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The horror, the horror: in search of a theology of scary movies

Andy Rau

Two different items related to horror movies have come across my screen lately, and have got me thinking about scary movies and what they tell us about ourselves.

The first item is a post by blogger Adam Walter on horror movies and the theology of Flannery O'Connor. Violence and horror have traditionally been, in the mainstream Christian view, things to steer clear of in moviemaking and storytelling; but as Walter reminds us, O'Connor felt strongly that the horrific and disturbing have a powerful place in our theology. She felt that only when we are confronted by the darkness of our own hearts can we fully understand our need for God, and she didn't hold back in exposing the violent and disturbing urges of the human heart. ("The truth," she once said, "does not change according to our ability to stomach it.")

In the above-linked post, Walter takes these ideas and wonders if we can see traces of O'Connor's "theology of horror" in the innumerable scary movies that have come out of Hollywood over the decades:

It seems to me there are a certain number of filmmakers and writers today who are able, in just this way, to take violence – and various other instances of disturbing matter – and turn it to a useful kind of terror, producing cautionary tales and truth-telling grotesques. Apropos to this topic, John Gardner wrote in the introduction to his Frankenstein libretto: “[this] opera does not claim that life is hopeless and absurd. It celebrates values in the tragedian’s way, by showing the horror of their loss.”

Walter seems interested in the point at which a film moves beyond mere shock-value disturbance, and when it manages to evoke a deeper response in the viewer--perhaps even a moral response, a spiritual reaction to the horror of human sin. As he notes, this "line" differs form person to person.

With that blog post in mind, by coincidence I stumbled across a Newsweek story on the prevalence of extreme gore and sadistic violence in horror films today. On the curious appeal of extreme horror films, the article observes:

No one's stacking "Saw 2" alongside Stanley Kubrick, but it is true that such films tend to look smarter with the passage of time. It's practically a cliché that you can tease out a generation's subconscious fears just by watching its horror movies.... Craven, the man who created Freddy Krueger, says horror movies are "boot camp for the young psyche." (Sixty-five percent of the audience for "Hostel" was younger than 25, which is par for the genre.) "I don't think it's an accident that it's always average kids who come to these movies," Craven says. "They're wondering, 'Just how violent is this adult world?' " Asked if he's got any theories about why sadism is in vogue, he laughs and says, "Because we're living in a horror show. The post-9/11 period, all politics aside, has been extremely difficult for the average American. We all know what's floating around out there. That's big stuff, and it comes out in a million ways, from people drinking a bit more to kids going to hard-core movies."

No terribly deep insights in the latter article, but I wonder if these two pieces are talking about the same thing from different angles: that there is a curious spirituality in being horrified and scared. Somewhere between the gentle scare of a lightweight thriller and the mind-numbing violence of a modern slasher film, there is something theologically significant, a story that has the power to entertain us when it's administered lightly or truly disturb us when it's thrown in our face. The line between spiritually edifying and spiritually destructive seems awfully thin and reliant on our personal tastes. I'd consider a movie like Hostel to be little more than "torture porn" (to borrow a phrase form the Newsweek article), but others can identify a moral message amidst the blood.

Horror movies are usually interpreted in retrospect as political commentaries or byproducts of societal anxiety. But I wonder if we'll look back at some point and see in all this Hollywood horror something more profound--a culture alternately thrilled and repulsed by violence, acutely aware of the depths of human depravity but unsure where to find an answer to it.

Thoughts? Have you been spiritually moved by horror? Is our fixation with horror a weird reflection of our thirst for God, or merely a sign of our depraved fascination with sin? Could it possibly be both?

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Art