God and the Grotesque: Why Christians Should Give Horror a Chance
It is not surprising that in Christian circles, novels and films that seem designed primarily to frighten people are controversial. In fact, for many, “controversial” would be an understatement—perhaps “morally irresponsible” or even “sinful” would capture the deep suspicion with which many in the culture I grew up in would view a trip to the theater to catch the latest Halloween flick or hours spent pouring through the latest Stephen King novel. After all, are there not better things a person could do with his or her time?
On two crucial levels, such caution is entirely warranted. First of all, from a purely artistic point of view, many suspense novels and horror movies leave a lot to be desired. Horror by definition is designed to appeal to primal fears in the reader (or viewer), and this purpose having been achieved, it is the rare author (or filmmaker) who will attempt to go further—to give the characters revealing dialogue when they could, after all, be screaming; to integrate plot devices into a coherent scheme when they are there, after all, to scare people; or to plumb the depths of what it means to be human when the humans are there, after all, to get eaten by zombies.
This artistic irresponsibility is directly tied to the commercialization of fiction and film, propped up by audiences who will never fail to pay for a cheap thrill. Twenty years ago, they put up with the atrocious dialogue in The Blair Witch Project; today, they will put up with the never-ending sequels of Saw. But then, consumers also stand in line for two hours in the scorching heat for a thirty-second roller-coaster ride—just as cheap of a thrill, but harmless, right?
Many would argue, however, that horror fiction is not so harmless. It is a cheap thrill which often appeals to humanity’s most vulgar and morally impoverished instincts—voyeurism, sadism-masochism, occult fascination, and the list goes on. A movie in which under-developed characters are brutalized in increasingly creative and revolting ways is bound to descend into pornographic objectification, involving the readers/viewers in the guilty pleasure of seeing others suffer while reveling in their own safety. This kind of self-indulgence is a corruption of the catharsis referred to in Aristotle’s Poetics—a term fundamental to the notion of artistic responsibility in the Western literary tradition. Unfortunately, catharsis is a term often applied too broadly today, as though it referred to any emotional release tied to imaginative experience.
The kind of self-gratifying, borderline masturbatory experience that drives much of today’s horror industry could not be more unlike Aristotle’s original concept of a purging of unhealthy tension—a purging both emotional and moral—through pity and fear.
The simultaneous experience of pity and fear presupposes two important elements concerning the imaginative experience: one, that the viewer identifies with the characters (identification excludes objectification); two, that the viewer is morally de-centered by vicarious suffering. The viewer of Greek tragedy was, according to Aristotle, a healthier individual after having left the theater—and despite much controversy over centuries, most Christians today would probably agree. Sympathy and the emptying of the self are, after all, virtues highly (and rightly) valued in the Christian tradition as being tied to Christ’s commands to “deny thyself” and “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
The key question for the present discussion is whether or not horror fiction is capable of serving as a vehicle for true catharsis.
It is my thesis that, in spite of its egregious vulgarities and obscenities in practice, horror as a genre has a unique capacity to revive numb moral instincts—perhaps renewing a lost capacity for catharsis. In addition, its overused but vital shock component makes it perhaps one of the best antidotes for spiritual apathy. It can force people to ask questions they would normally avoid asking—but perhaps need to ask as desperately as they need to know themselves.
Examples of horror which rise to this level of artistic greatness and moral responsibility are unfortunately rare, and some might argue that it is not worth the effort to play the prospector and sift through tons of muck in order to find a bit of gold here and there. But it is possible to counter that the gold is that much more valuable for being difficult to find—and that the exercise of finding it is an exercise in moral responsibility.
In any case, in future guest posts, I plan to explore particular works as examples of both the exploitation and the potential virtues of horror fiction. Stay tuned!