Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Let the Right Film In - A Theology of Horror (part 2)

In part one of this blog series, I asked the question, what is a Christian theology of horror movies? I'll unpack my answer in three parts. 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.

Horror films offer clear morality in a relativistic culture. In a postmodern era (or post-postmodern, whichever you prefer), where the lines of right and wrong have become increasingly blurred, horror films have clearly marked boundaries of good and evil. In the science-fiction horror classic, Alien, a malevolent alien form has invaded a mining spaceship, slowly stalking and killing each of the crew members. A scientist who betrays the crew in order to keep the alien alive comments that it is the “perfect organism,” admiring its evolutionary prowess and ability to kill. The audience knows that this soulless creature is not perfect or pure, but an embodiment of evil. The human crew has inherent value and beauty, are capable of courage and love, and when they are killed for the sake of science or financial gain, the audience unanimously agrees—there is clear right and wrong, and this action falls in the latter category. To side with the scientist or the alien is simply to be on the wrong side of morality and justice.

In the teenage vampire love story, (no, not the one you’re thinking about) Let the Right One In, a vampire befriends a lonely adolescent boy who is being constantly bullied, ultimately saving him from death at the hands of his tormentors. While still a vampire, she is clearly the hero, embodying biblical truths of love and self-sacrifice in the context of an aesthetically creative film. The adults in the boy's life are oblivious to his plight, she alone defends the defenseless against the bullies. She is taking up the cause of the orphan when no one else will.

The horror genre can often be prophetic in nature, offering an artistic call to justice in a morally-blind society. George Romero's zombie classic Night of the Living Dead is an indictment on racism, a particularly poignant subject in late-1968 America, only months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and in the tensions of both the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. Romero cast an African-American protagonist, Ben (played by Duane Jones), who is the resourceful leader of a small band of survivors trapped in a farmhouse while the reanimated dead try to devour them. The tragic tale ends with Ben as the lone survivor of the night, only to be dispatched by a band of roving gunmen who mistake him for the undead. Ten years later, Romero's grisly sequel, Dawn of the Dead, expands on the cultural commentary as a group of survivors hides out in a suburban shopping mall from the horde of zombies outside. The critique of consumerism isn't particularly subtle; nor is the gore and guts (this is certainly not a film for the faint-of-heart). Romero's zombie masses look surprisingly similar to the materialistic crowds storming malls on Black Friday; maddening, frantic, and willing to devour anything they can grab.

Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg also makes horror movies with a cultural critique embedded in their bizarre and violent images. The Brood is about custody battles in marriages; The Fly is about the AIDS crisis of the 1980s; Videodrome is about Western culture's addiction to television and media. The images in Cronenberg's film are graphic, violent, and disturbing, but perhaps he believes it requires such explicit imagery to awaken a society to its sins. Certainly the Biblical writers did.

Prophets in the Old Testament used similar graphic imagery to convey God's justice. As one example, Ezekiel sees visions of a valley of bones that come to life, a cup of wrath overflowing with horror, and abominations in the Temple of Israel of "creeping things" and smoke, not to mention plenty of violent language about how God will punish the idolators, and the wonderful image of Israel "playing the whore" with pagan nations and idols. It's grim, gruesome, and lurid, but such extreme language is used to describe the moral depravity of sin in stark contrast with holy purity of the Divine. God's goodness is really that good, and our sin is really that bad.

In a society where moral boundaries are often unclear or unknown, many horror films drive us to seek an understanding of ethics and justice. Of course, not all horror movies have a positive or correct sense of morality and ethics; many have a quite bleak in their portrayal of humanity. But one thing is quite black-and-white in horror movies: there is a definite good and evil that transcends personal preference or cultural conditioning. Yes, it is wrong to kill, main, torture, and destroy. Yes, it is right to defend the defenseless, to stop terror, to seek ways to promote peace and reconciliation. Right and wrong, truth and falsehood, good and evil. Perhaps in the darkness that horror films embody, the true light of goodness most clearly shines through.

Part 3: horror films emphasize the spiritual realm in an empirical culture.

What do you think about the morality portrayed in horror films? Share in the comments!

1 comment:

  1. I think you made a valuable and interesting point; the line between 'good' and 'bad' is often intuitively clear to an audience in our post-postmodern era (or whatever we'll be described as) where increasingly there doesn't seem to be a common standard for right and wrong. However, whereas I believe God's view on morality is either perfection or not perfect, a human view is more of a spectrum. Some sins are worse than others. Or better put, "I know I'm not perfect but at least I am not as bad as that guy so that makes me ok".

    So in a horror film, if the nature of the immorality is dealt with at one extreme of the spectrum - murder, causing physical pain, wanton disregard for others, etc - this would be clear to most. Conversely, if other themes were dealt with such as consensual premarital sex, vengeance, unforgiveness, or vanity, it would likely not be seen as clear cut.

    I'd venture to say most people would think a revenge killing of the 'villain' by the 'protagonist' would be ok; particularly if the original offence by the villain was heinous.

    It can get more complicated yet. Consider the conundrum of George Clooney's character Dr. Chris Kelvin in Solaris. His wife, Rheya, had been deceased (suicide) for some time before seeing her likeness aboard the space station. Logically, this cannot be and he suspects something is awry but allows himself become sexually involved with the 'being'.

    Yeah, I know that's science fiction but most horror movies are rooted in a highly fictional premise too.....

    Nevertheless, inciting unanimity on the most malicious of acts of immorality is still a good thing in my opinion.