Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Is horror, as a genre, redeemable?

Interesting essay here (h-t m'mate Craig). Discuss. (I may update with my own reflections later; just back from birthday weekend, playing catch-up.)

UPDATE (as promised/threatened): I'm very much appreciating the comments.

As Lee says, horror has a strength in depicting the ugly; it also busts open the universe, in depending for its metaphor on the premise that what we see isn't all there is. I totally agree with Libbie that the slasher-type films have little or nothing to say for them, at best.

I've long noted this, however: horror is long on depicting the dark, but virtually never even tries to depict The Other Side. That is, the devil (and his homies) are vivid, active, present, and powerful -- but they're either countered just by people, or "good" monsters (Hellboy), or ex opere operato religious icons (the more Roman Catholic tellings of Dracula, Buffy). In fact, a vampire asks Buffy about God, and she says "The jury's still out." In fact, her creator, the brilliant Joss Whedon, is a self-described "angry atheist," but he finds himself in need of religious icons to have something to fight evil. The "something" is amorphous and non-specific, and arguably often immoral itself, but it's something.

Only a few such as Constantine and Bram Stoker's (F. F. Coppola's) Dracula do much more than hint at God. It has taken Christian writers such as Frank Peretti and the vastly superior Ted Dekker to bring Him into the story.

Is it possible that there is a C. S. Lewis out there to do for horror what he did for allegorical fantasy (Narnia) and science fiction (Perelandra)?

Resources: Christian horror writer Maurice Broaddus has written about the field, including A Theology of Horror, and some additional thoughts. (I've not yet read any of his fiction; has any of my readers?)

Ted Dekker also has a web site.


Lee Shelton said...

Interesting question. My main concern with horror films is that they usually either show evil triumph over good or depict good and evil as equal counterparts. Slasher films are good examples of the former (the killer always comes back for more in countless sequels) and the more "religious" horror films (The Exorcist, The Omen, etc.) exemplify the latter.

As for the blood and violence associated with the horror genre, that typically depends on the extent and relevance. In my opinion, gratuitously violent movies like Saw and Hostel have little or no redeeming qualities, which is why I stay away from them. However, I'm always in the mood for a good psychological thriller in the vein of Hitchcock or Shyamalan. (As a Calvinist, I particularly liked Signs.)

Libbie said...

I think this is a really tough question, because the genre is wide and varied.

Slasher films are fairly easy to dismiss - but a film that has shocks and gore as part of the tale could easily be, say, a war story, and war, portrayed truthfully, is a bloody, awful business.

I have actually seen 28 Days later, and found it very thought-provoking. I have a bit of a soft-spot for post-apocalyptic stories anyway, it's very much the sci-fi genre I enjoy writing in, but the film posed some fantastic questions about the evil inside all of us, and that the seemingly 'civilized' can be more monstrous than the 'monsters'. There are interesting themes there for a Christian.

I'm afraid I'm a bit of a hardened twist nut, so most psychological clever-clever doesn't work - I ruined The Sixth Sense for dh by guessing the twist at the beginning of the film. I have to write all guesses down now and put them in a sealed envelope.

And some of Stephen King's writing is sublime. Yes, I know, I'm awful -I hate Tolkien and enjoy King. But whenever I've seen dramatizations of his books, the images linger and it's not a good thing. With books imagined things disappear as soon as I close the cover. Visuals work in a different way for me.

So I think, in all honesty, it's best to err on the side of caution, I really do. The odd thriller is not going to too much damage to anyone, but a steady diet of that sort of thing can only toughen you to suffering - which I don't think is ever wise.

This is such a big topic.

CraigS said...

I'm not a particular fan of horror myself, but there is a human interest in this genre. It seems to me that the Frank Peretti books and the Left Behind series are very much marketed in this genre.

By and large I don't like the Christian "ghetto". If you want to read Stephen King, well read it. Don't read some pale Christian imitation with some weak theology smeared on the end.

On the other hand, I applaud explicitly Christian books that also have merit as pieces of art. CS Lewis and Chesterton come to mind. I'd also put Stephen Lawhead in that category.

William Dicks said...

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."

I haven't made up my mind concerning the horror genre. Yet, how does the genre fit in with the rest of Phil 4:8?

I heard Scott Derrickson on the White Horse Inn some time ago and he used this verse there too. It is good to refer people back to the verse and point out the "whatever is true" part, but how does horror prove to be honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent or worthy of praise? Does being true also fulfill all of these requirements?

Simply because something is true, does that mean we should repeat it? I am thinking of the pornographic "genre" here. Since it is true that people partake in that stuff, should we also then make movies about it? I know I am pushing the point a bit far here. Yet, when Paul wrote this verse, did he mean true in the widest sense possible, or did he have a certain context in mind?

I hope that is worth 2c!

Libbie said...

Agree with the last paragraph, there, actually.

Dyspraxic Fundamentalist said...

H.P. Lovecraft's short stories are worth reading.

Some of their sources in the ancient near east are close to the Biblical world.

God Bless


Carla said...

Before I was saved, I really enjoyed this genre - but mostly on the psychological horror or thriller aspect. I didn't have much use for the slasher/gore aspect, personally I find it all rather pointless. But the mystery of the psych-thriller, those are fascinating.

It's really hard (if not impossible) for me to watch these kinds of movies now, mainly for all the cussing and at times useless nudity.

One thing I noticed (after being saved) that I never really noticed before, was "who gets it first" in these kinds of movies. It's almost always the sexually promiscuious to go first, followed by the loud/filthy mouthed character(s). There's justice in there somewhere, I think?

I don't know if this genre is "redeemable" in the secular culture - but I seriously doubt it. I read one Frank Peretti book years ago and had the impression it was a really bad imitation of a Stephen King story (I don't even recall which one it was).

So there's my 4 cents. Don't spend them all in one place now. :o)


Libbie said...

Thinking further now you've updated, I think you're quite right about Satan being over-represented. I recall one film with Arnie and Gabriel Byrne in which the existence of the devil was presented as simple, terrifying, but undeniable fact.
The church, however, was presented as completely ineffectual nothingness, and in the end Arnie had to rely on..you guessed it.. himself.

As for Peretti - I think The Oath has some good ideas in it, although it is quite King-derivative (all that copious back-detail that makes King's books such a complete universe is an idea Peretti seemed to like).

DJP said...

Actually, Carla, Stephen King makes your point in his book about the horror genre Danse Macabre. That is, horror stories often particularly used to be morality tales, crime and grisly punishment. Many of his own follow that theme; Dead Zone would be an exception, though complicated (because Johnny opts not to have immoral sex with his girlfriend, he is hit and almost killed; but then this accident gives him powers for good, so...).

Libbie, King is a complicated subject. His stories are very creative, and full of Biblical allusions. He once said that, if any religion is true, it's probably Christianity. But his earlier stories are exceedingly angry, and he goes 'WAY out of his way to mock and deride Christianity and Christians of any stripe (think Carrie and her mom). Then there's the fact that he's evidently never met anyone, of any walk of life, age or sex, who doesn't swear like a drunken sailor in every sentence. (I try to picture "Dinner at the King Home," and it scares me.)

BTW, I don't believe that you guessed Sixth Sense.

DJP said...

Our dear and irreplaceable Libbie posted an insistent explanation about how she guessed Sixth Sense. Now, since I love that movie, and have almost a pathology about spoilers, I'm removing and re-placing her comment sans spoiler. To wit:

Libbie said...
The Stand is a very odd one, spiritually speaking. He is a mixed bag, that's for sure, and I wouldn't ever give him a blanket endorsement.

I so did guess Sixth Sense. In the car on the way there, I'm afraid, based on the teensy paragraph in the cinema brochure.

[She then explains, plausibly, how she guessed.]

Dear Husband kept whispering "you pain in the neck!!!" as each plot point developed and the end became inevitable.

I'm ruined for twists. It's one of the reasons I haven't even bothered with Lost.

8:46 AM

Well, Libbie, you are a must-visit if Valerie and I are ever in your neck of the woods.

But... maybe not going to a movie together.


Highland Host said...

I agree that horror is very often basically dualistic in its worldview - good and evil equally balanced. I have little interest in the genre myself, but I have seen and read some. I wasn't overly impressed.

Libbie. In my teen years I avidly read huge numbers of 1920s and 30s British thrillers. As a result I find I can very easily guess plot twists as well. In my book a story counts as 'good' if I don't work out the solution before the fictional hero. If I do, then I think the hero's an idiot.

I think the genre probably IS redeemable, but it would take an intellect like CS Lewis to actually redeem it.

Notably Lewis always denied that Narnia WAS allegory, strictly speaking. Which is true. It's fantasy with allegorical elements.

BeastofBurden1 said...

I've watched (and enjoyed) a lot of horror films, read a LOT of Stephen King (back in high school college), including the aforementioned Danse Macabre.

The disturbing trend I see in not only horror but most action movies is that the stories occur in a universe which is completely devoid of God or God's power - the only real power in the stories is based on what the _humans_ do to fight the evil in the story. There can be spirtuality, but for the most part God is portrayed as weak or not even there, and we humans are on our own to deal with whaever spook or specter or demon is making trouble.

This is not to say that within the context of their own universe that horror as a genre isn't entertaining (I still love the 'Alien' movies, and Stephen King as a pure storyteller is without many peers), but the point about "whatever is true..." is very applicable. As a much more mature Christian than I was when I was into horror movies and books, I realize that the entertainment value does not outweigh the bad effects of putting one's mind inside of these horror filled worlds too often.

Knowing without a doubt that God is in control, the horror genre has no real appeal anymore, because for the most part it paints a bleak picture of a world without God, and I just don't really want to dwell in such a world.

Patrick Chan said...

"Is it possible that there is a C. S. Lewis out there to do for horror what he did for allegorical fantasy (Narnia) and science fiction (Perelandra)?"

I only wanted to say that the first chapter of Perelandra, where Lewis makes his way from college by train to Ransom's little shack in the middle of nowhere, might be evidence that CSL wrote horror. The Space Trilogy is usually considered scifi or perhaps fantasy scifi, but Perelandra's opening seems more in line with the horror genre.

BTW, since we're talking about literary genres, can I take a moment to shamelessly plug my thoughts on comic book superheroes? ;-)

DJP said...

Beast -- I agree with what I think you mean about King's storytelling ability. I've often thought that he was describing himself when the writer-kid protagonist (Gordy?) of The Body was said to have stories just bubbling up from within him. One wonders what his imagination, saved and sactified, might do.

I'll credit Peretti with at least trying to do horror with the presence of God.

Steve W. Prost said...

As a teen I read a lot of King's storytelling, thought some was trash and some powerful. More mysterious and powerful was H.P. Lovecraft of which I read some in undergrad.

Its been almost two decades now since I've read horror and have only seen a couple horror movies and was unimpressed. However, I've carried my conviction since youth that it is sad there has been no one from a Christian worldview willing to tackle horror as high art (no offense Mr. Peretti, I enjoyed This Present Darkness, but doesn't really significantly break into the Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley genre if you know what I mean).

I believe a great creative mind from a true biblical paradigm could do horror (not just science faction or fantasy like a C.S. Lewis who might VERY occasionally sprinkled a few horror elements in his adult trilogy) at a higher artistic level then its ever been done BECAUSE we have truth on our side, and know the truth of the existence of the dark side.

And I speak not only of the dark side of evil...

In fact, this issue may even be important to Chrisitianity as a whole. A much larger passion I have that upsets me as an ordained ministerabout modern Chrisitianity is the lack of the fear of God (DJP, if you're listening, do you note the link to the topic I speak of at the end comments of your recent Pyro post of another important EMOTION/AFFECTION that goes beyond mere logical assent to propositions). There is no evil side of God, but there is an infinitely fearful side of God that is true fear that is not only consistent with intimacy, but enhances it. I believe there will some day be a revival of exploration of this topic in theology and practical Christian living and thought. Perhaps thoughtful Christian art (literature, theatre, music?) will play more than a minor part in eventually resulting from, or even partially serving as a catalyst for, such a recovery and new found appreciation for this core biblical message, core aspect of the glory of God.

Lance Roberts said...

A big problem with horror flicks is the fear that they put into you. Even if you consciously reject it, it still gets into your subconsious, and has an effect.

Jennifer said...

Ha! You know Ted Dekker!


Though particularly his book Blink is much more in line with my old theological persuasion... Bummer.

DJP said...



Andrea Graham said...

The Lost Genre Guild covers some Christian Horror, as well as other less common genres. In a world where sin is often glamorized and glorified, a story showing the brutal reality of the wages of sin can be quite horrifying. The truth isn't always pretty. We're called to be lights, not ostriches.

Daniel I Weaver said...

Personally, I think the genre is very much redeemable. Particularly in the "light" of the fact that so much of the horror out there really glorifies the darkness. I've read a lot of King, and I've read Peretti and Dekker, A.P. Fuchs, Michale Vance, Robert Liparulo, etc. and there are clearly differences in approach to the genre. If done well, horror can be a powerful story-telling vehicle.

The sad thing about Christian horror are the very comparisons that dub it a poor imitation of secular fiction. I have some some truly ingenous Christian horror work that attracts such labels simply because it avoids the profane or base material that most secular horror contains (swearing, sex, overly explicit violence or gore). There is no reason a truly frightening tale can't exist without your cliche naked teenager running around screaming until someone hacks her head off.

As Christians, we are bound to believe in the supernatural elements of good and evil (demons and angels, God and the devil, etc). As such, any supernaturally evil force tends to fall into the devil's realm. And I think one of the reasons many Christian writers shy away from using angels in their work is because of Peretti's Darkness books. No one wants to rewrite what he's done. For complaints that we don't see enough of God in stories, you can find counterarguments against using what I've heard referred to as "God in a box" wherein God rushes in with His omnipotent power and saves the day or decimates the darkness. The reason that people focus on humans struggling against the darkness is because that allows us to exaggerate the everyday struggles that humans endure and truly present a deep, layered character. Every great character rises in the face of adversity.

I write in the horror genre most often and am always on the lookout for other Christian horror writers trying to present fresh twists on the traditional. There will be a breakout author in this genre sooner than later. As the CBA loosens its bounds a little and let authors like Dekker and Liparulo work their craft, you will see the genre expand.

Aaron said...

This is a realsticky wicket of an issue. there could be a case made for a defense of the "slasher film." In that deep with in it is a very puritain moral structure i.e premarital sex and drugs=death
or as I have heard Wes Craven say in interviews HorrorMovies fill our primal urge to overcome fear of death. This is not true of all where it strictllybecomes expolitve that is where it is wrong and what makes it such a hard issue to debate is where is the line crossed between exploitve and no exploitve violnce what makes one movie like Canible Holocaust exploitve but amovielike PSycho not? That is the question we must answer till then Liberty in Christ.

Solameanie said...

I've often thought it would be interesting if someone tried to write and film a vampire-saga movie with the following twist.

Although Dark Shadows was famous for its "reluctant vampire," how about a story where some fall into the curse of vampirism through sin of some kind. They enjoy it for a time, but eventually begin realizing the price they're really paying and long for redemption and a return to humanity. Your vampire hunter is different from the others. He seeks out vampires such as this, befriends them (as odd as that might sound), and step by step leads them to redemption and restoration by the truth of the Gospel and by selfless love being rekindled in their own souls.

Not quite a Billy Graham film, but it would be interesting.