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Christianity and Horror Redux: From Knee-Jerk Revulsion to Critical Engagement

Some of the more interesting responses I get to the inclusion of my interests in horror, science fiction, and fantasy in my Blogger profile are disgust and concern from evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants. Some have labeled such interests “macabre,” and others have wondered how someone professing a commitment to Christian spirituality could enjoy such things.

While I have touched on this in passing in previous posts, I thought I would use my participation in a “synchroblog” on Christianity and film to share a few thoughts specifically addressing this topic.

Soon after my embrace of Christianity I felt as if I had to dispose of my sci fi and fantasy memorabilia collection and move beyond my interests in these genres. After all, the conservative faith community I was involved with said this was the Christian thing to do. Only many years later did I discover other Christians who enjoyed and embraced such things, but many of us were hesitant to share such interests with other Christians.

Why do many Christians have such concerns with horror? In venturing an answer to this question I recall the comments of Bryan Stone of Boston University School of Theology in an article he wrote titled “The Sanctification of Fear: Images of the Religious in Horror Films” for The Journal of Religion and Film. In his discussion of religion as it relates to horror he wrote, “Other than pornography, horror is the film genre least amenable to religious sensibilities. It offends, disgusts, frightens, and features the profane, often in gruesome and ghastly proportions.” But after listing these reasons why many religious people take exception to horror he continues and states:

“Yet, from the earliest Faustian dramas to vampire legends and accounts of demon-possession to more recent apocalyptic nightmares, horror films have tended to rely heavily on religious themes, symbols, rituals, persons, and places. That is, of course, due (at least in part) to the fact that many of the cultural themes of horror films overlap with traditionally religious concerns (or at least Western religious concerns) such as sin and redemption, life after death, the struggle between evil and good, or the presence of the supernatural.”

But if horror provokes a negative reaction on the part of many religious people, particularly Christians of the Protestant branch of Christendom, but horror films also touch in many ways on religious concerns, how might the negative reactions be explained? I’d like to offer a few suggestions as possibilities.

First, in my opinion evangelicalism still has a long way to go in developing a largely positive interaction with aspects of popular culture, particularly film, and most notably certain genres such as horror. I think the modes of engagement still tends toward avoidance and caution rather than dialogue and critical engagement (to use some of Robert Johnston’s typology in his book reel spirituality).

Second, the horror genre, along with science fiction and fantasy, are not, in general, taken as seriously as other genres of film. Even though these genres have produced some of the highest grossing films in history (as Jaws, E.T. and Star Wars indicate), they still tend to represent marginalized genres, particularly for evangelicals.

Third, in my view Western Protestantism suffers from a lack of a sacred or sacramentalized view of the imagination as an expression of the image of God. Theologies of the fall result in a view the imagination as suspect, and the emphasis is placed on rationality rather than creativity and imagination. This leads to a lack of appreciation for genres of film that thrive in an environment of imagination and an overemphasis on negative aspects associated with the imagination to the neglect of positive considerations.

Fourth, many Christians hold to a caricature of occultism or Western esotericism, and Neo-Paganism that are then equated with horror and other cultural phenomena like Halloween or the Mexican Dia de los Muertos celebration. Little if any solid connections are made and the resulting views then become a source of folk knowledge and “common sense” thinking that is rarely questioned.

Fifth, I believe the dominant position of Christianity in the West in the past has contributed to a lack of an ability to think empathetically, objectively, and carefully about other perspectives assumed to be outside of the circle of Christendom. As Lint Hatcher stated in his interview on this blog, the attitude is “shoot first and ask questions later,” and many times no questions are asked later. The shooting is done, the “evil” target is eradicated, no questions are necessary. Thus, the eradication of perceived cultural threats such as horror, equated with the decay of culture rather than an indicator of the continuing interest in the spiritual, is fueled by the increasing marginalization of Christianity in the West.

Sixth, as a result of the equation between horror and “the occult” many Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists hold to a simplistic and unreflective theology that boils down to little more than the practice of citing various biblical texts that touch on cultural contamination and divination (selectively cited) as evidence that Christianity and horror are not compatible. None of the texts that are cited are revisited in their original contexts, nor are they re-engaged as part of a broader theology of cultural engagement. This unfortunate situation seems to indicate that evangelicals lack theological depth in a creation theology, a pneumatolology that connects the Spirit to creation and all of life, a lack of a theology of fantasy and imagination, and a deficient thanatology.

Seventh, related to the last theological item mentioned above, I believe one of the reasons why Christians find horror so disconcerting is that they have a difficult time interacting with a genre where death and bodily mortification are major features. Perhaps this indicates a subtle form of neo-gnosticism in evangelical attitudes.

It will come as no surprise that I belive this view, while popular in evangelical circles, is problematic. As noted in the quote from Bryan Stone above, some of the major issues related to horror and religion overlap each other, and as a result, this makes horror (and the related genres of science fiction and fantasy) ideal vehicles for the exploration of religious and spiritual concerns. This was echoed by Christian filmmaker Scott Derrickson in connection with his film The Exorcism of Emily Rose. As he said in an interview for Christianity Today:

“In my opinion, the horror genre is a perfect genre for Christians to be involved with. I think the more compelling question is, Why do so many Christians find it odd that a Christian would be working in this genre? To me, this genre deals more overtly with the supernatural than any other genre, it tackles issues of good and evil more than any other genre, it distinguishes and articulates the essence of good and evil better than any other genre, and my feeling is that a lot of Christians are wary of this genre simply because it’s unpleasant. The genre is not about making you feel good, it is about making you face your fears. And in my experience, that’s something that a lot of Christians don’t want to do.”

Rather than sounding alarm bells over Christian involvement in horror I’d like to see evangelicals calling for more Christian involvement in this arena, along with science fiction and fantasy. It’s been a long dry spell since C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien penned their tales of the fantastic. We need others working in these genres, new “theological-imagineers,” if you will. It would seem especially needful in light of the thinking of scholars like Christopher Partridge who argue that popular culture now serves as a religious “text” for many, and religious and spiritual ideas frequently surface in film, particularly in horror, sci fi, and fantasy, and such pop cultural artifacts are quickly consumed by a growing “occulture” in the Western world.

It’s time for Christians engaging this segment of popular culture to move beyond knee-jerk revulsion and into critical engagement.

Comment Pages

There are 32 Comments to "Christianity and Horror Redux: From Knee-Jerk Revulsion to Critical Engagement"

  • Adam Gonnerman says:

    Very good evaluation.

    When I began the path of discipleship at age 17, I held on to watching sci-fi and reading fantasy, but my AD&D interest went underground. At least, I didn’t let church people know about it.

    My first year at Bible College, a young lady who had helped at a church camp that summer talked about how scandalized she was that one of the campers had admitted to playing D&D, but refused to see anything wrong with it.

    The evangelical subculture, especially in the U.S., really needs to step back and take a deep breath.

  • Pastor Phil says:

    John,

    Thanks for jumping in on this SynchroBlog. I love this post. In October we have the opportunity to give a live presentation which touches on the themes of redemption, salvation in a horror context. In preparing for this event I have only begun to see the possibilities which horror provides as a vehicle for the Gospel.

    Thanks for the insight here.

  • KPaffenroth says:

    All your points are quite on the mark, I’d say, but I’d like to underline point three. There is a fundamental suspicion of imagination that I find very stunting and misleading. It is surely a very dangerous faculty, but the only one that really lets us grow beyond our own limited, flawed perspectives.

  • MikeCamel says:

    Enjoyed that: particularly points 5 & 6. How do you feel about “Shaun of the Dead”? One of the few films that both my wife and I think is brilliant!

  • Jenelle says:

    An exceptionally argued post. I’d agree that this is my favorite point:
    Theologies of the fall result in a view the imagination as suspect, and the emphasis is placed on rationality rather than creativity and imagination. I want to fight for creativity and imagination in ways that lighten the load that rationalism placed on us.

    Rob Johnston’s stuff on films is wonderful, as you mentioned. I was fortunate enough to take his course at Fuller.

  • Jenelle says:

    I must confess that I had to look up the definition of “thanatology.” :)

  • John W. Morehead says:

    Thank you all for your comments. Ths is the most commentary I’ve had to date on this blog, and it took a post on an allegedly controversial topic to do it!

    Phil, I’m quite sure that horror has many possibilities for Christian ministry. I noted on The Wild Hunt Pagan blog that the author thought the film Pan’s Labyrinth would make for a good focal point for dialogue between monotheists and polytheists. I have noted that with the great Mormon interest in sci fi these films and some television programs would make good dialogue starters between the LDS and evangelical communities. Just examples of other ministry possibilities through these genres.

    Mike, Shaun of the Dead is one of my favorite films. It manages the very difficult task of combining good horror with good comedy, and in ways which pay homage rather than lampoon Romero’z zombie films. I was raised on these to begin with and they have a place in my heart, and I was glad to see Simon Pegg due justice to the material with his own zombie contribution.

    Jenelle, thanks for your comments as well. I’m sorry you had to look up thanatology! I will be using Johnston’s book as a textbook for a Film and Faith course I am co-teaching at Salt Lake Theological Seminary in July, while using sci fi films as my points of theological engagement.

    Thanks to all of you for stopping by.

  • Jenelle says:

    …I should’ve remembered the greek prefix and figured Thanatology out…my true confessions!

    That sounds like an excellent course you’ll be teaching. Cheers.

  • philjohnson says:

    John
    I noted your “long break” remarks about Christian contributions to fantasy (i.e. since Lewis and Tolkien).

    I guess there are 3 points I’d add in here.

    1. If one thinks of depth and breadth in the use of imagination in fiction by Christian authors, then I’d be inclined to say that it could be a long time before we see anyone who has the calibre of Lewis and Tolkien.

    2. It is worth pondering the fact that Lewis’ sci-fi was written in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and Narnia in the 1950s; with Tolkien again The LOTR was a long project in writing. The basic point here is notice that both writers earned their spurs as writers and that they have acquired a loyal fan base that ensues long after their books were released. Their fan base also spills beyond the Church. Note also the film adaptations of some of their main works are recent products. So they have durability.

    3. While I do not think he has the same depth and calibre as Tolkien or Lewis, the US novelist (who lives in Oxford UK) Stephen Lawhead is a living example of a Christian novelist who has managed to write both sci-fi and fantasy novels, and he has managed to break out somewhat from just being read in the sub-cultures of evangelicalism.

    Beyond those observations, I think that the US evangelical subculture has a long way to go slough off the snake-skin of anti-intellectualism, and that in turn has been an impediment to any positive cultural engagement. It goes to the heart of the problem of leaving culture. It also explains the dearth of US evangelical Christian novelists in this genre.

  • Rev Sam says:

    I agreed with all this – as you would expect – but I’m wondering what you have in mind as Christian engagement with horror/sci fi? in other words, what would a Christian horror film look like?

  • John W. Morehead says:

    Rev. Sam, thanks for the question. I suppose it depends upon how you define a “Christian horror film.” In my call for critical engagement in this area I was not necessarily calling for Christian horror, although I think that would be an important facet that we might be able to reach one day. We could say that there is already Christian horror, if you will, in that films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose was directed by a Christian, and many horror films, particularly Gothic ones, already draw upon Christian symbolism and ideas. What we need to do initially is to simply engage these more carefully and critically rather than dismiss them outright.

    As to what a full-blown Christian horror film might look like, well, let’s see if any writers or directors contact me to produce something!

  • KPaffenroth says:

    My zombie novel surely needs a film adaptation!

    Did I mention I have a new zombie novel?

  • John W. Morehead says:

    I’ve seen your discussions about it on your blog, Kim, but I have yet to secure a copy. Sounds great! And I’d love to see a film adaptation of it. If I could somehow manage to work in the horror entertainment industry I would. I’d love to bring my thinking on issues of faith to this arena. In the meantime, I’ll have to see about pursuing a Ph.D. in religion and pop culture to have some impact that way.

  • KPaffenroth says:

    My only experience with the film industry was as an extra (no fun) and then at the shoot when we did the cover for Gospel of the Living Dead. That was a lot more fun. But I know what you mean about wanting to have an influence over the art that’s being produced. I think it’s a powerful attraction to doing that kind of work, and can be a noble calling. As I quip sometimes, “Veggie Tales” are nice, but I fear that’s the only thing most people can think of when they’re asked to name a piece of TV or film that is from a Christian perspective.

  • KPaffenroth says:

    My only experience with the film industry was as an extra (no fun) and then at the shoot when we did the cover for Gospel of the Living Dead. That was a lot more fun. But I know what you mean about wanting to have an influence over the art that’s being produced. I think it’s a powerful attraction to doing that kind of work, and can be a noble calling. As I quip sometimes, “Veggie Tales” are nice, but I fear that’s the only thing most people can think of when they’re asked to name a piece of TV or film that is from a Christian perspective.

  • Sally says:

    John, thank you well blanced and thoughtful as always- as for me I believe that there is a need to see beyond our narrow boundaries and to try to engage… Horror I have to say is not my scene- though not for theological reasons- I am a sci-fi freak and would use arguements along similar lines- having said that I believe that film provides us with much modern mythology- we must engage at all levels.
    Peace and blessings
    Sally

  • Sally says:

    John, thank you well blanced and thoughtful as always- as for me I believe that there is a need to see beyond our narrow boundaries and to try to engage… Horror I have to say is not my scene- though not for theological reasons- I am a sci-fi freak and would use arguements along similar lines- having said that I believe that film provides us with much modern mythology- we must engage at all levels.
    Peace and blessings
    Sally

  • philjohnson says:

    John
    I note the comment about “Christian horror” for cinema.

    Two things occur to me.

    One is that the horror genre has a long tradition of telling a story with an implied moral. In the “undead” genre the moral has much to do with reminding readers/viewers that immortality is God’s domain. The “undead” creatures have attempted to acquire immortality in this flesh in the here and now. However the undead are figures of revulsion, they are “cursed”. The trace elements of this harken back to Cain as the cursed and marked man. Anyway the general point is that in the general resurrection of the dead is the time where human flesh is transformed, so attempts to do this beforehand are dubious. That point remains in the genre no matter what author you find (Christian or non-Christian). And of course the undead genre has other motifs related to blood, eroticism, and so on.

    The second and more curious point is that evangelicals and charismatics already have opted for the horror genre by making best sellers out of the novels of Frank Peretti. I do not like his novels because their theological premises are dualist and verging on animism (a point various missiologist have made in reviews of his books). In some respects his novels are pallid when compared to say Stephen King but then seem alright to the evangelical-charismatic because they are sanitized with the good guys beating the bad guys and reassuring the faithful of the boundaries demarcated between the faithful and faithless.

    I seem to recall years ago that “This Present Darkness” was being touted for cinema adaptation. I don’t know if that ever developed. I would probably cringe over such a film.

    So if there was to be a specific Christian horror film I would rather hope it would be framed in a sophisticated theology and dramatised without turning into an old “B” grade cowboy-Indian film!

  • philjohnson says:

    John
    I note the comment about “Christian horror” for cinema.

    Two things occur to me.

    One is that the horror genre has a long tradition of telling a story with an implied moral. In the “undead” genre the moral has much to do with reminding readers/viewers that immortality is God’s domain. The “undead” creatures have attempted to acquire immortality in this flesh in the here and now. However the undead are figures of revulsion, they are “cursed”. The trace elements of this harken back to Cain as the cursed and marked man. Anyway the general point is that in the general resurrection of the dead is the time where human flesh is transformed, so attempts to do this beforehand are dubious. That point remains in the genre no matter what author you find (Christian or non-Christian). And of course the undead genre has other motifs related to blood, eroticism, and so on.

    The second and more curious point is that evangelicals and charismatics already have opted for the horror genre by making best sellers out of the novels of Frank Peretti. I do not like his novels because their theological premises are dualist and verging on animism (a point various missiologist have made in reviews of his books). In some respects his novels are pallid when compared to say Stephen King but then seem alright to the evangelical-charismatic because they are sanitized with the good guys beating the bad guys and reassuring the faithful of the boundaries demarcated between the faithful and faithless.

    I seem to recall years ago that “This Present Darkness” was being touted for cinema adaptation. I don’t know if that ever developed. I would probably cringe over such a film.

    So if there was to be a specific Christian horror film I would rather hope it would be framed in a sophisticated theology and dramatised without turning into an old “B” grade cowboy-Indian film!

  • John W. Morehead says:

    I am still amazed at how much discussion this post has generated, and how it, possibly with my most recent post on Pan’s Labyrinth, have set a new record for traffic on this blog, even surpassing what I normally get with Morehead’s Musings. So much for this not being a positive and significant issue for Christians.

    Philip, I always appreciate your wisdom and insights relevant to such issues. Perish the thought that Peretti represents the best of Christian horror.

    Sally, I too am a big sci fi fan, along with fantasy. I believe that all of these imaginative genres are especially significant for our times. I alternative between my appreciation of various treatments in each of the genres.

    Kim, as a teen I used to dabble in stop-motion animation, and I fancied myself as a budding fantastic filmmaker. I still wonder what it would have been like to be involved with the industry, especially now as a person of faith. I hope that opportunities open up for me to at least bring my background in theology, religious studies, and popular culture into further engagement with this. And I’d love to play a zombie extra!

    Thanks for the comments folks.

  • Steve Hayes says:

    A belated comment, because I was short of bandwidth last month.

    An excellent post, but I wonder if there isn’t another factor in Evangelical Protestantism shying away from the horror genre, and that is that, more than any other group of Christians, it is sold on the “penal substitution” view of the atonement.

    Because that view sees salvation as being primarily from an angry God, the devil doesn’t really fit in.

    I was discussing this with a Baptist once (he was an advocate of hyperCalvinism and had a well-thumbed copy of a magazine Present Truth, which took that position).

    He was absolutely adamant that “the devil had nothing to do with the crucifixion.

    While he would assert that the resurrection was a fact (because the Bible mentions it, and the Bible is inerrant) I got the impression that for him it was not a significant fact.

    And in the same way I got the impression that he believed the devil existed, because the Bible mentioned the devil, he did not really believe that the devil had a significant role.

    I’m not sure what he thought about Jesus casting out demons, which looms very large in St Mark’s gospel, but I doubt if he thought that was very significant either.

    Read an article called “If you are a devil you are a witch and if you are a witch you are a devil” by Birgit Meyer – about Presbyterian Missionaries among the Ewe people of Ghana. The missionaries despared because the Ewe tended to see Jesus primarily as someone who saved them from devils and witches rather than from the angry Father.

    So for Evangelical Protestants who believe in the penal substitution view of the atonement, horror flicks that show ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night are simply distracting people from the real threat – the angry God who wants to send you to hell.

    Now I gather there’s a fellow called N.T. Wright who would say that this presentation of the “penal substitution” theory is a simplistic caricature, and he’s probably right, but in popular evangelistic preaching it does come across like that, whatever nuances the academic theologians want to insist on.

    And I think it explains why evangelical Protestants attempts to write fantasy fall far short of C.S. Lewis or Tolkien. I tried Frank Peretti, and his plastic demons were just ludicrous. But I think they were based on the kind of theological background I have described.

  • Steve Hayes says:

    A belated comment, because I was short of bandwidth last month.

    An excellent post, but I wonder if there isn’t another factor in Evangelical Protestantism shying away from the horror genre, and that is that, more than any other group of Christians, it is sold on the “penal substitution” view of the atonement.

    Because that view sees salvation as being primarily from an angry God, the devil doesn’t really fit in.

    I was discussing this with a Baptist once (he was an advocate of hyperCalvinism and had a well-thumbed copy of a magazine Present Truth, which took that position).

    He was absolutely adamant that “the devil had nothing to do with the crucifixion.

    While he would assert that the resurrection was a fact (because the Bible mentions it, and the Bible is inerrant) I got the impression that for him it was not a significant fact.

    And in the same way I got the impression that he believed the devil existed, because the Bible mentioned the devil, he did not really believe that the devil had a significant role.

    I’m not sure what he thought about Jesus casting out demons, which looms very large in St Mark’s gospel, but I doubt if he thought that was very significant either.

    Read an article called “If you are a devil you are a witch and if you are a witch you are a devil” by Birgit Meyer – about Presbyterian Missionaries among the Ewe people of Ghana. The missionaries despared because the Ewe tended to see Jesus primarily as someone who saved them from devils and witches rather than from the angry Father.

    So for Evangelical Protestants who believe in the penal substitution view of the atonement, horror flicks that show ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night are simply distracting people from the real threat – the angry God who wants to send you to hell.

    Now I gather there’s a fellow called N.T. Wright who would say that this presentation of the “penal substitution” theory is a simplistic caricature, and he’s probably right, but in popular evangelistic preaching it does come across like that, whatever nuances the academic theologians want to insist on.

    And I think it explains why evangelical Protestants attempts to write fantasy fall far short of C.S. Lewis or Tolkien. I tried Frank Peretti, and his plastic demons were just ludicrous. But I think they were based on the kind of theological background I have described.

  • Matt Cardin says:

    Just read this post, John. And loved it. Interesting to click over to the comments page here and find that a couple of other people have jumped on the very same passage that jumped out at me the most: “Western Protestantism suffers from a lack of a sacred or sacramentalized view of the imagination as an expression of the image of God. Theologies of the fall result in a view the imagination as suspect, and the emphasis is placed on rationality rather than creativity and imagination.”

    Indeed. This is the one of the central topics of the hour (day, year, millennium). Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights about it, which are quite simply crucial right about now.

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