At first blush it would seem that modern slasher films are a cinematic outworking of postmodern thought. These films are populated by a group of youthful characters whose lives revolve around the experiential—sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. They uniformly reject authority, especially parents and the police—cultural icons of received truth. They would probably reject the clergy as well if there were ever any clergy in these films. Once the killings begin, they have an uncanny optimism about their own ability to defeat evil.
Slasher films are a potent draw among young people. After two weeks at the top of the box office, Freddy vs. Jason had raked in over $65 million, ensuring another sequel. Jeepers Creepers 2, also opened big. Theatergoers are looking for an experience, and they find it in horror films, but it’s not the postmodern experience you would expect.
In Religion, Modernity, and Postmodernity, Paul Heelas argued that in postmodern thinking and conceptions of objective truth and values are rejected and replaced by: “‘What works for me.’ People have what they take to be ‘spiritual’ experiences without having to hold religious beliefs.” Postmodern writer Zygmut Bauman explained the difference between postmodern religious experience and traditional religion: “What distinguishes the postmodern strategy of peak-experience from one promoted by religions is that far from celebrating the assumed human insufficiency and weakness, it appeals to the full development of human inner psychological and bodily resources and presumes infinite human potency.”
Young audiences experiencing slasher films identify with, and are horrified by, this unfolding of postmodern thought—even if we cannot exactly say why. After decades of education and entertainment that marginalized or completely ignored transcendent values rooted in a belief in God, we have finally produced the very kind of heartless, cynical culture that C.S. Lewis warned about in the Abolition of Man. It’s no wonder that young adults see themselves on the screen in horror films. We feel powerless and actually are distrustful of adults and authority figures. We’re adrift because no one has provided a moral anchor in a sea of relativism created by adults and are seeking something solid. We find it in death.
If young people truly believed that their existence is nothing more than the random combination of time, chance and matter, horror flicks would hold no appeal. If life is ultimately meaningless, as many postmoderns contend, then death is meaningless—why worry about it? But the heart of horror is the anxiety surrounding death. Bauman can talk all he wants about “infinite human potency,” but when you watch someone being stalked by an irrepressible killer with razor-like fingers who can reach into your dreams to snuff you out like a candle—it all sounds like hype. Horror films say what we all intrinsically know. Humans are weak. We fear death. We want to live.
That desire to live, the valuing of life, is the direct negation of postmodern meaninglessness. It is also an inroad to sharing the Gospel. It starts with discussions about why these films are popular and how people feel about life and death. We fear death because it is unnatural; it is our enemy. God did not initially intend for us to die, and despite the apparent eternality of the evil characters that populate slasher films, it is God who will eventually eradicate death and provide eternal life.
Death is meaningful because life is meaningful. Still, it is unlikely that you will see a pastor illustrating that fact with a clip from a Freddy or Jason film in the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. But we should be aware of our cultural climate so that we can be prepared to address the fear on a Friday night.[Marc T. Newman, Ph.D. is the president of MovieMinistry.com. He teaches at Palomar College in Southern California.]
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