Why aren’t more evangelical Christians making horror movies?

Why aren’t more evangelical Christians making horror movies? April 3, 2014

Years before I began my career as a screenwriter/filmmaker, I met a guy named Murray Stiller who was hot on the idea of making horror movies from a Christian perspective. I admit to being intrigued, even though the idea struck me as odd at the time. But as Murray made his case, I came to see that horror movies should come as naturally to evangelical Christians as breathing.

Think about it: For many evangelicals, the gospel is a horror story. “Do this thing or else this other bad thing will happen. Forever.” What could be more terrifying than that? And if you really think anyone who fails to become a Christian will spend eternity in hell, wouldn’t you want to make those consequences as explicit as possible? With the majority of evangelicals holding to some form of eternal separation or torment for unbelievers, you’d think every movie house would be a hell house, that every movie night would include a trailer for some new manifestation of A Thief In the Night.

Beyond its utility as a form of psychological manipulation, horror is also one of the few genres that outright embraces the supernatural–a dimension of reality of which Christians are always trying to convince others. Horror films are also inherently moralistic and often outright preachy. Even a torture porn film like Hostel is essentially a meditation on Romans 6:23: “The wages of sin is death.” There’s no need for subtlety when we’re face to face with a potentially violent death at the hands of a crazed killer. We’ll grasp at pretty much anything to save our skins. So rather than be surprised when the occasional attempt at horror movie-making surfaces within the evangelical community, I’m amazed evangelicals aren’t churning these things out faster than the running zombies took over NYC in World War Z.

And yet, when I come across a film like The Lock In–a low budget found footage horror flick about some teenage boys who sneak a pornographic magazine into a youth group sleepover, only to unleash a series of demonic attacks–I am surprised. Because when I think about Christian filmmaking these days, the first names that come to mind are Tyler Perry (Madea’s Family Reunion, etc.) and the folks at Sherwood Pictures (Fireproof, Facing the Giants, Courageous). Then you have the occasional faith-based film made for a mainstream audience, such as the upcoming Heaven is for Real, Soul Surfer, The Blind Side and, most recently, God’s Not Dead. What do all of these films have in common? They’re safe, boring and predictable. Somewhere along the way, Christian filmmaking came to be equated with family-friendly filmmaking. Rather than challenge or provoke their audiences–as all good art should do–these films merely reaffirm the status quo. Unfortunately, with so many evangelicals feeling duty-bound to support their own, no matter the quality of the film, these movies also tend to do rather well at the box office, thus creating a self-perpetuating cycle of blandness. And when someone, like the producers of The Lock In, attempts to break out of that mold, they truly do find the doors to the church permanently barred.

I should probably pause here and acknowledge the handful of Christian filmmakers who have made horror their bread and butter–or at least their toast and jam: Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Deliver us from Evil, etc.), Terrence Fisher (The Curse of Frankenstein and pretty much every other Hammer horror film), Billy Friedkin (The Exorcist) and Kevin Smith (Red State) to name a few. I might even add my own name to this list, seeing as my first film, After…, was essentially a horror flick, even though that’s not quite the movie I set out to write. Then there are the LaLonde brothers with their endless stream of end time thrillers (Left Behind, etc.).

However, Christians–especially evangelical Christians–who dabble in horror are the exception rather than the rule. And apart from the LaLonde brothers, rarely do they make their films for a faith-based audience. More often, you’ll find people like Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street) or Paul Shrader (Dominion), people who were raised in evangelical homes but have since moved on, working in this genre. Perhaps they do so out of rebellion, but I like to think it’s because they’ve inherited a highly moralistic grid but have lost the inhibitions that came with it, allowing them to explore spiritual questions to a depth their evangelical peers are afraid to go. As Derrickson says, “My feeling is that a lot of Christians are wary of this genre simply because it’s unpleasant. The genre is not about making you feel good, it is about making you face your fears. And in my experience, that’s something that a lot of Christians don’t want to do.”

This has certainly been the experience for the producers of The Lock In. In an email exchange with producer Rick Praytor, he told me that,

It was meant to be kind of a fun, cheesy horror flick (like Sharknado) with the intention of using it to stir conversations about pornography. What we found is that church leaders do not want to endorse a horror film. Most [of our audience] are non-Christian, horror movie buffs who love weird stuff.

If the filmmakers’ goal was to reach non-Christians, perhaps being shut out of the church isn’t such a bad thing. However, I know from experience that raising money for a faith-based film that seeks to reach a broad audience but doesn’t pass the family-friendly smell test is about as difficult as preventing Jason or Michael Myers from coming back for another sequel. This leaves filmmakers like Praytor in a difficult position, because, as he said to me on the phone, he probably should have made the film scarier, in order to give it a broader appeal, but he couldn’t make it too scary or else Christians wouldn’t watch it. As a result, The Lock In falls somewhere in the middle, trying to please everyone but not really pleasing anyone.

That said, I admit to rather enjoying the film. Sure, it’s low budget, cheesy and on the nose in terms of its message. But it’s also a lot of fun with some surprisingly good acting, a great sense of humor and loads of enthusiasm. There are even a couple of good scares. And when you think of the subtext of the film–the idea that being locked inside the church forever is akin to a living hell–I think there’s a lot more going on with this movie than meets the eye. Overall though, I like the movie simply because it took a lot of guts to make.

To quote Derrickson again,

To me, the horror genre is the genre of non-denial. It’s about admitting that there is evil in the world, and recognizing that there is evil within us, and that we’re not in control, and that the things that we are afraid of must be confronted in order for us to relinquish that fear. And I think that the horror genre serves a great purpose in bolstering our understanding of what is evil and therefore better defining what is good. And of course I’m talking about, really, the potential of the horror genre, because there are a lot of horror films that don’t do these things. It is a genre that’s full of exploitation, but the better films in the genre certainly accomplish, I think, very noble things.

Does The Lock In accomplish something noble? I think it does. Most attempts to pioneer something new–or revive something old–are rather crude, but they lay the groundwork for better things to come. So rather than bash this film for its low production values, I’d prefer to congratulate the filmmakers on taking a huge risk and encourage them to give it another go. Even though I don’t necessarily share their theology, unlike many of their evangelical peers, who are bending over backwards to package their message in ways that will render it unoffensive to non-Christians, I respect them for being true to their convictions. You can’t ask anything more than that.

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  • R Vogel

    You answered your own question, right? They live a horror story every day in their faith, why would they want to make movies about it. Even they need a break sometimes…

    • Kevin Miller

      Ha, yes, but if they truly believe that horror story is true, they should be proclaiming it everywhere like Ray Comfort.

  • Tim

    I think some sort of do make horror stories, although they wouldn’t call them that. The Left Behind series comes to mind. Perhaps even some of Frank Peretti’s stuff.

    • Kevin Miller

      Yes, I agree, which is why I referenced the LaLonde brothers. I would call pretty much everything they do “Christian horror.”

  • Emilio Martinez

    Interesting read, Kevin. I do wonder why Christians are afraid of horror films when the Bible goes to very dark places in exploring the human condition and God’s grace.

    The biggest problem with the Lock In is that the creators didn’t understand the connection between the horror genre and faith-based filmmaking. I should know. I’m the one who actually came up with the project. In appropriating the story, one of the major changes the Lock In producers made was to have a happy ending where the Main Character has his come-to-Jesus moment. This is not typically a convention of horror films, especially those in the found-footage sub-genre. Again, the Bible has plenty of stories in which “the wages of sin are death.”

    Ironic that the one thing the producers were hoping to go for—the approval of pastors—was the one thing they couldn’t get. Just another lesson on the importance to remaining true to the story and keeping the story in the truth.

    Frankly, I think the Lock In exemplifies the biggest obstacle to ever making a decent Christian horror film—a desire to milk the faith-based audience combined with a fear of the Church over God.

    • Kevin Miller

      Well said, Emilio. And congrats on a great idea. What excited me about the film was that it actually had a high concept. Yes, it’s somewhat derivative in terms of using the found footage convention, but I thought it was a legitimate use of it. But you’re right, the problem with making any faith-based film work is that to really have it go viral, you need the approval of the gatekeepers (as Sony knows all too well). But if you’re potentially criticizing that very establishment or being a bit too frank about real issues, good luck. That’s something else I appreciated about the film–its authenticity. The characters felt quite real to me.

  • Emilio Martinez

    On another note—I just saw “Prisoners” and that is without a doubt the best Christian film of recent, horror or otherwise. Not sure that the filmmakers would say so, but it certainly made me think twice about taking vengeance into my own hands.

    • Kevin Miller

      Yes, it was a powerful morality play. I’d magnify the metaphor and look at it as commentary on US foreign policy. How far can we go in our pursuit of the “bad guys” until we become the bad guy?

  • will f.

    William peter blatty was nice enough to read and compliment the mss. for my next book. he is a kind and gentle man, and is quite upfront about the fact that he wrote the Exorcist book and movie in the hopes that it would turn people toward Jesus….

    • Kevin Miller

      Interesting. What is the title of your next book?

      • will f.

        Tentatively titled After Hours. Here’s the first one: http://www.amazon.ca/Imaginary-Maps-Darrell-Epp/dp/1897109326/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1399851349&sr=8-1&keywords=imaginary+maps+darrell+epp Blatty was thinking, ‘If I convince them of the reality of the Devil, they’ll have to consider the reality of Christ, if the darkness is real, the light must be too. That’s what makes Exorcist so different from Omen or Rosemary’s baby, it’s written by someone who takes the Devil very seriously, literally… Blatty directed Exorcist 3 which is one of my favourite movies, not just favourite horror movies. The exorcist has a sign on his wall that say, what you give to the poor when you’re alive is all you take with you when you die.’

        • will f.

          You know Alan Moore, author of Watchmen? He’s gone on record as saying that Exorcist 3 is one of the few times a sequel is better than the original. And that’s even with the studio-butchered version–Blatty’s original had zero special effects, it didn’t even have an exorcism! Some truly scary scenes, and those long scenes of the detective and the priest trying to do theodicy, support each other despite the existence of evil in the world. Priest: Cheer up, Bill! It all works out ok in the end. Detective: When! Priest: At the end of time. Detective: That soon, huh? Funnily enough, Blatty started off as a joke man, he wrote one of the pink panther movies… and to top it off, he is a devout and kind and gentle man. still lives near the place where the exorcist was film.

  • BT

    No horror movies, but there is a close literary parallel in Stant Litore’s zombie series.

    Bible + zombies. What’s not to like?

    (I admit it’s not my thing but my kid loves this author.)

  • Joseph Varner

    As a Christian I am sort of getting turned off by the current films that Christians make. I agree that most of them “safe, boring and predictable.” I am all for good Christian movies but most of these movies like Facing the Giants, Fireproof, etc really focus on the believer and their relationship. They all end in a very positive light and have very predictable endings. I think positive endings are good but I also think that it is ok to make people think and ponder after a movie. That is were I think the horror genre could play a part. I have been a Christian for a long time and I have finally tired of watching the same old plots, drama and endings that all these movies have. As a matter of fact I couldn’t bring myself to watching Courageous because just from the cover it looks like the story of Fireproof just with policemen instead of firemen.

    As a side note I am looking to work on a horror film that allegorically tells the Christians fight against dark forces of evil. I also want it to reach out the nonbeliever as well and make them think about their souls. I think that there should be somewhat of a scare factor in bringing people to Christ since hell is something to fear. But I am not looking to be too preachy either. I am in the thought process right now and coming up with ideas. This will be my first film but praying that God gives me direction and guidance and also brings the right people in to work with me. If Kevin has any pointers or thoughts to help me as a novice Christian filmmaker I would love to hear from him. If not that is ok as well.