02 February 2007

Christianity and horror

Thanks to Elizaphanian: a Christian perspective on horror for pointing to this very interesting interview: FilmChat: Scott Derrickson -- the interview.

Speaking of film, Derrickson says that the horror genre "distinguishes and articulates the essence of good and evil better than any other genre" and when asked about the fantasy genre, Derrickson said:
The evil within the fantasy genre tends to be threatening to the heroes within the story, but not to the reader -- or not to the viewer, in the case of cinema -- and that's why I think it's more palatable, and something that is more easily embraced for a lot of people. Because it does deal directly with good and evil, but it doesn't serve to actually render feelings of fear and terror within the reader, in the case of literature, or within the viewer, in the case of cinema.

I've enjoyed horror films and horror literature since my youth, a taste perhaps fostered by two English teachers I had when I was about 9-10 years old, Murray Bissett and Wilfred Noriskin, both of whom encouraged creative writing and imagination. Murray Bissett, in particular, read us ghost stories, and the boundary between ghost stories and horror stories is often hard to determine. One of the first stories he read us was The ash tree which sounded considerably more horrific to our ears than the author intended, since we pictured a ghostly undead revenant tree, which had resurrected itself from the ashes in the grate, or a forest fire, and planted itself, grey and ghostly with blackened branches, outside a house to haunt the inhabitants. It was only much later that I learnt that there were living, green and growing trees called "ash".

When I was in high school I discovered a two-volume collection of short stories in a book case at home, edited by Dorothy Sayers, called Detection, mystery, horror. The detection section went unread, the mystery section I read once, but the horror section I read again and again. Two stories in the collection stood out, The Wendigo and Couching at the door..

Not long after that I discovered Dracula, and The devil rides out, by Dennis Wheatley, both classic horror stories of their time. But after leaving school I read very few horror stories, mainly because they were so difficult to come by. There was a film, The innocents based on Henry James's ghost story The turn of the screw.

The genre has various names, or perhaps there are overlapping genres -- horror, supernatural fiction, ghost stories. "Supernatural fiction" seems to cover most of them. And in that category most of Charles Williams's novels seem to fall, with All Hallows Eve and Descent into hell being ghost stories, and Many dimensions having elements of classic horror.

But as I got older, perhaps my taste got jaded, and most of the "horror" stories ceased to horrify. There was a sort of "I've heard it all before" feel. Horror films were even less effective, with too much reliance on special effects and distracting one from the plot with "I wonder how they did that" thoughts.

Of these authors, Charles Williams was Christian, and so was Sayers, though she was an editor rather than an author when it came to horror, and did not write much herself.

Among more recent authors associated with the horror genre is Stephen King, but many of his books are thinly disguised science fiction, where the source of the horror seems to be something that came from outer space (Desperation, It, The tommyknockers). His Pet sematary, Needful things and Salem's lot are closer to classic horror in the sense of supernatural stories. But even these seem to be nihilist rather than Christian, as far as the examination of evil is concerned. The supernatural evil is just there, as in H.P. Lovecraft's Chthulu mythos. The actual struggle between good and evil takes place at a much more mundane and human level, in the lives of the characters. And when one sees it in that way, it can actually throw some light on the Christian understanding of , as discussed in the recent . So, for example, in Pet sematary the family of the protagonist is visited hy evil revenants, but the battle is not fought primarily between the protagonist and these, but within the heart of the protagonist himself. It is the devices and desires of our own hearts that lead us astray.

This can also be seen in Bram Stoker's Dracula. The vampire, for all his evil powers, cannot enter the house and harm the inhabitants unless one of the inmates invites him in. Or, as St Peter puts it, "Resist the devil and he will flee from you."

But for all its value in showing the battle between good and evil, horror is limited, because one becomes sated. Myth and fantasy go deeper, despite Derrickson's reservations. But I would like to issue a challenge to Derrickson: make a film of a novel. That would be a real achievement.



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11 comments:

Rev Sam said...

I shall have to investigate Charles Williams - I've never come across him before.

I agree that you can become sated, especially with horror films. I've often thought I should rephrase with 'supernatural thriller', which captures more of what I like.

BTW have you read Stephen King's 'The Stand'? One of his that has stayed with me.

Sally said...

Great post Steve- I am interested in using horror either books or films as a start point for dialogue- something I feel we shy away from too readily.

I wonder whether the reluctance to engage in this way is basically a reflection of a general hesitancy to consider the possibliity of real evil, esp. spiritual evil, I find many folk I takl to, Chrisitans and New Agers alike are reluctant to consider that evil truly exists. My Pagan friends on the other hand are far less hesitant and cautious on the subject seeing dark and light as a blance in life!

Karmyn said...

I am a wimp. I cannot watch horror films which involve the Supernatural...my imagination takes over after watching such films. I can't sleep for weeks. No amount of prayer can take away the thought of some hideous psycho killer waiting for me in my closet.

However - I am a Sci-Fi/Fantasy nut. (oh yeah - and Alien movies don't bother me in the least)

Steve Hayes said...

Thanks everyone for the comments.

Rev Sam -- Charles Williams's books are often described as "supernatural thrillers", and definitely worth reading. See the Charles Williams web pages for more info.

Sally -- yes, we discussed some of this in the "spiritual warfare" synchroblog, but there's more. The Christian take differs from the neopagan one, in that the Christian line is no dualism. The devil is an oxymoron, a powerless force. Evil is not an equal and opposite force to good. It is simply the twisting of God's good creation.

Karmyn -- I don't think the psycho in the closet is supernatural evil. I think one should not confuse genuine horror movies with "slasher" movies.

Matt Stone said...

I am an incorrigable fan of vampire flicks and lore so obviously your musings reasonate with me here.

Similar to yourself I became very jaded in my twenties, having ODed on one to many splatter films. They ceased to impact me and I left them behind for a time. However Silence of the Lambs and Se7en changed that for me. They were more psychological - less focused on depicting the acts of horror, more focussed on playing on your imagination. I had a realisation about myself and horror. These days I go for stuff like The Ring in preference to, say, Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes. Love them chills.

Matt Stone said...

PS. Have any of you been watching the TV series 'Supernatural'? Love it.

Steve Hayes said...

Matt

I found my taste for vampires didn't extend much beyond Dracula, which I've read several times over the years, and continued to enjoy it. Anne Rice's Interview with the vampire and Stephen King's Salem's lot were a let down.

I think Stephen King reached his peak in Pet sematary. I enjoyed The stand, though I'd describe it as SF rather than horror. It reminded me of George Stewart's Earth abides, which had a lasting effect on me, as I kept imagining what I would do in such a scenario.

Benjamin Solah said...

I agree with Derrickson's view of horror as a genre that's able to connect with the reader much more because the themes often deal with something that can affect the greater population. This is especially relevant in my sub-genre, Marxist Horror, where the situations dealt with can be related to other people living within the capitalist system.

Though, I disagree with your assertion that sated. People can be horrified to a point that they want to change things, to rid of this 'evil' and fight to change it.

Steve Hayes said...

Benjamin,

Yes, I agree that people can respond to horror literature with a desire to change things -- at least some horror literature.

But being sated is where the horror literature ceases to horrify, like when you eat too much fudge.

KPaffenroth said...

Glad I followed the links over from John Morehead's blog. I'm a theology professor and writer, always fascinated by horror and the grotesque, and I've recently broken into the horror world with a book offering a Christian analysis and application of George Romero's zombie flicks. Generally well received, though most Christians admit they still won't watch the movies (though they usually say they'll now stop condemning those who do). And the horror fans are a little more accepting of the Christian perspective, but some are rather incensed, as though for a Christian to think about and find meaning in horror would be to sully or disrespect its artistic or aesthetic value (the assumption seeming to be that Christians have a very poorly developed sense of aesthetics, and a very narrow and simplistic morality). Anyway, I'm thrilled others are thinking in these ways and opening up a discussion.

Steve Hayes said...

kpaffenroth (and other horror fans, especially zombie fans, nighte be interested in Zigal's zombie site.

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