Tuesday, October 29, 2013
The Spirituality of Horror
by Charity Erickson
Scott Derrickson, writer and director of such films as The Exorcism of Emily Rose and last year’s Sinister, says this about the horror genre:
“In my opinion, the horror genre is a perfect genre for Christians to be involved with. I think the more compelling question is, ‘Why do so many Christians find it odd that a Christian would be working in this genre?’ To me, this genre deals more overtly with the supernatural than any other genre, it tackles issues of good and evil more than any other genre, it distinguishes and articulates the essence of good and evil better than any other genre, and my feeling is that a lot of Christians are wary of this genre simply because it's unpleasant. The genre is not about making you feel good, it is about making you face your fears. And in my experience, that's something that a lot of Christians don't want to do."
"To me, the horror genre is the genre of non-denial. It's about admitting that there is evil in the world, and recognizing that there is evil within us, and that we're not in control, and that the things that we are afraid of must be confronted in order for us to relinquish that fear.” (Full interview here.)
I first encountered Derrickson in a book called Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film and Culture. I was just out of high school, and still very sheltered; I had not seen many true horror films. (Or does Left Behind II: Tribulation Force count?) After reading Derrickson’s contribution to the book, I decided to educate myself in horror.
After a very brief foray into the genre, I realized that while I did not love horror, I could appreciate Derrickson’s thesis: horror is a gateway to the spiritual. I found the films I watched to be intensely affecting, preoccupying me for days—especially films that invoked the name of Jesus, such as 1931’s Dracula and Derrickson’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Hellraiser made me ill. Donnie Darko…I did not get Donnie Darko.
Years later, however, my interest in horror was again piqued by the Netflix series Hemlock Grove and its depiction of a Christian werewolf-hunter (see my On Pop Theology review here). This past fall’s The Conjuring also concerns Christians grappling with dark spiritual forces—an especially fascinating example as it is based on the real-life characters Ed and Lorraine Warren, self-proclaimed demonologists and curators (wardens?) of an “occult museum” filled with creepy dolls, statues, mirrors and other miscellanea said to be connected with demonic manifestations.
I grew up believing that, as a Christian, I would have to contend with demonic forces, and despite the promise of victory, the thought of encountering demons was petrifying; so stories like these conjure a very real fear within me.
And it makes me wonder just what is happening when we watch a horror film or show; is it stirring the realm of the spirit that is around us and beyond us, or is it just the spirit of fear within us that is moved? If it is the former, if the fear that horror films elicit is based on a real threat, on spiritual powers at work in the world, does it evidence a sort of charismaticism universal to us all, an unconscious link to hidden realities of spiritual-warfare? And if so, can (or should) this phenomenon be used in the cause of apologetics, as Derrickson seems to suggest?
What do you think? And what examples drawn from the genre of horror have caused you to contemplate the spiritual realm?
Charity Erickson and her husband live and work together in the north woods of Minnesota. Check out her blog for more of her writing and follow her on Twitter @CharityJill.
You can follow On Pop Theology on Twitter @OnPopTheology or like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/OnPopTheology.
You might also like: