Are Christians wise to dabble with Horror movies? The easy route is to criticize the genre and preach avoidance. But to do so is to dismiss a Biblical genre.
In his book, Christian Horror, Mike Duran lays out the argument that Christians ought to engage with Horror. Authors Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti are both popular Christian authors of speculative fiction that could be classified as Horror, and filmmaker Scott Derrickson, also a Christian, has made a fair share of Horror films including The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister, and Deliver Us From Evil.
Although the genre dwells on the dark side of life, so does the Bible, and its good message would be butchered if the darkness wasn’t there. Yes, Horror tends to exploit sin and glorify evil, but that doesn’t mean Christians can’t find their way into it and stake their own claim to it. A spark sets a dry forest ablaze, and although the cultural climate around us is too wet to light overnight, we have confidence that the Holy Ghost is blowing it dry for our works of art to eventually kindle something compelling in the Horror community
Of course, Horror isn’t for everyone, but for those creatives among us who find it a compelling platform for a biblical, Christian worldview, here are 6 tips to hone the spooks for your story-making.
1. Follow the Bible’s Example: Inspire Godly Fear
Reading the prophets and Revelation is enough to inspire some unnerving scenes in one’s imagination. Consider the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezek. 37), the blood that poured for 184 miles (Rev. 14:14-20), the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), or Christ on the White Horse (Rev. 19:11-21).
The Bible shows us what true horror is: the Living God (Heb. 10:31). For whether we’re shaking before him or shaking because we’re separated from him, true horror is found in God as he truly is (Ex. 20:18-20). Start with this; God is the best “thrill” that Horror fanatics could ask for. So give audiences a taste of the God of the Bible. Show that his wrath is real (Rev. 16).
Christian storytellers can use provocative imagery to illustrate our worldview, especially as it concerns the fear we evil humans face in the presence of a Good God. C.S. Lewis called this the fear of the numinous, likening it to the type of fear that one feels if they’re certain a ghost inhabited the next room. This is not the fear of a physical entity, like a tiger, Lewis says; it’s something wholly other, from which we cannot hide.
Horror focuses on darkness, so study the Bible’s approach to it (see Godawa’s essay for an extensive list of passages to start with) and try to apply its principles to a story you want to create.
Do you want to provide a polemic against the sin you see around you? Perfect. The Biblical prophets speak to that.
2. Don’t be Afraid of Using the Grotesque
Just as the Bible uses provocative imagery, so can you if the message you want to convey is true and honorable (Phil. 4:8). Flannery O’Conner wasn’t ashamed of bringing the shock:
The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience….you have to make your vision apparent by shock – to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.
Christians, understandably, have a hard time venturing into images, words and themes that upset those in the pews. But complacency requires provocation.
So don’t mind those who don’t want to be provoked; that’s their choice. Don’t worry, prophets were ignored too. Focus on those who have “ears to hear and eyes to see” (Mark 4:9). That’s who your audience is.
3. If You Need, Play it Safe with Supernatural Tales
Supernatural horror is a perfect niche for Christian storytellers to nestle into. Dekker, Peretti and Derrickson all show that to be true. Angels, demons, and all the religious imagery and language that comes with them enable Christians to speak freely about Biblical matters like no other genre can.
So create stories that lean on the Biblical view that a plane of existence transcends ours, yet is undoubtedly linked to it. In Waking the Dead, John Eldredge says “we live in two worlds—or better, in one world with two parts.” Paul says we wrestle against powers in the heavenly realm (Eph. 6:12). Let your imagination wander into the ways that the bridge can be crossed.
This is one reason why the fantasy genre and speculative fiction in general (of which Horror is a part) is so appealing to me, personally: it’s “magical” atmosphere is highly compatible with the Christian understanding of powers that work beyond our capacity to either apprehend or fathom them. For example, a number of my short stories deal with sin (i.e., “Black Tree“) and the World System (i.e., “Outsiders“) under the power of the Devil (1 John 5:19), and I tell them through the medium of fantasy and horror because those best capture these realities.
4. Illustrate Your Own Demons
Imagine a story where Gluttony, Sorrow or Addiction is personified. This image would resonate with many souls who are struggling with such vices. For a personal example, my story, “The Tragedy of Tippy Cumber,” highlights my experience with lust.
There is a saying for story-writers: “write what you know.” Do some introspection and try to put words and images to the demons that haunt you. It may even be therapeutic to get them illustrated and out in the open (1 John 1:7), but most importantly, when we use our personal history as inspiration, the story comes across as authentic.
Yes, we’re the monsters, vampires, werewolves, the Jekyll and Hydes (Rom. 3:10-18, 23). To illustrate the fallen state of humanity is to build a pulpit for the Gospel to speak (Rom. 5:20-6:1-11). We yearn for redemption, not just spooky thrills. We yearn for transformation (Rom. 8:19-23) and Christians have the authority to proclaim that it’s possible (Matt. 28:18-20; 2 Tim. 4:2).
5. Subvert the Glory of the “Horror Villain”
Like any story, Horror stories depend on the villain (the external conflict). But they tend to take it one step further. Horror movies become known for their villains (the masks they wear, the weapons/tactics they use, etc.) while their protagonists are the generally the “everyday, relatable people.”
The adage, “stories are known for their villains,” is true. So try subverting this principle by making the “everyday protagonist” take up the call to action and become more recognizable than the villain (the recent film, Get Out, is a great example). Give the protagonist the sort of recognition that comes with other genres.
Do this by being radical: bring the fear to the villain. What is he/she/it scared of? Let the protagonist flaunt it in the villain’s face. For example, sacrifice and courage put fear to flight because fear loses its grip on someone who’s willing to embrace it (i.e., The Babadook). Emphasize the heroism of the protagonist (like in Alien and Aliens), and then the villain stays a villain. Even if fear is all around, show audiences that fear doesn’t have the final say in Christ (as in my story, “Neighbor“).
“Do not be afraid” ~ Jesus
6. Mind Your Conclusion: Tension or Resolution?
With the sharp contrast between good and evil in Horror, its conclusions need careful thought.
How do you end your story? With redemption or tragedy? Did the villain get what he deserved? If not, any indication that he will someday? Did the protagonist make it out alive or anew? Scarred forever?
The bottom line is that you, as the story-maker, have the power to determine which worldview wins in the end. What ending best captures what you’re trying to say about the worldviews involved? Resolution or tension?
Maybe a conclusion with the villain winning is what you need. After all, the true horror story is that monsters walk free. Perhaps this is the best way to summon a yearning for a final redemption when evil is truly put in its place. For example, in my story, “I’m Dangerous“, I kept the ending tense because I wanted to highlight the severity of sin.
One caveat must be made, however: be sure your intent is met if you make the villain win. It’s best to avoid the superficial “sense of thrill” that comes when the villain wins. Unless you want to make a cash cow franchise like Insidious, Saw or Paranormal Activity, don’t make Evil win just to springboard another film. As Christians, we better be intentional (Eph. 5:15-16).
Today, between this world and the next, we remain in the tension between horror and hope. So speak to that; let your experience of depravity and tragedy fuel radical images that prompt audiences to acknowledge what we are and how we hope to persevere through the dark forest.
Our world is an unfinished story, and much of the time it is indeed horrible. But the hope we have in Christ is the light at the end of the horror story that is human history. So we better start telling the horror stories that are happening around us and in us. Create stories where the tension is kept between monsters and the justice we deserve. Make audiences unsettled by the reminder that we need help.
Justice is far from us,
and righteousness does not overtake us;
we hope for light, and behold, darkness,
and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.
We grope for the wall like the blind;
we grope like those who have no eyes;
we stumble at noon as in the twilight,
among those in full vigor we are like dead men.
We all growl like bears;
we moan and moan like doves;
we hope for justice, but there is none;
for salvation, but it is far from us.
For our transgressions are multiplied before you,
and our sins testify against us;
for our transgressions are with us,
and we know our iniquities:
transgressing, and denying the Lord,
and turning back from following our God.