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Monday, April 04, 2005

My Article on Horror Movies

Here is the original uncondensed version of an article I wrote for Higher Things magazine.

“Who will deliver me from this body of death… (Romans 7:24)?”

Your biggest problem is not your zitty face. It’s not your love life or lack thereof. It’s not even Osama bin Laden and his band of merry terrorists. Your biggest problem is that you are going to die. Yes, the latest scientific findings have confirmed it. 1 out of every 1 person dies. You are dust and to dust you shall return.

As people have pondered the grave through the eons, they have imagined all sorts of specters, ghouls and goblins. As they have considered what lies beyond, they have dreamt of worlds and powers that chill the bone. Those with more active imaginations have conjured spooky campfire stories which have been handed down and modified through generations. And these eerie visions can now be projected on screens large and small.

The horror movie usually deals with one or two basic primeval themes. Evil and Death. And of course, these two go together like Barne’s & Noble or macaroni and cheese. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20). Good horror movies grapple with that reality and express something true, even if unpleasant.

For whatever reason, scary movies are very popular, especially with young audiences. The scarier the better. The popularity of vampire movies, for instance, makes sense to Christians. After all, life is in the blood (Leviticus 17:11). But some of the most spooky movies today don’t rely on gross out gore-fests or gotcha tactics that make you jump out of your seat. They don’t have to. Movies like The Ring and, to a lesser extent, The Grudge, get the job done with creepy nightmarish images.

Others terrify us with tales from real life, even if slightly exaggerated. The Exorcist, for instance, still lives on as a classic of the genre. Maybe the jaded audiences of today aren’t likely to faint and vomit in the aisles or run out the theaters for the nearest church as was reported when it first came out in 1973. But one of the reasons it remains so effective is because it is loosely based on a true story. Stuff like this happens in real life. And certainly, the scenes of demonic possession in the New Testament are horrifying (Matt 8:28-33; Mark 5:1-5; Luke 9:38-42).

Christians can make two mistakes: think about the devil too little and think about him too much. We should take the devil seriously, but not too seriously. There is only one Almighty. Satan is strong, but Jesus is stronger.

Why does the New Testament tell us about people who are demon possessed and have super-human strength and have convulsions and froth at the mouth? Not to revel in the occult, but to demonstrate the superiority of Jesus Christ. And some of the better horror movies, though perhaps not intentionally Christian, still leave the viewer with the idea that priests and crucifixes and churches counter the devil. What is the remedy for being demon-possessed? God. If they don’t get the answers 100% correct, at least they’re pointing in the right direction.

A lot of modern people tend to be too optimistic about human nature. Is man basically good or basically evil? Is a checkerboard a white field with black squares or a black field with white squares?

Let’s answer those questions with another question: What would you do if you believed you couldn’t be caught? How would you behave if there were no consequences for your actions? This is the theme considered in H.G. Wells’ novel, The Invisible Man. We read about a decent fellow who turns into a barbarian and steals, lies and murders to achieve his personal aims. Or maybe he was always the barbarian. Maybe he was always a thief, liar and murderer in his heart, but it was only when he became invisible and so could not be caught that he acted out on his deepest urges. Kevin Bacon’s movie, The Hollow Man is a modern day telling of that same story. In neither case is the ending very happy. It actually is a good thing that we don’t act out our fantasies. The fear of getting caught serves a good purpose. The Law is a curb. God’s commandments and our fear of being punished for breaking them keep us from going too far off course. William Golding’s novel, The Lord of the Flies, is another excellent example of what happens when all governing authority is removed.

The freaky black-and-white vampire flick The Addiction is explicitly Christian (and unbelievably gross). One vampire says, “We’re not evil because of the evil we do, but we do evil because we are evil.” And the film makes it veeeerrryyy clear that Christ’s body broken and blood shed are the only answer. This horror movie has more truth than many liberal Christians who think the world is essentially rosy.

Some of the most terrifying films are not those that have ghosts, demons, or weird Stephen King plot twists, but rather those that deal with the evil that men do. From Hell with Johnny Depp and Heather Graham is a fictionalized telling of the true crime story of Jack the Ripper. The famous 19th century serial murderer of London signed his letters to the police “from hell.” Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs and John Doe, the killer in Seven with Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow are, in some ways, scarier than vampires and haunted houses because the villains are mere men, not monsters. Every day, American soccer moms will slit their babies’ throats and social misfits will rape strangers in parking garages. Hollywood doesn’t have to make this stuff up. Just Google “Jeffrey Dahmer” sometime to see how depraved real human beings can become. The people least likely to believe that man is basically good are prison guards, FBI homicide investigators and LCMS pastors. Why? “There is no one who does good, not even one (Romans 3:12).”

Sometimes horror movies can serve a wholesome purpose by pointing out something that should be obvious. There is evil in the world. This has to be pointed out because our world is so perverted that it calls good evil and evil good. We’re at the point where many can’t even tell the difference between the two. Evil has to be exposed for what it is. “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them (Ephesians 5:11).”

In addition to treating sin and evil as being real, good horror movies question the meaning of death and eternal life. Ghosts. Zombies. Vampires. Laboratory monsters created from stolen corpses. There must be a way to overcome the grave. And there is. But science won’t do it. Neither will witchcraft or magic. Jesus said,"I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live (John 11:25).”

Of course, the typical guy or gal in the theater is not looking for religion. A lot of moviegoers go to horror flicks for the same reason some people like roller coasters. The exhilarating adrenaline rush induced by fear. It’s a charge.

Many, maybe most, horror movies at your local Cineplex are a waste of time. A lot of them do glorify sex and violence … or violent sex. And anything that glamorizes Satanism or the occult is dangerous. But when you are alone and the room is quiet, remember that Jesus Christ is the antidote to death. He is the unstoppable force bashing into that heretofore immovable wall.

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