This post has been adapted from the introduction to Fear Not! A Christian Appreciation of Horror Movies.
“Why would you want to watch that?”
Any fan of horror films has likely been asked this at some point in their life. It’s a fair question. The horror genre provokes anxieties, gravitates toward grisliness, and frequently exploits sex and violence. Why would you watch something that makes you wince?
Often when I’m asked this, the person making the query brings up Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Not exactly the qualities that come to mind while zombies are munching on flesh in Night of the Living Dead or Leatherface is swinging power tools around in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
It’s helpful to keep in mind, however, that Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi was not intended to chide or correct, like other missives sent by the apostle to churches in crisis. Rather, the Philippians were a source of inspiration for Paul. While in political custody, he wrote to them to thank them for their “partnership in the gospel” and to assuage their own fears about his fate as a prisoner. And so his citation of the qualities in Philippians 4:8 is not meant to chastise his audience because they had been pursuing other, “unholy” things, but to encourage them to overcome the fear they held by seeking such qualities.
Horror films encompass both the fear and the admiration. Not only do these movies honestly acknowledge that which terrifies us, but the most redemptive of them do so with an artistry that is true, noble, and admirable. Some of them even take us to the other side of our fears, to a lovely place of grace.
If Paul urged the church in Philippi not to be anxious—to fear not!—he did so with a clear understanding of the realities of his imprisonment and the horror that faced him. Such honesty about the terrors of this life is found throughout the Bible. Murder slashes into God’s grand narrative as soon as the fourth chapter of Genesis, when Cain tricks and then kills his brother, Abel. Then there is the zombie army raised by Ezekiel at God’s command in Ezekiel 37:1–10: “And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them . . . ” Call it reverse body horror.
Throughout Scripture, demons sneak onto the scene, perhaps most terrifying in Jesus’ encounter with the man possessed by Legion—so named because “we are many.” Like little Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, whose tiny body becomes a sadistic tool in the claws of her demonic possessor, it’s the pitiable state of the possessed man that has always shaken me. “Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones,” we’re told in Mark 5:5.
These Bible stories have varied purposes, but they share at least one thing in common: they evoke and consider fear. Fear of vengeance and violence. Fear of our mortal flesh. Fear of our faulty minds. Fear of a spiritual realm we cannot fully comprehend. No one really wants to “think about such things,” to reference Philippians 4:8 again, but we live them. And one of the reasons the Bible remains a vital document, thousands of years on, is because it encompasses the entirety of our human experience, both the lovely moments and the ghastly ones.
Why would you watch something that makes you wince?
The world, after all, is a frightening place, in ways big and small, existential and intimate. Christianity speaks specifically to our fears. Scott Derrickson, a Christian and a filmmaker whose credits as director include both the horror hit The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the Marvel Cinematic Universe installment Doctor Strange, has described horror as “the genre of non-denial.” Speaking to critic Steven D. Greydanus at the National Catholic Register, Derrickson added, “I think we need cinema to break that apart and remind us that we’re not in control, and we don’t understand as much as we think we do.”
All fearfulness stems from a common, theological root: a deep uneasiness over our separation from God and the broken world that is the result. Christ experienced that separation first hand at Calvary, an event so horrific it is chronicled in Matthew 27 alongside darkening skies, splitting rocks, and the dead emerging from their tombs. And yet, after enduring such abandonment on our behalf, Christ rose to demonstrate that horror will not have the final say. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached in a 1933 sermon entitled “Overcoming Fear,” “We name the one who overcame fear and led it captive in the victory procession, who nailed it to the cross and committed it to oblivion; we name the One who is the shout of victory of humankind redeemed from the fear of death—Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Living One.”
Yes, but such words may not offer comfort when we’re truly, deeply scared—when we can’t catch our breath. When was the last time you were terrified like that?
I’ve led a fairly protected life, so the most frightened I’ve ever been has been over something fairly silly. I’m guessing I was in middle school, maybe younger, at a family-reunion vacation at a Michigan lake, where a vast stretch of sand dunes sat across the water from the cozy cottages. A cousin and I decided to pitch a tent on the dunes one night, at the top of a sandy hill. Late into the evening—the moon full enough to transform a dozen wolf men—we heard low voices and odd growls surrounding the tent, inching ever closer. Then the attack came, flipping the tent, sending it rolling down the sandy hill, where we lay in a quaking, discombobulated pile until the early morning, too terrified to try and dig our way out. We discovered the culprits the next day: a prankish aunt and a cadre of cackling older cousins. What I mostly remember, balled up there in that tent, was the feeling of surrender. I was helpless in a visceral way I had not felt before or since.
This is where horror takes us: to that place of surrender, where what some consider to be the platitudes of Christianese suddenly have real power, because we have no other choice. In horror, there is humility. And in our humility, the Good News of the gospel offers true comfort, because it arrives from completely outside of ourselves, despite ourselves. As my pastor, Roger Nelson, wrote in a 2022 sermon on Isaiah 43: “God doesn’t promise that we’ll be protected from those things that rightly scare us. We’ll still be overwhelmed by the waters, singed by the fire, and struggle on the journey. Being created and redeemed by God doesn’t spare us from dying of cancer, getting hit by a car, or struggling with depression. But the word of God through Isaiah is that we don’t face those realities alone. . . . At birth, death, and resurrection, you belong to God. At birth, death, and resurrection, don’t be afraid.”