Several months ago, I had the opportunity to speak face-to-face with George Barna of The Barna Group. We briefly discussed a number of subjects including family-integrated worship, church, home, and film. Of special interest to me were George’s comments that horror is the most influential film genre for modern young people (Christian or otherwise).
Also interesting is the rising fascination with horror as the genre of choice among professing Christian filmmakers. In the eternal quest for “relevance” (the fashionable codeword for status quo ethics), a new breed of cultural syncretists hopes to reach out to the world by competing with the world on the world’s terms. When it comes to “Christian horror films,” this sometimes means using truly vile and defiling images to communicate a holy theme. In my view, this is a mistake. Of greater concern than even these offensive externals (which seem inextricably linked to the genre) is the basic premise that darkness and fear should be entertainment.
One of the subjects we addressed at this year’s Christian Filmmakers Academy is the duty of the Christian filmmaker to evaluate film genre from a presuppositional and biblical ethic. The truth is this: not all genres are created equal. Genres reflect philosophical and theological priorities. Some genres are so immersed in anti-Christian presuppositions that to divest them of their perverse worldview is to destroy the genre itself. Consequently, some genres are unredeemable. Pornography would be one example. Horror is another.
The horror film genre actually finds its origins in the twisted morality stories and rebellious gothic novels of the nineteenth century. One part proto-sci fi, another part evolutionary hypothesis, another part occult mysticism, and yet a fourth part early psychological intrigue, the gothic novels reflected lawless man’s fascination with the exploration of the dark side of the imagination. Their mission: titillate through fear.
As early as the horror-fantasy films of magician-turned-cinema innovator Georges Méliès in the 1890s, filmmakers exposed audiences to photographic tricks that allowed them to conjure up witches, devils, and imps. These spooky images were designed to produce humor and fear. The German Expressionist cinema introduced the twentieth century to some of the more sinister and enduring horror images designed to communicate doom and hopelessness. Vampires, devil worship, madness, Satanic eroticism, and lost souls were frequent themes of early horror classics from directors like Robert Weine, F.W. Murnau, Victor Sjostrom, and Paul Wegener. Many of these films, like the Fritz Lang sci-fi horror film Metropolis (1926), incorporated heavy social commentary that reflected strong anti-Christian and pro-Marxist sentiments.
The 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s each brought their own twist on the horror genre, but the basic thesis that “darkness and fear is entertainment” was never in question. From the numerous gothic novel spin-offs of the ‘30s, to the perverse fascination with the “undead” in the ‘40s, to the 3-D craze and B-film epoch of the ’50s, to the psychological horrors and serial killer films of the 1960s, to the extreme occultims of the 1970s, and the various slasher series of the 1980s and ‘90s, the horror genre has cultivated a national fascination with that which is evil and perverse. Horror has glorified the nightmare and taught Americans an ungodly fear of evil. To the extent that Christianity is incorporated into horror films, it is either openly ridiculed, or it is presented as a form of mystical superpower in the hands of special men who wield their own Christian talismans, incantations, and spells.
Horror is an example of a genre which was conceived in rebellion. It is based on a fascination with ungodly fear. It should not be imitated, propagated, or encouraged. It cannot be redeemed because it is presuppositionally at war with God.
Christians filmmakers can, of course, juxtapose good and evil, ungodly fear with godly fear, and the horrible consequences on man for departing from God’s law — but none of this qualifies as “horror” as the film genre was conceived and as it has been executed in its various permutations for more than one hundred years. Consequently, we should recognize that “Christian horror film” is an oxymoronic expression. Perhaps what is needed is a fresh new genre that allows us to explore complex themes, but in a sanctified and holy way. Or perhaps not.
But this much is sure: it should raise red flags when Christian writers or directors announce that they are making horror films for Jesus. As Christians, we must speak to our culture, but we must do so on God’s terms. We need less gore and more Gospel with gravitas. Building on the foundations of that which is idolatrous and despicable is no way to win a culture for Christ. It is the fear of the Lord, not the fear of the dark, which is the beginning of wisdom.