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Is Horror Biblical?

Now that we’re in October and nearing Halloween, a familiar question resurfaces – should Christians be involved in the horror genre?  Is Horror God-glorifying?

The answer, as it so often is in genre questions, is nuanced.  The genre is certainly fascinated with evil, and the stories it creates can be indulgent and nihilistic as a result.  But by the same token, such stories can engage with evil intentionally, and sometimes include redemptive things.  Many lie somewhere in between, making discernment a critical skill.

But in analyzing the genre, I find it helpful to go back to Scripture itself.  I say this not because I want to appeal to blanket “run from evil” statements.  These verses are often taken out of context, and overlook the fact that the Bible itself includes graphic depictions of evil for intentional purposes.  Rather, I look to Scripture because it gives us examples of intentional horror.  This shouldn’t be surprising – scripture includes a wide variety of genres, from narrative history to wisdom poetry to apocalyptic metaphor.  And yes, even some elements that are parallel to horror.

That’s not to say you’ll find a slasher script in Ezekiel.  But you may find some things that surprise you.

The Bible Uses Horror

Once we get out of the mindset that horror is only slasher and haunting flicks, the horror elements of the Bible become self-evident. Take, for instance, this passage from Joel 2:30-31, and imagine what it would look like in a film adaptation:

“I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.”

Images like this are not uncommon in the prophets.  Isaiah pictures God trampling the enemies of Israel and their blood as though trampling them in a winepress.  While not horror in the sense of being fear-inducing, scripture may have influenced the creation of zombies when God raises an entire army from dead bones in Ezekiel 37 (it was, however, a message of hope for the Israelite remnant).  Revelation, a book that is seeped in the same apocalyptic elements as Ezekiel, routinely uses fear.  Instances of this abound, but consider for example this passage from Revelation 6:12-14:

“When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale.  The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.”

The horror genre in modern terms is more than just Paranormal Activity.  It also includes thrillers like 10 Cloverfield Lane, or even science fiction films like Alien.  When taken to viewing horror more broadly as using fear as the primary force in a work of art, Scripture is full of it.

The Bible Uses Horror Intentionally

But we must examine not only *that* Scripture uses horror, but *how* it uses it.  Scripture is not interested in fear for fear’s sake.  Instead, these passages, and others that would shock modern religious sensibilities, have a point behind the metaphor.  Frequently, the purpose is to inspire repentance.  This was the case in many of the prophets, when visions of God’s judgment included statements such as “the great and terrible day of the Lord.”  I should note that one difference between the examples cited above and most modern films is the source of the horror – in Scripture, the horror elements are usually coming from God’s justice.  In the latter, the horror elements often come from a source of evil.

But with that difference in technique noted, that the elements have purpose is important.  In some way, the use of fear is meant to drive us to greater righteousness.  While it is certainly true that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), John is writing this passage in the context of having confidence in our salvation at the time of judgment.  But for those not in a right relationship with God, the fear of judgment is an appropriate motivator.

Does this mean that horror elements can only be used in a sort of “discouraging from evil” template?  Not necessarily.  The point here is that Scripture is intentional in its use of fear, but there are multiple ways that art can use the same techniques for God-glorifying ends.  Some of those ends could be, for example, to “expose the deeds of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11), to examine responses to grief (The Babadook), or to use demon possession to model Christian suffering (The Exorcism of Emily Rose).

The Bible Uses Horror Contextually

None of this is to say that bloodfests are inherently righteous, or that the content that is frequently in horror movies is no cause for concern.  We must take these passages in their context and consider how they were being used.  Unfortunately, the mere presence of these elements is sometimes taken as justification for them in all contexts, which is not a good reading of scripture.  To approach horror responsibly we cannot write it entirely off because of its genre, but neither can we be loose with our application of scripture.  The Christian should consider not just whether horror elements are in the piece of art in question, but how those elements are being used, and to what ultimate end the artist is using them.  The same horror film technique may be used in one instance to cause thrills at the sight of death, and in another create a moral critique.  These kinds of differences are the things Christians who engage in art should make themselves familiar with, in an effort to continue engaging our culture.

Logan Judy
Logan Judy is a Christian blogger and science fiction author with a Batman complex. At Cross Culture, Logan writes about film, comics, cultural analysis, and whatever else strikes his fancy. In addition to his work at Cross Culture, Logan also blogs and podcasts at A Clear Lens. You can find him tweeting about Batman, apologetics, and why llamas will one day rule the world, @loganrjudy.
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