Arts & Faith on horror

February 18, 2011

In a post introducing Arts & Faith's list of the top 25 horror films of all time, Jeffrey Overstreet rightly observes that not all horror is created equal:

Many horror movies are lurid and gratuitous--even pornographic. They appeal to our baser appetites.... But horror movies can do more than just frighten us. They can ask us to move beyond terror into contemplation, where fear of separation from God becomes the beginning of wisdom.

I'm not a fan of horror films of any kind, but Overstreet's reluctance to condemn a whole genre is right on. Horror aside, I try to avoid violent movies--but I weigh this concern against how good I expect a film to be. As Martin Sheen (an outspoken pacifist who's starred in some very good violent movies) puts it in The West Wing, the problem isn't that some movies are too violent, "it's that they suck. They're terrible." I think a lot of better, more challenging films could be just as effective with a bit less explicit violence, but I take Overstreet's point: "explicit" and "gratuitous" aren't synonyms.

This argument of Overstreet's, however, is troubling. In response to the question "shouldn't good Christians avoid depictions of such violence and depravity?" he offers this:

Think about it. What is the central image of Christian faith?

The cross. The blameless Son of God--a truly perfect organism--was nailed to that wooden plank and raised up, naked and bleeding, for the amusement of his scornful community.

What could be more horrific?

We cringe at the thought of our capacity for evil. And that discomfort is useful. It's a distress call. We're compelled to seek a cure for our disease, to seek the reconciliation of a dismembered world.

Hmm. The idea that Christianity's central image is a gruesome crucifixion scene--and that this has positive effects--isn't exactly a consensus position. Margaret Miles argues in the Century that the faith's original symbol wasn't a cross at all. Sarah Sentilles connects the common emphasis on the crucifixion's bloody details with support for torture (though I don't buy how she applies this to poll data). And that's just recently: tension between gory crucifixes and more cerebral depictions--to say nothing of different atonement theologies--has of course existed for centuries.

In any case, if you enjoy a good horror film, this list may be useful. As for me, I'm looking forward to future such lists from Arts & Faith--their top 100 films list is fantastic, and now they're planning a whole series of genre-specific lists.


Let's have a "good horror movie" marathon

First off, I don't think I'd ever even heard of Arts & Faith, so thanks for that introduction. I take issue with some of that list, but the fact that it exists is pretty great.

Second, interesting that they (and you) automatically equate "horror" with violence. Some of my favorite horror movies don't inlclude much violence at all - indeed, what's often scariest is what's left to the imagination, rather than shown.

You're not a fan of Kubrick, Hitchcock, David Lynch, or even "Jaws"?

I didn't mean to equate them

I didn't mean to equate them so much as to speak analogously: I don't really like horror films of any kind, but I can relate to Overstreet's point if I apply it to violent films INSTEAD. That said, there's obviously a lot of overlap there--I think it's fair to talk about them side by side, though I could have been clearer about what I did and didn't mean by doing this.

For what it's worth, I like Kubrick but not so much The Shining and Hitchcock but not really The Birds or Psycho. I like Lynch when his bizarreness is geared more toward funny and less toward terrifying...

Looking at the list of

Looking at the list of movies, I don't think it's fair to say that the voters "automatically" equate horror with violence. Many of those movies aren't violent at all.

From Gory to Glory

Thanks for the post. Horror is undeniably a part of the human experience. It ranges from children's bad dreams to the horrors of war to the terrifying glory of the cross. Its use in "art" ranges from rank and tasteless to instructive and inspiring. Teaching children how to deal with bad dreams helps them grow up. Teaching people about war helps them appreciate the need for peace, and the sacrifices that have been made to achieve it. Teaching people about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus--now that's moving from gory to glory. As for the cross as a symbol of Christianity, Christ himself used it in his own teachings and exhortations. References to the cross are made frequently by the New Testament writers. It was not "the secret sign" of the earliest church, but it was a central theme before, during, and after the Lord conquered death.

I am no fan of horror films, but I cannot deny that horror is a part of our experience. Praise the Lord, though, all of the fruits of the Spirit can be part of our experience, too. While I will deal with the bad when I encounter it, I will choose to dwell on what is good. May our expressions of faith in art do so, too.

A Podcast Exploring Horror and Christianity

It's been interesting reading your comments on Horror and Christianity. If you would like to explore more about the subject, I host an internet podcast which reviews horror films from a Christian perspective.

I'm a Baptist Minister from England who did my Masters Thesis in the subject. Also, if you're interested, I wrote an article on Horror and Faith for the British Magazine "The Fortean Times" a few months ago. Its available online here:

Great to see you talking about an interesting and neglected subject.


Peter Laws