Why It’s Okay for Christians to Watch Scary Movies (A Halloween Post)

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.

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Behold the face of unbridled terror!

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?)

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Also, did you know at one time Warner Bros. was considering a sequel called Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian? Now, THAT’S scary.

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.)

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A whole lot.

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

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Okay, I won’t turn away, but can I at least peak through my fingers?

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.

For more on this subject, check out my podcast, particularly Mini-Episode 4: The Theology of Scary Movies which features a short conversation with my friend Myles about how to watch good horror movies. (iTunes link HERE.)

Imagining the Divine: A Response to Tim Challies

Recently, author and blogger Tim Challies, whose articles and book reviews I read on occasion, wrote a preemptive review of the upcoming film, The Shack, which itself is based on the 2007 novel of the same name by William P. Young.

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Prepare to be Hallmark movie-ed!

Preemptive review may not be the best term. Challies’s piece, entitled “Why I Won’t Be Seeing (or Reviewing) The Shack,” is a critical review of the core conceit around which the story revolves – a grieving, guilt-stricken man meets and is counseled by the Triune God (i.e., Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) who manifests in different human forms. Challies contends that such a representation of God is iniquitous, if not heretical, and his choice not to watch the film is a way of escaping an act of sin.

Of course, Challies can make whatever decision he likes regarding whether or not to see, or review, a feature film. He’s a grown man, a devoted Christian, and I do not deny that his choice may stem from deeply personal issues in his own spiritual development.

However, I believe Tim Challies has made a fundamental error in labeling the film The Shack “dangerous” simply because it casts human actors in parts that are meant to represent the divine persons of the Holy Trinity. And, taken to its logical conclusion, this error is actually an unwitting assault on imagination and creativity, two incredibly valuable faculties gifted us by our Creator.

Allow me to explain…

What is Lacking?

Tim Challies puts forth one particular passage of Old Testament scripture that he believes explains why a film version of The Shack, in which human actors will visibly and audibly portray the three persons of the Trinity on giant movie screens, is hazardous to one’s true understanding of God.

I take this to be a clear, serious violation of the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:4-6). I will not see the film, even to review it, because I will not and cannot watch humans pretend to be God.

I have to hand it to Challies. He has conviction. But you know who else had conviction? The Pharisees.

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Now, comparing someone to a Pharisee in this day and age is usually assumed to mean that someone has become so concerned with religious legalism that he or she has lost sight of the gospel of Jesus. But this is not what I mean when I compare Tim Challies’s staunch rejection of The Shack to pharisaical behavior. What most Christians often forget about the Pharisees – or never learn in the first place – is how incredibly devout they were, how deeply they committed themselves to personal physical purity, and how exceedingly inquisitive they were of the Scriptures. In almost every case within Greco-Roman history of the Jewish world, the Pharisees are the spiritual heroes. They insisted on faithfulness to God’s Word. They sought to interpret and explain every single word and verse of the Torah in order to more deeply commune with the Creator. They continually clashed with Roman and Jewish authorities alike out of an insistence that Jewish religious expression should maintain purity and ethicality. Thus, ninety-nine times out of one hundred, the attitude and behavior of a Pharisee was directly in keeping with what modern Christians would consider a righteous person. As such, the Pharisees really only lacked one thing.

Imagination.

Time and again, when the Pharisees clashed with the teachings of Jesus, it was not because his teaching style was suspect, or because he was openly rejecting the Torah. Rather, what the Pharisees disliked about Jesus was his way of portraying God, and, by association, the purpose of various aspects of the Law that God gave to Moses. Regularly, Jesus told parables that fleshed out certain characteristics of God, or certain actions of a faithful disciple, and usually these stories scandalized the Pharisees’ painstakingly assembled understandings of theology and spirituality. And it is also worth noting that, in these parables, God is often portrayed through human characters: a bridegroom, a gracious king, a searching shepherd, a celebrating woman, a wounded father.

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Thank God first century Jerusalem didn’t have a film industry. Imagine the carnage!

But the topper – the assertion that really drove a wedge between Jesus and the majority of the Pharisees – is when Jesus himself claimed to be divine. To their eyes, this was a poor, upstart rabbi from a suspect town, possessing a suspect education, and he had the gall to say to them, “I tell you truly, before Abraham was, I AM!” (Jn. 8:58). If Jesus was nothing more than a poor, upstart rabbi, his utterance of these words was an offense deserving of public stoning. And since the Pharisees lacked the imagination – the creativity of mind and the expectancy of heart – to see Jesus as anything more than what his physical appearance revealed, they went on seeing him as such, and their pious conviction endured that what Jesus needed was a good, public execution.

What’s the Purpose?

Tim Challies is concerned that the physical, visible portrayal of any member of the Trinity – except perhaps the Son (since Jesus was also fully human) – is tantamount to blasphemy. He argues that it is impossible to accurately depict the holy Other-ness of a divine God through any kind of human guise. He even cites the second of the Ten Commandments to further his point. All of these arguments seem pretty solid.

And yet, integral to the Christian faith is our understanding that God chose not simply to command and direct humanity from his position of Other-ness, but instead chose to become flesh and blood and live in our midst (Jn. 1:14). Even though the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth is not made out of stone, it would seem that God violates, or at least sidesteps, his own commandment in order to help his chosen people grasp his true purpose for them.

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Though, if movies are to be believed, he was most certainly chiseled.

After positing the commandment as his reasoning for not viewing the film, Challies admits, “I will grant that the primary concern of the second commandment is worship. It forbids creating any image of God in order to worship God through that image. Yet the commandment first forbids any visual representation for any reason. Whether that image is used to better worship God or better understand God, the commandment covers it.” He goes on to insist that while Jesus might get a pass, it is sinful to portray the other two Persons of the Trinity, the Father and the Holy Spirit (even though the commandment of course makes no such distinction).

Really, Tim? So, did you seek forgiveness that time you looked up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (or viewed a photograph of it)? Did you shut your eyes whenever one of your history textbooks included an artistic rendering of God visiting Abraham at Mamre, or the Holy Spirit coming like fire at Pentecost? Did you run away screaming at the sight of Far Side cartoons or the trailer for Bruce Almighty when Morgan Freeman had the audacity to dress in a white suit and pretend to be God? Just how far does this self-righteous conviction, currently directed at a book you obviously don’t like, extend?

You are correct in your assessment that the commandment was chiefly concerned with worship. But like a Pharisee, you stretch it across as many specific cases as possible in a nervous effort to obey it.

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I hope this benefits your team, cuz you’re gonna burn for it!

It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to recognize that when you differentiate the application of the Ten Commandments based on the different Persons of the Trinity, you steer your boat into murky theological waters. Refusing to look upon any human portrayal of God the Father or the Holy Spirit is not simply imposing limitations on theological investigation – it is spurning human capacity for imagination and creative cognition which was given to us by our Creator! Nowhere in the entire Bible is there the stipulation that portraying the human form of Jesus is acceptable while any other representation is verboten. Why not? Because God understands there is a big difference between seeking to understand more about him by envisioning him in more familiar contexts, and actually fashioning an idol for the purpose of bowing down and invoking its power and authority for our lives. I mean, c’mon, Tim. Surely you can see this difference.

Look, I’m not a huge fan of The Shack either. I read it. I appreciated some parts, disagreed with others. I am a pastor, so, yes, some of the things the three God-characters tell the main character rubbed me the wrong way. But I understood that it’s a story. A work of imagination. It is as unlikely to be worshipped as this blog post is. So, at no point did I break out into an anxious sweat because William P. Young was tempting me to picture God in human form.

And if you don’t think there’s anything sinful about that act of imagination, as long as we don’t “flesh out” those characters on a movie screen, then the thin-ice semantics by which you are applying the commandment is astounding. Because, for all its little flaws (yes, little flaws), the purpose of The Shack is to spur people’s imaginations about what God is like. It is meant to challenge our theology not with blatant falsehoods but by asking us to consider whether we have unintentionally adopted a culturally acceptable view of our Creator, and, in so doing, collapsed into a lazy, shallow faith.

Does it get everything correct? Absolutely not. I wouldn’t expect it to. But I got to have some great conversations with church members and seekers about the nature of God when the book came out back in 2007. If the movie is at all similar in its impact, then this is all the more reason why a writer/reviewer as intelligent as Tim Challies should not refuse to review it. Perhaps his insights and corrections of what is portrayed on-screen could help people better process their own grasp of theology and soteriology.

Too bad Tim’s obedience to God’s command prevents him from offering such help.

Embracing Imagination

Again, I do not deny that Tim Challies’s decision is based on a desire to maintain faithfulness and obedience to the God he loves, and believes loves him.

But it is a dangerous thing to cite Scripture as a reason not to engage in theological exploration, even if it comes in the form of the movie version of a mediocre book. The commandments are not a leash. Rather, they are meant to set God’s people apart from a lawless, morally relative world. To obey God’s commandments is to live in such a way that people see the characteristics of God in you – love, goodness, forbearance, honesty, integrity, purity.

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Oddly enough, though, they shouldn’t lead you to do this.

In his “Sermon on the Mount,” God himself reminds us that true obedience is dependent upon the internalizing of each commandment. Thus, “You shall not murder” is as much about holding grudges and nursing hatred as it is spilling another person’s blood. “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” is not simply a compulsory day-off as it is a directive that resting and relishing the rejuvenating presence of God is the only thing that will sustain us in this mad, mad world. And “You will not make for yourself a carved image” is an insistence that the creation should never attempt to comprehensively define its Creator.

In an essay entitled “Invisible Things,” the great songwriter-poet Rich Mullins writes:

He is the image of the invisible God. He is incomprehensible to our Western minds – as He was to Eastern ones. He came from that great beyond that no human mind has visited. When we true to squeeze Him into our systems of thought, He vanishes – He slips through our grasp and then reappears and (in so many words) says, “No man takes My life from Me.  No man forces his will on Me. I am not yours to handle and cheapen. You are Mine to love and make holy.”

Perhaps Tim Challies will read words such as this and think, “Exactly! Human actors should never portray God!”

But my understanding of God’s command is a bit more nuanced. No, I will not carve his image out of stone (or wood or sand or Lego bricks or George Burns’s face) and offer my worship to it. But I will keep seeking a deeper understanding of who my Savior is. Christianity is about a relationship with God, and I want to know the One to whom I am engaged. I want to think about Him more, and in more profound ways, and whatever medium will help enhance and mature my worship of Him, then I say, “Bring it on.”

May you not be afraid to imagine the divine. May you believe in a God who insists not on cold allegiance to law but rather ardent worship that flows freely from your heart, soul, strength and mind. And from your eyes, ears, nose, mouths, hands, and feet…