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.