Horror Movies Revisited

I got a question by email from a Reverend Scott MacDonald, a Lutheran pastor in Maryland. I told him I'd only be able to give him a brief response. I think I need to look up "brief" in the dictionary. Here's a portion of our exchange.

Hello Rev. David,
This is Scott MacDonald, pastor of First Lutheran Ch. in Odenton, MD (LCMS). I know you are a busy man but thought I might try this. I read your article on Christianity today "The horrors" and enjoyed it greatly.

I have a kind of fundamentalist background and found your article illuminating! As a Lutheran (yet thoroughly biblical Christ centered) Christian I now realize the freedom we have in Christ and the use of prudence in Christian living. I have a question re horror (monster) movies and fear or "being scared" as a result of watching. Where the Lord tells us to fear no evil, how are we to make sense of the almost (dare I say) enjoyable tension of the moment, the adrenalin charge, the jumping out of the seat and yet the Lord tells us NOT to fear.

My question comes as I realize the good these movies can bring yet find I enjoy this tension etc. Is this type of "fear" more an emotional charge to be perhaps distinguished from truly fearing evil? Should a Christian "fear" in watching a horror movie? Do you understand my question?

Again I know you are busy but thought I would try to contact you as Scott Derickson is not home today!
God bless
Rev. Scott MacDonald
Dear Scott,

. . . Great question. I'll throw out a brief reply for now, and maybe enumerate the thoughts for simplicity’s sake. I'll also say I'm not quite an expert on the subject, just an interested amateur.

- The Greeks talked about the experience of catharsis when watching a drama. The catharsis was a provocation of the emotions that not only purified them but enabled the person to experience a sympathetic and possibly also transformative encounter--a restoration, a renewal, a revitalization for the viewer. I think that's still what happens with us when we watch movies. We can be purged of things that are false: false strength, false sense of security, false sense of control, false knowledge, false emotion, false images.
Naturally many folks go to a horror movie for the adrenaline charge and experience no genuine transformation; for them it’s just a sugar rush to the brain. But that has more to do with the disposition of the viewer than with the art form itself, I think.

- Professional athletes experience a kind of analogous fear: Olympic sprinters, fencers, mountain climbers. It's a good kind of fear, a fear that can propel you to excellence. Athletes don't avoid the fear, they channel it. So I think with art in general, it's not so much an issue of what kind emotion you experience, but what you do with it, how you let it form you or malform you. All emotions can be perverted. All emotions can become vehicles for redemptive experience.

- I imagine that psychologists or counselors deal with a similar experience. Sometimes they have to encourage a person to face, even to enter more deeply their emotions, what can feel like dark murky emotions on a pitch black night in the middle of a swamp full of creepy sounds and smells. A person is afraid to look at a difficult emotion related to a past experience. Running away or ignoring that fear only postpones the healing.
As counselors we don't want the person to be undone by the fear but to know that Christ can be found in the middle of it and through to the other side of the fear. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me.”

- Lastly, I think we have to allow art to be appropriately "play" and not "real." All of art, in one way or another, is an act of playing. We are at play in the fields of the Lord. We play act. We play games. We play with clay. We role play in recovery groups. And so none of us confuses the Second World War with Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." We know one is “real,” the other is "play"; a very serious play, but play nonetheless that confronts and invites us to identify with the experiences of WWII soldiers and the emotions that they produced. We learn to sympathize and in some cases empathize for the analogous horrific, "war" experiences of our own life.

With horror movies we have the Disneyesque smoke-n-mirrors scare of a movie like The Others, we have the grotesque scare of Aliens (which we should fear but which we should also overcome vicariously in the heroine), and we have the psychological and moral fear of morality tales, as with The Sixth Sense or The Mist or Something Wicked This Way Comes.
The service that horror movies can provide is to rouse our deadened, hardened, consumer-addicted, self-indulgent hearts and force them to see, feel, taste, hear, and touch things that should cause us to be afraid, such as the consequences of our words and actions, our hubris and indifference, our dabbling with idolatry and our lusts for power, fame and money. In the face of the dark or unknown or future we should feel humility and a proper dependence upon God. In a sense we should fear, or revere, them as bigger than ourselves. But never should we fear them ultimately.
For the Christian we have no cause to fear anything ultimately. We hear the voice of the angel, "Be not afraid," and we need to believe him. We need to heed his words. Do not be afraid that anything shall undo you. Do not be afraid of death's false threats. Do not be afraid of Satan. Fear the Lord and trust him always.

So is there anything wrong with sneaking up on your little sister and scaring her? I don't think so. (She may not appreciate it and you may get it back, but if you dish, you take.) So too I don't think there's anything wrong with filmmakers who want to scare us in a fun sneakaboo way or in a way that seeks to rouse us from the apatheia of our sins and addictions.

That's how I think for now. It doesn't mean that all horror movies are equal. It doesn't mean I'll go see every horror movie that comes out. But it does mean I believe there is a place for the Christian at the table of horror and that a profound experience of again making our human life meaningful can take place.

I hope this helps somewhat. Hopefully you'll find yourself agreeing and disagreeing with me so that your own thinking can become clearer.




"Lastly, I think we have to allow art to be appropriately "play" and not "real." All of art, in one way or another, is an act of playing."

I think that is a very healthy reminder. I think there's a strain in American Christianity (or perhaps religion overall, c.f. Plato) that wants to take everything in utter seriousness.

"Play" exonerates Christian artists, to a certain point, from the demands to reflect theology perfectly. It isn't perfect, and it doesn't put all responsibility on the discerning viewer of art, but it does give the Christian artist a freedom to examine life rather than merely embellishing theology.
That's good.

I think of two things in the Bible that run along similar lines: Jesus' parables and Samson. Neither allow us a simplistic read on God's ways. You don't put a quarter in the Parable Machine and get an easy answer (i.e., easily manageable, controllable).

Nor do you look at the life of Samson and go, "Oh, of course it's obvious why God put him there as an example of . . ." As an example of what?! Of complete hellion, girl-addicted, numb-skulled, brutish sainthood? Read David Maine's "The Book of Samson" to get a nice view of the mortal man chosen by God.

So yes, I even think God is perfectly at play.

What's the moral? I don't know. Jump in the play and figure it out.
My friend Amy Cogdell, mother of four and all-round delightful woman, tried to leave the following comment but was unable to. I'm dropping it off on her behalf. It's sharp stuff. Thank you, Amy.

When I read this post I was reminded of a moral quandary we faced as young parents. For several years we were committed pacifists - no weapons or war play allowed in our house. But when Noah, our first son, was three years old, our house burned, destroying most of his toys. The next day I took him to the toy store where there was only one item he wanted - a $3.99 plastic sword. I agonized over the decision, even borrowed the store telephone and consulted with my husband at work. Finally we decided to buy the sword on the condition that our son vow to the cashier - upon pain of return – never to hit anyone with it. He kept his promise and we kept the sword. In fact, we now have a fine collection of medieval weaponry.

Later, as I was processing my concerns with my mother-in-law, she offered these words of wisdom. "Amy," she said, "I think Noah is feeling very out of control and scared right now. Having a sword by his side gives him a sense of security. It gives him a way to practice fighting the 'monsters' in life."

It seems to me that children are very aware of how scary the world is – how precarious, mysterious and unknown life is. There is reason to fear; and there is a time to fight. In a way, watching horror movies as adults takes us back to our imaginary monsters of childhood. Perhaps we are still rehearsing for the real fears which are sure to come, for the bravery and wits we know we will need some day.

The very fact that the Lord tells us to fear no evil reminds us that evil is real. As adults we generally worry and fret more than we truly fear; and I believe, we are rather dull to the reality of evil. Perhaps one legitimate role of horror film is to bring us back to that palpable, life and death fear we all knew as children - the fear that reminds us our defenses are only plastic and true safety is found only in God.
scott said…
In response to David's comment about God at play, the moral is of course not that the scriptures exist to just give us role models. The Reformation has helped me so much on this "heroes of the Bible" topic. The grand narrative is of God. We enter the drama by faith and realize we are only actors. He is the hero, combating and crushing evil, even the evil within us. Samson needed a Savior just like I do. Scott M
I'd love to hear your take on the performance art evangelist Justin Fatica. There is an HBO documentary about him called "Hard as Nails" that was reviewed in Monday, Dec. 17, 2007 NY Times.
Thank you and Merry Christmas!
Scott and Kathleen, thanks for the comments on both accounts. I'll have to look up the review on Fatica. Good stuff.

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