What good are horror films?

Andy Rau

Relevant Magazine has an interesting essay asking whether the horror genre can be used to explore serious spiritual themes. The article focuses on Scott Derrickson, the horror filmmaker and Christian who directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose and who is working on a remake of Hitchcock's The Birds. (You may recall that Emily Rose received some attention in Christian circles for its serious engagement of the topic of spiritual warfare.)

The piece spends a lot of time talking about Derrickson's seemingly strange decision to direct Hellraiser: Inferno back in 2000. Inferno is the fifth installment in the exceptionally violent, extremely disturbing B-horror Hellraiser series—not the place you'd usually turn to for spiritual insight. But despite the series' ultra-violent, lowbrow legacy, Derrickson tried to shape a spiritually insightful tale out of very unlikely elements. His inspiration was CS Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, which he saw as an example of how dark story elements lend themselves well to serious spiritual musing:

When Derrickson mentioned he had found inspiration in The Screwtape Letters when working on the movie, it seemed like strange company for Hellraiser: Inferno, and yet somehow exactly right.

"I love the horror genre for how cinematic it is," Derrickson says. "I gravitated, I think initially, toward the horror genre because, of all the genres, I think it is the genre that is most friendly to the subject matter of faith and belief in religion. The more frightening and sort of dark and oppressive a movie is, the more free you are to explore the supernatural and explore faith. The two just somehow go hand-in-hand really nicely. I became very interested in it for that reason, and The Screwtape Letters was the beacon."

Bizarre as it may seem, I'll definitely vouch for Inferno's earnest spiritual explorations. I normally dislike super-violent horror films, but I took a chance and rented it after reading a review at Hollywood Jesus that pointed out the film's unexpectedly serious moral message. It was violent and disturbing, but I agree with reviewer Chris Hudak, who lamented that Inferno was

...too hard-core and powerful for the audience that would, in the safe light of day, argue many of its uncomfortable points about obsession, morality, 'goodness,' and—let's just say it, shall we?—damnation. With a few key cuts (one or two 'red' scenes, and some general profanity), Inferno would be an ideal, high-caliber, weapons-grade substitute to most of those milquetoast Rapture-scare films many churchgoers saw in the basement of their local parish on Thursday night; sometimes, the best way to put the desire for Heaven into someone truly is to simply scare the Hell out of them.

I'm not suggesting that you should go watch Inferno or Derrickson's other horror films without knowing what you're getting into. But what do you think of his strategy of using the horror genre—and specifically, the often gruesome B-horror genre—as a way to speak spiritual truth? Are fear, violence, and other aspects of the genre too dark to be used in this manner, no matter how lofty the intended message? Or is this an example of somebody turning the tables on evil by putting these elements to noble purpose?

And here's a bonus question: while you're thinking about it, consider how evangelicals' own historical use of fear and horror, in the form of scary gospel tracts, rapture movies, sermons about sin and judgment, etc., fits into this issue.

(Also of note on this topic: an essay at Breakpoint about spiritual lessons in classic monster movies.)

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Art