A Christian Perspective on Horror in Movies & Culture

Grant Horner, Author, Professor at The Master's College

A Christian Perspective on Horror in Movies & Culture

[Editor's Note: this excerpt is taken from chapter 5 of Meaning at the Movies: Becoming a Discerning Viewer, by Grant Horner (Crossway Books).]  

Film, Fear, Pleasure 

Most people would not describe fear as a pleasant emotion. The experience of terror, of being threatened, doomed, or on the brink of feeling some terrible agony, is quite naturally a negative feeling. The purpose of fear is to serve as a warning. People do not send chocolates or flowers as a warning. A tiger does not purr before he attacks you, nor does your heart beat more slowly right before he eats you. So why is there a massive industry dedicated to the production of fear for pleasure? Scary movies, skydiving and bungee-jumping, haunted houses on Halloween, and horror novels combine to make a multibillion dollar economic powerhouse. Why? 

Fear for pleasure may have murky roots historically, but we do know that with the rise of the Gothic novel in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Western culture became fascinated with the sensation of terror. This coincides with both the Terror of the French Revolution and the rise of newsprint and what we now call "mass media." In other words, everyone knew about the great French Terror and its central object of fascination: le guillotine. And let's face it—news of suffering is as fascinating as it is repellent. Gothicism in literature and art in some ways was closely related to the Romanticism movement of the same period. Both were fascinated by powerful emotion, the wildness of nature, the strangeness of the supernatural, and the power of the sublime, which could transport you out of your own present consciousness. These Gothic novels—lurid tales about nuns being raped by cardinals in convents, young girls being carried off to moldering castles followed by enforced marriages to moldering old men after their fortunes, and of course tales of vampires as well as mortals who live a good life by day and another life by night—were forbidden reading in polite society.  

They were thus wildly popular.  

Frightening movies have always been a major segment of Hollywood fare. Fear sells tickets. Perhaps the greatest irony about scary movies is that one of our greatest and most universal human fears is a fear of the dark (which is really a fear of the unknown). So, really—"horror" plus "film" is a natural, you see. Movie theaters display their wares in the dark. 

What You Are So Afraid Of?

The grounding premise of this book is that fallen humans suppress certain basic truths about God and his universe. This takes many forms: we suppress an inbuilt sense of his existence, we suppress whatever evidence for his existence may come our way, we suppress the witness of conscience by supplying alternative explanations for its annoying presence, and we suppress knowledge of our own natures, telling ourselves that we are either inherently good, or that some people are good and some are bad, or that morality is an illusion. The final willful act of suppression is that we suppress the fact of suppression itself. We tell ourselves that all we want is the truth, when that is the last thing we actually accept. But truth cannot be suppressed entirely, perfectly, or permanently, and it "bubbles back up," resurfacing as reconstituted core elements of cultural production. I want to again clarify that we cannot make a one-to-one mapping here—culture is not just a directly reconfigured diagram of truth. It is not a Lego building that has been partly dismantled and then rebuilt. Culture is far more complex than this, and I am not at all sure its mystery can fully be unraveled. Rather, I am saying that the recognition of truth elements in cultural artifacts helps us do two things: we can better interpret and understand our culture, and we can see that even rebellious human culture demonstrates to us that we are exactly as God says we are. 

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