[Chris] Our Holy Book is a Horror Story: A Reflection on Christians and Horror Films

I have been a fan of horror films since I was a young kid. If memory serves me correctly, the first horror film I ever saw was The Exorcist. It seemed to me, even then, there was something more here, something which allowed for further exploration. Even as a young kid, albeit in a very juvenile way, I wanted to talk about these films – and films in general. And yet, a tension presented itself. On the one hand, I saw all these films, ones which I began to appreciate more and more over the years, especially as I continued to grow in the language to explain what I was seeing and what a film was doing. On the other hand, however, was my upbringing is conservative evangelical Christianity in America. And let me tell you, horror films are about as off-limits as films come. Instead of being taught to think critically and dialogue with nuance about film, it was nothing but “taking this country back from ‘the culture’ and the liberals who hated God.” It was hardly the intellectual environment to participate in artistic creativity or have more than a surface level (i.e. content) discussion around films.

As I got older, particularly as I began to pursue formal academic training in theology (which I’ve been doing now for almost a decade), I began to see how unwarranted that perspective is. Not only is the “culture warrior” mentality of evangelicalism and the arts not the best way to think about arts and culture, it betrays what the Scriptures say about culture (for more on this, check out Andy Crouch’s excellent book Culture Making as well as Makoto Fujimura’s book Culture Care). I began to observe that many evangelical’s arguments for or against something, particularly in the arts, wasn’t well thought out. It was either an underdeveloped or inconsistent argument. And I found this to be true too when talking about horror films.

Growing up conservative evangelical, most people I grew up around made a lot of assumptions about films. They either thought films – or all art in general – were frivolous and didn’t matter that much. Or they thought only Christian films were worth watching and everything else would cause you to sin because of the content. Or they thought that whatever was shown in a film was the equivalent to the director saying “I approve of this and am advocating for this.” All of these perspectives need some push back because all of these perspectives, in my opinion, are misguided. It is beyond the scope of this article to explore all of these in detail, but suffice to say, art has always played a role – historically speaking – in the Christian tradition and its understandings of spirituality. The other two statements, however, I want to spend a bit more time on, particularly as they relate to horror films.

When evangelicals make the argument that merely being exposed to violence and sex will cause you to sin, it is problematic on several fronts. First, the idea that an outside force like a film can cause you to do something a part from you willing to do it is blatantly false. Secondly, and more to our point here, is the problem of their Bibles. If being merely exposed to violence and sex is bad for the Christian, they’ll have to stop reading their Bibles. Why? Because the Bible is filled with violence and sex.

Just a few examples:

  • In Genesis 19, Lot’s daughters sleep with their father after he gets drunk and get pregnant by him.
  • In 2 Samuel, King David’s son Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar. As a result, Amnon was murdered by Tamar’s brother, Absalom.
  • In Judges 19 a group of men came to an old man’s house where he had just received a man, his concubine, and servants as house guests. The men of the city wanted to have sex with the man, but instead, the old man offered his virgin daughter and his guest’s concubine for the men of the city to violate. The next morning, when the guest was leaving the old man’s house, he saw his concubine lying on the ground. His response? He cut her up into twelve pieces and sent one piece each to the twelve tribes of Israel.
  • In the Gospels, we see Jesus whipped with a Cat-of-Nine-Tails, which was an ancient whip with shards of glass and pottery tied to the end of it, which were meant to rip the flesh off as the whip was pulled back. As Jesus later was hung on the cross, after being beaten and bloodied, he was impaled with nails in his wrists and a long spike through both feet.

This is not even close to an exhaustive list of the violence and sex present in the Bible. And no Christian would legitimately argue that the reason these stories of incest and rape are in the Bible is because God endorses those activities. That would be disgusting and absurd. Of course he doesn’t! And yet, somehow the argument which applies to horror films somehow doesn’t also apply to literature (the Bible)? I don’t find this argument convincing and, in fact, find it not well thought through. It simply is not a good argument to make against horror films when elements of horror are found throughout the Bible itself.

As it pertains to these passages above, to understand their purpose in the narrative, one must look at the context of each passage. You have the look at the whole before you can look at the details. Same is true for horror films. Before you can begin to make any sort of judgment on the elements of the film, you have to first look at the whole. To criticize (let alone boycott) a film you have never seen is arrogant and an uncharitable act against the filmmakers. It is an act of not loving your neighbor, which according to Jesus is the second greatest commandment.

It is one thing to say you can’t handle watching horror films. I respect that and kudos to you being self-aware enough to know that about yourself. But is another thing entirely to suggest that because you can’t watch them, no one can and this prohibition, which you made up, somehow has the authority of God attached to it. No. Absolutely not. That is an abuse of what the biblical text actually warrants and that sort of legalism is what Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for throughout the Gospel accounts. Our proof-texting of biblical passages is lazy biblical study and we should not tolerate it. While, yes, the biblical story calls God’s people to live in a way which is consistent with Christ’s kingdom, the legalism and moralistic deism of American evangelicalism disguised as “holiness” is certainly not that (which is, of course, a whole other discussion).

Evangelicalism, in its more conservative pockets more particularly, has a long way to go in having a more robust, nuanced, non-culture-warrior approach to speaking of art and culture. If we ignore these conversations around art, which function in many ways as the storytelling and philosophizing of our society, we will lose the ability to be heard and we will lose the privilege of making friendships with some really wonderful image-bearers who may be struggling to look for hope, something the Christian story – horrific as it can be at times – can offer them. Additionally, when we dismiss any film, horror included, we may be closing off our ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to us through them since the Spirit – as countless Christians within the Christian tradition have argued before us – speaks not merely in the pages of Scripture, but also in creation and culture. As C. S. Lewis might say, Aslan is on the move.

All this to say, let’s not settle for cheap, lazy, surface arguments of things. Do the hard work of understanding, of seeing where others are coming from, and be willing to see how a filmmaker is trying to speak to something in the human experience – the mystery, tension, and horror of it all – in some unique way. Culture is a gift to be stewarded, not some territory to be won, as Makoto Fujimura would say. If that’s the case, perhaps there is a better way to understand horror films and to give space to those in our churches who find meaning in them. Don’t dismiss them or be disgusted by them. Welcome them, just as Christ welcomed – and continues to welcome – you, even amidst all your horror and fear.

5 thoughts on “[Chris] Our Holy Book is a Horror Story: A Reflection on Christians and Horror Films

  1. I was teaching a Sunday school class a few years ago, and we were surveying major christophanic events in the OT. A philosophy professor in my class pointed out something in the Shadrach, Meschach, & Abednego story that I had never noticed before.

    He mentioned how interesting it was that God, in Daniel 1:17, “gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom,” which is to say that God equipped his people to be good scholars within the foreign system of Babylonian paganism.

    Perhaps to your point, Chris, this is what Christians are to be when God bestows similar gifts to his 21st century people in their own unique cultural setting.

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  2. I appreciate you addressing this issue. As someone who runs in conservative Baptist circles but loves cigars and scotch, I can appreciate how frustrating the careless proof-texting slung around by overly zealous culture warriors can be. Though you may want to look farther in the great Francis Schaeffer who was arguably the greatest culture warrior of the 20th century and who advocated for the arts regularly.

    I take a fuzzy middle position on this issue that I am always trying to refine and remain consistent with. I think conservative evangelicals do push art away more than they ought to and I believe there is more room for the sci-fi and horror genres than is given.

    My question to you is, how do you (if at all) draw the line between an intellectual/spiritual endeavor when watching a horror film and simply viewing filth/darkness? Surely there is some difference between The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Human Centipede. Alien and Saw. I’m wondering if you have a line and if so, how you remain consistent in your deliberation. I think of a passage like Philippians 4:8 which seems to encourage focusing on things that are not horrific. Certainly the cross of Christ was horrific, but that was meant to be a once for all situation and we should more often look to the resurrection and return, which is a more beatific and positive image.

    Again, I am not arguing that we should run away from all horror. I am just curious about your “line.”

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    1. For me, I don’t typically think in terms of “where is the line,” as I’m not too big of a fan of how that’s framed. Personally, I have a fairly high tolerance for content and I recognize not everyone can watch those films with me, which is fine. When it comes to films that I do or don’t choose to watch, sure, there are some films which I’d rather not see (i.e. Human Centipede). In my view, I think a film should be first understood on its own terms and received as such before it can even begin to be criticized/reflected on. Even a film like Saw is not something I would want to quickly dismiss as a worthless movie. In fact, the first one was very narrative-driven and I thought was done quite well. It had very little of the graphic content which would dominant its later follow-ups.

      I also wouldn’t draw a line between “intellectual/spiritual endeavor” and “simply viewing filth/darkness.” In fact, I wouldn’t word it that way. I think one must understand the complexities of the human experience, including the darkness, to really understand the complex need for grace. The term “simply viewing” is not one I would use because film, even dark films, are not about “simply viewing” them, especially when it comes to European horror films. They are meant to be experienced. Even with a passage like Phil. 4:8, the beginning of that sentence tells us to think on things that are true. Horror films can cause us to stop and explore true things, even if done in difficult ways. And for me, I would hesitate to make a distinction between the cross and the resurrection in the sense you did above. Yes, we look forward to resurrection, but to argue since the cross was a bloody one-time event and we should now look to the beautiful, positive image of resurrection is an argument I would want to push back on. I think one of the roles of horror films is to show that life isn’t always beautiful or positive, even when we like to only focus on that or when we like to pretend it is. In fact, some filmmakers intentionally are trying to shake the viewer out of this. All this to say, I think when it comes down to it, a lot of this will be person-to-person. I think applying an overarching principle across the board which applies to everyone in all situations isn’t ultimately helpful.

      And, for what it’s worth, as it pertains to film, the most influential works which have helped develop my own framework in thinking through these issues would be Robert Johnston’s “Reel Spirituality,” Elijah Davidson’s “How to Talk to a Movie,” Josh Larsen’s “Movies are Prayers,” Andy Crouch’s “Culture Making,” and Makoto Fujimura’s “Culture Care.”

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