Originally published at Christian Entertainment Reviews
Oftentimes I find myself in conversation about movies with other believers. While these can sometimes be wonderful and insightful conversations, they are usually very limited to a small subset of “appropriate” or “Christian” titles. Don’t get me wrong. I love to praise movies like “Courageous” or “War Room” or even “God’s Not Dead” just as much as the next Christian; but these films typically have a similar message and a very specific audience in mind. God is in control, faith in Him is what matters, and (thanks to the “God’s Not Dead” films) our faith is reasonable. I love that these films exist, and I have enjoyed the great moments from each of them (and movies like them). But there are other genres of film that also reflect what the Bible says to be true about the world in much the same way that “Courageous” or “War Room” does. Believe it or not, one of those genres is horror.
I started following Jesus as an adult in my thirties. Before that I was a committed non-committal spiritualist. In other words, I recognized a spiritual aspect to the world but I refused to articulate what that was. Sometimes, when someone would ask me what I believed, I would strive to say something profound; but now, in hindsight, I realize my answers were just incoherent enough to seem like profundity. I was raised by two parents who volunteered in their non-denominational church, which meant that I was immersed in church culture, i.e. church language, church literature, and church movies. Back then there was no established Christian market for folks like Kirk Cameron or the Kendrick Brothers. The films we were watching were awful B-movies about the end times, like “A Thief in the Night” or “The Prodigal Planet”. Hal Lindsey had such a hold on American Christians back then, it’s amazing the church made it past 1988.
I left the church at 17 because I began to view Christianity as a boring system of dos and don’ts. It quickly became my goal to pursue all the experiences I was told were off limits to me. One of those experiences was watching horror movies. I began immersing myself in the genre. The first films I watched were “Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984), “Halloween” (1978), “Friday the 13th” (1980), basically all the iconic 1980s horror series. As I continued watching, I began to appreciate certain directors, like Wes Craven, John Carpenter, and Sam Raimi. There was something underlying the gore and the suspense that was intriguing to me. I soon realized that, in some small way, these films were evoking and/or commenting on the contemporary cultural milieu.
One of the better examples of this is George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), which takes a simple, popcorn premise — a number of folks trapped inside a mall to escape the zombie apocalypse — and uses it as a means to comment on everything from American consumerism to the banality of material excess to the ignoring of social injustice. It was at this point that I truly appreciated the power of movies. Because, while my goal was simply to have a good scare for two hours, the filmmakers’ goals were to express and convey their worldview to me.
And Then God Saved Me
As I got older my bloodlust for horror grew exponentially. By the time I was 30 nothing could scare me or make me uncomfortable, no matter how bizarre or grotesque. I had seen it all. I had essentially become apathetic to the horrific and unimpressed with the garish. And then God saved me. And He replaced my numb heart with a new one that felt young and raw. I got sick thinking about the collection of films I had acquired over time, movies that depicted the most violent, disturbing acts. So I got all of those DVDs together and threw them out, movies about torture, voyeurism, and sadomasochism. Getting rid of my horror collection was a sign to the Lord that I would no longer beset my mind with such filth. And for the next several years I devoted myself to reading Scripture, studying Theology at a university, and volunteering at my church.
God Uses Horror
If you had asked me in those seminal years as a new believer whether a Christian should watch a horror movie, I would have said, “Absolutely not! A Christian should not be setting his or her mind on such things!” But a surprising thing happened that started changing my mind. I noticed something when I paid close attention to Scripture: God uses horror (i.e. horrific imagery) to communicate His message. In Daniel 7 four monstrous beasts rise out of the sea with an appetite for flesh and an overwhelming desire to devour and crush each other. Angels and meteors crash to the earth in 8:10. Even the appearance of an angel of the Lord (eyes on fire, face like lightning, thunderous voice) causes great dread and trembling in Daniel and his friends in 10:2-10. But the Book of Daniel is mild compared to Revelation where the level of apocalyptic horrors is so epic that the entire land is consumed in death and destruction. There are demonic monsters tormenting people in 9:1-11, mutated fire-breathing horses that bring plagues and death in vv. 13-18. There’s even a gigantic red dragon that throws stars to the earth while chasing a pregnant woman so it can eat her child in 12:3-4. And this is barely scratching the surface.
I realized that, if God is not above using horror to communicate specific messages to His people, then perhaps it’s not horror in and of itself that’s the problem. Perhaps it’s the messaging behind the horror. Like Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” contemporary horror films are communicating a particular worldview, but some are as insidious as the imagery it trades in. For example, the so-called “torture porn” subgenre of films like “Saw”, “Hostel” or “The Devil’s Rejects” remove any notions of humanity or justice and, consequently, dehumanizes its victims in such a manner as to draw the viewer to conclude that people are not special and life is nihilistic. These are the implicit worldviews being communicated to the viewing audience.
Christians Can Use Horror
As I mentioned, God uses horror in Scripture; and because He does I think Christians can do so as well. Thus we should not be afraid of horror, in and of itself, but realize its unique utility in communicating the Christian worldview. In God Against the Gods author and filmmaker Brian Godawa gives three ways that horror can accomplish the same redemptive task that Scripture can.
“First, horror can be redemptive by reinforcing the doctrine of man’s sinful nature.” Think of classic Victorian horror like Dracula, Frankenstein, or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These stories were rich with Christian metaphor for the depraved nature of humanity left unchecked and the need for redemption. As a matter of fact, the specific battle in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde reads like a tragic, Victorian rendition of the flesh vs. the spirit Paul describes in Romans 7:14-24. So if a contemporary horror film reflects the notion of man’s sinful nature, then it is communicating the biblical worldview.
“Another way in which horror and thriller movies can communicate truth about human nature is in showing the logical consequences of sin.” We read of the consequences of sin all throughout Scripture. In Judges the society is described as every man doing what is right in his own eyes. This leads to gang rapes and dismemberment (19:22-29), setting people on fire (9:49), torture (1:6-7), and disemboweling (3:21-22) amongst other horrors. Two examples of contemporary films that exemplify the consequences of sin are “The Machinist” (2004) and “The Number 23” (2007). In both films the protagonists are dealing with a past sin that ultimately leads to their physical and mental destruction. “The Number 23” even closes with a Bible verse: “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23). So if a contemporary horror film accurately characterizes the consequences of sin, then it is communicating the biblical worldview.
“Lastly, the horror and thriller genres can be effective social commentaries on the sins of society.” And, as we know, these sins have been legion going back to the beginning with Adam. The Bible clearly depicts cultural decay and social injustice in not only the Book of Judges but also Micah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah, to name a few. One of the more difficult passages to read is Ezekiel 23 where two harlots are described as having orgies with soldiers and dying violently, particularly one harlot whose face is dismembered with a sword before dying. And yet these harlots are actually representations of two cities that God is using to criticize and condemn for their wickedness. Horror can do the same thing. I’ve already mentioned the commentary imbued in Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”. A more recent zombie film called “28 Days Later” (2002) tells the story of a viral contagion that causes people to transform into raging murderers. And yet, when the protagonist discovers a base filled with military survivors who are just as monstrous as the zombies they are hiding from, the movie becomes a commentary on the evil consequences of unchecked aggression. So if a contemporary horror film effectively comments on the sins of society, then it is communicating the biblical worldview.
Just to clarify: My argument here is not a blank check for Christians to watch every horror movie that Hollywood makes. As a matter of fact, I would argue that the majority of horror films are rife with inappropriate material that Christians should never watch. But there are a number of horror films that reflect a biblical worldview and can be useful when communicating the biblical worldview to the lost. Some Christians still might argue that we shouldn’t focus on sin at all, that “it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done… in secret” (Ephesians 5:12). But Paul also said that while we “Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness” (v. 11) we should “expose them… all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light” (v. 11, 13).
Thus, my journey has come full circle. Having once embraced the horror genre as a secularist to rejecting horror categorically as a new believer, I return to the genre convinced that some of its offerings do reflect what we know to be true about reality. So Christians, the six million-dollar question when it comes to horror is: what do we have to fear?