Cosmic Horror vs. Holy Terror: Christians Can Find Value and Meaning in Scary Movies

Prometheus

The nights are getting longer, darker, and colder these days, making it the perfect time to pull out your favorite horror novel or scary movie and get the heebie-jeebies before bedtime. Probably not, though, if you’re a Christian. I would suspect that the “horror” genre is one of the most unpopular genres — literary, cinematic, or otherwise — for Christians, and understandably so. Many entries in the genre seem to do little else but revel in cruelty, sadism, and gore, e.g., the recent wave of “torture porn” films.

However, Christianity Today‘s Jonathan Ryan argues that it is possible for Christians to find value in the horror genre. He writes:

I find meaning—including biblical truths and theological implications—throughout much of the genre. My appreciation for meaning in scary stories finds its roots deep in the works of H.P. Lovecraft and his concept of “cosmic horror,” as well as in the works of Arthur Machen with his notion of “holy terror.” One is rife with despair, the other clings to hope. The contrast between the two results in a remarkable tension found in the history of horror.

Ryan surveys modern horror and finds most of it nihilistic, which he traces directly back to the influence of Lovecraft, who is best known for stories like The Call of Cthulhu and At the Mountains of Madness. Lovecraft’s worldview can be summed up thusly:

The human race will disappear. Other races of beings will appear and disappear in turn. The sky will become icy and void, pierced by the feeble light of half-dead stars. Everything will disappear. And what human beings do is just as free of sense as the free motion of elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, feelings? Pure ‘Victorian fictions.’ Only egotism exists.

This nihilism can be seen even in such recent movies as The Cabin in the Woods and Prometheus, though both films try to mask the horror at their core through different approaches. Ryan compares and contrasts this with Arthur Machen, an Anglican Christian who wrote horror stories containing many of the same ideas and storylines as Lovecraft’s works, but with a different perspective.

Machen felt despair could be avoided by seeing the good God who ruled over the world “behind the veil.” A person could experience holy terror like the prophet Isaiah felt when he stood before the throne of God—or, to bring it back to movies, like Indiana Jones showed in Raiders of the Lost Ark (telling Marion to respect the ark’s power by not looking at it when it was opened) and The Last Crusade (when, to reach the Holy Grail, he had to navigate a treacherous maze requiring him to kneel, to spell God’s holy name, and then take a literal “leap of faith”). Machen uses sacred terror to not only scare us, but to push us deeper to think about “unseen realities.” Through this sacred terror, he created stories richer and more terrifying than anything Lovecraft could conceive. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again.”

If nothing else, the horror genre is one of the few genres that openly admits the presence of true evil. The challenge, however, that horror novels and movies often fail to overcome is portraying such evil without somehow celebrating or glamorizing it, or presenting it in an exploitative or titillating fashion. If you’re looking for some good cinematic scares for this spooky season that rise above mere exploitation, then I suggest looking at Arts & Faith’s “Top 25 Horror Films.” Some of the entries on the list may surprise you, but their portraits of evil have all been deemed worth considering and reflecting upon by the critics, writers, filmmakers, and fans in the Arts & Faith community.

But if you want to head into the theatre for a good scare this month, consider Sinister. Not only has the movie garnered pretty good reviews — it currently holds a “Fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes — but it was written and directed by Scott Derrickson, a Christian who has argued in the past that the horror genre is the perfect genre for Christians to be involved in, again because of its acknowledgment of evil’s existence in the world around us, and more important, in our own hearts.

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.

  • http://www.theofantastique.com John W. Morehead

    Thank you for this. As you know, most times Evangelicals keep horror at arms length, revealing an unfortunate sanitizing of the dark and monstrous aspects of their own faith tradition, and in so doing missing an opportunity to learn about the sacred and their faith in connection to it. I’ve frequently have to offer arguments for my own exploration of horror and the other genres of the fantastic, but have found those outside my faith community all too willing to consider the spiritual within it. Perhaps if you and others continue this kind of argumentation then the audience for holy terror will increase. For those willing to explore it in some depth as horror connects with theology in pop culture, I recommend my own new book co-edited with Kim Paffenroth, titled The Undead and Theology now available online: https://wipfandstock.com/store/The_Undead_and_Theology

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    Perhaps. But so much of the genre today lacks quality in the aesthetic sense as well as the moral sense, and I find myself wondering what diamond could possibly be so worthwhile as to try to mine the mountain of ordure to get it. I can’t imagine any idea or reflection stemming from one of these movies that I couldn’t find somewhere else in a setting that wouldn’t require a bleach bath for my brain.

  • Jonathan Ryan

    Jason,
    Thanks for sharing the article! Much appreciated.

  • Geoffrey R.

    First off, as someone who wrote an M.A. Thesis (in Church History) on H.P. Lovecraft and a dissertation on Arthur Machen, I love the choice of material in the discussion. I think Ryan hits the nail on the head with HPL as exemplifying cosmic horror. And I really hope his article gets people more interested in Machen, who is awesome and totally worth the attention.

    That said, most of Machen’s best-known horror works come from a time when he may have officially been a member of the Anglican communion but was essentially a religious skeptic (he admits as much in an 1899 letter to Paul-Jean Toulet). The Great God Pan, The Shining Pyramid, The Inmost Light, and The Three Impostors, his best horror works, all have a kind of cosmic horror to them that is very similar to Lovecraft’s (which is why Lovecraft loved them). The difference between Lovecraft and Machen is that, even in his more skeptical phase, Machen was never comfortable with that kind of emptiness, which is why he turned to the Christian faith, probably around the time his first wife Amy died in 1899. His works from around that time (Hieroglyphics, The White People, and especially A Fragment of Life) bear more overtly the imprint of his newfound faith. (Even then, however, he was not a good Anglican, preferring his own custom blend of Welsh Celtic Christianity). He did, however, write a more Christian horror story in 1918 called The Terror.

    All of which is two say, first off, that I agree with the overall premise that Christians should read great works of horror for precisely the reasons Ryan describes. They should read Lovecraft. And PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE read Machen, because he is totally worth it. But, alas, I don’t think he has a Christian agenda in his works of the early 1890s for which he is most famous. That comes later in his life.

    Geoffrey R.

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    Along these lines, I also very much recommend Mike Mignola’s BPRD. It’s a graphic novel/comics spin-off from his Hellboy series. While Hellboy always toyed with cosmic horror, Mignola seemed ore interested in exploring Christian and pagan folklores in that book. Beginning with the third volume of BPRD, Mignola and co-writer Arcudi switch almost exclusively to Arkham-style exploration of other-dimensional terrors, elder gods, hollow earth races, and distinctly syncretistic Christian/pagan origins of the species. While Hellboy deals overtly with demons, devils, and the apocalypse, BPRD has treated the end of the world from entirely other quarters. That these two distinct sources of terror exist in the same world (Hellboy is a former investigator with the BPRD) is wonderful, delicious, and provocative.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    @Brett: This is, of course, ultimately a question of conscience. Different people have different tolerances and convictions, and that needs to be respected. That being said, there are films out there that approach this subject matter from a perspective that is aesthetically challenging, as well as more concerned with loftier ideas than mere exploitation. Again, I refer to the Arts & Faith list, to which I would add my favorite horror movie, The Innocents. Also, some of the recent Japanese horror films, like Dark Water and Ju-on are scary as all get out, while also exploring such interesting ideas as the effects of divorce on children, and what it means to live in a world without any sense of forgiveness or justice.

    @Geoffrey: Thanks for the additional in re. Machen. I confess, I’m not at all familiar with his work, though I’ve long been a Lovecraft fan. My curiosity is certainly piqued.

  • http://mumbyatthemovies.blogspot.co.uk/ Daniel Mumby

    Fantastic article. I’m a Christian and a big Lovecraft fan, so I will check out Machen’s work at the next possible opportunity.

  • Pingback: In Memoriam Arthur Machen: Celebrating 150 Years of Horror and Ecstasy


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