article from the Salvo archives, literature professor Karen Swallow Prior analyzes Season 1 of FX’s American Horror Story. Its storyline centers on a house and the people who inhabit it over time. The theme of Season One, according to the creators, was infidelity, which they called “the monster in the closet” that “can destroy and haunt you.” Sexual infidelity unites the storylines of all the major characters, Prior notes, who are inescapably haunted, if not imprisoned, by the consequences of their own guilty acts. The narrative also touches on another “monster” related to infidelity in that the original owner of the house was an abortionist, and the house is said to be haunted by babies who died under his roof.

In The Haunting of Hill House, pastor and teacher Anthony Weber takes a look at Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, which also centers on a house. In this case, the unifying theme is a pervasive hunger or emptiness, which hangs over everything like a pall and which various characters try to fill with either money or alcohol or drugs or something else, taking no thought for the trail of broken people they leave in the wake of their insatiable drives.

Both Prior and Weber note that there are troublesome elements in these shows, but what I hope you’ll see is that within the narratives of these stories lie discernible truths about reality. Moreover, they raise major existential questions for which Christianity offers real answers. While secular psychology has nearly redefined guilt out of existence, Christianity has for millennia been saying that not only is guilt real but that there is a remedy for it. And while pop culture pushes the message that, “You are enough,” Netflix serves up a dramatic depiction of what Blaise Pascal observed more than three centuries ago – that there is a “God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing.”

To be sure, these biblically resonant themes aren’t stated overtly. They’re just there, waiting for someone to identify them, draw them out, and provide a wider context into which they can be placed.

That’s where you and I come in, and here’s a tailor-made opportunity. Christian filmmakers Brian Ivie, producer of The Drop Box (2015) and Emanuel (2019), and Steven Siwek of Glory Unlimited, have teamed up to make a short (six minutes) thriller with the express purpose of opening up spaces for engaging in this kind of conversation. Cinematically, Flesh & Blood is spot-on horror. There’s suspense. There’s ambiguity. It draws you in and raises questions but doesn’t answer them. And that is the objective. To make it even easier for the horror averse, Siwek has written a short discussion guide for youth leaders or parents to help spark conversations. They’re releasing it all, free, on Halloween.

Historically, we’ve thought of Christian missionaries as those who go to where unreached people are geographically. Here’s an opportunity to go to where they are conceptually. If you know someone who’s a horror fan, look at what Dr. Prior and Pastor Weber did, and then consider going and doing likewise. Click here to check out Flesh & Blood when it goes live on Halloween.

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

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