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An Argument for the Theo-logic of Horror

I rarely enjoy looking back at something I wrote several years ago. I’d compare it to hearing my voice on a video recording, which, if you’re like me, is a semi-grotesque experience that makes you wonder, “Do I really sound like that to people?”

I recently had the “did I really sound like that?” experience when I revisited some blog posts I wrote four or five years ago—back when I had taken the advice for folks with academic aspirations that solo blogging is a good way to “get your name out there.” My blogging fun came to a halt once I began doctoral work and realized how demanding it was, coupled with my realizing how much work regular blogging is if you truly do it in a way that “gets your name out there.”

But I digress.

On revisiting the old posts, one of the things that made me cringe/chuckle is the fact that out of the nine posts I wrote, three of them revolved around themes of theology and horror. Seems kinda over the top? And within those posts, I often worded things in a way that I would now advise someone against. (What kind of snob says things like, “Really? Is your spiritual imagination that myopic?”)

Proper amounts of self-loathing aside, however, sometimes looking back at old writing can also be an exercise in finding grace for yourself, by recognizing some decent work that you once did and have since forgotten that you had the capacity to do back then. The fact is, there are some points I made in those posts about theology and horror that I believe are still worth thinking about. And what better time of year to dust them off than just before Halloween, when our collective fascination with the macabre is so evident?

What made me revisit those old blog posts in the first place is a conversation I caught on the radio the other day about why people enjoy scary movies. The talk show hosts’ consensus was something like, “Horror films give the audience a satisfying sense of control because they aren’t the ones in danger.” Now, there is probably something to that theory, but I think that there are other layers to our long-standing interest in horror stories—layers that have to do with our deep-seated need to confront the reality of evil that darkens our lives.

With that in mind, below I will copy (with slight amendments) some of the material from one of those old blog posts that I think is worth repeating on the topic of horror’s theological implications. I will do so in four points for the sake of keeping things straightforward, and as a fifth point, I will copy the “horror film analysis” that I had invited my film buff brother to contribute to my blog. It’s good stuff, and just might motivate you to watch one of the horror movies he recommends from a renewed, theological point of view.

1. It is naïve for people automatically to assume that because something is scary or horrific, it has nothing to do with God.

Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky doesn’t make this assumption. He talks about Moses’ assent of Mount Sinai as an analogy for the disarming experience of encountering God: first, Moses meets God in the burning bush, at which point he encountered God as light. Later, when he climbs Mount Sinai, Moses “enters the darkness, leaving behind him all that can be seen or known; there remains to him only the invisible and unknowable, but in this darkness is God. For God makes His dwelling there where our understanding and our concepts can gain no admittance.”[1]

God is cloaked in darkness. This means that God dwells in places where our words and concepts fail us…which is, indeed, frightening. As one of my favorite Harding Bible professors John Fortner is known to say, “God will eat your face off.” Not a particularly comforting image.

2. In this darkness is God.” Does this mean that God is in all darkness? In a sense, yes. It is nonsensical to affirm that God is the creator and sustainer of all, and yet is somehow absent in the horrific aspects of existence.

But of course, this affirmation brings up all of the disturbing questions that we confront when we affirm God’s omnipotence but also face the why of the Holocaust, genocide, natural disasters, despair, cancer…all of it. There are a lot of solid theological and philosophical resources out there for wrestling logically with how it could be that evil exists and that God is both omnipotent and good.[2] However, biblical wisdom dictates that it’s generally best for us to maintain silence when we sit with those who are on the brink of the gulfs of suffering. “Mourn with those who mourn” is what Christ recommends.

In our speechlessness in the face of such darkness, we can remember a key part of the cosmic Christian story—that God is not indifferent to our suffering but rather enters into it as pointedly as the Word who becomes flesh and is eventually crucified. This knowledge doesn’t divinize suffering or make it easier; the point here is not to present an answer to the question of “why does a good God allow evil to occur?” Any human answer to that question is going to remain unsatisfactory. It’s just a way of affirming that in this sort of darkness is God too.

3. However, there is another sense in which we will not find God in darkness—namely, in the darkness of evil. Evil is unique; it is what some theologians have called “the nihil,” nothingness: the absence of anything life-giving or purposeful. It is made real by forces that work towards destruction, emptiness, nothingness. There is no saving the nihil; there is only redeeming us from it.

So, if we’re going to attend to God, we need to figure out where and how God dwells in darkness. This means that we have to learn how to identify evil too, especially as it works in and around us, to figure out what leads us away from God.

4. There are a lot of angles we could take on the topic, but I want to look at a theological resource that goes largely untapped in our discussions: the art form of the horror film.  Admittedly, it’s hard to dig up a good horror movie. I think the abundance of bad horror films has something to do with the fact that humans are so uncomfortable with facing and presenting the nihil in its true subtlety, although we’re haunted by its presence, so we fantasticize it in a multitude of ways. Looking at evil for what it really is and how it actually invades our lives is uncomfortable, frightening, yet worthwhile work. And that’s what I think good horror movies accomplish.

5. For the following piece of this post, I asked my amateur-film-critic brother Luke to write up an analysis of three of his favorite horror films, attending to how they present evil as it subtly infects us. If you can handle it, Luke may convince you that one of these prophetic films is worth your watch this weekend.

Alien (Evil is empty)

Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien attains a rare cinematic achievement in that it is considered a standard in not one, but two different genres: hailed as a science fiction masterpiece, Alien is also considered a highly innovative horror film due to its framing within the expanse of outer space. The film cleverly blends many age-old science fiction motifs with the tension and brooding atmosphere of a classic monster horror film.

While at first glance the obvious villain is the rarely glimpsed alien, the coldly objective programming of robots and the indifferent mentality of the ship’s mainframe persona play equally important roles in the demise of the crew. Technology, an age-old antagonist, maintains an overbearing presence in the film, accentuated by the heavy use of metal-laden imagery. Even the story of the film centers around a generation symbolically birthed and nourished by technology. The crew is dependent upon the proper functioning of the their ship, dubbed the Nostromo, for their very survival while traveling through space. They aptly refer to the Nostromo’s mainframe personality as “Mother,” further symbolizing their reliance on the machines around them.

Ironically, it is “Mother” and the Nostromo, the very technology that the crew depends upon for survival, that are ultimately responsible for the introduction of the monster aboard the ship and the subsequent demise of the crew. The film’s protagonist, Ellen Ripley (portrayed by Sigourney Weaver), is beset on all sides by nefarious mechanical plots, ranging from “Mother’s” dispassionate betrayal to the revelation of a robot secretly posing as a human. Even the iconic alien closely resembles an elaborate conglomeration of sleek metal bulkheads, dark cords, and gracefully curved rods.

The primary attribute of evil remarked upon by Alien is that of emptiness. This emptiness is not only portrayed by the overabundance of and eventual betrayal by technology in the film, but is also visualized by the empty void of space within which the film is set. Space is here the definition of emptiness: uninhabitable, cold, and lifeless. The character of technology also serves as an effective allegory for evil; there are no moral considerations to be had, no conscience to be pricked, no logic to appeal to within machines.

One character Ash’s affectionate admiration for the alien creature is a concise commentary on the empty nature of evil at play in the film:

Ripley: How do we kill it?

Ash: You can’t. You still don’t know what you’re dealing with, do you? A perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Evil is chaos)

It is unfortunate that when the title The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is mentioned these days, most people assume that the film being referenced is the blood-soaked, garish 2003 remake starring Jessica Biel. This seems especially regrettable due to the fact that Tobe Hooper’s original 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not merely a classic, trend-setting horror film, but is, more importantly, a groundbreaking mastery of cinema with an intensity rarely achieved by any other film.

If there has ever been an instance in which the use of the clichéd critique of “gut-wrenching” is warranted, it is in reference to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. What makes this film so unbearably intense? There are a number of factors contributing to its masterfully agonizing quality, ranging from exceptional performances by Marilyn Burns, as the prototypical lone virginal survivor, and Gunnar Hansen as the crazed Leatherface, to the minimalistic home-video style of the film itself, conveying a certain nightmarish quality stemming from primitive violence and a deluge of nerve-wracking chaos.

However, the true brilliance of this film (and any other truly great horror film) lies not in what is seen, but rather what is implied. While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is initially perceived as extremely violent, there is actually very little gore and only a minimal amount of blood underscoring the violence. Unlike its modern counterpart, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre uses this “dry violence” to further enhance the terror felt by its viewers, allowing their imagination to paint the gruesome effects of such carnage.

The aspect of evil at play in this film is that of chaos, or rather the absence of order. If hell is equated to the absence of God, it follows that such a godless dimension would be one of pure chaos, devoid of any semblance of reason or order. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre deftly captures such a dimension, never offering an explanation for any of the calamities that befall the characters, which is why I question any viewer who can deny experiencing even the slightest pang of primeval horror on watching this film. Even Leatherface himself is almost pitiable, grunting and squealing aloud as he hysterically searches his dilapidated house for another unannounced visitor. This leaves viewers wondering if there is any rhyme or reason to Leatherface’s actions, or if he perhaps is no more than a frenzied maniac, whose actions are as senseless as his thoughts. Therein evil is personified: it is senseless, chaotic, and relentless.

Rosemary’s Baby (Evil is insidious)

While Polish director Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning horror film Rosemary’s Baby is an eerily convincing tale of the idyllic American Dream turned macabre nightmare, perhaps more disturbing was the misdirected and brutal murder of Polanski’s pregnant wife and unborn child by members of the Manson Family the following year in 1969. This gruesome event bolstered the notion set forth in Rosemary’s Baby that the evil inherent within the world is indiscriminate and may come calling, regardless of its subject’s innocence. Much of the horror of Rosemary’s Baby is implied and is rarely direct, as is true in life.

The film paints a disturbing portrait of the paranoia and dread experienced by a young pregnant woman, Rosemary Wodehouse (portrayed by Mia Farrow), who fears that her unborn child may be the coveted object of a plot contrived by her cultic neighbors. Although Rosemary’s Baby deals with the subjects of witchcraft, curses, and satanic cults, the film is remarkably subtle in its handling of these classically sensationalized topics: there are no green pea-soup fountains spewed, scatological demon-children to be restrained, or murderous nannies to be seen. Rather, there is only an overwhelming sense of dread that slowly takes root.

The gnawing sense of paranoia is achieved by an assault of the sensations, ranging from the unsettling sounds of shattering glass in an underground laundry room and the pungent odor of tannis root, to a chalky undertaste of the chocolate mousse supplied by the intrusive neighbors, to Rosemary’s excruciating cramps that are almost nauseating to witness. Furthermore, the aftermath of evil is relayed by the discovery of an empty closet barricaded by a large dresser for no apparent purpose, or by a brief glimpse of a message scrawled onto a shred of paper stating, “I can no longer associate myself…”

The evil shown in the film is smothering, enveloping all aspects of Rosemary’s life, reaching from her seemingly frail and overly friendly neighbors, to her highly acclaimed obstetrician, and even so far as her husband with his proverbial soul-swapping deal with the devil. However, the real irony is that while Rosemary is concerned with the wickedness surrounding her, the greatest evil of all is slowly growing inside of her. Rosemary’s Baby portrays evil for what it is: pervasive, indiscriminate, and insidious.

It is for this reason that the scene where Rosemary catches a glimpse of herself instinctively devouring a raw piece of liver resonates so effectively with the viewers: when Rosemary witnesses the ghastly transformation she has undergone, she is revolted, much as we are when we perceive the horrific consequences of the sin we harbor within. Rosemary’s condition serves as a relevant allegory for the pervasive, indiscriminate, and insidious evil that we humans nurture: we rarely comprehend the toll that evil has taken on and in us until we are confronted with the horrific transformation we have undergone.

1. Vladimir Lossky, Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976) 35.

2. See for instance Herbert McCabe’s essay “On Evil and Omnipotence” in Faith Within Reason (London: Continuum Books, 2007) 67-93.

Lauren Smelser White is a Ph.D. student in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University. Her doctoral work in Christian theology focuses on human participation in the trinitarian event of revelation. Lauren is a fellow in the Program for Theology and Practice, which seeks to form scholars who connect their academic work to the practice of ministry and will be outstanding teachers of people preparing for ministry.

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