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Horror and Christianity – Continued Questions of Compatibility

12196__dracula_lI didn’t know my posted commentary would lead to a lively discussion in the blogosphere and on the broader Internet, but this seems to be the case.

Over a year ago I started TheoFantastique as a way in which to express my appreciation for the fantastic, to probe in depth the various genres that make up the fantastic as they are expressed in popular culture, and to also explore the ways in which religion and spirituality influence these genres at times. I have done so as a person of faith, and I see no incompatibility between my faith commitments and my appreciation for the fantastic, including horror. In fact, I have argued that those who share my faith commitments are the ones out of touch with a significant expression of what it means to be human, and a means of engaging others on issues of cultural and religious significance. I have written a few essays on this topic, including “Christianity and Horror Redux: From Knee-Jerk Revulsion 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 magazine.

I know my views on such things are not widely held in conservative Christian circles, but what did surprise me was to find similar sentiments alleging incompatibility between Christianity and horror from a very different metaphysical perspective. One of my fellow LOTTD members, Curt Purcell of the great The Groovy Age of Horror blog, weighed in with his thoughts on incompatibility in “Thoughts on Christian Horror.” This led to a number of comments and lively discussion on the topic, including a few comments of my own. I will add here though that in my view Purcell seems to be defining his terms and concepts, including “Christianity,” “horror” and “compatibility” in ways far different from my own, but interestingly and seemingly in common with fundamentalist and evangelical Christians who likewise find horror and Christianity incompatible bedfellows. With this discussion at The Groovy Age of Horror I thought the topic would be laid to rest. Not so.

Yesterday I discovered that Steve Biodrowski of Cinefantastique Online picked up on the discussion and the interaction, weighing in with his own perspective in an essay titled “Sense of Wonder: Bashing Christian Horror.” Readers of this piece will see that Biodrowski disagrees with Purcell in a few arguments similar to my own.

Readers know where I stand on the issues, as evidenced by my specific writing on the topic, and the overall thrust of TheoFantastique which tries to exemplify not only a compatibility between the fantastic and the transcendent, but also an enriching partnership. I share these items so that my readers will become aware of the discussion on this topic, and in the hopes that they might join in the conversation.

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There are 12 Comments to "Horror and Christianity – Continued Questions of Compatibility"

  • Cory Gross says:

    I enjoyed your’s and Steve’s replies. What struck me first about Curt’s commentary was his description of Christianity (justified with the ever-popular “I’ve been to a lot of churches”… I’ve been a Lutheran all my life and I’m STILL discovering theological nuances that are not obvious) and how that description is then used to invalidate perfectly valid examples of Christian horror as not being somehow “uniquely” Christian. Not only is BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA Christian, but I actually found it to be extremely effective to my teenage mind for refining concepts of forgiveness and the active involvement of God in Creation.

    I suppose that, for me, a weird disconnect is how he defines Christianity as a bunch of rules and regulations and then dismisses work after work as not being “uniquely” Christian. As any Oxford English Christian or radical New Atheist would be the first to note, Christianity’s moral code is not unique. Both Lewis and Chesterton have written chapters and chapters on that point. To distill Christianity to a moral regimen and then dismiss anything adhering merely to that regimen as not being unique is to fundamentally miss what does make Christianity unique… The Person of Jesus Christ.

    Maybe Curt makes a decent case against Islamic horror, but not against Christian horror. In fact, Jesus Christ and everything He entails opens the whole subject back up. The whole issue of prayer being the final trump card might be the case for an Evangelical Neo-Platonic Gnostic-type where physicality and the body are devalued. But if you’re a Sacramental Christian, if you see God acting through enfleshed existence in mysterious, incarnate, sometimes horrifying ways, then there’s a lot more than prayer fightiong invisible spirits involved. It’s the only way that holding off a vampire with the blessed host can conceivably work. Or vampies can exist at all.

    God being active through Creation introduces a whole range of disturbing things originating from and grappling with the fact that on a lot of levels, Creation is deeply disturbing. This is a God whose social dynamic of justice involved slaughtering Egypt’s firstborn and sparing the Hebrews because they slaughtered lambs and painted their doorposts with their blood. This is the God who took Ezekiel to the charnel house of an ancient battle and grew an army of zombies. The God of Revelation needs little introduction, as does the God who redeemed humanity through the merciless torture and murder of Christ at the hands of humanity. Perhaps where the Bible does exceed a lot of Christian fiction is that it wrestles honestly with the fact that God often looks really f**king dark a lot of the time.

    That may be the greatest horror of all, Christian or otherwise. I don’t blame Lovecraft for the unmistakeable creed “that is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die”. Even from a perspective WITHIN Christianity, the second article of the Apostles’ Creed can be really awful. More than any specific element of a Dracula film, the greatest horror it asks of God is why there are vampires. It’s the theodical question.

    Maybe that’s a lot of where Curt’s response falls flat. He wants to ascribe to God and Christianity all happiness and sunshine and light and order (and pink and bunnies and unicorns). That’s not God. Light and dark, order and chaos, life and death are the tools of God used for His purposes. God is more the anarchist than any of us can COPE with. Dracula and Frankenstein and the Wolfman and the Old Dark House are pale in comparison, and in my opinion, slasher, exploitation and torture porn are pale in comparison to them.

    Which leads to the second thing I immediately picked up on with Curt’s response: the amusing contradiction between laying out “rule-breaking” as one of the rules for horror, by which Christian horror does not qualify. If the first issue was “whose idea of Christianity?” the second is “whose idea of horror?” I’ve already betrayed my alliegance… A Universal Studios or European Expressionist horror is more genuinely horrifying to me than any sexy, x-treme torture porn. Heck, I found PI and ERASERHEAD more frightening than any modern horror film I’ve seen.

  • Curt says:

    Whatever, Cory. If you want to claim BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA for Team Christian, I’m not convinced, but it sounds like it matters more to you than it does to me, so like I told that commenter, more power to you.

    I don’t define Christianity as “a bunch of rules and regulations,” but I do have to roll my eyes whenever someone tries to pretend there aren’t any among Christians, which is what always happens in these discussions. On that note, I’d add that if you want to impress me with how free from rules you are by cussing, you only get points for that if you actually spell it out. ;-)

    I don’t think evangelicals find their range of horror mostly limited to “prayer fighting invisible spirits” because they’re “Neo-Platonic Gnostic-types,” but because they’re trying to depict the supernatural “realistically” according to their beliefs, and vampires aren’t realistic, even on the Sacramental view you describe. You do know vampires don’t exist, right? (Neither does God, of course, but at least we can agree on vampires, I hope.)

    While you identify some admittedly horrific imagery from the Bible, can you point to examples of “Christian horror” creators effectively making use of it?

  • admin says:

    Thanks for the comments, gents. I appreciate discussion and disagreement on such topics. I just want those who weigh in on this to remember that the subject matter is not God’s existence, so arguments one way or another and even tongue in cheek comments on such matters are off base here. Another forum and another topic perhaps. Please restrict comments to the question of the compatibility or incompatibility of Christianity and horror. Those who cannot stick to these ground rules will find their comments quickly deleted. Thanks again.

  • Cory Gross says:

    “I don’t define Christianity as “a bunch of rules and regulations,” but I do have to roll my eyes whenever someone tries to pretend there aren’t any among Christians, which is what always happens in these discussions.”

    Which Christians? It would seem to me that one of the greatest arguments against Christianity being a set of moral rules and regulations is that Christians can’t even agree on what they are or how important they are. And perhaps I read you wrong, but it seemed to me that horror’s necessary transgression of the presumed rules and regulations of Christianity (or any rules and regulations… except, I guess, those that constitute horror) was a key point of your argument.

    “On that note, I’d add that if you want to impress me with how free from rules you are by cussing, you only get points for that if you actually spell it out.”

    I wasn’t trying to impress you and, honestly, that’s kind of a weird comment to make.

    “I don’t think evangelicals find their range of horror mostly limited to “prayer fighting invisible spirits” because they’re “Neo-Platonic Gnostic-types,” but because they’re trying to depict the supernatural “realistically” according to their beliefs, and vampires aren’t realistic, even on the Sacramental view you describe.”

    Then your problem, it seems to me, would be with realism in horror, not Christianity. I would agree on those grounds that there’s a problem, but only because I don’t find realism and horror compatible. To me, the parade of body issues that has flooded into horror film after metaphysics were kicked out isn’t really horror… it’s just a cynical elaboration on the evening news. That’s probably why I don’t like it either. If I want stories like that to curl my toes, I’ll just talk to my dad about what it was like being a German refugee during WWII.

    Where it could gain weight as real horror is if it grappled with the theodical question of why that happens. Right in the pit of your soul is where horror – awful, sublime, existential HORROR – hits you… If we were going to get into definitions of horror, I would probably say that you, Curt, only touched on superficial characteristics of particular kinds. Horror has to be sexy and violent and cool, and Christianity is none of the above, and therefore Christian horror belongs in quotes. Maybe that’s why torture porn is popular with teenagers and modern Christianity isn’t? Or why Karloff and Lugosi films from the 30′s aren’t either?

    For horror to be anything more than a visceral titillation at adolescent body issues requires metaphysical reflection. Frankenstein stitches a guy together out of cadavers and reanimates it… so what? Why are all those old white men getting so bent out of shape over Mina’s soul? Why is Larry being so damn whiney all the time? I mentioned PI, which freaked me out because of how it dealt with the question of whether or not metaphysical contemplation itself leads to insanity. The added black and white was a bonus.

    The Bible has it in spades (as well as sex and violence and general cool) and it would be fertile ground for any Christian author or filmmaker. I will admit that you have me on any Christian artists I can mention because I don’t go out of my way to consume Christian media. But I would certainly be interested in someone who used the genre to wonder at the question of what it means to fear God without watering it down into platitudinous responses like “it doesn’t mean being afraid of God” or “that’s dumb and therefore there is no God”. As it stands, I’m just a Christian who loves me the bats and cobwebs and is working on a novel that involves a surprising amount of cannibalism.

  • Curt says:

    Cory–

    What I look for and value most in supernatural horror is an intensity of experience that can draw a viewer or reader that much nearer to what William James evocatively calls the “radiant core” of life. In VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE, where he introduces that phrase, he discusses mysticism and intoxication as pathways to such a heightened state of feeling and perception. Sissela Bok, in MAYHEM, reads other texts of his as suggesting that violence is another such pathway, and I’d argue sexuality counts as one, too.

    That’s why I think sex and violence are important to horror–not because they’re “cool” or “transgressive” (by the way, if you think I’m a fan of “torture porn,” I’m not), but because they’re such old, basic, and therefore powerful (when exploited properly) feelings, experiences, and heighteners of experience, all of which could also be said of fear in general and specifically the kind of response to the supernatural (whether real or imagined) that Otto discusses at such length in IDEA OF THE HOLY. Yes, sex and violence are often applied sloppily and gratuitously in horror, but when they’re tapped and channeled properly by a talented creator for a receptive audience, they can give the experience of the horror a vastly greater whallop.

    Of course I don’t think every horror creator has to resort to them every time, but I think any horror creator could benefit from being open to using them and developing an intuitive sense and talent for when and how to do that for maximum effect. Also, I suspect that creators who simply rule them out in advance may be closing themselves off and limiting themselves in other ways, more than they realize.

    And that brings us to the question of “rules and regulations.” “Rules and regulations” is probably not the best way to put it–we’d probably do better to talk about this in terms of attitudes of openness or resistance/hostility, comfort levels, social pressure, values, etc. If you can show me a Christian creator who seems truly open and comfortable ratcheting the intensity of his supernatural horror up to a level that will feel literally Satanic to his fellow believers, and who seems truly open and comfortable using sexuality and violence toward that end, I’d be very interested in having a look at that. I can show you examples that go the other way. Fear and Trembling claims, “You’re at the only site dedicated to publishing original and Christian-friendly horror on the web (as far as we know),” and its submission guidelines include the following: “While our stories may be frightening and may include harrowing scenes, stories we present to our readers will not offend traditional Christian values. Under no circumstances will we consider works that include R-rated language, disturbing violence, or graphic sexuality.” Similarly, Joshua Ellis of christian-fandom.org is quoted as saying, “Christian horror is ‘safe’ horror. If a book or DVD is going to be sold in a Christian retail outlet, it will generally follow a set of guidelines: no foul language or explicit sex; violence is implied, not shown; there is usually some sort of redemption story; and there is always an explicit gospel message.” While I’m sure they don’t speak for all Christian horror creators or fans, they kind of function that way by default if nobody else steps up to be an example of an alternative approach or viewpoint.

    Again, just to underline this point–I’m not saying horror has to be “cool” by breaking Christianity’s “rules”; I’m saying horror has some potent tools available to it that Christian culture doesn’t seem very comfortable with or open to exploiting.

    As for my “weird comment,” I tried to indicate with the smiley face that it was a joke meant to interject a touch of lightness into the discussion, but I guess I failed in that regard.

    John–far be it from me to tell you how to run your site, but was putting on your “admin” identity, referring to me as “Those who . . .”, and threatening me with comment deletion really the best way to address your concern?

  • Curt says:

    P.S. John–sorry for having made that remark in the first place. That wasn’t very polite of me, and I guess I’m not in much of a position to complain about whatever response it provoked.

  • Curt, thanks for your futher comments, and for your P.S. about the remark. My “admin hat” is the one I normally wear when posting ocmments here simply because I’m logged in for site updating and posting. It was not intended as a heavy handed way of scolding anyone. My remarks were directed to you and all who might care to comment on this topic so as to ensure we remain on topic. I hope that clarifies my intention on this, Curt. I hope we can all continue to discuss this and other interesting and perhaps button-pushing comments in ways that hit the issues hard and yet maintain appropriate focus and civility. Thanks again for posting your further thoughts.

  • Curt says:

    Understood, John–thanks for being cool!

  • [...] his response, Purcell notes that he is aware of these examples, but in a comment at TheoFantasitque, where the subject originated, he writes, “If you want to claim BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA for [...]

  • admin says:

    As the pingback link indicates, Steve Biodrowski of Cinefantastique Online has responded to Curt’s comments here:

    http://cinefantastiqueonline.com/2009/05/12/sense-of-wonder-more-bashing-christian-horror/

  • [...] TheoFantastique: Thank you for your willingness to discuss your article, and for it’s interesting subject matter. As you begin the piece you discuss horror films and their tendency to cause friction if not repulsion with religious sensibilities, and they you go on to point out that even so there is significant overlap between horror and religious concerns. Given this overlap, something recognized and explored on TheoFantastique regularly, why do you think religious, and sometimes irreligious people, feel that horror and religious sensibilities, particularly in the form of conservative Christianity in America, are difficult if not impossible to bring together? [...]

  • [...] “Horror and Christianity: Continued Questions of Compatibility” [...]

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