In part one of this blog series, I asked 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. 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 emphasize the spiritual realm in an empirical culture. In past eras, most of our metaphysical and existential questions could be answered in spiritual terms. How was the universe created? What is really real or true? Where does meaning come from? We used to answer those questions with a single word: God. Since the onset of the Enlightenment and the rapid expansion of scientific authority, we have increasingly become a culture that can answer every query with science. God is no longer the only option, and the empirical ethos of a science-driven culture has placed much of the spiritual realm on the backburner. Angels and demons are the equivalent of a religious Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy--they're myths, and nothing more. Even in theological circles, the nature and reality of hell has been strongly debated in recent years, with popular writers and pastors questioning the validity of such a dark spiritual reality.
Yet the Scriptures seem to point to a decidedly spiritual reality, one where angels, demons, spiritual powers and authorities all dwell amongst the soul-bearing creatures known as human beings. In the beginning of the Story of Scripture, the Holy Spirit hovers above the waters of creation. At the end of the Story, there will be a great battle between two spiritual realms, and one kingdom will be cast into a lake of fire while another will establish a holy city in the midst of a redeemed world. In the middle of the Story, followers of Jesus are exhorted to put on the whole armor of God:
...that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:11-12 ESV)This is a spiritual realm, an invisible reality that has immediate impact on our daily lives. Horror films are not only willing to recognize this unseen world; they wholeheartedly embrace it.
In Scott Derrickson's The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a priest is put on trial for the death of a teenage girl who perished in the midst of an exorcism ceremony. The question arises—were the girl’s troubles psychological or spiritual? Was she tormented by biological demons that required medication and therapy, or spiritual demons that required only the authority of Christ? Could it be a combination of both? A worldview allowing only what can be experienced and studied through the five senses is limited to explaining any and all psychological conditions as just that--psychology, brain chemistry and nothing more. But what if there's more?
Similarly, in The Exorcist, doctors and scientists unsuccessfully treat a young girl for her bizarre and erratic behavior. From medical treatments and physical exams, to psychological analysis using the latest techniques, nothing helps her. Her downward spiral seems unstoppable; her very life is almost certain to be overthrown by this force. She finally finds salvation in the form of two brave priests who confront the devil inside her with the power of Jesus. “The power of Christ compels you!” is the salvific phrase that ultimately sets the girl free from her spiritual bondage. Who is the hero of this story? The Christ, the one who saves us from sin and Satan and death.
Stanley Kubrick's horror masterpiece, The Shining, follows the story of a down-and-out writer who takes his family to live in an isolated hotel, where evil spiritual forces begin to take hold and drive the family to the brink of insanity. What makes this film so frightening and exemplary is not only the art direction, editing, and cinematography (not to mention the effectively terrifying performance from Jack Nicholson) but the near-perfect analysis of evil and sin. Sin is both inside and outside of us, stemming from exterior spiritual forces and interior selfish motives that drive people to evil and violent actions. The spiritual realm not only surrounds us; it also dwells in us. Jack doesn't enter the hotel a spotless and pure man. He has inner demons driving him into isolation. The outer evil simply awakens those demons further until he's gone completely insane, turning on his own family as he succumbs to the dark realm the hotel represents. Isolation from community perpetuates sin, removing accountability and the external salvation that people desperately need. We see this occur when people harbour secrets, lead double-lives, or choose to embrace self-gratification as a primary value for their lifestyle. The Shining shows us where sin ultimately leads: death.
While spirituality is publicly attacked from the scientific and agnostic world, these films provide important reminders about the truth of the spiritual realm without heavy-handed or manipulative messages. Yes, the spiritual world is quite real, thank you very much. There are dark forces and spiritual powers at work in our world. Gratefully, the God who created our world reigns above it all, and Christ the king is stronger than all rulers, powers, principalities, and spirits. He has transferred his people from the dominion of darkness into the kingdom of light.
Part four: Horror films reveal the depravity of humanity in a humanistic culture.
What do you think? Do you acknowledge the reality of the spiritual realm, or do you tend towards a scientific/empirical worldview? Share in the comments!