Horror and Guilt

By Tim Winterstein

“I felt that I must scream or die!—and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!—

‘Villains!’ I shrieked, ‘dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—it is the beating of his hideous heart!’”

So ends Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” It had been a long time since I had read that story, and in my mind it was guilt that drove Poe’s narrator mad: that he couldn’t take the guilt of what he had done, the evidence of which he had hidden. But reading it again, it does not seem to be guilt that drives him to confess, as much as the—to him—unacceptable idea that others knew about his crime but pretended not to. “[T]hey were making a mockery of my horror!”

Poe inverts the understandable impulse of the non-psychotic criminal to tell, to confess, to be free of the burden of one’s crime. The narrator doesn’t want to be free of his crime, but of the “agony,” “derision,” and “hypocritical smiles” of the police who sit in his house “chatting pleasantly.”

As one of my friends said recently, pastors tend to have a darker sense of humor. So I appreciate it when filmmakers are able to capture horror and comedy at the same time, because both are so hard to do well. Of the films that get submitted to the Newport Beach Film Festival (for example), well-made horrors are rare and comedies even rarer. Comedies depend so much on writing, acting, and timing in combination, and it takes a lot for a horror to be anything more than merely derivative.

I can think of two recent films, one a feature-length and one a short, that manage to be both horrible and funny: Bloodsucking Bastards and Heartless. Both of them are set primarily in office buildings, making use of both horror and comedy tropes to satirize modern, cubicle-and-boardroom office stereotypes. Bloodsucking Bastards is often funny, but vampires become a metaphor for the soul-sucking, seemingly pointless sales work that no one is enjoying. It’s filmed entirely on a floor of a real office building, windowless and dark—the perfect environment for vampires to slowly take over.

Heartless is, on the surface, a bloodier (unless you count the exploding vampire in BB) and more concentrated satire of office ambition. (Apparently, the office took a long time to clean afterwards.) Because of its length, it is necessarily more compressed, but in spite of its dark humor, there is a lot of subtlety and quick wit embedded in its 12 minutes. There are a number of lines in the film that are almost past by the time you see the humor in them. (“Knock ’em dead, Shel,” for example. Indeed.)

(As a side-note, the writer/director of Heartless, Kevin Sluder, and his wife, Jennifer, who make up Sunshine Boy Productions, are two of the nicest people I have ever met, and their character, along with the name of their company, are completely incongruous to their films. So I wonder if it’s akin to how often people working in comedy are beset by darkness and depression. Maybe it goes the other way, too: happiness makes for good horror films?)

Like its inspiration in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the violence and murder in Heartless is born of frustration and the scorn of those close to Shelby (a creepy, cold-hearted Stacy Snyder). What’s most interesting to me is how’s Shelby’s frustration at being constantly overlooked—whether it’s by her immediate supervisor or the guys in the boardroom—leads to her removing all the limits to what she will do to advance in the company. It is satire in that it takes her ambitions to their extreme, but it also is a sort of horror companion to #MeToo and subtle (and not so subtle) sexism. The guys to whom she’s making the presentation are named Deano (Matt Mercer, a frequent collaborator with the Sluders and another really nice guy), Brandt, and Tripp. Of course they are. So we get the catharsis of her revenge on the smug and the condescending (especially in the final line, which I won’t reveal in case you have a chance to see it). And we also get the horror of unbridled ambition.

In some ways, films like this require both comedy and horror in order to make a film something more than simply heavy-handed “messaging” or just another crazy slasher film. Poe is obviously probing the mind of a killer for the feelings that drive him. At what points might we sympathize with what drives killers to kill, even if we never carry out the act? Isn’t that what makes revenge, for example, cathartic—which ought to make us uncomfortable with our own desires and horrible thoughts, since we recognize in these fictional worlds what motivates us in the real world? (This function of fiction and film is teased out brilliantly by David Foster Wallace in his essay on David Lynch. Man, I feel inadequate to say any words about any movies after reading that.)

Heartless manages to avoid being heavy-handed because of its humor, but it also probes, like Poe, the uncomfortable truths about the logical ends of our own thoughts and guilt and motivations and desires. I don’t want to put too much serious weight onto the film. It can certainly be just a darkly humorous horror. But it also does what all the horrors I appreciate do, which is expose the darkness that lies in the hearts of all of us (whether that heart is lying on the boardroom table or not).

If you’re at all interested in horror, look out for anything by the Sluders. I can’t imagine them doing anything but getting better.

12 thoughts on “Horror and Guilt

  1. It has been said that a percent of caregivers and medical staff working in an insane asylum in which the most emotionally conflicted parients reside can sometimes develop psychological issues themselves. It comes with the territory, so to speak, as the mind begins to adopt a skewed view of reality and starts to identify with the patient or subject. If one is interested in horror, and in the darkest side of human dysfunction, it can hardly be expected that one cannot be affected. The brain is a fragile and absorbent organ, recording thoughts, images, and experiences and storing and cataloging them in our cranial computers. I pray that few believing Christians are “interested in horror,” because such an avocation is entirely unwholesome, unhealthy, and absolutely unbiblical.

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  2. A very well written piece Tim, thanks. As both a reader and viewer of horror (a sub-genre of really all literature) I appreciate the thought and analysis you bring to this topic. From the Greek tragedians to the Medieval morality plays; from Shakespeare to Hawthorne, Poe, and even Lovecraft; we find that the themes of good vs. evil and the fallen nature of “old Adam” man with all its inclinations being murderous at the core, leads us right back to The Lord and His Holy Word. Well done, good sir.

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  3. There is a difference in watching something and meditating on something. Some pastors enjoy horror movies, because they know that it is not real, as opposed to the real world horrors they encounter in their vocation.

    If one seeks to only see things that are “true, noble, praiseworthy, pure, lovely, and so on” (as good as that sounds) one would need to be closed off from so much -to the point of being a hermit.

    There is nothing sinful or wrong in liking this genre.

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  4. Don, you have given the weakest, most implausible, most odious rationale possible for rationalizing the encouragement of gratuitous horror fiction, much of which is not as benign as Poe or others wrote, but is clearly graphic and bloody for affect. This type of genre is wrong for a professing Christian for reasons too numerous to list, and you blatantly suggest “there is nothing sinful or wrong in liking this genre?” Much of the horror in slasher type cinema goes over the top, and one who finds carnal pleasure in these films cannot claim it is an innocent form of entertainment. The imagery alone is unhealthy to watch.
    As for the difference between horror and real life, I have experienced combat as a Sgt in the Marine Corps in my youth, during 1967-68, in South Vietnam. There is absolutely no pleasure in walking around mangled human beings, observing armless men, headless corpses, blown up body parts. To see this as entertainment is beyond the pale, and if you had seen what I saw over a year’s tour of duty, you would never find any pleasure in gratuitous horror movies. You would find it appalling, not entertaining.

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    1. I don’t know who Don is, but I think your reply was meant for me.

      First, let me tell you that you have no idea my experiences in life. Furthermore, you’re not the only one familiar with the Suck, or the only one to see combat.

      You continue to speak with self-appointed authority about something that is merely your opinion.

      In the realm of theology, stop speaking where Scripture hasn’t, maybe, just maybe, you should listen to those who have been theologically trained and studied under the best minds alive.

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  5. Dan, sorry I misspelled your name. Yes, my reply was meant for you, not personally in a nasty way, but for the purpose of disagreeing with the opinion you and others have stated on the topic of horror films only. I do not feel this strongly about mysteries, war movies, films where violence is a part of the plot or a byproduct of a story. It is the slasher horror type stories I disdain, because violence and gore are the purpose of these films. People care little about the plot. They want the blood. It is a psychologically sick place to be, especially for a professing Christian, where one’s entertainment is slasher films, zombies, flesh eating killers, all of the hideous stuff from the very darkest side of humanity. This site is supposed to have room for different views on a range of topics. I do not set myself up as an authority, but in the marketplace of ideas and views, I have as much right to post mine, as you do. As for a given topic, we can agree, disagree, or agree to disagree. It is the American way.
    As for theology, you will not find a specific verse directing you to avoid slasher films, but there are many verses, proverbs, and psalms which guide Christians in how they should live, and the enjoyment of this type of entertainment is anything but acceptable if one follows the spirit and intent of God’s word. You do not need the advice of a theologian to understand what the scriptures plainly teach.
    It is troubling how some Christians, including ordained Lutheran pastors, see no problem with declaring their belief in Jesus, while for all practical purposes, insist that they can just live like the rest of the world, participating and even encouraging others to enjoy graphic, pointless, gratuitously violent horror films. Do you see the problem? Nobody is perfect, but what benefit is there to watching this genre?
    I am not telling everyone what to do, but I have my own view, and I will express it. I do not expect to change anyone’s minds. It seems that many of you holding an interest in this sick stuff have already justified it, even using the Bible to do so.

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    1. John,

      I am bowing out, as I don’t have the level of gifts that you do; I was unable to know what everyone wants from the genre in question until you told me: they want the blood, but don’t care about the plot.

      You make broad, sweeping indictments against people whom you have never met; judging them by a standard not revealed in God’s Word – placing your opinion on the same level as God’s Word. May our Lord have mercy upon you.

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  6. It is very late. Dan, I will bow out also. Continuing this is fruitless. There is no agreement at all here, no common ground.. I certainly must deny, however, the charge of placing my opinion on the same level as God, as it is simply not true. I thought we were debating the issue of the acceptability of Christians enjoying horror films? You made your points. I made mine. We can agree to disagree. I am not your enemy for simply stating my views. You are still a brother in the Lord. I have disagreed with others on the Jagged Word as well from time to time. It is not personal. I will close this discussion from my point. God bless you. Good night. JJF

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  7. Ps 141: 3-8 Evening Prayer, Lutheran Service Book

    Set a watch before my mouth, O Lord, and guard the door of my lips. Let not my heart incline to any evil thing; let me not be occupied in wickedness with evil doers. But my eyes are turned to You, O God; in You I take refuge. Strip me not of my life.

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