Caleb Land, one of my very best friends, is a youth pastor in Macon, GA and is an M.Div. student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He asked me to write a post on horror movies for him. [Note: his blog has since changed location. I have reprinted the original text here…]
The Redemptive Value of Horror Movies
The house is dark. A beautiful young girl is alone and frightened. Someone… or something… is out to get her. There is a shadow, but she cannot tell from whence it has come. The girl approaches a foreboding, solitary doorway. She begins to enter, stepping into the pitch black shadows. The ominous music comes to a climax, and our minds scream, “For Pete’s sake, don’t go in there!” Our heart is racing, and we sit on the edge of our seats, enjoying the fear we have for the main character. We know that whatever is in pursuit of this young woman, it is pure evil.
There are two basic types of horror movies. There are those normally called “slasher” films and emphasize violence, repeated murder, and feature an abundance of guts and gore. Films like the Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Saw, and Friday the 13th series largely fall into this category for the systematic slaying of the primary characters until only one (or, if we’re being particularly forgiving, two) are left standing. The second variety of horror film focuses more on the supernatural and spiritual. These contain everything from The Sixth Sense, The Haunting, The Exorcist, and The Ring to any particular version of Dracula or Frankenstein. There are some exceptions outside both of these categories, but even those will contain elements of one, the other, or both.
Are they good?
I would argue that, like all movies, this depends on both the individual movie and the individual viewer. There are horror films that are finely crafted pieces of art, with stunning cinematography, an original and engaging plot line, and a chilling, mysterious ambiance. I enjoy these. From the earliest horror films such as Nosferatu (1921), innovative film-making has been the key to sending the ultimate thrills and chills into the audience. Too often, studios mimic films already on the market, with most slasher films in the end owing far too much of their style to the original Halloween or perhaps Psycho and too many of the more supernatural thrillers borrowing far too much from The Ring or The Exorcist. After a certain plot-line or visual style is used so many times, it looses impact. It becomes predictable. What once was scary becomes routine. Hardly ever is lack of originality more of a poison to a work of art than in the genre of horror.
Yet, a well-made horror film puts us on the edge of our seat. It sends a fun chill up our spine, tapping into our fears, yet still letting us be safe, knowing it is “just a movie.” It is a one and a half hour adrenaline rush that, if done well, will be an experience we will remember for some time. So, in this way, they are good, indeed.
Do they have redemptive value?
I would say, unfortunately, that a large number of horror films have no real redemptive value. Their exploitation of violence and sexual content make them unthinkable for any Christian trying to keep his or herself in a pure and Biblical state of mind to view. While I enjoy the horror genre immensely, I can honestly say that there are many horror films that I wish I had never let pervade my mind, with Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses being at the top of that list.
This, however, is far from true of all horror films. Indeed, many of these films contain a spiritual element that no other genre has quite captured. Horror films tend to be the only films to really tackle the issue of spiritual warfare. While other films in other genres veer away from the spiritual, demons (and sometimes angels) are powerfully portrayed in films such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which recounts a terrifying story of demon possession. The spiritual struggle of main characters, good and bad, show the depths of what is involved in the struggle between good and evil. In Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, a priest’s struggle for faith after witnessing a holocaust in his parish years before is of utmost importance, as he will need faith in Christ to defeat the demons he is faced with at the story’s climax. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, meanwhile, it is the rejection of God by Dracula after his bride’s suicide that leads him to turn to the forces of darkness and become a vampire. In Dracula 2000, meanwhile, we find a narrative in which Dracula is really Judas Iscariot, his repulsion of the cross being due to his betrayal of Christ, and allergy to silver being due to the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas as blood money. While there is more than a decent bit of bad theology in these films, the message of faith in God/Christ overcoming evil is very prevalent, and the darkness and evil of Satan and his legions is equally conveyed.
Do they have destructive value?
Unfortunately, yes. Some films glory in their portrayal of evil, and glorify the practices of evil. The aforementioned exploitation of sexuality and violence that I mentioned previously is one obvious detractor, though in the best films, you will find this is usually not present. Also, the idealizing of witchcraft and vampirism on film has led to many individuals becoming involved in the occult themselves. Movies like The Craft, which presents a very appealing picture of witchcraft, or Ann Rice’s Interview With The Vampire, which portrays very romantic ideals of vampirism, have made the Occult very appealing, which goes against Biblical values. I, myself, became highly involved with paranormal fascinations in my early teen years after indulging myself over my head in horror literature, movies, and later books on the Occult; fortunately, God was provident and led me out of this dark path before I was drawn in further.
However, while contact with ghosts and demons may be glorified in films, it is not to be sought. The Scriptures denounce involvement with the Occult many times in both the Old and New Testaments, and when Saul visits the medium (or witch) at Endor to call upon the spirit of Samuel, Samuel’s ghost, speaking through the witch, rebukes him, revealing that he will die in the next battle.
In conclusion, horror films, like many forms of art, may have redeeming values. However, they also provide dangers from worldly influence, and must be watched with discretion. As your friends, your family, and your spiritual leaders about films they have seen. Measure up the contents and values of these horror films with those represented in the Scriptures. Do these films exalt violence and fornication? Do these films glorify Satan and the forces of evil? How do they portray life after death? How do they portray the role of Christ in the defeat of evil? These are important questions as we watch films and continue the analysis of how Christian theology and popular culture collide.