Blog Archives

God and the Grotesque: Why Christians Should Give Horror a Chance

"The Scream," by Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch

 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.

1780 edition of The Poetics by Author:Aristotle

Image via Wikipedia

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!




If our writings are going to communicate the biblical world view, we have to know what it is.  Therefore, there is a need for Christian writers to be good thinkers, competent in philosophy and theology, as well as good creative writers.  To that end, watch for my forthcoming Lantern Hollow Press book REFLECTIONS FROM PLATO’S CAVE: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy.  To whet your appetite, start with the meditation below.

Philosophyphileo plus sophia, the love of wisdom.  Wisdom:  not intelligence (which is just processing speed) or knowledge (which is just information) or even understanding (which is seeing how one’s bits of knowledge relate to one another), but something more.  Wisdom is the knack of using one’s intelligence, knowledge, and understanding in useful and beneficial ways.  For Christians, it means using one’s intelligence, knowledge, and understanding in ways that glorify God, advance His kingdom, and bring blessing to His people.

It may seem hard to find much wisdom in the technical arguments of professional academic philosophers today, but it is there for those who know how to look.  (It may not be in the conclusions to their arguments!)  I hope there is some to be found in the philosophical musings I have indulged in over the years, not wholly unrelated to the conclusions of my arguments.  If I want you to find it, maybe I should be able to find it myself.  What have I learned from thinking philosophically?  More to the point, what have I learned from it that I can properly call wisdom?

Perhaps the first lesson is humility.  It is the glory of man that we cannot rest until we understand the world around us and understand ourselves.  We are the only species that is impelled to ask the Great Questions:  What is real?  Who are we?  Why are we here?  What is the good?  How do we know?  We are ennobled in that we ask, but we are brought low by our failure to find, or, finding, to live by, the answers.

To study the history of philosophy is to learn how our best thinking when unaided by revelation from above always leads to an irresolvable impasse.  It does so because, apart from revelation, we end up looking for the ultimate in a place where it cannot be found: within the circles of the finite world.  Hence we get the infamous false choices for which philosophy is famous:  Heraklitus and flux, or Parmenides and permanence?  Plato’s rationalism and realism, or Aristotle’s empiricism and nominalism? They are both right and both wrong.  Forms neither as immanent in matter nor as existing on their own but as the rationes aeterna in the mind of a personal God capable of grounding them because He is the source of both form and matter—for, that we would need the operation of revelation on a redeemed and receptive mind.  There is no other way to get it.

Without revelation and the receptive mind, we end up with people fighting over what are at best partial glimpses of the truth.  And our best thinkers never quite live up even to their partial glimpses.  Only as God stoops to us in revelation do we find answers that are whole; only as He stoops to us in grace do we accept those answers and find the ability to live them out.  If following in the footsteps of our best unaided thinkers to see the impasses that result from their thinking helps us more clearly to see and appreciate our limitations, then the first lesson of wisdom we learn is humility—and the second is gratitude.  Humility from our inability, gratitude for God’s supply: surely humility and gratitude are essential parts of a life of wisdom!

Sadly, many people who study philosophy do not learn humility or gratitude from it, but rather arrogance in the defense of one of those limited and partial viewpoints.  One even finds those who are arrogant in their defense of the seemingly humbling proposition that we cannot know anything!  But, then, people are fallen, prideful, and stubborn in their pursuit of other fields of study just as well (including theology).  The fault therefore lies not with philosophy but with the philosophers, that is, with us.  Only by God’s grace do we pursue anything wisely, that is, humbly and gratefully.  Those who have been captured by God’s grace in Jesus Christ then should apply themselves to philosophy because, just as bad philosophy has to be answered by good philosophy, so sinful philosophers have to be answered by redeemed ones—by their existence as much as by their arguments.

From the best Christian philosophers, such as Augustine, Anselm, and C. S. Lewis, one can also learn this wisdom:  confidence that Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are real things, objectively rooted in the nature of the God of creation and objectively imprinted by Him onto the world He has made.  They are rightly called “the transcendentals”: they are supremely valuable and are their own justification precisely because Truth is the reflection of God’s mind, Goodness of His character, and Beauty of His glory.  And we, created in His image and redeemed by His blood, may participate in them, yea, bathe in them.  We find our purpose and our fulfillment in doing so, because thus we reflect Him to the world.  If Christians do not gain confidence and boldness and indeed joy in their pursuit of these transcendental values from thinking philosophically, then they are missing the point, profoundly and colossally missing the point, as badly as the most secularized sophist on the planet, and with less excuse. If they do not promote and encourage confidence, boldness, and joy in the pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty by the way they do and teach and write philosophy, then they have betrayed their calling.

If I am on track in the last paragraph, then I have also learned that Solomon was right:  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  Nothing can claim to be wisdom that does not rest on, flow from, and promote in us the reverent, humble, and grateful acknowledgement of His necessary existence, His Trinitarian personality, His divine majesty, His rightful sovereignty, and His supreme worthiness of all worship and devotion.  It is ultimately He who must teach us this, by revealing Himself to us in His Son, the eternal logos who enlightens every man and who came into the world.  Our philosophical search for truth without that act of grace on His part is but vanity and striving after wind.  Philosophy, in other words, is not the key to understanding Him; it is He who must illumine our philosophy.

(I am not affirming fideism here, by the way.  I have made arguments for God’s existence in this journal.  But I am recognizing that He is more than the conclusion to a logical argument; He is the reason why logical argument is possible in the first place.  I am recognizing that, even so far as they are valid, those arguments will only be accepted and will only have their intended effect in leading to wisdom when they are used by His Spirit as part of His gracious work of conviction and calling, leading to regeneration, conversion, and sanctification—including the sanctification of the mind.  May He graciously grant my prayers by so using them.)

When God does illumine us, philosophy can help us see things about ourselves, our need, and His grace in meeting that need, that we might otherwise have missed.  It is better for redeemed sinners to wonder about who we are, why we are here, what is real and what is good, and how we know, and to find their answers in Him, than it is for them to remain ignorant.  So Augustine and Anselm had it right all along:  Credo ut intelligam, “I believe that I might understand.”  Fides quaerens intellectum, “faith in search of understanding.”

You will know that your faith is producing understanding, you will know that your philosophical thinking has been profitable, when it leads you to the humble and grateful love of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and to their manifestation in your life to the glory of God.  Then perhaps we can redeem the etymological definition of philosophy as the love of wisdom.  May God grant it by His grace, for our good and His glory.


For more of the authors own glimpses of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, go to and order STARS THROUGH THE CLOUDS: THE COLLECTED POETRY OF DONALD T. WILLIAM (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011).