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 ofscenarios to do so, and yet every time, facing our fears can leave usfeeling inadequate and out of control. Enter the horror genre. Stripaway its guts, glory and intense sequel-making abilities, and this genre isabout fear. Namely, our fears. Culture’s fears. Fear of death. Fear ofthe dark. Fear of terrorism. Fear of war. Fear of being alone in ahouse with a serrated kitchen knife and a guy stumbling up the stairsbehind you.
Thisgenre has fascinated me ever since I can remember, yet my interest wasalways combined with hesitation. Why? Evangelical conviction?Post-modern skepticism? The fear of being sucked into the TV like thelittle girl from Poltergeist?No. I’ve always been fascinated and entertained by the excitement ofhorror genre, yet I've been reminded on more than one occasion that"good Christians don’t watch horror movies.” Mainstream Christianityhas embraced a "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality in regardsto genres or works of art that are unfamiliar or elusive. We're tooquick to attach the demise of our culture on the back of such a genreinstead of viewing it as a lost society's desperate attempt to searchfor the spiritual. So I decided to find out for myself what, if any,redeeming qualities lie in what many consider the most controversialand frustratingly dismissed genre in the world of entertainment. Isthere anything good in a genre that emphasizes the bad? Can the genrebe redeemed?
Horrorin its most organic form is like any other medium used by an artist. Itis, 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 gothicliterature, most of which we are sadly unfamiliar with, but nonethelesshave shaped the way artists before us have perceived the genre and itsability to extract from our very being a frightening effect.
Whatis the purpose of true horror? To present evil in its truest sense andto provoke a sense of fear from its viewer and, in return, forcing theviewer to face his or her own fears. We see this in our culture's heightenedfascination 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, albeitforever young. Vampirism, in the modern sense has been romanticizedinto a 13-year-old girl's fantasy world, yet still there is anintentional, yet subtle invitation to question one's passions, faceyour temptations and long for immortality. As we see in Bram Stoker’s Dracula,the name Dracul literally means “Devil” in the character’s originalWallachian language. Stoker brilliantly portrays a character soconvincingly evil and subtly powerful, yet also presents itself as aninvitation to choose between good and evil. True evil has beendisplayed.
Shelley gave us Frankenstein,Stevenson gave us Mr. Hyde and Craven gives us Krueger. Thesecharacters give us a stark contrast between good and evil, darkness andlight. Good horror, true horror, is not fear just for fear's sake; it’sadrawing to engage in the unknown, to believe in the unseen and totrust in the unbelievable. True horror clearly shows the differencebetween absolute good and evil. True horror dismantles evil and yetbrings us to the brink of our control by forcing us to face the chaosof 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 Ibelieve brings fear in many believers. We know demons exist. We knowpeople can be possessed. So how do we deal with it? Ignore it? Shun it? Wemust look with spiritual eyes and the truth of Scripture as we engageculture. The danger for the believer is not to enter the cultural arenawith 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 andspiritual forces. To think too much, to be afraid of them, to obsessover the realm is to lose sight of the glory and power of God. Tothink too little, to dismiss conversation or art that deals with thisrealm is to give in to fear." This genre in itself is masterfullyconstructed to display the spiritual. Scott Derickson, a fellowbeliever and director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose,says of horror: “It’s a genre of non-denial. It’s about admittingthat there is evil in the world, and recognizing there is evil withinus; and that we’re not in control, and that things we are afraid ofmust be confronted in order to relinquish that fear.”
There are great and important differences between examining andexploiting, whether in truth, politics, violence, wine or goodstorytelling; the difference lies in the motive. The motive is revealedthrough the process of experiencing and receiving what the artist isgiving. One might think that George Romero's display ofaggressive/compulsive behavior in our country through the cannibalisticways in the Night of the Living Deadseries is exploitative. Yet, the zombie-esque actions were reflectiveof the evils in our culture, namely: materialism, racism and governmentcontrol. The zombies were us, or could be us, if we didn't wake up tothe truth. There is a difference, and that difference is what we mustlook for in discerning genres and entertainment as a whole. Thepotential of any genre is what is desired. There’s a lot of garbage outthere, much of it mindless, pointless and self-indulgent. And manyhorror movies fall into that category, but that doesn’t mean the genreas a whole doesn’t have the potential to, in a mighty way, provoke someterrifyingly spiritual conversations.
So does the horror genre have the potential to be redeemed? Yes. Truehorror in itself provides the opportunity for redemption. As DavidTaylor, Pastor of Arts at Hope Chapel in Austin, Texas, reminds us: "Thehorror story, in the end, is a reminder that our present reality isdisturbed and distorted. In the hands of the Christian, that remindercan become an invitation to redemption. Leave behind your claims toself-sufficiency! Stop trying to manage your life! Quit calling goodevil! Do not be afraid of death! The horror story is not an escape fromlife, in all its wildness and terrible beauty; it is rather a way ofwalking through it, and as such a reminder that there is meaning,thanks be to God, in the middle of all the horror."