Of Halloween & Horror Movies: What the Hell?
On Halloween it’s good to ask, why are people drawn to what horrifies and terrifies them? Robert California, played by James Spader, has this sobering nugget to say from the most recent episode of The Office (Episode 5 of Season 8: Spooked):
Fear plays an interesting role in our lives. How dare we let it motivate us. How dare we let it into our decision making, into our livelihoods, into our relationships. It’s funny isn’t it? We take a day a year to dress up in costume and celebrate fear.
So why do we celebrate fear? What’s the appeal? If you enjoy Halloween and Horror movies but don’t have an answer for this question that’s a problem. Although it may seem odd, I believe that it’s actually possible to have a distinctly Christian rationale for the genre.
Two common objections to the Horror genre that I’ve heard before: 1) There is enough Horror in the world so why would anyone watch these types of movies? 2) The Horror genre desensitizes viewers to violence. I certainly cannot speak for everyone, but personally I get uneasy about the littlest things in real life. I don’t like Horror movies for the gore, or the “cool death scenes.” Now, I certainly would also not want to watch a Horror movie with someone who was completely uncomfortable with it. I’ve had bad experiences before. One time in college my former girlfriend and I went to see a re-make of Wes Craven’s famous, The Hills Have Eyes. We had been looking forward to the movie, but halfway through my former girlfriend became very disturbed and began hitting me on my arm. Since hitting, slapping and squeezing other movie-goers is normal behavior at a Horror movie I was ignorant of her true intentions. Finally she hit me so hard that I figured it out. When I turned and saw her she was balling. I felt completely miserable. We left the theatre and to this day I haven’t finished the movie (by the way we didn’t break up because I took her to see that movie!). Of course, Horror movies are not for everyone. There is likely a Romans 14 principle at work here (this is why Michael Bird refers to himself as the ‘weaker brother’ when it comes to Halloween).
Truth be told, as I get older I’ve realized that I actually enjoy the genre less and less. Really what has happened is that I’ve realized that a lot of the genre is full of complete rubbish, which has made me narrow my appreciation a bit. In High School my friends and I went to see every new Horror movie that came out, but now I’m very selective. I’m not a fan of the slasher-hacker style horror movies that are essentially mindless. I haven’t personally found much redeeming quality there. This also includes the ridiculous Sorority-party-massacre style Horror movies, or the so-called the Gore-Porn style movies. Personally, my absolute favorites within the Horror genre are psychological-thrillers, such as Seven, Silence of the Lambs, Shutter Island, etc… I also enjoy the classic Monster movies about Vampires, Werewolves, Zombies, and Aliens. I always have a fun time wondering about how these myths originated. To let you in on a little secret, I’m half convinced that Werewolf mythology developed as a parody against the female monthly cycle (don’t act like there isn’t a parallel there), but I could be convinced that Judaism is the original background.
Regardless of my Horror movie preference, where is the value of the genre? It may seem counter-intuitive, but some filmmakers have found the Horror genre to be an effective means of tackling life’s biggest questions. Wes Craven, the famous Horror movie director, was actually raised an evangelical Christian and even attended Wheaton College and received a Master’s in philosophy from John’s Hopkins University. Craven eventually became disillusioned by religion because of the strict upbringing he had, but he views filmmaking as a way to express his deeper longings. Another filmmaker with a Christian upbringing is Scott Derrickson, the Biola University Alum who directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose. For Derrickson, Horror is “The Perfect Christian Genre” as he explained to Christianity Today. His words sum up wonderfully how a Christian should respond to the genre:
To me, this genre deals more overtly with the supernatural than any other genre, it tackles issues of good and evil more than any other genre, it distinguishes and articulates the essence of good and evil better than any other genre, and my feeling is that a lot of Christians are wary of this genre simply because it’s unpleasant. The genre is not about making you feel good, it is about making you face your fears. And in my experience, that’s something that a lot of Christians don’t want to do.
Whether we appreciate the medium or not, the Horror genre places the right questions in one’s mind. These types of movies draw us to ask questions like: What really happens when I die? What will bring an end to all the evil in the world? Is there a standard for true goodness? In order for these questions to have any meaningful affect on a viewer a Horror movie must present evil as evil. If not, then the movie may not offer much for theological reflection. A natural question that may arise at this point is, well couldn’t I get this message from another source? This is true. But there is something about becoming unsettled that is important I think. The Biblical authors knew this quite well. Using graphic imagery can provoke the reader in a way that softer language may not communicate. If John the author of the Revelation had been given the inspired ability to make a movie rather than write a letter what do you think it would be rated? How graphic would the images be? How horrifying the content? As an inspired director, would he seek to emphasize the terror and accentuate it or would he back off? Certainly his written images do not “let up,” so to speak.
Ultimately then, I’m convinced that Horror movies have the potential to provide a collision with the deeper questions of life, more than say a Romantic Comedy or an Action film. In a Horror movie one is confronted with the ugliness of the world and the dark implications of the Fall; there the viewer undergoes a process that can lead to overcoming the fear created by the movie. As Wes Craven said in an interview with beliefnet.com, “When an audience leaves a scary movie, something has been released, something has been exorcised.” Then when stepping back out into the broader world where even darker Horrors exist, the viewer is forced to respond. While viewing a movie, one is passive. The viewer is unable to aid her Television friends as she watches them on screen, but after the movie is over, and she steps back into reality, she can act and respond. Note again Craven’s perceptive comments, “Horror films somehow come and confront the dark, incomprehensible side of humanity. They’re very much like an inoculation against a deeper and darker and more frightening reality.” I think there is a lot of truth to this. There truly are greater horrors in the world than we will ever see in any movie. Thus, as a Christian, I find Horror movies to be an invitation for deep reflection, an opportunity for repentance, and a call to action against the injustice of our world. This is why John Mark Reynolds can “Thank God For Halloween.” A time of reflection on death in October leads to a time of relfection on the life that came to end all death in December. Again, the genre is not for everyone, but if you enjoy Horror movies like I do, ask yourself why. There is a properly Christian way to engage the genre lying at hand believe it or not.