(Hey everyone, as you know, I’ll be attending the press junket for the movie, The Conjuring. We will be posting a lot of content about horror, faith, movies and books leading up to the event. It’s going to be fun and exciting all around.
To start it all off, I’m reposting an article I published in TAPS Paranormal Magazine entitled “Sacramental Horror”. As the copyright on this has reverted back to me. I’m re-posting with my own permission.)
As a kid growing up in Southern Indiana, I couldn’t watch horror movies like Friday the 13th or Halloween. My parents refused to even consider the question. Having kids myself, I completely understand why I wasn’t allowed. The last thing I want to deal with in the middle of the night is a screaming seven year old scared by something he saw on TV. I tried to circumvent the rules about scary stories.
Every summer I spent two weeks at my grandparent’s house. My grandma gave me unrestrained access to her library card. I knew reading Stephen King would be too obvious, so I found other books to scare me out of my mind. I found books on the paranormal; ghosts, Bigfoot, and The Mothman. Each of these stories scared me enough that I couldn’t sleep in the stillness of my grandparent’s old house. I loved it. The love of being scared by possibly real things has followed me into my adulthood.
People always find it odd that I have an interest in scary things. They are completely weirded out when they find out I have written a horror novel. Many religious people can’t understand why I would be interested horror; much less write a horror story. I understand the skepticism. The term horror is pretty loaded as it conjures up images of death, mutilation, guys with chain- saws and sex crazed teenagers in the back seat of a car. There is no doubt much of what we find in modern horror movies and books follow the violent horror playbook.
I start my explanation on why I love horror by defining the term. The way we talk about a term will always guide the discussion. This is why it’s so important to get what we mean by the term horror. I tell them the category of horror story can really be divided into three separate groups; Uncanny/Unsettling horror, gross out horror and torture porn.
I begin by explaining that Uncanny/Un- settling horror is the best kind. Stephen King wrote in Danse Macabre, that “Traditional Horror has a morality that would make a Puritan preacher smile.” King believes that all traditional horror is about punishing the wrong or evil doer. Who always survives in a traditional horror movie? The answer would be the pure of heart or, often, the virgin. Wrongdoers get put to the axe, to the claw, or some other gruesome monster death. Traditional horror recognizes there is a moral order to the universe. Bram Stoker wants us to think about the horror of killing children as the brides of Dracula eat a peas- ant baby. Poe’s Tell Tale Heart invites us to consider that destroying the Image of God will drive us a mad. Mary Shelly invites us to contemplate the thought that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. In Oscar Wilde’s masterful uncanny horror story, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde invites us to consider the difference between our private and public life through the rot- ting painting of Dorian Gray’s soul. Traditional horror invites us to consider something other than what we see in front of us. The Nicene Creed, one of the foundational statements of Christianity, states that God is the creator of the seen and the unseen.
Many of us have no problem with the seen part. Human beings long to know everything. Science is based on that very idea. My worldview tells me that God wants us to have that desire. We are called to figure things out, to test, and to understand. The problem comes when that scientific desire becomes spoiled by a narrow-minded skepticism that betrays good critical thought. A Narrow minded skepticism that refuses to accept the possibility there might be something beyond what our five senses can understand. It’s the unseen part statement of the Creed that really rubs us the wrong way in the materialistic West. The statement is terrifying because we may have to start thinking about realities we can’t figure out. We avoid thinking about them by wrapping ourselves in our stuff, our cars, our iPods, and create sterile, challenge free environments.
The Southern writer Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “to reach the deaf, sometimes you have to shout.” Uncanny horror, through it’s scares, its prickles, and bumps in the night, shakes us out of our materialistic slumber and introduce us to the unseen world. Unsettling horror reminds us of a moral order in the universe, an order that might have someone who orders it, a God who is there. Horror reminds us that we constantly violate this order. We constantly violate the moral law that is written in our hearts. Ghosts haunt us with our past misdeeds. The mon- sters that stare us in the face and we recog- nize them as our creations.
As a writer, I love using these ghosts and monsters to shout at a materialistic world that has gone deaf to the unseen tones of our world. You can see the medieval painters shouting important truths to their audience. Medieval paintings are full of symbolism designed to teach their audience. One symbol stands out above the rest, the skull. Paintings done during the Black Death are full of skulls, skeletons and demons. The horrifying images invite us to consider that we are mortals doomed to die. The painters want us to consider that we could die at any moment and so every part of our life is precious. We should live those moments for things that matter. The medieval mind considered loving God and loving their neighbor as the highest good, the good that should be our ultimate aim. Through grossing us out, the medieval painters pointed us to thinking about serious things.
Gross out horror can serve this function in modern horror books and movies. A zombie eating brains, Dracula’s fangs sinking into a tender throat and the horrible death of a beloved character can force people to realize the fragility of our own lives. We live such sterilized lives when it comes to death. Funerals are held in antiseptic funeral homes with unnaturally arranged flowers and bad food. When we go to a funeral, we want to get in, hug the family and get out. Rarely are we given time to reflect on the person’s death and to think about our own death. People react to meditating on death with thoughts of “That’s so morbid” or “why would you even want to think about that? There is too much to live for? You aren’t gonna die anytime soon, so why worry about it?”
Gross out horror, being killed in sudden and gruesome ways, can force us to reconsider those statements. In reality, gross out death’s happen all the time. Unless death happens during sleep, rarely is it pleasant. But, gross out horror doesn’t just invite us to contemplate death, but to make fun of it at the same time. The Irish Christians still celebrated Halloween after their conversion as a way to mock death, and the grave. Many of our Halloween traditions can be traced back to the medieval Irish, who mocked death, knowing it would not have the final say. They believed in the resurrection of Christ and knew death would one day be defeated. Gross out horror can function the same way. It can make us not just talk about death, but mock it, find humor in it, and believe it’s not the end. We can laugh when Shaun takes a cricket bat to Zombies in Shaun of The dead. We can cheer when Dracula gets the stake from Van Helsing. When we do, we mock death and it’s powerful hold on our minds.
However, gross-out horror can lead to the last category, Torture Porn. In the past twenty years, movie theaters have been flooded with movies that delight in killing, maiming and torturing. Hostel, Saw and even the movie Hannibal delights in casting out the traditional morality of old school horror. Even the “heros’ in these movies are sadistic, vengeful people who take delight in not just killing someone, but utterly dehumanizing them. In the old school horror movie, The Wolfman, you feel Larry Talbot’s pain about killing people.
Torture porn has little, if any, redeeming value. The stories are about showing and delighting in the fear of the victims. They want you to root for the killers and to cheer each splatter of blood. Torture porn isn’t humanizing. In fact, it dehumanizes in order to justify it’s glorification of torture. This is where torture porn leaves the road of horror and creates it’s own category. The stories don’t invite an invitation to a large world of discussion. It just wants us to delight in pain.
Sacramental Horror does the opposite. By combining uncanny, gross-out horror, we can become participants in the signs and seals of a bigger picture. Sacramental horror invites you to think about realities you can’t see, touch, or taste, but still exist. By horrifying, it humanizes by making us consider the evil that is loose in the world of our own hearts. Stories of Sacramental horror shine light into the darkness of the human heart. This is the sort of story I want to read in the middle of the night.