What place if any does the horror genre have in Christian fiction?

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  • Matt Garner
    Hutchmate
    @mattgarner

    I’m a horror junky. Not the psycho-in-training gore circus that is most of horror film these days, but supernatural thrillers and the like are definitely my jam. I’ve consumed oodles of Stephen King and I’m in the middle of Ghost Story by Peter Straub (How did I wait this long?!). Since I sort of buy into the principle of “that which we consume forms us” I’m curious what place horror or the macabre has in Christian fiction/art/film. I can’t tell if I’m asking this from a storyteller’s perspective, as in what place does the creation of horror fiction have… or from a desire to justify my insatiable appetite for stuff that gives me the willies. Please don’t take my precious scary stories!

    www.matthewgarner.com

    I suppose I like sorta creepy more than straight up horror (though one of these days I intend to at least read some Stephen King), but the genre fascinates me. Handled rightly and well made, it can teach us a lot about good, evil, fear, and humanity.

    Have you read any interviews with Scott Derrickson? He always has such interesting perspectives on making horror films as a Christian. From an interview with Decent Films:

    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.

    I like the mystery of the genre. It’s a genre that takes the mystery in the world very seriously. There are a lot of voices that are broadcasting that the world is explainable. Corporate America limits the world to consumerism. Science can limit it to the material world. Even religion limits it to a lot of theories that can explain everything. I think we need cinema to break that apart and remind us that we’re not in control, and we don’t understand as much as we think do.

    I know there are some great essays hiding out in The Rabbit Room archives too!

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    Pete Peterson
    Hutchmaster Prime
    @pete

    I love horror. (Though I hate modern horror movies.) I don’t have time to unpack its place, but you definitely don’t need to feel guilty about it.

    ---Hutchmaster Prime, wielder of great and terrible cheeses

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    Matt Garner
    Hutchmate
    @mattgarner

    @jroseyokel that interview is great. I guess I’m of the same mind and wonder if I’m attracted to the genre for some of the same reasons – being frightened as a young child. I used to think the house I grew up in, a rather innocuous looking 70’s split level, was haunted. But only periodically. There were times as a young teenager when I was alone in the house in the middle of a sunny afternoon when I had a strong urge to get out because I sensed an overwhelming malevolence, something that really did not like me. Sometimes in the middle of an activity, making a PB&J for my lunch, I would put the bread and knife down and walk outside and stare at the windows from the front yard, see nothing, but feel the pulse of some angry “thing” pushing against the walls, unable to reach me in the sunlight. After a short while, the feeling would pass and I could go back in. Other times it was the most inviting place of warmth and security I could imagine. I have wonderful, loving memories of that house.

    For most of my first eighteen years there, I experienced what is best described as shadow people, something I kept to myself for years because of the general absurdity but was astonished to hear after confiding in them years after moving away that my parents saw them too – never mentioning them before because they didn’t want to frighten us for no reason.

    I would wake up in the dead of night after hearing my name whispered or sometimes shouted from some other part of the house. I preferred the whisper. The shouting made my heart race.

    I only experienced those things in that house. Nowhere else. For the most part.

    The only thing that has lingered from then to now in my mid-30s is the occasional sense that something is not right, never in proximity to a scary novel or film. I mean, I do read/watch other genres. But that feeling will come out of nowhere as the last lights in the house are turned off and everyone is asleep but me. And I find myself, a grown man, clamping my eyes shut and praying, speaking the name of Jesus as confidently as my will allows, reminding whatever is disturbing me of the cross hanging in my dining room, the baptisms of myself, my wife and children, reminding whatever has come to visit our otherwise peaceful home that they are not welcome. Then I sing hymns to myself to muffle out what sounds like footfalls on the carpet.

    www.matthewgarner.com

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    Matt Garner
    Hutchmate
    @mattgarner

    I told the story of my childhood home to my father-in-law last night over dinner and weirded him out so thoroughly he mentioned “prayer before bedtime” twice before he left.

    www.matthewgarner.com


    Matt Garner
    Hutchmate
    @mattgarner

    (crickets)

    www.matthewgarner.com


    Laure Hittle
    Hutchmate
    @mrs-hittle

    This is a really interesting topic to me but i’m not sure how to contribute. i love the idea of horror, partially for artistic reasons and partially for the thematic ones mentioned above, but i’m really sensitive to most visual portrayals so i don’t watch much of it. i’ve read some horror and really enjoyed that (Lovecraft, Poe, Peretti, Dekker, Crichton, Charles Williams, and i don’t know what all. Pete has some good horror short stories, too. Not all of it is here anymore but this one is). Somewhere around the Rabbit Room i read an endorsement of Ancestral Shadows by Russell Kirk and i picked that up, but haven’t read any of it yet.

    None of that really contributes to the conversation, though, i don’t think, unless the Russell Kirk article helps (i should reread that myself). i’m going to try to draw some traffic over here.

    @mattgarner Your story sounds so frightening. i have had some creepy experiences and i think most of the time it’s my overactive imagination rather than spiritual warfare, although it’s probably sometimes both. i didn’t realize that shadow people were a common enough experience to have a name and a Wikipedia article. But the idea that it was only in that house, and that your parents experienced that also, independently from you… eeek.


    Matt Garner
    Hutchmate
    @mattgarner

    @mrs-hittle that Kirk review was interesting. I’ve never heard of him, but the posting made me want to dig up that collection. His approach to the horror genre definitely resonates:

    I do not write them to impose meaningless terror upon the innocent . . . What I have attempted, rather, are experiments in the moral imagination . . . All important literature has some ethical end,” Kirk says, “and the tale of the preternatural — as written by George Macdonald, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and other masters — can be an instrument for the recovery of moral order.”

    I mostly think those things that go bump in the night are just my imagination too. I thought the shadow people were until my parents confirmed my fears, darn them! My inner skeptic tells me that my parents and I carry the same gene that causes odd flashes in our visual periphery which combined with sleep deprivation and a flare for the dramatic = shadow people. Sadly, my inner skeptic gets drowned out by my inner what-if machine. I’m working on a play right now that’s a little bit of a ghost story and I think I’d have a hard time making it believable if I didn’t entertain that which giveth me the willies.

    www.matthewgarner.com


    Sharon
    Hutchmate
    @sharon

    (Copying my comment from the Facebook discussion:)

    My tolerance for horror – in all forms, be they suspense, gore, shock, etc. – is extremely low. I also know that I’m very sensitive to certain portrayals of evil onscreen, and I think many, many more people should be asking themselves “Should I be watching this? Is this good for my soul?”

    All that being said, I think horror as a genre or form is appropriate to the degree that it faithfully represents the supernatural and the dignity of the human person. Much of the recent horror flicks are panned because they’re cheap shocks – jump scares, buckets of blood, etc. I think that kind of content can be bad for one’s soul, because it dehumanizes or trivializes the human person. However, movies that artistically portray the reality of evil – its power, its menace, its banality, its disguises – can be tremendously edifying.

    It’s a long read, but Pope Pius XII’s speeches to members of the cinema world has been a very helpful, if tough, philosophical framework to wrestle with, re: art and morality. http://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/P12CINWD.HTM

    My mindset on creating fictional evil shifted a bit after I had children. I feel like there is such a war for their innocence in the real world, that seeing depravity played out (especially upon children) in fiction just spikes my fear/frustration for what my kiddos (1 and 3 currently) will have to face eventually.

    Also, I was shown Gremlins when I was 4 and never quite lived that down, so I’m not a big fan of the suspense and feeling out of control via horror.


    Matt Garner
    Hutchmate
    @mattgarner

    @sharon Asking ourselves what we should or should not be watching is certainly good practice. And I think everyone on this thread thus far finds what passes for the most part for horror in film these days utterly abhorrent, or what some film critic somewhere coined crassly but aptly “torture porn.” I stole my “psycho-in-training” line above from film critic Owen Gleiberman’s review of one of the endless releases in the “Saw” franchise in which he lamented the current state of the genre. Watching it he said he felt like a “psycho-in-training.”

    I read through most of the Pope Pius XII speeches, though not all. The discussion on the influence of film made me think of the horror genre, something pretty niche in his day and age, with perhaps the exception of Hitchcock who might be nudged over into the thriller genre most of the time when you think of films like “Rear Window,” “North by Northwest,” “Rebecca,” “Rope,” “Dial M for Murder,” etc. All of which I love. And frankly, if you haven’t seen it, “Rope” is sinister and fantastic. A real unsung Jimmy Stewart performance. But anyway, I wonder what speech Pope Pius XII would give today… yeesh.

    Though, I agree with most of the sentiment, I take some issue with his concept of the “ideal film” and the representation of evil:

    Therefore the ideal film should flee from any form of apology, much less of glorification, of evil, and should show its condemnation through the entire course of the film and not merely at the end; frequently it would come too late, i.e. after the spectator is already beguiled and entrapped by evil promptings.

    Sometimes evil wins in some physical or practical way, or maybe doesn’t win outright but the damage is done. Sometimes crime pays. Doesn’t mean it’s not evil, but it pays. I mean Joseph Stalin died in his bed. I think to ignore that reality in storytelling is disingenuous. But if it ain’t your cup of tea, it ain’t your cup of tea.

    And as far as the condemnation of evil “through the entire course of the film…” I don’t know about that. That’s not really how life works most of the time. Condemnation can be a subtle drip, a hint, a suggestion, a foreshadowing throughout the film that finally drops it’s full weight at the end. Sometimes, I think that sudden shift can have greater influence on the viewer who may or may not have been until then “beguiled” by the evil goings-on. Heck, I was beguiled by the Turkish Delight in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe when I was a kid. I swear I could taste its wonderful yumminess every time I read that chapter, and I’d never had nor have ever had Turkish Delight in my life. Understanding the insidious pull of evil on a visceral level makes Edmund’s choices that much more damning, and his (spoiler alert but really?) deliverance at the end that much more rewarding.

    I’m not really talking about horror anymore, but it’s still interesting.

    I also think the concept of the “ideal film” is why the Christian film industry generates so many reeking duds. The valiant attempt to deliver the ideal film produces more often than not unrecognizable human behavior.

    But for creators of faith, if Jesus lives in you, he’s going to show up in your work anyway so no need to worry about ideals.

    I’m rambling now. If any of the above is coherent, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.

    www.matthewgarner.com


    Sharon
    Hutchmate
    @sharon

    @mattgarner I think you’ve picked out the most difficult part of Pius’ speech to swallow. This might be hand-waving the issue, but I think of Pius’ ideal film as a necessary overstatement, to balance out the “Everything is Fine In The Name of Art” that we hear so often. Aristotle says somewhere that virtue is the mean between two extremes, and to find that mean, you have to overshoot it. I’d like to believe that’s what Pius is doing!

    Then again, the most important thing is to get to Heaven, right? Is any risk to our soul worth it? (I’m mostly talking to myself with this line, haha.) It’s the old mirror vs. lamp analogy: should art (or dictionaries, or libraries, etc.) be a mirror (reflective of reality), or a lamp (a guide to what we should be)? The easy answer is both, but I don’t see why, in our current age, we can’t overemphasize the lamp. Culture has become fixated on equating “grittiness” with “realism” in its pursuit of reality, and we can easily write off goodness as boring and unrealistic. I’m getting into ax-grinding territory now. 🙂

    I forgot who said it – maybe Flannery O’Connor? – but there’s a great quote out there about “Christian art,” and how many times it ends up being much of neither. The “Christian” part is prioritizes, and when you combine that with the trademark Christian un-coolness, lack of resources, possible lack of artistic skill…the product is not exactly enjoyable or instructive.

    We’ve got the added fun of conscience, too, with regards to “throughout the course of the entire film”. Person A may have a well-formed, solid conscience, so they can watch a movie where evil is seductive and be OK. They can recognize it for what it is. Person B may have a weaker conscience, so watching the same film may have detrimental spiritual effects for them.


    Matt Garner
    Hutchmate
    @mattgarner

    @sharon Interestingly, in the theater world, the mirror and the lamp have been largely conflated. Reflecting back the audience to themselves shows them how far off the arc of progress they are, so they say. I’ve always had trouble as an artist feeling like I’m holding up a mirror (or lamp) to society. Who am I to set myself in such a position? My impetus is to tell stories. People can take what they will and they often do.

    Pius’ speech seems to echo the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (MPPC), which was largely introduced by Catholic clergy.  I wonder if Italian cinema had been operating without such a code in the 1950’s or if Pius saw the impending decline of these types of regulations and wanted to bolster them somehow.

    The MPPC was sort of the lamp in a way, whereas it’s replacement, the MPAA rating system was really just a mirror… or a warning of what you might see in the mirror. Ha!

    Culture has become fixated on equating “grittiness” with “realism” in its pursuit of reality, and we can easily write off goodness as boring and unrealistic.

    That rings true, and in this sense I would say gratuitous depiction is the pitfall, whereas goodness can be truly offset with a little grittiness, bleakness, hopelessness. This may be why I think the end of “The Shawshank Redemption” to be one of the most satisfying film endings of all time. It’s so awful for so long and everyone is so horrible, and then suddenly rain and freedom and sunlight and the ocean and friendship. And evil pays in this one. Big time. But not until the very end.

    But back to horror, is it wrong do you think to intentionally consume stories that frighten us? Or to create them with the intention of frightening others? I kind of dig the feeling sometimes. Sort of like the free fall of a roller coaster. I’m not going to smash into the concrete below because I’m strapped to this seat, but the plummet is thrilling.

    www.matthewgarner.com


    Matt Garner
    Hutchmate
    @mattgarner

    @dunlap I hear you. I have a gaggle of kiddos myself, and I know exactly what you mean. The news is bad enough. I actually wrote a post on my delinquent-because-I’ve-been-writing-other-stuff blog that speaks to that. I was writing in response to a reboot of “The Exorcist” as an episodic on Fox. It’s short and a little crass but appropriate to this thread.

    www.matthewgarner.com

    This thread comes back into my mind every so often, although my brain has been busy doing other things and i haven’t had new ideas to post. But @mattgarner, how is your play coming?

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    @mrs-hittle Thanks for asking 🙂 I’m a lunch break writer so I’m roughly 8,700 words in which in full length play land is about halfway. I’ve taken sections of it to Nashville Story Garden to hear it read. Next read will be this Monday.

    www.matthewgarner.com

    @mattgarner Monday! Monday was yesterday! How did it go? Lunch break writing sounds like a great way to keep going while keeping up with everything else. i often feel i don’t have time to write. That is something to consider.

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    @mrs-hittle thanks for asking! A lot of writers showed for this one so we had a bounty of material to take in. Mine went well I think. I’ve been taking pages to them for a few months now, and the regulars have stayed intrigued as far as I can tell. I haven’t divulged the long arc of the piece because I want it to land on them as it would an audience. I’m trying to avoid expository reveals as much as possible and let the circumstances and the stakes peel back the layers. In that vein I discovered that of the two scenes I had read, one definitely needs a rewrite. One of my characters gets a little speechy and the plot drive could use a bit more dialogue.

    www.matthewgarner.com

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    Lunch break writing sounds like a great way to keep going while keeping up with everything else.

    It’s basically the only time I have to write. I read on the StairMaster in the gym and in the “library,” the nickname my septuagenarian father has given the bathroom, and I brainstorm during my morning or evening commutes, or while mowing the lawn. I’ll think about a play for a long time, sometimes years, before pen meets paper or fingers meet keys. This one has been stewing since 2012. I don’t have the luxury of “morning pages” or a diary or journal or multiple hour writing marathons. Too much 9-5. Too many diapers, chores. Want to play with my kids, spend a few precious quiet moments with my wife. I guess I could shoulder my family out of the way in the name of craft, art, passion. And I did that before as an actor, gone for weeks doing shows and missing first steps and play time and meals and bedtime stories. And it nearly killed us. So I retired from acting and became a playwright who writes on his lunch breaks. And so far, that’s good enough. It takes longer to crank one out, but it still happens.

    www.matthewgarner.com

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    @mattgarner, i commend you. It is hard to balance all that stuff, but insofar as faithfully loving the ones we’re given to makes us better humans, taking care of your family surely operates in unseen ways to support your writing craft also. Sometimes good enough is good enough, and sometimes it’s even better. i get angsty from time to time, wishing that this particular season of life would hurry up so i could devote myself to writing. But there are always ways to be faithful.

    If you have access to the Hutchmoot 2015 archives, there was a session called “Caught in the Middle” wherein Chris Slaten, Eric Peters, and Pete Peterson talked about the difficulties of maintaining one’s art in busy seasons. It’s worth listening to. i should re-listen myself.

    i’m glad your reading went well! That sort of feedback is so helpful. Good call on letting the landing hit your reading group as it would an audience. i’m so with you there.

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