Rue Morgue – Divinity in Darkness: The Rise of Christian Horror

ruemorgueThe cover of the current issue of Rue Morgue magazine, Issue #87 highlights a double referent in its contents which dovetail with an emphasis of this blog in its analysis of the religious and social aspects of horror and the fantastic. The cover points toward an article on "Pascal Laugier's religious-themed torture porn," but of real interest is the article by Lea Lawrynowicz titled "Divinity in Darkness: The Rise of Christian Horror."

I was pleased to see Rue Morgue delve into the arena of religion and horror in general, and horror and Christianity in particular, and while there are some helpful aspects to the article's treatment of this topic, it could have been a stronger piece in my view.

The author expresses surprise at the outset by stating that "the idea of Christian horror is an oxymoron - opposites that just don't attract." In my thinking while this might echo the sentiments of many evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants, as well as secular horror fans, it does not include, as the late Paul Harvey used to say, "the rest of the story." As horror has developed in various cultures through history it quite naturally has reflected various cultural elements and influences. This is the case in the Western world as well where Christianity has been the dominant religious expression. Therefore it should not be a surprise to find that Christianity and horror have had a long relationship, perhaps most visible in the Gothic horror tradition. Whether this can be construed as "Christian horror" is a debatable point, and I'm willing to give Lawrynowicz some slack here, but the point is that Christianity and horror may not have "exactly proven to the be the friendliest of bedfellows," they have had a relationship in the past as well as the present, and some of us believe they are friendlier bedfellows than many on both sides of this discussion might like to admit.

I was pleased to see the article interact quite a bit with the thinking of Scott Derrickson, a Hollywood director who has been involved with a number of horror and science fiction films, from Hellraiser: Inferno, Urban Legends: Final Cut, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and most recently, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Derrickson openly presents his embrace of both horror and his Christian faith, a stance I share with this young director. I found myself resonating with many of his comments particular as he shared his concerns over his own experiences in his youth with Christian fundamentalism which is, in his view, "rooted in fear." He now channels these experience into his production of horror films.

But while Derrickson appreciates horror as a religious person he "eschews the Christian horror label," another area in which he and I are in agreement. For one the definition is hard to make and sustain, especially since some want to include The Exorcist and The Omen in this subgenre. These films seem to be better classified as horror films which draw upon the Christian tradition, particularly in its demonology and ideas on the supernatural as they related to the battle between good vs. evil, but to classify them as Christian horror seems like a stretch to me, and one which does a disservice to the films themselves.

Beyond this, the article touches on a new wave of "Christian horror" in popular culture that seeks to draw upon the genre but do so in ways that won't offend its conservative Christian (largely evangelical) audience, by removing sex, violence, and gore. Since these items have been part and parcel of horror in varying degrees since the genre developed, I wonder whether it is fair to consider Christian horror as horror. Surely they have the right to draw upon the genre for entertainment and as a source of moral tale-telling, but in producing it in this sanitized fashion they remove much of the power and subversiveness which makes horror such an excellent vehicle for not only frightening, but also for providing the fodder for cultural, social, and even religious reflection.

It would also seem that with Christian horror many conservative Christians want to have their horror cake and eat it too. Publishers Weekly noted that in general speculative fiction does not do well in this market due to its edginess and concerns over its "darkness." A common stereotype in this area is that horror is incompatible with proper Christianity, as is fantasy and science fiction much of the time, unless of course the authors are C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien, but even then at times these authors or their artistic medium are viewed as suspect. How can horror and other aspects of the fantastic be eschewed by and large and yet also sanitized so as to be permissible in certain contexts?

For my part I think that Christians are missing out on something that can easily be connected to their faith. The Bible itself is filled with monsters like the Behemoth, and the Judeo-Christian creation stories frame the work of creation in response to the gods of chaos as Yahweh brings order out of disorder. The New Testament speaks of a great Dragon and includes stories of possession and exorcism, and of course the Book of Revelation has provided the imaginative fodder for a host of apocalyptic visions and stories.

Perhaps our world is indeed one of "gods and monsters." If this is the case then Christianity and horror are neither unmixable elements like oil and water, nor a brew which needs to be sanitized like beer without any alcohol in order to be enjoyed.

Related posts:

Interview with Scott Derrickson on The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Interview with Douglas Cowan on the book Sacred Terror (Baylor University Press, 2008).

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

Comment Pages

There are 10 Comments to "Rue Morgue – Divinity in Darkness: The Rise of Christian Horror"

  • Cory Gross says:

    I replied with a similar statement over on, but it's worth reitterating here as well...

    It's inaccurate, I think, to say that conservative Evangelical Christians eschew horror. I would argue that it's only the name they don't care for, since "horror" conjures up images of violence, blood, perversity and gore for its own sake. Of course, that's not an accurate assessment of horror, but it does allow them to disguise their own unique brand of horror under a different title.

    Consider LEFT BEHIND and all the myriad dispensationalist eschatological schemes, which sort of begin as political spy thrillers but quickly pick up the pace and dive headlong into torture porn. What is the Tribulation - God's unrelenting punishment of those who are not conservative Evangelicals - but an apocalyptic, mythologized version of SAW? Or, for that matter, Hell and its local manifestation of Hell Houses? The parade of titilating gore seen in those curls the toes of anyone more accustomed to graveyards, bats and misty, moonlit nights. And what of Jack T. Chick tracts?

    From the One World Government cataloging everyone with barcodes to Satanic baby-killing conspiracies to eternal suffering in a lake of fire, conservative Evangelical horror passes as not being horror because it goes under the label of "evangelism". Though indistinguishable from horror, its seen as having a pious purpose and therefore is not horror. Though they may condemn horror as scaring people for the sake thereof, they are perfectly content to try and scare people into Heaven.

    The weird thing about it is that, of course, it's often directed far more towards those who are already Evangelical as a means of acting out their own shadow-side fantasies. I don't know of anyone who has been converted by the threat of missing the Rapture, but I have met many, many people who are sweaty-palmed with anticipation over how God is going to destroy in lengthy and painful ways all those who are not Evangelicals. Evangelical horror, unlike even the goriest of slasher pics and torture porn, seems to draw from an unrepentant hatred of those who are portrayed as its victims.

    The hard part is coming up with horror that is truly metaphysical. At least, it's difficult nowadays where Christian-themed horror/evangelism is a cookie-cutter of the same anxieties over the body and death as regular slasher films and torture porn. It's all about the destruction of the flesh, whether its done by Jigsaw or the Antichrist. One almost has to go back to the 1930's and 40's for truly metaphysical horror where the loss of a single soul was worse than the death of a dozen men.

  • Cory, I appreciate your thoughts and there is great merit to them. Nevertheless, we must remember that horror is regularly eschewed by conservative evangelicals as being "occultic". It goes far beyond the label "horror." In addition, I think it would be difficult to classified much of what evangelicals produce in popular works of eschatological fiction and end-times doom as horror, even though many outside and even in evangelicalism find some of this horrific. But thanks for your thoughts on this issue.

  • Cory Gross says:

    Well that does raise the question of whether or not Evangelical eschatology is occultic ^_~

    I would be interesting in hearing your thoughts on how it isn't horror though.

  • Even though you're first part of the above comment is tongue in cheek, there have been those who wonder at times whether some evangelical eschatologies might indeed parallel occultism, but to be fair to both traditions most popular evangelical eschatologies cannot be equated with esotericism.

    As to evangelical fiction like Left Behind, taken from the perspective of the authors, publisher, and evangelical reading audience it would be a form of pop fiction more akin to a thriller which they believe is connected in reality to their religious views. But they certainly wouldn't consider this horror. Again, I think it would be legitimate to consider aspects of it horrific, but there are elements of this in other genres like action, adventure, and perhaps mystery that still doesn't qualify it for classification as horror.

    We may have to disagree on this, but I do appreciate your continued reflections and interactons on this.

  • Cory Gross says:

    Despite my winkie, I'm not sure I wouldn't consider Evangelical eschatology to not be occultic and esoteric, if I was really pressed to give an opinion. It does sort of swing around between that, pop-conspiracy theories, a cosmic reinactment of the American Revolution and general bad theology.

    I would agree that LEFT BEHIND is a strange amalgam of genres, noting that it begins as a spy thriller, but I'm not sure that once you start getting into the Antichrist and the Tribulation that it doesn't qualify as horror in every sense of the term's maligned applications. I mean, I wouldn't consider it good horror in the sense that I consider classic, Gothic horror to be good horror (that is, sublimely atmospheric and ultimately life-affirming)... but you do have both the occultic, supernatural element of angels and demons and the Antichrist and the torture porn element of the Divine punishments of the Tribulation, final war and Second Coming.

    I do know that nobody else considers it horror, which was a bit of the point of my post. I've been in my share of debates where someone didn't take very kindly at all to my comparing how tame the Universal Studios Monsters films were to the SAW-like content of premillenial dispensationalism. Ultimately though, it always seems to boil down to how LEFT BEHIND is different because it's evangelism.

  • [...] for Purcell’s musings are two essays (”Christinaity and Horror Redux” and “Divinity into Darkness: The Rise of Christian Horror” by John D. Morehead of TheoFantastique, who argues that Evangelical Christians should [...]

  • [...] to Critical Engagement,” which was aimed at a Christian audience, and more recently, “Divinity into Darkness: The Rise of Christian Horror,” for a general reading audience in response to a recent article on the topic in Rue Morgue [...]

  • [...] “Rue Morgue – Divinity in Darkness: The Rise of Christian Horror” [...]

  • Great post, and a great site. I thought your comment about C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien was especially true; it seems like general American culture gives those two Christians a pass (it helps that they were supremely talented and diligent in their craft)--a pass that is often not afforded to others (though I sometimes wonder if that is a reflection on the difficulty of publishing cross-genre material, or the lack of effort/talent by those writing cross-genre works).

    I have been writing and reflecting on why I, as a follower of Christ, love the horror genre so much, and I'm excited that I stumbed onto your site.

  • Scott, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. It's great to find fellow travelers in this area. I hope my reflections on this are helpful in your own journey.

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