Monday, April 29, 2013

Let the Right Film In - A Theology of Horror (part 1)

We kept the lights on. It was the only way I could handle the tension in my living room as we pressed play on my Blu-Ray player. I knew The Exorcist had been labeled as the “scariest film of all time,” and I had my pillow ready to put over my eyes, ready to be terrified into a sleepless night. The film began, and we cowered together on the couch, huddling close for comfort.

No, I wasn't watching The Exorcist with my wife.

You’d think a group of college-aged guys would have more courage.

Compared to more contemporary horror movies, The Exorcist is a slow-burn masterpiece of terror, with an actual story arc, memorably powerful performances, and quality direction, winning two Academy Awards for its writing and sound. As the college guys’ movie night came to a close, we were confronted with two revelations:

1. The Exorcist was not only scary; it was a genuinely great film.

2. The Exorcist contained compelling spiritual truth that required our engagement.

What does it mean to be Christian and enjoy a horror film? Do these two worlds even mix? Is it possible to engage in the horror genre and remain faithful to the ways of Jesus and His kingdom? What is our theology of horror movies?

Many Christians recoil at the very idea of horror movies, wondering if it is even healthy to engage in such an activity involving devils and brutality. There is merit to this critique, especially as the genre often revels in both wanton violence and sexuality. To knowingly expose my mind and heart to the images of savagery and sensuality appears to ignore the Pauline exhortation to think about things that are lovely and pure and noble (Philippians 4:13). 

Beyond the onscreen horrors, many horror films are used as mindless entertainment for financial gain. Think of the Saw and Paranormal Activity franchises. You can expect a new uninspired sequel to release this October as filmgoers prepare to empty their wallets for some Halloween thrills. There is little in the way of artful beauty or spiritual truth in these films; they're intended only to make a quick dollar at the expense of the audience.

Yet in spite of horror films’ graphic nature and the myriad of mediocre films in the genre, there is still spiritual value to be found. In his fantastic book on theology and film, Through a Screen Darkly, author and movie critic Jeffrey Overstreet writes this:

If we stop to consider why the monsters scare us, what it was that made them or what the creature’s victims have in common, we might be surprised at the insight we can gain. We may begin to understand the nature of the menace and learn to recognize monsters growing within our own chests.

What if horror films have something of value to offer the disciple of Jesus? What if the brightness of heavenly hope is best seen in the contrasting darkness of depravity? In this blog series, I'll unpack three ways horror films can point us to the Divine truth and the hope of the cross of Christ.

Part 2: how horror films offer clear morality in a relativistic culture.

In part one of this blog series, I ask the question, what is a Christian theology of horror movies? In part two, I argued that horror films offer a clear morality in a relativistic culture. In part three, I claim that horror films emphasize the spiritual realm in an empirical culture. In part four, I say the horror genre clearly points to human depravity in a humanistic culture. In part 5, I suggest that the most beautiful horror story is the Gospel. Please use caution and discernment when choosing to watch any film, and particularly with horror films; not all of these films will be beneficial to all people.

What is your opinion of the horror genre, and do you watch or enjoy horror films? Share in the comments!

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