With an election coming up soon in our church, the pastor was preaching on the duties and qualifications of elders. In the course of things, as an aside more than anything else I think, he mentioned that he would have serious reservations if a man elected as elder was a known fan of horror movies. This caught my attention particularly because I was practically raised on horror movies.
My father was not a Christian; he never professed faith in anything so far as I know. He was also a huge fan of horror movies. I am the youngest of four children and one of my brothers and I followed in his footsteps in this. I am not quite sure why, honestly, I consented to watch so many horror movies. My other two siblings, though they must have watched their fair share growing up, often opted out, but I kept watching with my Dad for many years. Now a key point in all this was that I was the youngest. My siblings are 5,8 and 10 years older than I so the entertainment in our house was often at their level, not mine. What this meant is that by age 7 I was watching movies like My Bloody Valentine. I do remember being scared by these when I was younger. I would occasionally chicken out and go upstairs to sit with my mother, a good Catholic who never participated. And we all knew on some level that my mother disapproved of the movies though I don’t remember her saying much about it.
Despite my initial fears, I quickly got beyond them and for the most part I was not frightened by the movies we watched. There may occasionally have been one that unsettled me but I had relatively few nightmares as a kid. Honestly, the things I remember giving me the heebie-jeebies were books like Audrey Rose, in which a girl is the reincarnation of one burned in a fire, and Helter Skelter, the Charles Manson story (not even really horror).
My initial reaction to my pastor’s comment in the sermon was agreement. I did not give up horror movies right when I became a Christian but pretty quickly after that point my interest in them just died. Of course there is a lot of variety in the genre, but for the most part I would say that as a Christian I realized how much of what happened in the movies was real and that was what turned me off. I really didn’t look back after this point. I simply had no more desire to watch horror movies and they had no more influence on my life. I would say the teenager-y movies we watched like Sixteen Candles had a far more pervasive influence in that they gave unrealistic expectations about relationships. Those I think were more damaging to me than horror movies because they stuck with me. And then there are some movies included in the very broad designation horror which I still would have no problem with. I am thinking particularly of monster movies like Godzilla and King Kong and also of movies in which the threat is natural like Jaws. Now one might say that these are not true horror movies but if you google “types of horror movies” (I did) then you will find them included.
So I guess the question I have now is where as Christians do we draw the line? In my efforts to answer that question, I came across a wonderful article by Grant Horner on Christianity.com entitled “A Christian Perspective on Horror Movies & Culture.” It is actually an excerpt from his book and I liked the article so much that I plan to get the book as well. I think the popular conception is that people watch horror movies to be scared, like telling ghost stories around a campfire, which is partially true. I can understand this feeling — there is a kind of relief in being scared temporarily and then knowing it is not real. But this was not really my own experience. Yes, as a small child I was at times scared, but for the most part being scared was not the point. Instead, we prided ourselves in not being scared. And Horner’s article does a great job of explaining what the thrill is and why we watch horror movies.
Basically, what Horner says is that people are made to fear God. This is a healthy fear we are supposed to have and it is a pleasurable fear. Though many people do not fear God, they still have the need to fear something. Thus they seek out scary circumstances and horror movies fit the bill. They allow us to fear. But they do more than that as well. They also suppress fear. It is as if these small tastes of scary stuff over time inoculate us against our larger fears. It becomes harder and harder to really scare us. And really my own experience and observation is that other emotions can become suppressed as well. As if when we learn through repetition to control the fear, we also become better at tamping down those other annoying emotions. And honestly I am not sure that this effect is entirely a bad thing. Using stories to address one’s fears and to overcome them can be a good thing. Fairytales allow us to do this. They let children come to terms with scary things in a fictional setting before they have to face all the world’s evil in real life. And there is a whole batch of horror movies, the early monster movies, whose purpose was to help a scared populace address its fears. The real threat might be bombs flung at us by communists but we dealt with our fears by screaming at movie monsters for a couple of hours instead. It is a kind of escapism, but I am not sure that in itself makes it a bad thing.
My pre-teen and teenage years were in the 80s and I, like many of my contemporaries, was fearful that the cold war could turn hot and nuclear bombs would fall on us. One movie which had a profound effect on me at the time and whose images have stuck with me was about a family that lived through (or didn’t as I recall) such an attack. I vividly remember the mom in the movie family holding her child over the kitchen sink because he was excreting blood uncontrollably (sorry — that’s vivid, but it was). It was a scary movie to me, but it also helped. Somehow seeing the worst happen onscreen was comforting because I could say this is how it might be. It made vague fears tangible and I had in a manner already been through them. Now this movie is more of a disaster movie than a horror movie but I think that the point still applies — movies can help us work through our fears.
In other ways too, horror movies can have redeeming qualities. It has been years since I saw Jaws but the idea of a man who must overcome his fears, usually arising from past failures, and step up to face the evil and defeat it is a common horror movie theme and it is not a bad one. There is a valuable and inspiring idea in this plotline, however cliché it has become. And horror movies for the most part have their own sort of justice. It is always the teens who are sinning in the first scenes of the movie –often sexually, but sometimes in other ways such a bullying other characters — who end up getting axed first.
While some horror movies may have good ideas buried in them, I do not think that there is value in all horror movies. Many are just about showing as much gore as possible and can do much harm. So how do we know what is worthwhile and what isn’t? Again it is all about where to draw the lines. I don’t know all the answers to these questions, but I have a few thoughts:
The first and most important rule is: Follow your conscience. If something makes you uncomfortable, don’t watch it. Stop the video, walk out, be the one nerdy, silly Christian who gets made fun of. Do what you have to do to not watch such a movie.
The second rule is: If you are with other people and they are uncomfortable, stop the movie or walk out with them. Do whatever you have to do to make them comfortable. Christian liberty is a nice thing but it does not give us the right to sit by while another’s conscience is violated. If you can see your brother is uncomfortable, stop for his sake.
A general principle when selecting scary movies is that older is better. This is not to say there are no recent movies that are worthwhile or that all older ones are good, but over time we as a people have needed more and more to shock us and our movie makers have responded. A movie made in 1986 is likely to be a lot more violent than one made in 1956.
If it seems like the whole movie is filmed in the dark, it is probably not a great movie.
If it has sequels, it is probably not as good a choice. The more sequels, the worse it is. If there were really a good idea being communicated here, why would they need to produce 13 parts to get the message out?
If it has occult elements, if there is anything supernatural in it, it is probably best to avoid it. Evil is real but horror movies are not likely to get the theology of it right. It is better just to avoid movies with poltergeists, demon possession and the like.
What do you think? Is there a place for scary movies? What other criteria can we use to distinguish the good from the bad, or at least the bearable from the truly horrendous?