One argument for the compatibility of the horror genre with a Christian worldview is the amount of horror tropes which find their genesis in Holy Writ.
At its heart, the Greatest Story Ever Told is, in part, a horror story.
This is not meant to suggest that the message of Scripture is primarily one of dread, but that the Bible contains more than enough references to terror and the horrific to, at least, call into question its classification as “family friendly” fare.
There are many instances of biblical horror—Scriptural themes, events, people and stories that could easily fall under the horror genre. Perhaps the greatest example of biblical horror is the single act that uniquely defines the Christian faith—the crucifixion of Christ.
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In our age, the crucifix symbol has been glamorized and sanitized; it is brandished by rock stars and imprinted upon bumper stickers and T-shirts. Nevertheless, the cross was a horror in its time, a symbol of disgrace, shame, and torture.
Many have illustrated the gruesome medical details concerning the practice of crucifixion. In The Horror of Roman Crucifixion, Stephen M. Miller frames the process like that of “butchering an animal.” Likewise, the terminology used to describe the Messiah in Scripture is arresting—He “bore our suffering,” was “punished by God,” “stricken” and “afflicted,” “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5). The apostle Paul summarized what transpired on the cross this way:
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.1
Two important biblical doctrines intersect at the cross of Christ and His redemptive work. Both of these doctrines comprise what could be considered to involve horror or the grotesque: The Fall of Man and The Substitutionary Atonement. These powerful biblical doctrines are wedded at the cross.
Man’s sinful estate and all of its subsequent fruits were judged at the cross of Christ where “him who had no sin [was made] to be sin for us.” So great was this pouring out of wrath upon the Son that He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Christ, who often claimed to be in perfect union with the Father (John 10:30), was abandoned at the cross. It is impossible for us to comprehend the anguish, suffering, and despair Jesus must have experienced. The substitutionary atonement of Christ may in fact be the most horrific concept in all of Scripture. Not only does it speak to our moral and spiritual fallenness, it places the consequences and weight of that Fall upon a sinlessly perfect God.
The themes of fallenness, sin, and judgment are axiomatic in Scripture. Not only does the Bible not shy away from showing us the sin and utter depravities of man, even the greatest of Bible heroes are not exempt from its claim. Furthermore, there are unflinching depictions of judgment upon sin in Scripture. The Flood of Noah, the plagues of Egypt, the Canaanite extermination, Sodom and Gomorrah, Ananius and Saphira, the Great White Throne judgment, the fiery return of Christ to judge the nations, and hell itself are terrible glimpses of a holy God’s divine right to wield the gavel.
Closely aligned to this is a belief in real evil and real evil beings. Relativism suggests that knowledge, truth, and morality are not absolute but exist only in relation to culture, society, or historical context. However, it is the belief in real existential evil, as opposed to something that is simply a social construct or a perceived threat, which is so important to a compelling expression of horror.
Pazuzu, the demon that possessed Regan in The Exorcist, was not just portrayed as a figment of her mother’s imagination or a socio-cultural concoction. Nor was the entity just a threat to the girl. Pazuzu was the personification of Evil, an opponent of all that was Good, True, and Holy. The demon was portrayed as real, which demanded an equally real God to evict it.
Likewise, supernatural agents such as angels, Satan, and demons are portrayed as unapologetically real in Scripture. Of course, many faiths have detailed beliefs in good and evil spirits of various sorts. Nevertheless, the Bible is foremost in describing a hierarchy of invisible beings, both good and evil, who interact with our world, serving God or resisting His aims. This worldview is an integral component of both the religious traditions of the Western world and much of the horror genre.
Similarly, evil spiritual entities are also a mainstay in contemporary horror. Whether it is an angry poltergeist, a demonic legion, or Satan himself, the basic idea of an invisible realm that impinges upon ours and wars against us, seeking manifestation or control, is uniquely tethered to the worldview of Scripture. Not only do fallen angels personify the defamation of what is holy, they are reminders of Man’s ultimate adversary.
Though relatively rare and obscured in the Old Testament, the devil and his minions make regular appearances in the New Testament. Jesus’ ministry began immediately after He was tempted by the devil in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). This is followed by numerous stories of Christ casting demons out of the sick or mad. Perhaps the most famous of these is the encounter with the Gadarene man who lived among the tombs possessed by multiple demons who called themselves Legion (Mark 5:1-17). In all of these cases, Jesus treated Satan and his demons as real beings, neither myths, local superstitions, nor purely psychological disorders.
Likewise, the New Testament writers saw the devil as a very real adversary. The apostle Paul described the Christian life as a struggle against “spiritual forces of evil” (Eph. 6:12) while the apostle Peter suggested that Christians must be ever vigilant of the devil’s schemes:
Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.2
Obviously, the writers of the New Testament saw the devil as a very real adversary and warned of very real consequences to spiritual sloth or immorality.
Perhaps the most horrific universal biblical archetype is that of a literal hell.
Those who emphasize Jesus’ message of love often neglect to mention that He spoke about hell more than any other single Bible figure. Though there are differing perspectives amongst believers about the exact nature of hell, i.e., annihilation or eternal conscious torment, Scripture is fairly clear about its existence and essence. For instance, in The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25:31-46), Jesus concludes with this pronouncement upon the wicked:
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’”3
The fire is “eternal” and, apparently, some portion of the human race end up there. Explaining the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1-23), Jesus said,
As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.4
Thus, the “end of the age” is portrayed as a sifting, a weeding out of evil, in which souls are thrown into a “blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Whether or not hell is actually a literal, eternal reality, the Bible is clear about several things: Hell is the worst possible end for a human being, the most horrific possible conclusion to one’s life, and something to be rigorously avoided.
While the Bible is often referred to as The Good Book, within its pages are some truly bad, disturbing, awful things—depravity, judgment, the crucifixion, angels, demons, and hell. In many ways, The Greatest Story Ever Told is a horror story.
“. . . A gritty angels-and-demons yarn with astronomical stakes.”
— Lorehaven Magazine
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