What Is Horror For?

Over the past few weeks on our podcast, Saints and Cinema, my brother and I have talked to pastor and ethicist Scott Stiegemeyer, and filmmakers Kevin and Jennifer Sluder, about horror as a genre, as well as what characterizes a horror film as horror. In other words, how do films as far apart in theme as Jaws and Friday the 13th fit within the same genre? Rev. Stiegemeyer brought up Saving Private Ryan as a film that might not be considered horror, but that has horrific and terrifying moments.

But one thing we did not discuss was the goal or end—the telos—of horror as a genre. There is something enduring about the depiction of scary things, whether monsters that are pursuing us or monsters within our own minds. Kevin Sluder hinted at it when he said that what draws him to horror is the fraying mind, the possibility of an otherwise well-adjusted person going off the rails. This is something that Christians ought to find familiar, because our confession of sin and depravity includes exactly this idea: that none of us is exempt from even the greatest evil if we are left to ourselves.

With Stiegemeyer we talked about why anyone would watch scary movies when there’s so much evil in the world as it is. Here is where we come close to a purpose for horror as a genre. When evil is happening in the world, the most natural and common response—regardless of a person’s individual religious beliefs or lack thereof—is to try and make sense of the senseless. How does this horrible event fit with what I believe about people or God or myself? I’d suggest that horror films are one of the ways we try to make sense of reality when it terrifies us. We author stories with beginnings, middles, and ends that locate events within the wider contexts of our convictions.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that every attempt to make sense of the world and the evil in it is successful. People may have formed more or less coherent responses to what they see happening. But they are attempts nonetheless. Whatever outlets we use to communicate our interpretations of reality are also going to be used to interpret evil and suffering. Even Thomas Kinkade and Precious Moments are trying to interpret reality, albeit in a saccharine and sentimental way. Are those attempts any more successful (because they’re nice) than a nihilistic or godless account of suffering?

When Christians speak of the telos or goal of something, we are sooner or later in the realm of eschatology, or the Last Things. The end of a thing requires us to think about the end of all things. But in Christian terms, the things that are coming to an end are those things that do not rightly belong in God’s good and soon-to-be-renewed creation. Sin, death, evil, suffering, mourning, and the horror of life do not have a place in the world that is to come.

However, that world is only by faith. None of us has yet seen that far shore. So horror is only for this creation, much in the same way that hospitals, medicine, funeral homes, and cemeteries are. Is it any surprise, then, that all of those and more figure prominently in horror films? And since the devil can only imitate and distort—he cannot create—there are depictions of all those imitations and distortions. Vampires who survive off human blood; the dead who come back to life, but who are not really the people whom they resemble; and the horrible things that humans create when they do not recognize their limits; these are all representations of what has gone wrong in this creation, whether or not they actually exist in reality.

But fictional depictions are not simply depictions of what is. They do not simply picture or record, not even when they are documentaries. There is always a narrative. There is always an attempt to interpret or make sense of what is seen. And that is where the Christian exercises discernment. We ask questions about whether there are heroes or victors, and who they are. Is the evil victorious? Is its victory temporary? Who is depicted as the villain or antagonist? The bare fact of evil’s depiction doesn’t really tell us anything about how the movie (or book) wants us to consider the characters. When we forget this, we find or encourage the same sort of confusion that views the Bible’s depiction of evil and sin as if it were an endorsement of certain actions or behavior.

But the Bible is not neutral when it comes to those who act in evil or destructive ways within God’s creation. Either the built-in consequences of one’s actions come back down on those who act evilly, or there is a judgment that is rendered by God’s representatives. Beyond that, the Scriptures are telling the story of how God has decisively overcome evil in the Son’s taking on of flesh precisely for the purpose of crucifixion and death. His resurrection is God’s action alone, which means that sinners and evil can only parody that resurrection.

The fact remains that even though we believe that God’s actions in Christ are decisive and will be completed when He remakes this creation, those actions always appear ambiguous in the world as it is. There is no unambiguous evidence to which Christians can point to demonstrate the indisputable fact of God’s victory and the redemption of the repetitious horrors that humans have perpetrated.

So for now we tell stories. We tell the Story, but we also tell stories. And those stories hint to a insensible world that there is something beyond the horror, death, grief, and suffering that appears to be the entirety of our human experience. Even if that’s all that the best horror can do, it might be enough for now.