“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” -Proverbs 9:10
The Roots of the Spooky
I’m going to lay my cards on the table: I love horror. As a genre of literature and film, horror is one of the most dynamic and rich genres in popular culture, and has the potential for such potent thematic content that it can outshine stories told in other forms. At the same time, horror probably has the greatest potential for being pure schlock. I’ve seen countless horror films, and while many can be counted among some of the best movies I’ve ever seen, the majority are nothing but low-budget, mediocre garbage meant to squeeze a few bucks out of teenagers. My love of horror comes with a few asterisks to be sure, but it’s strong nonetheless. Throughout history, the Christian attitude toward horror as a genre has varied, waxed and waned, and the genre itself has been defined in a variety of ways. In recent memory, the evangelical attitude toward horror has had its share of extremes - notably the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, the effects of which we still see in some areas.
Horror is ancient, but it has taken many different forms. While today it mostly manifests itself in novels, short stories, films, and video games, what we call horror is much older. The best definition of “horror” for our purposes is “any fiction that intends to disturb or frighten an audience.” Many Christians immediately recoil at this, asking why any story intended to disturb us should be seen as beneficial to a Christian. After all, we’re commanded to “dwell on pure, lovely, and true” things (Philippians 4), and to “give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4). While many Christians who take this position do so out of genuine concern for righteousness, the attempt is misguided and doesn’t adequately deal with the issues at hand. For starters - stories that acknowledge the existence and danger of evil, of demonic power, of the supernatural aren’t “giving opportunity to the devil,” in fact, they’re closer to doing the opposite - pointing out the reality of the devil and his power. Something too often overlooked by well-intentioned Christians is the actual frame of the stories being told, in favor of emphasizing only the content of the events in the story.
Horror is nearly as old as humanity, as far as can be determined. As long as humans have been telling stories (an activity central to the human experience), we’ve been telling ghost stories and cautionary fables. Horror is meant to invoke dread, to cause fear in the reader, listener, or watcher. Fear of what? In the earliest ghost stories we have, the intent of the stories is cautionary - a warning tale of the dangers inherent in certain activities. A majority of ancient folk tales and traditional stories exist to communicate a moral truth, and ghost stories are no different. From the "Epic of Gilgamesh," to Homer, to Greek tales of “daimōn” (demons) and “phasma” (phantoms), what we call horror has permeated most cultures.
What we see as modern horror in the West truly started to take shape with the advent of “gothic” literature in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The ancient, pan-cultural tales of spirits, demons, werewolves, and vampires were distilled, expanded, and reworked into various popular works, including Shelley’s Frankenstein, Stoker’s Dracula, or the horror tales and poems of Poe. Horror draws from ancient and ubiquitous traditions of ghost stories, creepy moral tales, and supernatural accounts. These stories depict a world haunted by creatures that surpass the purely material, that have old and terrible power, and how we as mere mortals ought to behave in light of it. Influenced by sources from Greece, to Rome, to the Book of Revelation, horror’s roots go back deep into time.
For me, horror generally falls into one of two major categories. Either the story is centered on an external, supernatural threat (demons, spirits, monsters) or it’s centered internally, on the sinfulness of man, and features a human antagonist. Both flavors are necessary, and both highlight Christian truth on some level. Examples of the first category are many, and are probably what usually comes to mind when the average American thinks of horror. The majority of classic horror films are supernatural or demonic in focus, including The Exorcist, The Evil Dead, The Shining, Rosemary's Baby, and countless others.
This trend continues today, despite increasing secularization and lower rates of church attendance across the West. It would seem that a professed materialistic philosophy has no effect on fascination with the demonic, the occult, and the Devil. In this first category, we can include hundreds of other supernatural horror stories that aren’t explicitly Christian in any way, but still contain supernatural elements or otherworldly threats and beings. Even stories of hostile aliens, nefarious microbes, or other “scientific threats” can fit into this category - Night of the Living Dead, The Blob, The Thing, Alien, etc. The best example of distinctly non-Christian, but still anti-materialistic and highly supernatural works are the novels, novellas, and short stories of H.P. Lovecraft (and their adaptations).
The second category is equally important, though perhaps slightly less prominent in the cultural mind. Stories of the darkness of the human heart, the dangers inherent to man’s nature, and his capacity for evil include the various serial killer and cult stories that have dominated box offices. Examples include The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Silence of the Lambs, Misery, Psycho, Halloween, and others. These stories are less focused on external, supernatural threats and more focused on internal, human ones. Most good horror stories touch on both, of course, and many (such as The Shining) can be easily put into either category.
An Antidote to Nothing-Buttery
Scientific reductionism - or as C.S. Lewis dubbed it, “nothing buttery” - is the popular habit of most moderns. It’s a worldview which excludes the possibility of any supernatural realities, miracles, or unseen realms, claiming that there exists “nothing but” what can be measured or observed. This thinking is instilled in most children in today’s schools, and it’s assumed in any discussion of supernature or the unseen. We’re told those things are only superstition - there must be some “rational” explanation for all phenomena.
It would seem we aren’t entirely convinced, because we continue to tell each other stories that are functionally warning tales against playing with demons - tales that ignite our sense of wonder at the wider, scarier world, that paint a picture of a world teeming with life, danger, and undiscovered secrets. The picture of the world that our society gives lip service to is a far cry from the one it depicts in stories.
Horror, by its very nature, points us to these supernatural realities, whether intentional or not. It points us to the existence of things beyond our understanding or observing, of forces beyond our control, of beings outside our realm. It directs our imaginations outward toward the things unseen, even when it gets the details wrong. Horror is by nature anti-materialistic (especially the older ghost stories dating back to the ancient world) and almost always assumes the existence of something more - or at least recognizes the innate human tendency to perceive things beyond the material world. Because of these traits, Horror can be a powerful vessel for curing moderns of their materialism. Though this often leads to dark places (look at the rising new paganism and occultism in the West) it can also lead to encounters with the Divine. C.S. Lewis claimed this was somewhat the route he took to Christ - his fascination with the occult and with pagan mythology led him to abandon his nothing buttery in favor of a cautious theism, which later gave way to faith in Christ.
Encounters with the Holy
“The tale of the preternatural — as written by George Macdonald, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and other masters — can be an instrument for the recovery of moral order.” -Russell Kirk
In my view, the horror films that are most effective, most chilling, and most disturbing tend to be the ones that deal directly with Christian themes, and centrally feature a Christian moral. Movies that deal with the occult, witchcraft, or demonic possession all affect me in deeper ways than a simple slasher or monster film might - probably because they’re dealing with dangerous realities rather than simple fantasy. While most of the films in this category aren’t intentionally Christian - as in, they aren’t made by orthodox believers with this aim in mind - they still point to Christian realities. They show us the dangers of tampering with the created order, of trying to communicate with spiritual beings that wish us harm, or to “make deals” with them. In nearly every case, the lesson of the film involves avoiding and rebuking evil. Don’t read from that book kid. Don’t go into that cave. Don’t mess with that Ouija board. Despite the disposition of many parents during the Satanic Panic, I believe most of these films serve to repudiate evil rather than promote it. Regarding The Exorcist, possibly the most pearl-clutch-inducing film of all time for strict evangelical parents, it’s often overlooked that the demon possessing Regan is the villain of the film - and that Regan brought the evil upon herself by playing with a Ouija board in the first place. It’s why I, tongue only slightly planted in my cheek, like to call The Exorcist my favorite Christian movie.
The most important thing that horror can do for us as Christians is expose us to a criminally forgotten biblical concept - holy fear. Holy fear is the natural terror one feels when they encounter the divine, as C.S. Lewis puts it in The Problem of Pain, it’s a fear in which the subject "feel[s] wonder and a certain shrinking" or "a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and our prostration before it." It’s not simply a love, or a reverent respect, but a holy terror before power beyond your understanding, and its most potent and worshipful form should be resolved for God alone. Scripture commands over and again that we are to fear God. When the Prophet Isaiah encounters God, he immediately shrinks away and declares his own sinfulness before the majesty of the Most High.
“Then said I, Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
True “holy fear,” in its most righteous and potent form is to be directed only at God. This does not mean, however, that this kind of fear, or at least one that mirrors it, cannot be felt about lesser beings than God Himself. Just as one should love God most completely and primarily, it is still a virtue to love your family. Look at angelic encounters throughout scripture, and at how the angels consistently have to command humans not to be afraid. Fear, the kind of fear that shrinks our own importance and recognizes a powerful entity beyond our experience, points us heavenward, and reminds us of our place in the cosmos. This is why holy fear, even when it’s directed positively toward lesser divine creatures, or even negatively toward Satan and his hordes, is necessary for a robust understanding of our relation to the holy. Lewis explores this at great length in Till We Have Faces, where this fear is directed generally at “the gods” and divine creatures at large, rather than purely at the Creator alone. The same kind of shrinking, goosebump inducing fear comes with any demonic encounter, and can be induced by literature and film when depicted well. The greatest writer for inducing a negative type of “holy fear” is H.P. Lovecraft, whose incomprehensible monsters make us feel small and powerless.
Holy fear, which can be beautifully elicited through the horror genre, reminds us of the reality of the divine and the demonic, of the supernatural world, and reminds us of the role we fulfill in God’s grand narrative.
This is not an argument for constant dwelling on evil things. Critics of horror are quick to point out scriptures which explicitly tell us not to do that. However, it can be easy to forget that these things aren’t depicted for glorification, rather, they’re depicted in the context of a story. A story has its heroes and its villains, and to portray evil as evil is always a good and righteous thing. This is what most horror does.
Trick or Treat, Smell My Feet
Horror doesn’t stop at fear, though. The best horror stories are never designed simply to elicit a holy fear, to remind you that demons are real, then send you on your frightened way. The greatest stories are about the defeat of this evil, or at least the struggle against it. One very important purpose that horror can serve for Christians is to remind us that we need not cower in fear at the dark forces of the world. Satan and all his minions have been utterly defeated at Calvary, and the hordes of darkness deposed by the reigning King. I have written in Ad Fontes on the correct disposition of Christians toward demons and false gods, now that the true One has overthrown them. We are not to cower before evil, but instead we are to mock it. We are to stand boldly in its face and declare its defeat. This is the purpose of the holiday of Halloween, an intentional mocking of evil by dressing up in its form to display its powerlessness.
The idols have been cast down, and Christ has obtained victory over all the forces of this world. And yet, they are still dangerous, indeed. This is the edge that the horror genre rides, this is the space it fills - that “already, not yet” space of history between the decisive blow of Christ’s work, and the consummation of His return. The darkness is defeated, but not yet destroyed, and in this in-between age, we should remember the dangers of evil, tell stories that warn of the power of evil, and yet mock it directly to its face. Until our King returns, this is our attitude toward the true horrors of the cosmos.
Why Be Scared?
I believe that the horror genre is one that is vitally necessary for Christians in a few different ways, and that the stories we tell through horror should continue to be told, and told well. Horror has its roots in antiquity, and has served a function in human society for thousands of years - a tripartite function that is still needed:
Horror breaks us of our materialist framework that we often operate in unknowingly, and instead orients us toward the supernatural or divine and transcendent.
Horror reminds us of our own depravity, the evil within us, our need for Grace, and the state we would be in without it.
Horror binds us to the past, to now neglected bits of Christian theology, to tradition, and to the storytellers who came before, warning us of evils.
Horror isn’t an unhealthy fascination with evil, and it’s not dwelling on forbidden things. It’s an attempt to understand the supernatural world we inhabit, complete with warnings against doing the very thing it’s accused of. It’s a reflection on the nature of humanity and the nature of the divine, on the relationship between mortal and immortal, and on the nature of evil. It’s a valuable story form that sticks around for a reason - it’s part of who we are.
Keep telling ghost stories, keep being spooky, keep mocking Satan and his power, and keep reminding yourself of the reality of spiritual things. In our secular age, we should celebrate any widely accepted reminder of the supernatural realities the Bible speaks to, even if they only get a part of the picture right.
Zephram Foster writes from Tahlequah, Oklahoma. He works in higher education, and in youth ministry in a Reformed Baptist Church. He creates in various formats such as songwriting, blogging, and hosting a film podcast called Not Qualified.