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.