Around Halloween time last year, I was an English teacher and I had my students do a thought experiment with me. They were to write down the elements that make up a horror film. Not specifics, like opening doors into dark rooms with suspense music playing. Instead, write down general elements that tend to appear in all horror stories and make them so ‘horrific.’ Then, we made a list on the board. These are the major ones we came up with:
Dread, or the feeling that something bad is about to happen.
Hopelessness, or the victory of evil.
Violence, because there is always at least a little blood.
Supernatural forces, such as spirits, demons, witches, etc.
Most, if not all horror stories will contain all of these elements. Sure, there are more specifics you could get into, but these cover the broad strokes of horror. I then asked the class, “Where do we see these elements at play in the Bible?”
We walked through the Witch of Endor in 1 Samuel, where Saul brings Samuel back from the dead. We looked at the fall of man, where a serpent causes men to sin and receive curses. Just like many descent-into-horror narratives, Adam and Eve were forced to realize the evil was within them all along. Flip to the end of the book and you find dragons, reigns of evil and antichrists, and robes dipped in blood.
Most notably, the life of Jesus is rife with horrific elements. In Mark 5, Jesus has just crossed the lake and after passing through a terrifying storm, arrives at the other side at nightfall. They’re in a graveyard and hear shrieks coming from among the tombs. A gigantic herd of pigs grazes nearby — a Jewish unclean animal which would have been repulsive to them. In the eerie post-storm atmosphere, the disciples probably had shivers running down their spines as the cries continued from among the dead.
A gigantic beast of a man runs toward them and in a voice that’s half animal and half human, begs Jesus to cast the demons out of him. Chains hang from his wrists where he was chained up but broke out of them with supernatural strength. He has visibly open sores from where he scratched his skin off with stones. Jesus asks the demons name; an ancient power move to exercise authority over the demon.
A chorus of screeching voices replies, “My name is Legion, for we are many.”
The man convulses.
Clouds pass silently in front of the moon over the quiet graveyard. Waves lap rhythmically behind them at the shore, and some of the disciples are undoubtedly tempted to rush back to the boat and re-cross the lake.
When they look back at the man, he is writhing on the ground and the pigs nearby are beginning to squeal and act crazy. Are the pigs becoming demon-possessed? Wait, now the pigs are throwing themselves into the water en masse, drowning themselves among the squeals and gurgles.
And you want to tell me the Bible doesn’t have horror in it?
In this brief story from Mark 5, we see all of the horrific elements: supernatural entities, violence and blood, dread, and hopelessness. Of course, by the end of the story, despite the death of 2,000 pigs, good has prevailed and Jesus has liberated the man from his demonic oppressors. However, if you were to remove the horror from this story, or from the Bible as a whole, you would have an anemic gospel.
You would have no sin or brokenness, and therefore, no need for redemption.
Look at the most horrific event in the history of mankind, the crucifixion of God. I don’t have space to go through all of the details, but let’s look at the major attributes.
There is blood. A lot of blood. There is torture and beating and whipping, crying out because He can’t take the pain, and abandonment by His friends and Father.
There is dread; for three whole days, it seems like evil has dominated and the Son of Man has been destroyed. The hopelessness goes without saying.
There is the oft-overlooked detail of the dead people rising from their graves and walking around at the moment Christ died. Also, a 3-foot thick curtain magically rips in half? The setting itself is literally dark: It says that even though it was the middle of the day, darkness fell over the entire land.
The Crucifixion is absolutely a horror story. Why would we want to sanitize it, thus reducing its strength?
Horror, in most of its forms throughout the years serves to remind us of a few things no other genre can. It reminds us that there is utter evil in the world. We see this in the news all the time, whenever there is a genocide or famine. the world is a land of death and in its present state, belongs to the spirit of the air, satan. You won’t find this wake up call in a comedy or romance film.
Horror reminds us that evil can exist within each one of us, that we are the monster.
Horror completes the biblical narrative. If you took scissors and cut out all the books that have horrific elements in them, you’d be holding a fraction of the original. Don’t censor something God used to teach us in His Word for the sake of trying to make Him more palatable. You’ll miss out on pieces of Him and how He works; the greatness of His victory over the evil of the cosmos. A lamb-holding Jesus who just smiles and toots rainbows is unable to deliver the universe from evil. The presence of horror in the Bible serves to show Him as even more mighty, powerful, and victorious over the horrific enemy of mankind.
In fact, many Christians may be surprised to discover that some of the most prolific horror creators in Hollywood today are devout Christians. Scott Derrickson, director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister, and Doctor Strange, has said that his goal in all of his films is to “entertain the audience, but also would leave them thinking about significant spiritual issues.”
The Hayes brothers, writers of The Conjuring films, as well as dozens of other horror films, have also shared that their goal is to get people asking questions about faith and the spiritual world:
We want people after experiencing our movie to question where are they. Where am I in my own faith? Where am I in my belief? The Lord has the authority overall, and so here we are…Variety was doing a faith-based summit, and it was about the mergence of faith in TV and film. We’re on this panel, and afterwards this priest came up to me. He said, ‘Can I shake your hand?’ I’m like, sure. He goes, ‘Man, you guys got it right. You got that movie right. Finally, you got it right.’ And I’m like, ‘Wow!’ And I didn’t even know Warner Brothers had done a screening for the clergy.
1) I’m not saying that all Christians need to watch horror films, or read Stephen King. For many, they may cause anxiety or nightmares, or perhaps conjure unwanted (though powerless) connections to evil entities. If you’re not a horror fan, that’s totally fine, you don’t need to consume it.
However, if you’re someone who says that all Christians cannot watch horror films, perhaps consider revising your view, as it is not only narrow, but cuts out many passages of scripture. If Christians can’t consume horror, then they can’t read their whole Bible either. They may find women being sawed into 12 pieces and mailed around the country (Judges 19), or stumble upon the entire canon of prophets.
2) I’m not defending all horror films. Many include graphic sexuality, or unnecessary gore for the sake of shocking audiences. There will always be an aspect of Christianity that calls us to ‘watch with our brains turned on’ and be aware of what the media we take in is doing to us. As Paul admonished the Corinthians: All things are permissible; not all things are beneficial.