In writing to his infernal nephew Wormwood, the senior demon Screwtape, in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, offers advice about how to deal with humans who get too close to recognizing the truth about satanic activity. Screwtape tells him to train his human patient to find the demonic ridiculous, but if he could, he should conceal himself. The whole idea was to put the supernatural element out of the human’s mind, because that is when the demonic is most powerful. The goal, Screwtape notes, is to create the first “materialist magician”—one who denies spirits, but virtually worships material forces. Screwtape, I fear, would be most pleased with the materialist turn in horror films.
Scary movies are popular because people enjoy the flesh-crawling feeling they get while watching them. Rudolf Otto, in the Idea of the Holy, recognizes this demonic dread as the first inkling some people have of their awareness that there are other forces in the universe. These feelings can be the precursor to recognizing the Otherness of God. But if that feeling is short-circuited by stories that apply a materialist slant to what would otherwise be a supernatural film, the audience loses—and may not even be able to explain its disappointment.
Materialism argues that there is no spiritual element to the universe. What is seen—physical reality—is all that exists. Horror films did not always embrace that view of reality. In old vampire and werewolf films, in particular, the cause and cure for the monster’s malady was spiritual. Many horror films have since abandoned that ground.
One of the last horror films that gave credence to the reality of spiritual life was The Exorcist. The story was simple—taking place almost entirely in the bedroom of a little girl named Regan MacNeil. Regan is a delightful little girl whose body literally becomes a battleground in a spiritual war between the forces of darkness and the power of God. Regardless of what Christian viewers thought about the outcome, there was little doubt that William Friedkin, the director, took the subject matter seriously—and that one of the consequences, perhaps unintentional, was that it scared many people back to church.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the films Fright Night and Bram Stoker’s Dracula still maintained supernatural elements, but the power of the Church as portrayed in these films was waning. In Fright Night, crosses worked only if you believed—but it was never specified that you had to believe in the God represented by that cross, or if a faith in faith was enough. Dracula has his own nemesis, Van Helsing, who in Bram Stoker’s book was clearly a representative of the Christian faith, but in Coppola’s film is identified only as a metaphysician who appears to have some interesting powers of his own.
In ghost tales it is impossible to leave behind the spirit world—it is the main attraction, but even here the absence of the Church is felt. In one of the most effective tales, Poltergeist, the person with the answers is not a clergyman, but a psychic medium—and in Poltergeist II, an American Indian shaman saves the day, while the ghastly evil he overcomes is embodied in a preacher. The latest offerings—the remake of The Legend of Hill House called The Haunting, and Ghost Ship—use ghosts as agents of mayhem who are more like ancient gods who need to be appeased rather than defeated.
Modern horror films are more likely to revolve around technology and biology, rather than spirits and the supernatural. Technological horror generally falls into the “cautionary tale” category. The remake of The Fly explores the dangers of putting humans at the mercy of technology. 28 Days Later was touted by many as a zombie film, but these reviewers must have missed the first five minutes, when it was explained that the cause of the disaster was a virus whose key characteristic was the unleashing of human rage.
Diseases possess an almost supernatural quality—perhaps because viruses and bacteria are invisible to the naked eye—and so they make attractive materialist substitutes for the supernatural. Films such as Blade and Underworld use a disease metaphor for vampirism and lycanthropy (turning into a werewolf)—the head “death dealer” for the vampires in Underworld explicitly refers to vampirism as a virus, and the film highlights the efforts of a biologist to allow the crossing of werewolf and vampire biology.
A benefit of using disease and biology as the source of what has historically been deemed simply evil is that it paves the way for therapeutic remedies. Evil must be overcome, but diseases can be treated. As a technological culture, we like to view ourselves as problem solvers. As a materialist culture, we deny God and search for our own answers. And as a creative culture, we can craft our fiction in such a way as to make the problems we address fit the answers we prefer. As a result, we can have a hero like Blade, from the film series of the same name, who is a vampire, but who can keep his blood lust in check through the use of chemical cocktails. Characters like the vampire Louis, from Interview With The Vampire, use self-control and substitutes to keep from feeding on humans. The audience is nearly led to expect that any day now someone will come out with a film that advocates a 12-step program for the Undead.
Tracking the stories our culture tells is a good way to gauge cultural progress, or regression. Examining how our major entertainment media frame both evil and good is instructive for those trying to reach a lost generation for Christ. In a world beset by terrorism, the threat of AIDS and domestic violence, the reality of evil cannot be denied. The question that remains is, What is the source of evil, and from where does our rescue come? A culture that abandons God looks for cures in science and accommodation. Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula actually has Mina begging to be turned into a vampire because she saw it as an attractive alternative to death. Apparently no one had shared with her that Jesus already provided a vastly superior remedy.
Many film producers do not appear to be in any hurry to reintroduce a spiritual dimension to evil, or to present Christ, or His Church, as the answer. But their films can provide Christians with opportunities to tell others the truth about the supernatural—that there are really otherworldly forces contending for our souls. Exposing the source of evil also provides us with a chance to introduce the Savior. It’s enough to make Screwtape squirm.[Marc T. Newman, Ph.D. is the president of MovieMinistry.com. He teaches at Palomar College in Southern California.]
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