Horror remains one of the most popular of all film and novel genres.
Just last year, we saw the blockbuster success of a new film based on Stephen King’s horror novel It, and many other films, making 2017 the highest-grossing year for horror films in box office history.
Many Christians ask why the genre stays so popular. Is this just a lurid fascination with gore and evil? Or do we find deeper psychological and spiritual issues in play?
Whatever the answer, horror has a long and storied prevalence in human culture.
In his seminal essay, Supernatural in Horror Literature, H. P. Lovecraft traced horror stories back to “the earliest folklore of all races.” As we may naturally expect of a form so connected with primal emotion, the horror tale is as old as human thought and speech. This earliest folklore also includes themes of cosmic terror, crystallized in the most archaic ballads, chronicles, and sacred writings.
Of course, one needn’t go back as far as pagan myths to uncover tales of terror.
Dante’s Inferno (1314) conjures profound yet disturbing images. Hailed as one of the great classics of Western literature, Dante’s work details a harrowing journey through the nine circles of Hell, including a virtual bestiary of oddities. Minions of anger, fire, gluttony, and greed, Medusa, the Minotaur, Hoarders and Wasters, Furies, Harpies and “the great worm” Cerberus all make appearances in the Inferno. Dante’s work is only one precursor to the canon of classic horror literature.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) not only created a monster, but explored a creator and his creation, and the inherent problems of tinkering with the natural order. (This theme is later explored by many sci-fi and horror films during the Atomic Era.)
Other early horror stories, such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, all use horror as a way to explore morality plays. Nowadays these stories have been replaced by more exotic monsters and more hideous tales. Nevertheless, their intent remains largely the same—to employ the horrific to shock us awake.
Some Christians believe horror opposes a biblical worldview, or even serves evil. But storytellers often use the genre to convey religious and moral messages.
For example, The Exorcist (1973) is often cited as one of the scariest movies ever made. However, both the film director and author William Peter Blatty claimed the story’s vision is seen through the lens of faith. In his 2011 interview with The Huffington Post, Blatty was asked, “Why do you think the story of The Exorcist, in its many forms, has resonated so much for so many people?” He responded:
“Because this novel is an affirmation that there is a final justice in the universe; that man is something more than a neuron net; that there is a high degree of probability—let’s not beat around the bush—that there is an intelligence, a creator whom C. S. Lewis famously alluded to as ‘the love that made the worlds.’”
Likewise, the horror genre reflects many biblical concepts. These include an absolute good and evil, angels and devils, Heaven and Hell, or simply the iconography of faith (like crucifixes, sacred texts, rosaries, and statuary).
This does not mean we claim every work of horror is something redemptive. Instead, we simply note that this category often includes consistent appeals to moral absolutes, God and Satan, and invisible agents at war for humanity’s soul.
Even the average ghost story, which recognizes immaterial dimensions or possible life after death, appeals to a biblical worldview. In this sense, the horror genre often traffics in important biblical language and imagery.
Perhaps more people would be startled by the many times we find horror elements in the Bible. In defining the horror genre, the Horror Writers Association in its online article “What is Horror Fiction?” cites the Bible as part of horror’s essential canon:
The best selling book of all time, the Bible, could easily be labeled horror, for where else can you find fallen angels, demonic possessions, and an apocalypse absolutely terrifying in its majesty all in one volume?
Some Christians frame the Bible as “family-friendly.” But Scripture does not avoid details about evil. Its pages contain scenes of gore, torment, destruction, demons, plagues, sexual deviance, catastrophe, divine judgment, and eternal anguish.
Of course, Scripture’s message is one of redemption. However, that redemption unfolds amidst a dark world. The Bible is not shy about confronting the consequences of our sins, the fallenness of this world, and the terrible price God paid to save us from spiritual separation.
Even after Jesus’s sacrifice, horror remains a very real part of life. Tragedy, evil, crime, the occult, and deviance are mainstays in our culture. Sin has ravaged us, deforming us into moral monsters and alienating us from God. Alternate lifestyles and religious views can take one down paths of despair and deception. For example, see the Apostle Paul’s pictures of horror in Romans 1.
God’s word uses these images of horror to caution us and shock our sensibilities. Horror images contrast with and illuminate what is good and true and beautiful. Eternal consequences are at stake. Whether illustrating a world where demons are real, portraying monsters real or imagined, or exploring the real-life inferno that awaits the lost, the horror genre can be a powerful way to communicate truth.