YOUR SIN WILL FIND YOU OUTAnother way in which horror and thriller movies can communicate truth about human nature is in showing the logical consequences of sin. In the same way, the Bible plays out some sexually disgusting scenarios and gruesome violence in order to communicate the seriousness of sin and its negative impact upon our relationship with God. In Ezekiel 16 and 23, God describes Israel’s spiritual condition figuratively as a harlot “spreading her legs” to every Egyptian, Assyrian and Chaldean who passes by, as well as donkeys (bestiality) and idols as sexual devices. The book of Judges depicts the horrors of a society where “every man does what is right in his own eyes,” such as gang rapes and dismemberment (Judges 19:22-29), burning victims alive (Judges 9:49), cutting off thumbs (Judges 1:6-7), and disemboweling (Judges 3:21-22) among other monstrous atrocities that illustrate their need for repentance.
Hide and Seek is a story in the vein of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde about a man named David whose daughter is in danger from some kind of scary imaginary man who is stalking her. Like Nathan’s parable to King David, this David learns that “he is that man,” his dissociated split identity a symptom of his suppressed past sins.
The Machinist and The Number 23 are both macabre Poe-like tales that illustrate the effect of suppressing sin and guilt, as well as the redemptive power of confession. The Machinist is about an industrial worker whose body and mind wastes away from insomnia because of his running away from a past crime. The movie is a literalization of Psalms 32:3–5: “When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long…I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD’; and Thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin.”
The Number 23 is a thriller about a guy whose discovery of a novel that mysteriously reflects his own life leads him to an obsession with the number twenty-three, which ultimately leads him into mental disorder that endangers others. It’s not until he faces the fact that all the mysterious coincidences in his life are the bubbling up of suppressed sin and guilt that he can repent and find redemption. Not coincidentally, the filmmaker put a Bible verse at the end of the film to express this very theme: “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23).
Ghost stories have been a staple of humanity’s storytelling diet since the beginning. From the Bible’s witch of Endor, to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to modern campfire yarns, people love to tell ghost stories to scare the Beetlejuice out of each other. Christians sometimes condemn ghost stories because they seem to imply a purgatory that is not in the Bible, or because they appear to violate the Scriptural prohibition against calling up the dead. But the purpose of some ghost stories has nothing to do with “reality.” They are often metaphors depicting morally “unfinished business” or the demand for justice against unsolved crime, very much in the biblical spirit of the voice of Abel’s murdered blood crying to God for justice from the ground (Gen. 4:10).
A Stir of Echoes, The Haunting, Gothika, and The Haunting in Connecticut are all movies where ghosts are not haunting people because they are evil, but because they are victims of unsolved murders who can’t rest until the murderer pays for his crimes. These are parables communicating that there is no spiritual statute of limitations on the guilt of sin. They are fables about the telltale heart of moral conscience.
Some sincere Christians will often find passages that in their eyes appear to discredit the narrative depiction of sin and its guilty consequences. One such common passage is Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”
Contrary to some interpretations, this passage does not depict Christianity as an episode of Veggie Tales or Little House on the Prairie. It is not only true, honorable and right to show the glorious blessings of the gospel. It is also true, honorable and right to show the suicidal rotting flesh of Judas, the betrayer of that gospel (Acts 1:18–19). It is not only pure, lovely and of good repute that Noah was depicted in the Bible as a righteous man, but it is also pure, lovely and of good repute that all the other inhabitants of the earth around him were depicted as entirely wicked and worthy of destruction (Gen. 6:5). It is not only excellent and worthy of praise that Lot was revealed as a righteous man, but it is also excellent and worthy of praise that the destroyed inhabitants of Sodom were revealed as unrighteous men “who indulge[d] the flesh in its corrupt desires” (2 Pet. 2:10).
The portrayal of good and evil, as well as their consequences, are two sides of God’s one honorable, pure, lovely, excellent, and praiseworthy truth. According to the Bible, pointing out wrong is part of dwelling on what is right, exposing lies is part of dwelling on the truth, revealing cowardice is part of dwelling on the honorable, and uncovering corruption is part of dwelling on the pure.
MONSTERS OF MODERNITY: HUBRIS
Horror and thriller stories can also be redemptive when they illustrate the consequences of modern man’s hubris. In his book, Monsters from the Id, Michael E. Jones writes about the origins of modern horror as a reaction to the Enlightenment worldview. Jones points out that the Enlightenment rejection of the supernatural, the exaltation of man’s primary urges, and scientific hubris created Frankenstein, Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, and others.(4) He argues that the evils of horror are the result of suppressing morality, which backfires on us in the form of the monsters it breeds.
Jones explains the origins of Frankenstein as author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s personal attempt to make sense out of the conflict between the Enlightenment’s naturalism and sexual libertinism and the classical Christian moral order. Mary Wollstonecraft had been initiated into the inner circle of libertine poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. By the time Mary wrote her novel, she had married Shelley and experienced an avalanche of the consequences of living out Enlightenment sexual and political “liberation” with her husband: familial alienation, jealousy and betrayal, promiscuity, adultery, incest, psychosis, suicides, and drug abuse. These men espoused “nature” in place of morality and therefore behaved as animals. In the novel, Dr. Frankenstein is the symbol of enlightened man. He is the “hero” or high priest of the religion of science, the belief that man is ultimately a machine, reducible to chemistry and physics. His creation of the monster is his ultimate act of hubris in playing God. The monster’s pursuit of vengeance against the doctor is a playing out of the miserable consequences Shelley herself had experienced in her own life.(5)
A common staple in many horror films is the calmly deliberate, logical-minded scientist who tortures or kills in the name of scientific therapy or advancement. The scientist’s often flat affect or calm in the face of others’ suffering represents the repression of emotions or humanity that modern science and reason demand. This scientist “monster” is a powerful moral critique of the dangers of science without moral restraint and can be seen in such movies as The Boys from Brazil, Blade Runner, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Hollow Man, The Island, Turistas, and The Jacket.
Another example of the Frankenstein monster motif is the serial killer, who becomes the evil yet rational extension of evolutionary survival ethics, as in Collateral; or the amoral monster created by a society that rejects the notion of sin, as in Se7en; or the beast that is justified by humanistic theories of behaviorism, as in Primal Fear and Silence of the Lambs. In From Hell, an investigating criminologist explains to an inspector that Jack the Ripper was probably an educated man with medical knowledge. The inspector replies with shocked incredulity that no rational or educated man could possibly engage in such barbaric behavior. All these serial killer films make the point that humanistic and Enlightenment beliefs about man’s basic goodness blind us to the reality of evil.
Enlightened modern man has another weakness: the inability to deal with real supernatural evil. Because he believes that there is a natural scientific explanation for all spiritual phenomena, he is blinded to the truth of a spiritual dimension to reality. The classic example of this is The Exorcist, where a little girl possessed by a demon is analyzed by medical and psychological doctors. All of them seek natural explanations that remain inadequate because their worldview blinds them to the truth. This blindness to the supernatural is updated in the horror films The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Exorcist: The Beginning.
The Reaping carries that naturalistic ignorance to new heights when a small southern town is being besieged by supernatural phenomena replicating the ten plagues of Egypt. A Christian apostate professor, who specializes in debunking paranormal phenomena, seeks to give natural scientific explanations for each plague, only to be confronted with true demonic spiritual reality. Her faith is restored in God when she experiences a supernatural arrival of God in judgment on the evil.
(4) Michael E. Jones, Monsters from the Id: The Rise of Horror in Fiction and Film (Dallas: Spence Publishing, 2000).
(5) Jones, 66–100.
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Brian Godawa is the screenwriter for the award-winning feature film, To End All Wars, starring Kiefer Sutherland and Alleged, starring Brian Dennehy as Clarence Darrow and Fred Thompson as William Jennings Bryan. He previously adapted to film the best-selling supernatural horror novel The Visitation by author Frank Peretti for Ralph Winter (X-Men, Wolverine).
His book, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment has been released in a revised edition from InterVarsity Press. His new book Word Pictures: Knowing God Through Story and Imagination (IVP) addresses the power of image and story in the pages of the Bible to transform the Christian life.