This topic has continued to evolve after my initial forays in trying to explain how I’m a Christian horror writer and later as I started to think about a theology of horror in preparation for my panel discussion at the Hollywood Jesus Annual Gathering. I was asked to speak on the topic of “Horror as a Genre” to a primarily Christian audience. The panel was videotaped and will be available for download soon, in the meantime, I thought that I would post my notes on my blog. Part II was my introductory comments and Part III some of my notes for anticipated questions and my conclusion.

I’ve always been drawn to dark story telling. I was the kid in Sunday School with the flannel graphs depicting tent pegs going through people’s head, begging the teacher to tell us that Jezebel story again. You know, the kid the teacher put in the corner and never called on again. In high school I discovered Edgar Allen Poe and Shirley Jackson and found kindred spirits in the kinds of stories that I liked to tell. I’ve been writing seriously for over ten years, published mostly in the last five. I am kind of on staff at The Dwelling Place which means I do the work of a pastor and since I work free, I get paid like a pastor, I just have no title. Some of my horror writer friends started to call me the sinister minister though.

As the sinister minister, one of the first things that I get asked is “how can you be a Christian and a horror writer?”; from Christians and non-Christians alike, though I suspect for different reasons. First I think it would be instructive to define what exactly I mean by horror.

Horror can be rather hard to define, partly because it’s a genre that often finds itself running from its own label. I don’t write horror, I writer “dark fiction” or “supernatural suspense” or “bizarro fiction”. All because the label “horror” comes with the baggage of preconceptions. When I say horror, many (of you) are thinking blood and guts and maybe randomly naked people. As a genre, it is dismissed as being too brutal, too sadistic, and too terrifying to have any redeeming value.

At its core, horror is about fear, an attempt to get a cathartic release from dealing with what scares us – be it the unknown or ultimately, our fear of death. It encompasses an umbrella of styles from the quiet/atmospheric type of horror (The Others, Sixth Sense) and the psychological type (Session 9, The Blair Witch Project); to supernatural horror (Constantine, The Exorcist); to the serial killer sub-genre (The Silence of the Lambs, Seven, Saw); to the slasher/splatter side of things (Chaos – read this article by Roger Ebert).

My first response to the question how can a Christian write or watch horror typically involves wondering aloud what Bible they have been reading. We like to clean up the Bible, forget that it is a very real, very earthy book, not always for the most delicate sensibilities. It can be shocking at times, and the shock is meant to instruct. The overarching theme of the Bible is redemption. It’s the story of God wooing man back to Him, and we often forget to read it as a story. There are individual elements to the story that we could find objectionable:
-the occult: we encounter all manner of sorcerers, witches, mediums, and demon possession.
-the violence: I’m back to the tent peg thing, but there’s also entrails eaten by dogs, and women eating their own afterbirth.
-the language: we try to clean it up today, but some of the language gets a little rough.
-the sex: there are tales of incest-rape and adultery all through the book.
In other words, there are plenty of things in the Bible that can leave a person saying “I can’t believe that’s in there.

Some people might consider that answer rather glib. I don’t and see it more as wrestling with Scripture and story in it’s entirety not just the G-rated bits. Let me go on to say that no genre uses the language of Christianity more than horror. There are four things that I believe horror deals with especially well.

4. Horror deals with the total depravity of man. Having the attention of all good five point Calvinists for the moment, allow me to say that horror resonates with this principle. Sometimes this comes out as wrestling with the theme of man having a darker nature to resist, restrain, or kill (with such archetype monster tropes such as the werewolf or Mr. Hyde). In fact, the modern day serial killer has become the natural incarnation of man’s capacity for evil.

3. Horror deals with the nature of good vs. evil. In horror, the reality of evil cannot be denied.
Now, Ephesians 5:8-14 is one of those passages commonly thrown at defenders of horror, the salient passage being verses 11-12: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.” Brian Godawa handles the passage this way: “Another way in which horror and thriller movies can communicate truth in today’s postmodern climate of relativism is in their simple but believable portrayal of real and undeniable evil. Showing the harmful results of a belief has been traditionally called via negativa, or the “way of the negative.” It is making an argument against a certain viewpoint by showing the negative conclusion to which it ultimately leads.

You see, in horror, evil takes on a life of its own. It rages against God and it rages against man, in direct opposition to what Christ boiled down the Law and the Prophets to (“’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ ; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.‘” Luke 10:27).

Once the evil is revealed, once we have been dragged kicking and screaming right into the face of evil, one is forced to react. We can’t just deny it and hope it goes away, that’s a sure route to a quick demise for any character in a horror story that pursues that course. Since horror has traditionally been a brand of morality tale that makes us see evil, one of its most powerful lessons is that evil can win if we fail to do the right thing. As the characters, our proxies, gear up for this fight, they must confront their fears. Evil must be opposed. In fact, not just opposed, but opposed in the right way. When we use evil to stop evil, the evil is never defeated and will resurface again, often strengthened (why do you think we have to suffer through so many Hellraiser movies?).

2. Horror, as a genre, embraces the reality of the supernatural. Horror not only acknowledges a spiritual dimension to life, but that transcendent reality often intrudes into our own. Even as we hunger for ths transcendent realm and ca
n’t help but grapple with the idea of its existence, nothing scares like the unknown. The world of the Bible is a world full of mystery. Mystery defies explanation. We’re uncomfortable with mystery despite our need for it. The mystery of the afterlife, the mystery of unseen forces – the Bible takes seriously the world of the supernatural.

Classic horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft, talked about the fear of the unknown this way: “uncertainty and danger are always closely allied; thus making any kind of an unknown world a world of peril and evil possibilities.” We live in a supernatural world. Horror makes us face that.

1. Horror meditates on our mortality and the reality of Death. The fear of death fuels horror. There is a wisdom that comes from contemplating death. Pastor Rich Vincent put it this way: “This tragic reality raises many important questions: What is the ultimate meaning of human life if every life ends in death? Can there be any meaning to life if death is the final straw that brings every house of straw crashing down? Is death really the end? Could there be life beyond the grave? If so, what is it like? The Bible clearly embraces the reality of death.”

The reality of death forces us to assess what is important about life, what makes it worth living, and wonder what may come after it. That is at the very heart of the genre and why I don’t think it can or should be casually dismissed as “unspiritual”.

Horror is about grappling with what we see in the world around us and dealing with the implications of the eternal philosophical question “why?”. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there evil? Why do we do the things we do to one another? So the question isn’t how can a Christian write or watch horror, but how could we not.