Everybody remembers the first movie that scared the hell out of them. It probably happened late one night when you and some friends got together and snuck in one of those movies your parents told you that you were too young to watch. But, what did they know? You tried hard to keep your poker face among your friends, but it was one particular scene or maybe it was a particular villain, but somewhere along the line you got scared – real scared. Your heart began beating fast. Your senses jumped to high alert. And lying in your bed that night there was no way you could get to sleep.
The horror genre has been around as long as the moving picture. It’s one of the greatest testimonies to the power of film – that watching moving pictures can evoke screams, make you jump, and even cause nightmares. Throughout the history of horror movies, directors constantly try to outdo one another and make the next movie darker and scarier than the last one.
Among Christians, talk of horror movies is likely to induce quite a variety of reactions. From those who believe these types of movies are straight from the gates of hell and avoid them like the plague to those who are horror movie aficionados – even attempting their own Christianized version (like House a movie based on a Christian novel written by Ted Dekker from a few years ago that gets a whopping 4.7 rating on IMDB).
Over the past several years, the cable network AMC has devoted the month of October to showing nothing but these kinds of movies. Fear Fest, as they call it, illustrates just how many different subgenres of horror movies there are: slasher, monster, comedy, blockbuster, B-rated, foreign, and on and on the list goes. This year they are showing many of the classic horror movie franchises: Friday the 13th, Halloween, Candy Man, as well as others. Interspersed among these classics are lesser known B-horror movies. Just the other day I watched the awesomely bad, sure to be a cult classic, Ragin Cajun Redneck Gators (a Syfy original rated an incredibly bad 3.4 by users of IMDB).
Anything as pervasive as the horror movie industry has to tell us something about our culture. In an interesting book about religion and horror movies, Douglas Cowan writes, “What scares us reveals important aspects of who we are, both as individuals and as a society.” If Cowan is correct, it sure makes you wonder what the evolution of horror movies teaches us about our society. It’s become common for classic horror movies to be remade with a contemporary spin on them. The other night I watched the remake of Friday the 13th. As far as remakes go, I thought it was done really well. It was intense. It makes the old Friday the 13th seem cheesy and almost laughable. Just look at the evolution of the villain Jason Voorhees:
The fact of the matter is that when horror movies are remade, they are all gorier and more intense. This is not a judgment that they are better (or worse) – some are better; some are worse – it’s just a reality that they are all darker. And there’s something in the darkness of horror movies that draws us in. There’s something about the darkness of horror movies that has given them their longevity.
I think that it is within the context of horror movies that many of us come to terms with the reality of sin in the world. Every day, people are murdered, raped, wars are started, bombs are dropped, natural disasters occur, nature is polluted – insert tragedy here. Just last week a few miles from my house, a middle-aged woman went for a run in a nearby park and a 16-year-old high school student stabbed her 22 times, murdering her. How do we make sense of that? What am I to do with that?
I contend that watching horror movies is a lot like Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal. If you remember the story, Elijah is on Mt. Carmel preparing a showdown between his God, Yahweh, and the god Baal and his prophets. They each prepare the altars for sacrifice, and then pray to their respective gods to set the sacrifices on fire. For dramatic effect, Elijah had even poured water on his altar, but that didn’t stop Yahweh from lighting the entire altar on fire while the prophets of Baal tried without success. Then, in one of the most humorous stories in the Bible, Elijah turns to the prophets and begins to mock them. “Maybe you need to pray louder; maybe your gods can’t hear you!”
When I watch a horror movie, I am confronted by the realities of evil. Whether it’s the demonic, violence against women, evil spirits, mutated animals, or the devil himself, I am reminded that these represent real things. That there is a real spirit at work in this world that works against love, healing, and reconciliation. This spirit manifests itself in as many different ways as there are subgenres of horror movies. Bad things happen. People set out to harm other people. Serial killers are real.
In a lot of ways, however, horror movies mock those powers. In the ancient world, it was common place for a conquered army to be marched through the center of town triumphantly announcing the hometown victory. To some extent, horror movies do this. They tell compelling stories. They frighten audiences. They produce horrific scenes and scenarios. But in the end, they are nothing more than the creation of special effects artists, often not very good actors, and gifted camera men and women.
Quietly, and often going unnoticed, horror movies mock evil. They connect with us because we know all too well that evil is real. They draw us in because we know the potential of evil. We know that we can never say, “This is as bad as it gets; this is awful as it gets.” Because reality is darker than any horror movie. This is the genius of The Walking Dead – it illustrates the irony of the fact that the threat of the zombies is only secondary to the threat that the living pose to one another. The horror genre is the way that we come to terms with the reality of evil in the world. The horror genre forces us to ask ourselves, “What is scarier, this fictitious story on the big screen, or the constantly unfolding story of humanity?”
 Douglas E. Cowan. Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen. (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2008), 10.