WARNING: Spoilers of certain films and stories follow.
So tonight is Halloween, or maybe for some of you, time for a church “Harvest Festival.” It’s essentially the same thing. Your kids will eat a year’s worth of candy in one night (unless, of course, you’re one of those boring parents who hands out apples and juice boxes), and everyone will dress up, just as long as there are no bloody Scream masks or witch costumes. Whatever your tradition is on the night of October 31st, the dark, spooky themes of horror films are inescapable this time of year.
Many Christians shrug and play along, knowing it’s just part of the season. Others are deeply offended. In either case, the unfortunate fact is that the church has often downplayed, sanitized, or completely ignored the horror genre instead of questioning why it exists, and furthermore, how Christ may be active in it. 2 Corinthians 6:14 rhetorically asks, “What fellowship has light with darkness?” Absolutely. Yet it is false to assume a horrific piece of art contains nothing but darkness. More on that in a bit.
I watched the new Halloween film last week in the theater. For those unfamiliar with the saga, Michael Myers plays the villain, a serial killer who attempted to kill Laurie Nelson (Jamie Lee Curtis) in the original 1978 film. Forty years later, Michael Myers escapes and Laurie is preparing for their imminent encounter. However, Laurie’s daughter Karen (Judy Greer) thinks her mom is psychotic, so instead of preparing herself for the danger, she retorts, “The world is not a dark and evil place. It is full of love and understanding.”
As soon as I heard that line, I thought, Wow, that is so often how we as the Church approach art. We want it to be “safe for the whole family,” devoid of evil. Though if there must be evil for the good guys to conquer, it mustn’t be scary, or too dark, and definitely not relatable. Because if a villain were too relatable, or if their ethics were almost logical, it might reveal something true and terrible about us. For this reason, combined with arguments of horror’s glorification of violence and depravity, we dismiss art that reveals the horrors of our world; instead we misinterpret Philippians 4:8 to mean that we should always imagine the world as full of love and sun-shiny days.
But there is a deep fulfillment to be discovered in pondering the darker things of the world. Indeed, the light of Christ shines brightest because of the darkness in our world. It would be a travesty to downplay the brilliance of the light of Jesus by sanitizing the dark. It’s for this reason that the horror genre exists: it’s not to keep you looking over your shoulder for ghosts, goblins, and zombies—I don’t personally know anyone who has to deal with such villainy on a daily basis—but within the horror genre, ghosts, goblins, and zombies exist to remind us of other evils, both societal and personal, which are much more sinister, often going unnoticed until pointed out.
To use the Halloween example again, director John Carpenter set the film in a small town, the kind where nothing goes wrong and everyone lives in a bubble. For Carpenter, this type of easy, cruise-control lifestyle (which reminds me too much of Williamson County, Tennessee where I live) is a perfect breeding ground for undetected evil. And indeed in the film, the teens who find themselves in the deepest trouble are those shirking responsibility, lying, drinking under age, and having casual sex. Though Carpenter denies trying to send a moral message, it’s clear that these small-town vices, harmless as they seem to the film’s characters, are disastrously distracting when the battle of good and evil is at stake. It’s a reminder to keep awake and alert, never allowing yourself to fall prey to a life of going through the motions. In fact, it’s reminiscent of what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:5-6: “For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.”
Speaking of keeping awake, the 2017 horror film Get Out opens with Childish Gambino’s song “Redbone,” asking us to “stay woke.” In the case of this film, the evil being brought to light is racism. But it’s not pre-Civil Rights Movement racism that director Jordan Peele tackles here. Most of us can agree that racial inequality has plagued our past, but if you ask if America is still racist today, the answers are sure to be more varied. Get Out answers with an unequivocal “yes.”
It would be a travesty to downplay the brilliance of the light of Jesus by sanitizing the dark.Chris Thiessen
First, the film makes you squirm as it portrays awkward interracial conversations we’ve all heard before. These awkward conversations often key in on questions about Chris’s (Daniel Kaluuya) African-American body—how strong it is, how talented he is. But things go from awkward to deeply sinister as you realize that the family of Chris’s girlfriend is going to sell Chris to the highest bidder for the purpose of a brain transplant into Chris’s body. It’s a dark commentary on the societal horror that white people have long admired the bodies of black people as a mere object of their own control, from the time of slavery to the present—the horror that white people would often rather be entertained by African-Americans playing football or singing than actually listen to their stories.
While we’re on the subject, even George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, a 1968 classic largely responsible for the zombie sub-genre, has been cited as a critique of racism. Writer Renée Graham wrote about the film in the Boston Globe, “Everyone in the posse is white. Ben is African-American. I was a child, but the message I received was depressingly clear: They killed Ben because they believed a black man had to be a threat. A black hero equaled a dead hero.”
Other “creature features” have served as metaphors for real-life issues as well: Godzilla is a giant dinosaur-like monster that emerges from the sea and terrorizes Japan, empowered by nuclear radiation. His first appearance was only nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And, of course, Frankenstein isn’t about a mumbling green giant, as portrayed by Boris Karloff. As Mr. A.S. Peterson has recently reminded us, Mary Shelley’s multi-layered original tale serves the verdict that humanity is guilty of monstrous acts ranging from hating the “other” to feeding human ambition at the expense of charity and community.
As these films and stories bear witness, the horror genre has a deep capacity for great sorrow, for mourning the evils we have committed and see in the world around us. That being said, like any genre, it can be hollowed out when mere entertainment becomes the prime goal. Not all horror stories are created equal, and viewers should be wise in discerning whether something redemptive is to be gleaned from the story.
But as I said before, I don’t believe a horrific piece of art can contain only darkness. Director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Deliver Us From Evil) once said in an interview, “For me, [horror] is the perfect genre for a person of faith to work in. You can think about good and evil pretty openly. I always talk about it being the genre of non-denial. I like the fact that it’s a genre about confronting evil, confronting what’s frightening in the world.” As Derrickson says, the darkness is already there. The films just bring it to our consciousness. So this Halloween, let us not be afraid to consider the horrors which serve as a daily reminder that we were once slaves of sin, and indeed, that many still live in darkness. For in doing so, we are also reminded of the hope we have in Christ, the light who shines into the darkness and cannot be overcome.