Of necessity, I’m going to be relating a great deal of personal experience in this post. But in the end, I hope to bring my subjective reflections to some sort of general understanding about the horror genre.
Make no mistake: I am friends with Mike Duran, our guest the past two Fridays and author of Christian Horror. It would be easy to assume otherwise because we’ve had our share of lively online debates. Yes, debates. We’ve had a few in-person ones too, because we’re in the same writing group and see each other from time to time.
In addition, Mike has taught me a lot. In fact he has played a part in the change in my attitude toward horror. Seven years ago I wrote thoughts like these:
I hear that designation and my first thought is “horror.” OK, that reaction takes place on several levels—horror, the genre, for one and Horror! a Christian horror story? on another.
The first level. Is [a certain specific Christian novel] indeed a horror story? I’m maybe the worst person to answer this question since I’ve made a point not to read horror. In the past I objected to the idea that Horror as a genre, defined by Wikipedia as “that which exists to generate fear,” could, in fact, be Christian.
Then, in answer to a comment (by Mike Duran actually) I said this:
how do you categorize a book that calls itself Christian horror but doesn’t scare you? I mean, is that good writing because the Christian message gives hope, or poor writing because it was supposed to scare you?
In truth, the two terms, as it stands now, seem incongruous to me.
Through conversations/debates, I’ve relented. I now believe writers can utilize horror for other reasons than to generate the adrenaline rush created by fear. I believe some can genuinely use the genre as soul-searching mechanisms to understand evil and good.
As more Christians wrote “supernatural suspense,” a euphemism for horror, I willingly introduced some of their titles to readers through the Christian Science Fiction And Fantasy Blog Tour. Some, to be honest, weren’t scary. One was an intriguing story I particularly liked, filled with more mystery than fear. But there came a day I’d had enough. Mind you, I hadn’t had a lot, but I’d had enough. I had read several well-written books that took me into dark worlds. Some measure of light surfaced in the end, but I mostly felt relief. Relief that the books were done, that I didn’t have to dive into the ugliness again.
I decided I didn’t want to read those kinds of books any more. They didn’t put me in a good spiritual place. I didn’t feel closer to God, nor did I understand the reality of evil in a new way (which had happened when I read This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti years ago).
Simply put, the books didn’t give me a positive reading experience.
Mind you, I’ve read some “gritty” stuff. For example I read Emile Zola’s Germinal, “an uncompromisingly harsh and realistic story of a coalminers’ strike in northern France in the 1860s” (Wikipedia). The novel is known for its realistic depiction of poverty, oppression, and violence.
I’ve also read Exodus by Leon Uris, a novel depicting some of the horrific treatment of Jews in Europe at the hands of the Nazi—including life and death in concentration camps and during pogroms. In accord with the latter, I’ve read the real life version, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer, and Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place which recounts the death of both her father and her sister while they were in the custody of the Nazis.
All of these I consider to be important works. I’m glad I read them though there were hard parts that sometimes made me feel sick and even made me cry. Reading to me is not an occasion to close my eyes to the realities of the world. Without a doubt, I am better for knowing about other people’s struggles and even about the horror in the world.
Yes, horror. There’s that word.
But here’s something I think is significant: I am not seeking out novels about people dying in concentration camps or suffering because of the Great Depression. I know those things happened, I’ve learned from reading the stories, but I don’t need to keep reading the stories.
In many ways, I feel the same about horror. Apparently the writers of Christian horror (and perhaps some non-Christian writers) believe their stories explore the conflict between good and evil.
In Mike Duran’s post “Horror Is Based On A Biblical Worldview, Part 2,” he said
many of our “standard” Bible stories contain disturbing and horrific elements. Noah’s Flood, the plagues of Egypt and the Passover (especially the angel of death slaughtering Egypt’s firstborn), Elisha and the prophets of Baal, Saul and the Witch of Endor, the Slaughter of the Innocents, and perhaps the greatest of all, the Book of Revelation with its depiction of cosmological upheaval, plagues, the antichrist, and the Great White Throne Judgment.
I’ve questioned that those stories qualify as horror, but if I were to concede this point, what then would be the purpose of reading fictional horror? I mean, isn’t it possible to learn about the real thing and therefore not have to read a make-believe account?
And if I’m right that these are not horror stories, I still question the need to explore good and evil through the avenue of horror. If a person looks at good and evil in the Bible, is a fictional look at it adding to our body of knowledge? For certainly, whether someone thinks the Bible contains horror or not, I think we all can agree that it reveals a genuine struggle between good and evil.
I realize that “knowledge” is not the end game of fiction, but perhaps experience is. All the more reason, I think, for me to avoid reading Christian horror. I see no value in experiencing the horrors of demonic possession or oppression or any of the other evils from which Jesus Christ set me free.
In his post, Mike mentioned a passage in Colossians that targets the notion that we can combat temptation by compiling a list of do’s and don’ts:
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Col. 2:20-23, ESV)
No doubt about the intent here: a list of do’s and don’ts is no way to handle potential temptation. But Paul doesn’t stop here, as if to say, so go ahead and dive right into the “elemental things of this world.” Or, for the sake of this discussion, go ahead and explore evil.
Rather, he starts out the next chapter by saying
Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. (Col. 3:1-2, NASB)
Paul’s counter to the legalistic approach was for believers to readjust our focus, to explore, if you will, the things above.
Which is why I generally ask in these discussions about horror, why we believers aren’t doing more in our fiction to show the light—God’s light and truth.
Am I saying that my personal experience should become normative for Christians? No, I am not! I’m saying, some Christians might be choosing against horror for reasons other than that they are “turning away” from the evil in the world. We simply choose to explore evil in Scripture rather than in fiction.
In fact, because the world is steeped in evil and we are surrounded by it in an ever-increasing flood, some people turn to fiction for a glimmer of hope. Maybe they should be turning to the Bible for that, also. I’m not the judge here.
But I think the issue of horror does not have a clear-cut “thou shalt” or a “thou shalt not” directive. I’m not pointing fingers at writers or readers of horror, declaring them to be less Christian for wading into waters I choose to leave un-churned.
At the same time, I think there are valid reasons for choosing to pick up and read books other than horror. I’ll stand behind my decision without extrapolating from it to All The Rest Of All Christians Out There. It’s kind of what I think freedom in Christ allows.