Today, I’d like to toss a recent article from Christianity Today onto the table for discussion. It deals with horror, a speculative genre we don’t frequently chat about here, though there are horror elements in a lot of the science fiction and fantasy stories we do talk about. Pay particular attention to the contrast between the worldviews of two paragons of classic horror, H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen.
I don’t read much horror. I have to be in a certain mood for it. I used to hold the opinion that Christian horror was a contradiction in terms, but as I began to consider it more carefully and read some scholarly analysis of the genre, I began to see some virtues in its basic principles that can line up with a Christian worldview, if the story’s handled properly.
Horror usually involves a direct, unambiguous confrontation between good and evil, which are clearly delineated. Evil is not some nebulous attribution of archaic social values, something that wouldn’t seem so bad if we only took the time to understand it better. Evil wants to kill you dead, dead, dead and then watch the world burn, burn, burn.
Most classic horror portrays good as superior to evil, though evil may win a few battles while good is getting its act together, and stories may end with a subtle, or not-so-subtle, reminder that vanquished evil will likely return to try again in another form or via another avenue of approach. There’s a trend in modern works of horror that springs from a more pessimistic view of the universe, and that’s covered at some length in the article. It’s also the crux of the contrast between Lovecraft and Machen. In Lovecraft’s stories, evil is overwhelmingly powerful and utterly alien—and its chief horror is our powerlessness to resist it. Machen’s view is that a confrontation with the reality of evil engenders a “holy terror” that inspires man to turn to God, the ultimate power and our only hope of rescue.
Siding with the forces of evil has consequences. Horrifying consequences. Horror is perhaps the most conventionally moral genre of all. Good is rewarded (if only with survival), and evil is punished (with a messy death, or a fate worse than death). That punishment is often the most frightening part of the story and a caution to the reader. “Be good, or the boogeyman will get you, no matter how old you are.”
Evil forces in horror are not always explicitly Satanic in nature, though that’s a popular option. Science run amok, amoral alien beings, madness, hubris, and even impersonal forces of nature often stand in (and having ridden out a couple of hurricanes in my time, I can affirm there are moments when it seems perfectly sane to think a particular storm is intelligent, malignant, and has it out for you personally). I’ve read conflicting opinions on this issue from Christian writers and readers—some enjoy the drama and satisfaction of vicariously slugging it out mano-a-mano with El Diablo, some see an opportunity to illustrate principles of spiritual warfare in concrete action, and some think it’s sinful to entertain fanciful thoughts of Satan and his works, however they’re depicted—the matter is simply too serious to permit idle speculation.
Horror takes the prevailing materialist view of the universe and gives it a good slapping around. This can be a mind-expanding tonic in a world where we lazily assume science has an answer for everything and truth is decided by preponderance of documentation. As the Bard observed, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” and some of them are very dangerous. A few are hiding under your bed right now. Horror reminds us that reality does not depend on our ability to see, comprehend, or believe.
Horror provides a controlled environment where we can grapple with our primal fears: Despite its association with splatter and grue, the best horror creates a slowly mounting sense of dread that draws its energy from those things we’ve been shivering about since we were kids: fear of the dark, fear of confined spaces, fear of death, fear of strangers, fear of heights, fear of dogs, fear of clowns, fear of the unknown, etc. In fiction, and perhaps less so in film, we have the opportunity to distance ourselves from those fears enough to think about why it is we’re afraid and how we might cope.
Of course, there’s also the danger that we might reinforce those fears or add new ones. Who’s stocking up for the zombie apocalypse? C’mon, ‘fess up.