It’s hard to get away from horror these days, on screen or in print.

Millions enjoy the gory messes. Millions don’t. But there’s no denying that zombies, vampires, ghosts and demons, and their flesh-and-blood allies among the living, the brutal ax murderers, cannibal killers and monsters — terrestrial and extraterrestrial — are practically folk heroes, celebrated and embraced by their legions of fans.  

Meaning in the Mayhem

Whether you are amused by these disturbing images and characters or find them, well, horrifying, I’d like to suggest that they are more than simple entertainment on the one hand or, as some might think, deplorable signs of moral decay in our culture on the other. In fact, I think Christians are uniquely positioned to shine a light on the darkness and to discover meaning in the mayhem. It won’t make horror any less horrible, or suddenly make fans of critics, but it will at least show that it has a legitimate place in the Christian imagination; indeed, that may be where the “best” horror comes from.  

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Janet Leigh in "Psycho". Thinkstock

Now, why would one say that? Well, first, let’s get a handle on what horror is. The word comes from the Latin horrere, meaning to shudder or tremble, either from cold or fear. As an emotion, though, horror is more than simple fear, however extreme. It is fear mingled with disgust and outrage (and often a dash of the uncanny). These additions make all the difference. Lots of things are frightening but not disgusting — a roller-coaster ride, for example. Others are disgusting but not frightening — remember that tub of moldy yogurt on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator?  

The outrage in horror is especially important. Gruesome monsters and sadistic murderers are certainly frightening, but behind the fright is the conviction that such things just should not be. Vampires are not only scary, they are wrong. Ghosts are unnatural. Psychopaths are inhuman. Torture, murder and death itself are profoundly outrageous. These horrors violate our deepest intuitions about how the world ought to operate, about good and evil, crime and punishment, and what it means to be human. Encounters with them leave us feeling unsettled and terrified, but underneath it all righteously angry.  

Building on Natural Moral Law

In other words, horror builds on the natural moral law that God has written in our hearts. Without that foundation horror would have little to play on: in a godless universe, being eaten alive would be as unpleasant as ever, but you couldn’t protest that it was unfair. As it is, we Christians believe that death, terror and outrage were never part of God’s plan, and that they won’t have any place in the New Jerusalem. At present though, we have to live not only with the horrible scandal of pain and suffering but with the spiritual crises brought on by the forces of materialism and secularism. Horror flourishes in this environment, but it focuses so often on the supernatural realm — or the horror of its absence — because it recognizes that we are spiritual beings who long for spiritual things, and that life without God is hell. We ought to be encouraged if people can still be horrified, because it means they still have some inkling of the paradise God intended His creation to be, and of their own dignity as God’s children. 

With or without admitting it openly, nearly all horror tales explore the consequences of ignoring or opposing God’s laws, most obviously those against murder and coveting what doesn’t belong to you (like someone’s life or soul), on up to the big one of adoring God alone. In addition, many of them show (indirectly perhaps) how what is good and beautiful when done in conformity to divine will or the example of Christ becomes nightmarish when God is left out of the picture. This is the tragic history of the human race, of course, which explains why many familiar horror plots are actually twisted takes on biblical events and Christian teachings.  

Zombies and vampires, for example, take by violence what Christ freely offers in the holy Eucharist, turning the unbloody Sacrament into a cannibalistic rampage; these once-human creatures prefer a self-obsessed, cadaverous half-existence to the fullness of life in Christ. Animal/human hybrids, Frankensteinian experiments, clones, mutants and out-of-control “Terminator” robots illustrate the disasters that follow when humans grasp at God’s power over life and death. Christians know that life is more than the physical body, and that submission to sacramental death in baptism is the only path to immortality.  

In a way, many of these horrors are examples of hypocrisy, arguably the sin Jesus hated above all others. Like the scribes and Pharisees who hid their corruption behind a façade of righteousness, notorious villains such as Norman Bates or Hannibal Lector are “whitened sepulchers” whose ordinary human appearance masks a monstrous interior. Aliens and devils also frequently disguise themselves with a human shape (though more than a few aren’t shy about showing off their true colors); the shudder of loathing comes when the hypocrisy is exposed, when what we had thought was good and human is found to be something else. But consider: To the extent that we are sinners, we are all like them, bearing the likeness of God, but full of wickedness. At Halloween we let those inner monsters out to play, but without divine grace and the forgiveness of sins we would be the real walking dead.  

Sin Is the True Horror

And that gets us to the nub of the matter: Sin is the true and ultimate horror. What could be more revolting than the destruction of good, more shocking than the annihilation of grace, more hateful than the rejection of God that every sin amounts to? And what could be more terrifying than eternal loss and separation from God? Horror was born in the Garden of Eden and lives on in our every transgression. Perhaps St. Paul had this divine horror in mind when he exhorted the Ephesians not to “grieve the holy Spirit” (4:30). 

All this philosophizing about horror is fine as far as it goes, but there’s no getting past the fact that exposing yourself to it at the local multiplex can be a pretty nasty business. Why would anyone choose to inflict it on themselves? That is a question of taste, of course, and we know these questions don’t have easy answers. Some people like horror, some don’t. Certainly, those with sensitive or nervous dispositions are not obliged to put themselves through the emotional disturbance: “viewer discretion is advised.” But what repels them gives fans a presumably entertaining, cathartic thrill, complete with the illusion of imminent danger and the subsequent satisfaction of having faced it and survived. In fairness, however, there are risks. Repeated exposure to cinematic violence has the potential to desensitize the conscience and push unstable minds over the edge. Horror probably tickles something dark and sinister in certain personalities (which those concerned would do well to exorcize). And some works of horror are so extreme and morally revolting that, like pornography, they should never be seen, let alone have been made.  

But there are potential benefits, for those who can take it. Genuine works of imaginative and dramatic art, no matter how bloody, from “Oedipus Rex” and “Macbeth” to “The Night of the Living Dead,” serve the valuable purpose of allowing us to examine life’s challenges and unpleasant possibilities before they happen. They especially allow us to confront the grand questions of the meaning and end of life, and the finality of death. Exposure to two hours of fictional horror on a movie screen could leave us better prepared to face real horror when — God forbid — it comes into our lives. Two hours of prayer would be time well spent, too, but if we can look at the terrifying faces of death and remember that Christ is risen, then horror also could become a spiritual exercise. Approached with faith, works of horror, with their vivid depictions of the reality of sin and its consequences, can shock us out of spiritual complacency, and remind us of our need to depend on God no matter what circumstances, the good and the horrible. Because they know what’s at stake, Christians are perhaps in the best position to appreciate horror, and, ironically, to appreciate it without fear. After all, Jesus’ resurrection removed the sting — and the horror — of death and suffering: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” (Mt 10:28). But His most frequent command was simple: “Be not afraid.”

Michael Schrauzer is an artist and writer. He holds a Master of Fine Arts from the Claremont Graduate School and teaches art history at Point Loma Nazarene University and for the Diocese of San Diego.