The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
—H.P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature“
H.P. Lovecraft, in case you’ve never heard of him, was one of New England’s most talented and creative writers. For all his personal failings, the man had a way with words, and his stories are simply a delight to read. Consider the opening lines of Lovecraft’s most famous story, “The Call of Cthulhu“:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
Oh MAN, that’s good stuff. Before he even begins the narrative proper, Lovecraft raises the hairs on our arms and turns the mundane into something creepy (because you know what’s scary? Science, that’s what). But the odds are that if you are a Christian, unless you’re a weirdly obsessive follower of Schaeffer’s Ghost you’ve probably never encountered Lovecraft. In part, this is because Christians have a somewhat… hesitant relationship with the horror genre. In what is a bit of a deviation from our normal work of reviewing books, movies, and general cultural bric-a-brac, I’m going to use this post to respond to that hesitation and make a case for a Christian engagement of an entire genre. In short, I’m going to try to convince you that horror can be profitably watched and enjoyed by Christians.
And let me get a few details out of the way right off the bat: if your conscience bothers you about it, don’t engage with horror. My goal is to convince you that horror is something that Christians can watch, not that it is something in which you personally must indulge. Likewise, if you just don’t enjoy the genre, please don’t try to force yourself into it. Finally, I am not making the case for absolutely every work that fits under the umbrella of horror. There are horror movies that no Christian should watch and horror books that no Christian should read (and no, I’m not going to link to any). The same is true of pretty much every genre—the fact that there are chick flicks out there that we should not watch doesn’t destroy the value of every chick flick (what little value there is to begin with). Heck, there are documentaries which Christians should probably avoid. These aren’t arguments against the genre, they’re just arguments against those works.
So with these details taken care of, what good is horror? I could easily argue that horror serves an important moral purpose (as this blogger does—a post well worth your time). The cliché horror flick where college students go into the woods to binge drink and have sex only to get what they deserve from the serial killer/ghost/vampire certainly has its uses as a cautionary tale—albeit a fairly ineffective one. Likewise, I could argue that horror is useful social commentary: how evil is portrayed is a useful tool for exploring the fundamental assumptions of society and the moral worth of our social structures. Horror has a fairly unique ability to spot in the banal and humdrum aspects of day-to-day life the evil that merits reflection.
Yet, as valuable as these arguments are, horror has a much more central use for the Christian than either providing a warning for would-be deviants or highlighting areas where society has already failed. Ultimately, horror can remind us of the value of the cross. The simple truth is that the world without Christ is a horror story. Horror resonates with us because it shows us a picture of the true nature of the world and of ourselves. Death, destruction, and sin run amok are the natural condition of mankind. This is no abstract statement; it is a truth about the inmost recesses of the human heart. You and I and every person who has ever lived dwell with sin as the very root of our natures. Everything we do, think, and say is touched with it—is it any wonder that Moses can write “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5) The violence, the fear, and the terror of a work of horror are reflections of who we are as creatures who persist in rebellion against God.
And even that’s only a partial truth. As of now, our sin is restrained by God’s grace. We do not live in a world that is as bad as it could be—just as every horror story has its bright spots, so we too still have pleasures and delights which we do not deserve but which we certainly may enjoy. And yet, if the problem of sin is not dealt with, even the common grace we currently enjoy will be removed and the just punishment for our sin will stretch out for an eternity in hell. In this sense, Christianity has a message that puts the very worst of horror movies to shame: those who refuse to repent of their sin and embrace the Gospel have nothing to look forward to but hell forever. Consider Jonathan Edwards’ reflection on just what that means:
[Eternity] cannot be made less by subtraction nor greater by addition. If we take away from eternity a thousand years or ages, the remainder is not the less for it… therefore, it will forever be just beginning, and that because all time that is or can be past, let it be never so much, has no proportion to what remains, it is but as a point. The wicked, after they have suffered many millions of ages, will still be, as it were, only at the first point, just setting out in torment. It will be no comfort to ’em that so much is past and gone, for they’ll have never the less yet to bear; they will be but beginning. (Jonathan Edwards, Unless You Repent, 161)
All of this, for the thoughtful Christian, should put the Gospel into perspective in our own lives, and help propel us to evangelize others. Whether a horror story ends in the death of its protagonists (as the more modern varieties are wont to do) or in their triumph, we should see a picture of that which we have escaped because of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. When Jesus took our sins on Himself on the cross and paid our penalty, He rescued us from the worst horrors of our sin. There is no serial killer, vampire, or poltergeist who can do any lasting damage to a Christian, because there is no horror in our long-term future. Jonathan Edwards goes on to remind us of this hope:
Know there is a Savior who offers Himself as a Mediator, as the Lamb of God, who clothes Himself with mercy, who is sweetly inviting you, and who is knocking at the door. Through Him God is ready to be reconciled. He has made atonement. He has met the demands of that offended God whom sinners have provoked. And, being satisfied and exalted, He now comes and calls you. He meets you with meekness, gentleness, and blessings. He brings offers of pardon and peace.
There is a happy opportunity to obtain favor, to have His friendship, to become His dear children. And then your future meeting will be exceedingly joyful. Therefore lay down the weapons of your rebellion; open the door to the blessed Savior and give yourself up entirely in both body and soul to God through Him. Then He will not be your Adversary, but your Friend, your Light and Salvation, your Shield and exceedingly glorious eternal Portion. And you shall hereafter meet Him as the beloved of His soul, to dwell everlastingly in His presence, where there is fullness of joy, and at His right hand where there are pleasures forevermore. (Jonathan Edwards, Unless You Repent, 232)
So watch a horror movie this weekend, if your conscience so allows, and see the fears from which we have been set free and use it as a chance to remember and discuss the hope we have to offer the world in Christ.
Dr. Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO., where he regularly subjects his students to all manner of horror.