The Redemption of Horror
By aaron coalson
October 21, 2011
Facing our fears can be terrifying. Life beckons us to engage our deepest anxieties and offers a number of scenarios to do so, and yet every time, facing our fears can leave us feeling inadequate and out of control. Enter the horror genre. Strip away its guts, glory and intense sequel making abilities, and this genre is about fear. Namely, our fears. Culture’s fears. Fear of death. Fear of the dark. Fear of terrorism. Fear of war. Fear of being alone in a house with a serrated kitchen knife and a guy stumbling up the stairs behind you.
This genre has fascinated me ever since I can remember, yet my interest was always combined with hesitation. Why? Evangelical conviction? Post-modern skepticism? The fear of being sucked into the TV like the little girl from Poltergeist? No. I’ve always been fascinated and entertained by the excitement of horror genre, yet I've been reminded on more than one occasion that "good Christians don’t watch horror movies.” Mainstream Christianity has embraced a "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality in regards to genres or works of art that are unfamiliar or elusive. We're too quick to attach the demise of our culture on the back of such a genre instead of viewing it as a lost society's desperate attempt to search for the spiritual. So I decided to find out for myself what, if any, redeeming qualities lie in what many consider the most controversial and frustratingly dismissed genre in the world of entertainment. Is there anything good in a genre that emphasizes the bad? Can the genre be redeemed?
Horror in its most organic form is like any other medium used by an artist. It is, like any other genre, neutral. A technique, a gag-bag of tricks, props, gimmicks even, used to arouse in us certain innate reactions, something very carnal and natural. It derives from ancient gothic literature, most of which we are sadly unfamiliar with, but nonetheless have shaped the way artists before us have perceived the genre and its ability to extract from our very being a frightening effect.What is the purpose of true horror? To present evil in its truest sense and to provoke a sense of fear from its viewer and, in return, forcing the viewer to face his or her own fears. We see this in our culture's heightened fascination with a certain blood-sucking race. Tweeners flock to Twilight like moths to a flame, yet the series pales in comparison to the infamous cultural tide that was Harry Potter. Yet, in this fascination we see a desire to live forever, albeit forever young. Vampirism, in the modern sense has been romanticized into a 13-year-old girl's fantasy world, yet still there is an intentional, yet subtle invitation to question one's passions, face your temptations and long for immortality. As we see in Bram Stroker’s Dracula, the name Dracul literally means “Devil” in the character’s original Wallachian language. Stoker brilliantly portrays a character so convincingly evil and subtly powerful, yet also presents itself as an invitation to choose between good and evil. True evil has been displayed.
Shelley gave us Frankenstein, Stevenson gave us Mr. Hyde and Craven gives us Krueger. These characters give us a stark contrast between good and evil, darkness and light. Good horror, true horror, is not fear just for fear's sake; it’s a drawing to engage in the unknown, to believe in the unseen and to trust in the unbelievable. True horror clearly shows the difference between absolute good and evil. True horror dismantles evil and yet brings us to the brink of our control by forcing us to face the chaos of the world around us.
It is in this genre alone that such events as exorcisms, murders, dreams and life after death are able to be discussed. This is what I believe brings fear in many believers. We know demons exist. We know people can be possessed. So how do we deal with it? Ignore it? Shun it? We must look with spiritual eyes and the truth of Scripture as we engage culture. The danger for the believer is not to enter the cultural arena with bias, the danger is to not enter at all. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters, "there is danger in thinking too little or too much of the Devil and spiritual forces. To think too much, to be afraid of them, to obsess over the realm is to lose sight of the glory and power of God. To think too little, to dismiss conversation or art that deals with this realm is to give in to fear." This genre, in itself is masterfully constructed to display the spiritual. Scott Derickson, a fellow believer and director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, says of horror: “It’s a genre of non-denial. It’s about admitting that there is evil in the world, and recognizing there is evil within us; and that we’re not in control, and that things we are afraid of must be confronted in order to relinquish that fear.”
There are great and important differences between examining and exploiting whether in truth, politics, violence, wine or good storytelling; the difference lies in the motive. The motive is revealed through the process of experiencing and receiving what the artist is giving. One might think that George Romero's display of aggressive/compulsive behavior in our country through the cannibalistic ways in the Night of the Living Dead series is exploitative. Yet, the zombie-esque actions were reflective of the evils in our culture, namely: materialism, racism and government control. The zombies were us, or could be us, if we didn't wake up to the truth. There is a difference, and that difference is what we must look for in discerning genres and entertainment as a whole. The potential of any genre is what is desired. There’s a lot of garbage out there, much of it mindless, pointless and self-indulgent. And many horror movies fall into that category, but that doesn’t mean the genre as a whole doesn’t have the potential to, in a mighty way, provoke some terrifyingly spiritual conversations.
So does the horror genre have the potential to be redeemed? Yes. True horror in itself provides the opportunity for redemption. As David Taylor, Pastor of Arts at Hope Chapel in Austin, Texas, reminds us: "The horror story, in the end, is a reminder that our present reality is disturbed and distorted. In the hands of the Christian, that reminder can become an invitation to redemption. Leave behind your claims to self-sufficiency! Stop trying to manage your life! Quit calling good evil! Do not be afraid of death! The horror story is not an escape from life, in all its wildness and terrible beauty; it is rather a way of walking through it, and as such a reminder that there is meaning, thanks be to God, in the middle of all the horror."