As late October approaches, stores are filled with candy treats, decorated pumpkins and all manner of costumes. Halloween is in full swing, and with Halloween comes an increased interest in the horror genre. Netflix and Hulu both have highlighted horror TV shows and movies, not to mention the many new installments of Hollywood horror classics such as Halloween, The Amityville Murders and The Revenge of Chucky coming out this month.
It is hard to avoid the popularity of the horror genre around this time of year, yet Christians have had a hard time engaging this medium. Some horror tropes such as the supernatural evils, violence and the occult can make believers uneasy about engaging horror.
While Christians must practice wisdom and follow their God-given conscience when engaging all culture, I think there are many ways for Christians to learn from and interact with the horror genre.
What is Horror?
Finding a specific definition of horror can be a nebulous task because there are so many sub-genres and common themes in horror fiction. However, some have defined horror as “a genre of fiction whose purpose is to create feelings of fear, dread, repulsion and terror in the audience.” Often, though not always, these stories have elements of the supernatural and uncanny such as monsters, ghosts, haunted houses and so forth.
Horror also draws upon negative feelings and emotions, which means that good horror is as much of an experience as it is a story. Good and redeemable horror seeks to make the experience of fear one that points to deeper questions and themes. Bad and irredeemable horror seeks to make the experience gratuitously revolting. Of course, Christians interested in horror should seek good and redeemable horror that can teach us about the world God created.
We can learn a lot about our ourselves by what scares us.
What Does Horror Teach Us?
Since horror seeks to create this experience of fear and dread, we can learn a lot about our ourselves by what scares us. Trends in horror literature change over time. For example, American horror films from the 70s and 80s often had serial killers like Michael Myers in Halloween and Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th, as serial killers were in the forefront of the American conscious at the time. Yet, modern horror films like Get Out, The Strangers and The Purge focus on socio-political fears such a prejudice, terrorism and political anarchy.
As Christians we can examine horror to get a better understanding of what we and the culture around us fears. At the same time, we can turn to God’s Word to make sense of our personal and cultural fears and address them from a biblical worldview. This enables us to look at the themes in the horror genre and not only commiserate with the emotional experience of fear, but also apply God’s Word to reveal the eternal truths and hope of the gospel.
Common Themes in Horror Genre
Given the size of the genre and the many sub-genres, the horror genre has many themes. Yet many of these themes speak to the Christian worldview.
- The Reality of Supernatural
Although few, if any, horror stories capture the Biblical understanding of the supernatural world, the horror genre often points to the reality that there are supernatural factors in our world. As Christians, we can point to the supernatural elements in these stories to point to the supernatural world revealed in Scripture and how Christ is the ruler of it all.
- Mankind as the Real Monster
One of the most common literary errors is to use the name “Frankenstein” to refer to the monster rather than Dr. Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s famous novel. There is some irony in this mistake because Dr. Frankenstein is truly the monster of the story. He is the one guilty of attempting to be God and then hating his creation. This theme comes up often as writers play with the idea that the real monsters are the evil men and women in the world. Another show that captures this theme is The Walking Dead as the walkers have no moral agency, but the human beings are guilty of all kinds of evil deeds. These themes point to the sinfulness of mankind and our need for a Savior.
- Revealing the Illusion of Safety
A good horror movie keeps you on the edge of your seat because there is that tension that nobody is truly safe. Those who saw last year’s A Quiet Place could see how the characters were constantly alert, aware that danger could occur at any moment. Similarly, Christians should “be sober-minded” and “watchful” because our “adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Horror films often point out that the world is not the safe place we try to create. So, even though Christians should not be unhealthily fearful and anxious, we should be alert to the dangers of sin, Satan and the world.
These are some examples of how the horror genre reveals realities that Christians deal with on a daily basis. In engaging the culture, we can draw upon these themes and similar ones to show how horror points to our need for the gospel.
Horror clearly points out the evils of our post-Genesis 3 world and reveals the fears we face as a result of the curse.
How Can Christians Engage The Horror Genre?
Wisely, of course. As noted before, there are bad examples of horror which may not be helpful. Also, Christians should be aware of the convictions of their brothers and sisters in order to prevent them from stumbling.
Horror clearly points out the evils of our post-Genesis 3 world and reveals the fears we face as a result of the curse. This means we can point to the grotesque elements of horror to demonstrate how mankind’s sin brought about the curse.
Yet, while acknowledging the horrors brought about in Adam’s sin, we can point to a greater story of Christ’s victory over death. The heroes of horror stories might have a temporary victory over evil, but we can point to Christ’s eternal victory over our most grotesque fears.
So maybe this Halloween, watch a good horror movie with friends, reflect on the fears presented in the movie, and point to how Christ conquers the grotesque evils of our world.
Ronnie Winterton is a part of the Center for Faith and Culture’s mentorship program. This year’s theme is faith and the arts.