The New York Times called 2017 “The Biggest Year in Horror History.” Fueled by the runaway success of films like Get Out and It, last year proved to be the highest-grossing year for horror movies in box-office history. Horror has become one of Hollywood’s most bankable genres, leading some to ask, “Can horror movies save Hollywood?”
The ongoing appeal of the genre should interest Christians. What does its surging popularity tell us about ourselves and our world?
Some speculate that horror helps us grapple with societal and psychological tensions, providing a type of cathartic viewing experience. Others cite the visceral, emotive pull of horror, its ability to grab us and give us a rush.
It’s also possible, of course, that horror movies are popular simply because people like the gory violence and sexual exploitation that is often (sadly) pervasive in these films. It could be that horror simply mirrors our own depravity and provides a gateway for darkness and the demonic.
While there’s some truth to all these theories, there’s also reason to consider other, nobler, spiritual dynamics that might contribute to our attraction to horror. As Christians we should certainly exercise caution and discernment when approaching the horror genre. But perhaps we might also consider how its continued popularity reflects an intuitive, God-given sense of morality, mortality, and our need to “kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.”
1. Horror speaks to the fallenness of our world.
“We are all like the moon,” Mark Twain quipped. “We each have a dark side.” Indeed, history bears constant witness to this truth. Gulags, torture chambers, lynch mobs, serial murders, and mass shootings litter our historical landscape. The Bible also bears witness to it. Whether Noah’s drunkenness, David’s adultery, or Peter’s denial, Scripture doesn’t spare us the dark flaws of even its more faithful heroes. Every Jekyll has its Hyde.
Conceding human fallenness and our propensity to do evil is intrinsic to a biblical worldview. And it’s also a staple of the horror genre.
In Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, Cornelius Plantinga notes that “even when it is familiar, sin is never normal.” The very notion of “sin” or “evil” appeals to a standard of goodness that has been transgressed. Whether it’s a dystopian future, a serial murderer, or a glimpse into hell, the horror genre appeals to our inherent sense that the world is not the way it’s supposed to be. And we cringe at its defilement.
Whether it’s a dystopian future, a serial murderer, or a glimpse into hell, the horror genre appeals to our inherent sense that the world is not the way it’s supposed to be. And we cringe at its defilement.
The Girl with All the Gifts (2017) offers a fresh take on the zombie genre, grounding the real horror not in the soulless “hungries,” as they’re called, but in the humans willing to disregard moral lines in order to survive. The Walking Dead charts a similar course, portraying the living as just as deadly as the living dead. The abnormality is both outside and inside us.
Another thematic element that riffs on our innate sense of normal is the “science gone awry” motif. Placing our trust in science, technology, and humanity, rather than in God, can yield some of the most horrific visions imaginable.
In David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly (1986), Jeff Goldblum plays a scientist who, through a tragic lab mishap, is genetically melded with an insect. The horror is not just in the film’s gruesome special effects, but also in witnessing the scientist’s slow loss of his humanity. The popular Netflix series Black Mirror paints a bleak near-future landscape where technology shapes, and often drains, its users of their humanity. Far from a utopia, the show imagines a world in which science only amplifies our sin. In so doing, Black Mirror (among other dystopian books and films) reinforces a vital biblical theme: man is broken. No amount of moral or technological tweaks can correct the malfunction that is us. Only through the bloody, fittingly horrific death of Christ on the cross can the horror of our own desperate plight be redeemed.
Only through the bloody, fittingly horrific death of Christ on the cross can the horror of our own desperate plight be redeemed.
The popularity of the horror genre may be a collective subconscious affirmation that the world is not the way it’s supposed to be, that moral darkness encroaches all around, both inside and outside us. Without redemption we know dystopia is inevitable. Yet to reflect on our fallenness, we must also invoke Eden. We can only recognize that horror is horrific because we recognize what is good and glorious.
2. Horror speaks to the supernatural, immaterial parts of our world.
Not all horror contains supernatural elements. Some films, like last year’s Split, root the “demonic” purely in the human psyche. Nevertheless, much of contemporary horror assumes a supernatural worldview and an afterlife—which is significant at a time when secularism is on the rise.
Perhaps most obvious is the perennial popularity of movies involving demonic activity, possessions, and exorcism. One critic traced a then-recent spate of such films back to The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), writing:
The film was heavily targeted to the evangelical market. They’re not the first audience you think of when you talk about over-the-top horror films, but to evangelical audiences, The Exorcism of Emily Rose wasn’t just a horror bash—it was practically a documentary. And it opened the floodgates to a rash of exorcist films that have been playing out the primal clash of good and evil ever since.
This “primal clash of good and evil” is practically status quo for the genre. Indeed, horror films frequently appeal to these moral opposites and a non-physical dimension where their battles play out. The Conjuring franchise, for example, follows Catholic paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren as they investigate alleged hauntings. The first film concludes with a harrowing exorcism scene followed by these un-subtle closing lines:
Diabolical forces are formidable. These forces are eternal and they exist today. The fairy tale is true. The Devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow.
Although most horror films aren’t as blatant about God, the Devil, and spiritual warfare, many assume the existence of the supernatural. Paranormal Activity was one of the most profitable releases of 2009 and spawned four additional installments. The films assume that a spiritual dimension exists (in fact, the final installment in 2015 is titled The Ghost Dimension) and is occupied, in part, by evil entities. The series eventually traces the “paranormal activity” back to the protagonist’s grandmother, her involvement in witchcraft, and the arrival of an “invisible friend.”
While not typically theologically orthodox, movies about the Devil, or other forms of supernatural and existential terrors, instinctively imply the existence of something even more primal and powerful than those terrors: God. Or as Michael, the skeptical American seminary student in The Rite (2011) proclaims, “I believe in the Devil, and so I believe in God!”
While not always theologically orthodox, movies about the Devil, or other forms of supernatural and existential terrors, instinctively imply the existence of something even more primal and powerful than those terrors: God.
3. Horror speaks to fighting and conquering darkness.
While some object to the horror genre on the grounds that it seems to depict the triumph of evil, the reality is most horror films depict the collision of light and darkness, good wrestling against evil. Indeed, even films that show darkness winning evoke the instinctive belief that good should prevail against evil.
Horror films may often depict evil triumphing over good, but it is a “triumph” we are challenged to thwart.
Thwarting evil takes on many different forms in the canon of horror. In last year’s adaptation of Stephen King’s It, the power of friendship and camaraderie ultimately overcomes the darkness (see also: Stranger Things). That’s why Pennywise, the ghastly clown, seeks to separate his adversaries and pit them against one another. In countless films, love breaks the shroud of darkness.
In countless films, love breaks the shroud of darkness.
A classic example of the enduring struggle against darkness may be Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Unlike many trends in contemporary vampire mystique, Stoker’s vampire is not glorified, romanticized, or portrayed as anything but a vile, hellish being, the spawn of Satan, a creature cursed and damned. Stoker clearly portrays the pursuit of Dracula as a battle between the forces of God and Satan, good and evil.
At one point in the novel, the wonderfully eccentric vampire-hunter Van Helsing proclaims: “The Devil may work against us for all he’s worth, but God sends us men when we want them,” and exhorts his comrades that “it is in trouble and trial that our faith is tested” and that “we must keep on trusting, [and] God will aid us up to the end.” Van Helsing not only sees the vampire hunters as “ministers of God’s own wish” representing “the old knights of the cross,” but his prey as the monstrous defamation of God himself.
Literary critics often note the Christian allegory inherent in Dracula, not just in its overtly religious symbolism (crucifix, communion wafer, holy water, and so on), but ultimately in the collision of Christian ethics with Darwinian evolution, a topic that would have been of great interest to its Victorian audience. Either way, in Dracula, religion plays a pivotal role. Not only is Mina saved from the curse, but the vampire is stopped through the faith and hope of “the old knights of the cross.” Good both fights and conquers darkness.
Likewise, horror films often do more than recognize that true evil exists. They show how we are called, like the youthful protagonists in It, to band together and face it. Like “the old knights of the cross” we are called to run into battle, even when that battle brings us face to face with monsters.