I have met many avid readers, particularly Christian readers, who refuse to read in the horror genre. They’ll read just about anything else—fantasy, romance, espionage, suspense, historical, science fiction. However, they “don’t do horror.”
I confess: I don’t quite get it.
Perhaps the most common reason Christian readers give for refusing to read horror is that horror is Dark … and Christianity is about Light. The Bible calls us to think about things that are true and good and virtuous, they say, usually quoting Philippians 4:8 or some variation for good measure. So why should we voluntarily scare ourselves? Why should we willfully subject our minds to disturbing images, carnage, depravity, the occult, or wickedness?
Granted, some of this reaction may be a reasonable response to gore. Thanks to effects technology, dismemberments and disemboweling are now status quo for Hollywood horror. And, frankly, it sells. Nevertheless, saying that all horror is gore is like saying that all romance is erotica. It’s an unfortunate stereotype. So refusal to read horror on the notion that it’s all splatter is misguided. In fact, some of the best classic horror – like The Haunting of Hill House, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Frankenstein, The Turn of the Screw, even Dracula – is relatively gore free.
But let me take this a step further: Even if gore is involved, I think a case could be made for not running from it, not closing our eyes to it. The famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa simply said, “The role of the artist is to not look away.” Christian artists and readers, perhaps more than any other group, should embrace this proverb. We should not “look away.” Our eyes should be wide open. I don’t mean that we should delight in evil, be captivated by the macabre, or celebrate darkness, but that our perspective of the human condition should be unflinching and particularly acute. Feel-good story-telling may have its place. But writers and readers — especially Christian writers and readers — who only subscribe to a “feel-good” world have violated an essential artistic, dare I say, biblical law … they have “looked away.”
The Bible is perhaps the greatest argument in favor of reading the horror genre. The Horror Writers Association puts it this way, “…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?” Scripture contains scenes of gore, torment, destruction, demons, plagues, catastrophe, divine judgment and eternal anguish. The reader who wants to think only on what is “pure and good” may want to avoid such biblical stand-bys as the Fall of Man (Gen. 3), Noah’s Flood (Gen. 7), the Slaughter of the Firstborn (Ex. 11), the Destruction of Sodom (Gen. 19), the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev. 20), and The Crucifixion of Christ (which involves one of the most brutal forms of execution ever devised). While the Bible’s message is one of redemption, that redemption unfolds amidst a dark world that is cannibalizing itself, pummeled by evil beings and barreling toward chaos and destruction. And we Christians are called to “not look away.”
Some will counter that the reality of evil is not justification to focus on it. Reading horror is focusing on darkness, rather than Light. No doubt, some read and/or watch horror to fuel prurient interests or feed depravity. (I can’t see any other reason why people would watch The Faces of Death except that they are disturbed individuals.) However, there are people who read other genres for the wrong reasons too. Some read romance novels to arouse sexual desire or replace its void. Some read fantasy novels to escape the mess they’ve made of their lives. Some read Amish lit because they simply can’t cope with the 21st century. So while some may, indeed, focus on horror as a means of dark fascination, this is not unique to readers of the horror genre. Readers of ANY genre can turn to novels as an unhealthy form of escapism or titillation.
But I would add, there’s a difference between what we look at / observe / encounter / ponder and what we choose to embrace. Just reading or watching something horrific does not make us horrible, any more than watching a car accident, robbery, adulterous affair, or elder abuse makes us compliant. Sure, fighting monsters might make us monsters (nod to Nietzsche), but this is not a good excuse to ignore the beasts. The Bible is not telling us to turn away from what is unlovely and impure, but to not dwell on them, to not allow the darkness to usurp our hope and resolve. So it’s not an issue of ignoring monsters, but learning to look in their eyes and battle them. Thus, Christians are commanded to NOT turn away from evil and misery. Refusing to look upon or acknowledge evil may in fact BE evil.
Then there are those who refuse to read horror on the grounds that it is shocking and disturbing, it evokes fear and dread. Satan traffics in fear, they say. God is not the author of fear, so why should we seek it out? Have they forgotten that “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31)? Just ask Annanias and Saphira. Perhaps this is one reason why we’re commanded to work out our own salvation with “fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) … as opposed to working out our salvation in ignorant bliss. And then you have that last book in the Bible which talks about cosmological disaster, global plagues, societal collapse, and a gaping abyss that is famished.
Point is: Scripture uses horrific language and imagery precisely TO shock us.
Jesus did this often. Take for instance the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, wherein the curtain descends upon the rich man, in anguish, pleading to return to earth to warn his brethren. Not quite the happy ending, is it? Robert Penn Warren put it this way: “The grotesque is one of the most obvious forms art may take to pierce the veil of familiarity, to stab us up from the drowse of the accustomed, to make us aware of the perilous paradoxicality of life.” Likewise, horror IS meant to shock. It is meant to unsettle us, rouse our complacency, “pierce the veil” of la-la land, and “stab us” from our stupor. Yes, God does not want you to live in fear. However, sometimes it IS fear that shocks us into living.
In summary, we are called to think pure thoughts and meditate on that which is good. However, that does not mean we should live in denial about the darkness all around us. Nor should we eschew the horrific simply because it is unsettling. In fact, it is this “unsettling” that may make our stories more efficacious. Prairie romances should have a place in the Christian catalog, but so should tales of woe. Scaring the wits out of people, sometimes, is the precursor to offering them hope. As long as there really is a place like Hell, then horror must inhabit part of the “Christian imagination.” As well as our bookshelves.
So I’m interested: Do you “do horror”? Why or why not?