To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures. – Flannery O’Connor
The first scary movie I ever watched was Gremlins. I was five years old, and less than five minutes into the second half of the movie – after the furry mogwai balls become cackling, razor-toothed monsters – I wanted nothing more to do with scary movies for the rest of my life.
I know. Gremlins.
I couldn’t even handle a horror-comedy produced by Steven Spielberg.
Speaking of Spielberg, you know what else I couldn’t handle? E.T.
Something about that pug-faced, periscope-necked little alien freaked me out. All the moonlit backyard shots, and the foreboding sounds emanating from the family’s shed. Sure, the audience was granted a glimpse of these space creatures from the very beginning, but how was I to know that their flora-gathering interstellar expedition didn’t also include the consumption of human flesh. Maybe that’s why the government is after them in the first place.
The point is, no one had to warn me about scary movies when I was a child. I had gotten a taste of even the tamest examples, and couldn’t handle the emotional tumble that followed. So, while my older sister had slumber parties where she and her friends huddled in the dark watching movies like Poltergeist and A Nightmare on Elm Street, I avoided visual contact with every single brand of movie monster that appeared before my face. I shut my eyes in department stores whenever I saw Spike or Freddy Kruger’s visage emblazoned on a T-shirt. I ran screaming from the room when Lou Ferrigno transformed into the Hulk. Even at the age of ten, I turned down my friends invite to sleepover at his house when he excitedly told me his mom had rented Beetlejuice for everybody to watch.
I know. Beetlejuice.
Now here I am, a month shy of thirty-eight, and I am no longer afraid of Gremlins or Freddy Krueger. A few weeks ago, I even sat down with my seven and five-year old daughters to watch E.T., and I was able to (I think) talk them through their initial misgivings when those same moonlit shots came on the screen, and the creepy scrabbling sounds started up in the shed. (Seriously, though, what kind of dunce is Eliot that he just grabs a flashlight and goes to investigate it alone?)
However, thinking back on my childhood and the hair-trigger cowardice I sported, I’m not embarrassed. After all, shock and fear are instinctual components of the human psyche, and when you are a little kid the world can often seem much bigger, wilder, and more mysterious than adults let on. In time, we learn there are no such things as green monsters that multiply when they get wet, or a pedophiliac ghost who stalks your nightmares. But even as logic and rationalism sets in, we do not outgrow fear. Evil is not something you leave behind when you turn eighteen or twenty-one. No, these are very real elements present within human existence.
This is why I am not opposed to watching scary movies. Not as children, of course. I can assure you that for at least a few more years E.T. will probably be the most harrowing film my daughters will watch (with the exception of the villains in the first couple of Harry Potter films, or that part in Enchanted when Susan Sarandon turns into a freaking dragon). However, even as a devout Christian and a pastor, I retain a deep appreciation for scary movies. It’s not simply that horror movies provide us with unsettling and viscerally exciting experiences. It is also because a good horror movie, if we indulge it, can teach us something about the dangerous effects of fear and the unscrupulous nature of evil. (The operative word here is “good,” because there are a lot of bad horror movies out there.)
I won’t deny that drawing theological and social insights from horror movies is a bit out of the box. Certainly it is not a practice every believer should indulge. However, sometimes looking outside the box is what enhances our understanding of a particular spiritual concept.
Several years ago, my friend, Myles, who is a seminary professor specializing in Christian Ethics, found a way to force outside-the-box thinking in his students. The seminary hosted a theology-in-film night; each month a different professor would show a film they felt was theologically significant, and then they would facilitate some dissection of the transcendent themes. Myles was set to host in October, and, in the spirit of the spookiest month of the year, chose The Exorcist. (Hear him tell the story HERE.) The way he describes it, the night of the event, the teaching theater was packed with students. Most of them had never seen the movie before, and were exceedingly curious how their professor was ever going to find an edifying spiritual insight in such a notoriously horrific film.
And yet, those who have seen The Exorcist know that while there are indeed some graphic scenes that are difficult to watch, the film also raises profound questions on the nature of evil, its multi-faceted influences on a family, and the mysteries that abound between spirituality and psychology. Some Christians may still insist there are more sterilized ways to address these issues, but what a film as shocking and frightening as The Exorcist does that a dull drama or innocuous suspense film cannot is elevate the conversation to a more serious level. It gives such issues a greater sense of urgency, because viewers have just witnessed just how unexpectedly and deeply these issues can affect our regular, mundane existence.
The renowned Southern writer and devout Christian, Flannery O’Connor, was incredibly adept at utilizing unsettling, infuriating, and terrifying images to further the impact of her short stories. Whether it is a dull, bickering vacationing family suddenly encountering a gun-toting serial killer (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”), or a militantly-atheistic young woman being grifted and subsequently assaulted by a duplicitous Bible salesman (“Good Country People”), O’Connor sought creative ways to elevate her readers’ contemplation of the deceitfulness of evil in society, and how free will allows us to either choose or reject grace. For O’Connor, telling a story was an opportunity to share an eternal and devout perspective on human nature with people who would never give their time to such messages or existential questions. She therefore felt it was her responsibility, in every story she wrote, to point her readers’ attentions to the extraordinary influences of both good and evil in our lives.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in instructing catechumens, wrote: “The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.” No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell, and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller. – Flannery O’Connor
A person who has developed disciplined viewing habits of movies (as well as those who have trained themselves to read novels and short stories, or listen to music, with analytical and introspective eyes/ears) have the ability to consider questions and concepts many people never truly take the opportunity to think about. There are some horror and suspense films that, if we will sit with them for a while and really contemplate their deeper meaning, can truly enhance or transform our understanding of important societal issues and conventions. Recent films like Take Shelter, Get Out, It Follows, and The Babadook make incredibly profound comments on present-day concerns, but so do some ground-breaking classics like The Night of the Hunter, Night of the Living Dead, Halloween, and The Thing.
I realize that most people go to horror movies for the thrill ride – for the requisite jump scares or the gross-outs. I also realize that your average scary movie consumer is not interest in doing a lot of personal reflection afterward. But, as my friend Myles says, what makes watching a horror movie unique is the story on-screen shocks and frightens us in a way that makes us realize we are not equipped to handle the situation. The anxiety we feel for the protagonists is because we are projecting our own selves onto their characters, and we don’t know what to do with this fear except to sit with it and be unsettled by it. Indeed, this is similar to a lot of our experiences in life – when we feel trapped with nowhere to run, or powerless to eradicate the dangers we face. As such, learning how to accept the presence of fear and powerlessness can grant us greater perspective.
So, this Halloween, may you not be afraid to be afraid. If you aren’t a fan of scary movies, that’s fine, but may you at least consider the deeper questions being presented in stories of all kinds. May you not shy away from the unsettling aspects of this world, but rather may you find the courage to meet them head-on.
And, if you’re a parent, may you also help your children understand that while there are indeed things to fear in this big, mysterious world, there is also a very good and loving God who helps us face whatever comes and endure to the end.