Πέμπτη 2 Σεπτεμβρίου 2010

A Theology of Horror Movies

by Brian Godawa (Nicene Council)

When one thinks of horror movies, the usual images conjured up in the mind are of nubile co-eds being lured to isolated locations for the purpose of having sex and then being murdered and carved up in ever innovative and disgusting new ways by a grotesque chimera or phantasm. Likewise, for thriller movies, images that stalk the mind are of innocent men or women being hunted by maniacal serial murderers as a relentless feast of fear and gore for the audience.

But this was not always so. And though these clichés have become the norm for many Hollywood horror and thriller films, they are not the only ones out there. In fact, in today’s postmodern society so saturated with relative morality, I would propose that the horror and thriller genres have the potential for being two of the most effective means of exposing the absolute – and I do mean absolute – evil of moral relativism. And they do it in at least two ways: 1) they reinforce the doctrine of man’s sin nature, and 2) they expose the consequences of the denial of evil.

This Body of Death

Ancient superstition exploited man’s fear of his dark side through vampires, werewolves, and myriads of other half-man/half-monsters. These freaks of nature or supernature embodied the cultured, educated man by day, and the unbridled beast by night. They express the biblical truth that evildoers do not come to the light, lest their deeds be exposed, and true evil is done by otherwise “normal” people who suppress the truth about themselves in unrighteousness.

The moralistic Victorian era provided western culture with a rich and lasting heritage of metaphors for the depraved side of human nature that requires restraint and elimination. And those metaphors have been resurrected in modern films with equally moral vision. Dracula symbolized the struggle of the repressed dark side and its eternal hunger which is explored with modern fervor in Interview with the Vampire. Dr. Jekyll fought to suppress the increasing inhumanity of his depraved alter ego, Mr. Hyde, just like “Jack” has to defeat his destructive inner self, Tyler, in Fight Club. Victor Frankenstein’s scientific hubris leads to a vengeful monster in the same way that the entrepreneurial conceit of scientists without moral restraint leads to the take over of Jurassic Park by unpredictable dinosaurs, or the greedy technology R&D of Cyberdyne Systems leads to the assassinations of the Terminator. The corrupted conscience of H.G. Wells’ invisible man getting away with crime is revisited in the more recent Hollow Man.

It could be argued that the modern serial killer has become the naturalistic incarnation of the otherwise preternatural horror monster. In some ways, the serial killer genre is an improvement on fantasy-oriented horror stories because this kind of evil really happens. And they refute what many other movies assume; the belief that human nature is basically good. What is more biblical, a fun kid’s animated fantasy like Shrek, that reveals inherent goodness suppressed by socially deviant behavior, or a scary thriller, like Primal Fear, that unveils inherent evil concealed by socially acceptable behavior?

Unfortunately, many modern horror movies have drifted from this moral focus into immoral exploitation. They have degenerated into gruesome bloodbaths of murder and mayhem with a nihilistic vision of the will to power. Jason, Michael, Freddy, Chucky, Pinhead, Leatherface, and their many successors all hunt down their prey with voyeuristic effect on the audience and are never ultimately defeated. And in the supernatural versions, God is at best a dualistic force of equal power with the devil. One of the few moral elements in these otherwise prurient gorefests is the fact that fornication is contextually linked with the negative consequences of death (one of the rules of horror movies is that the kids who have sex will surely die).

A powerful horror film that should be on every Christian movie lover’s “go rent” list is The Addiction. This 1995 black and white vampire film was written by Nicholas St. John and directed by Abel Ferrara. It’s an “arthouse” independent film that captures the moral spirit of the horror genre at its best. It is the story of Kathleen, a philosophy student at NYU, who gets bit by a vampire and descends into the dark shadows of bloodlust. The spiritual angle of this macabre story is that vampirism in the film is an obvious metaphor for human depravity. But that’s not all. The vampires are distinguished by their self-awareness, unlike those they prey upon. Kathleen bites her new friend, who then asks her if she is going to get “sick.” Kathleen answers, “No. No worse than you were before.” She adds to another, “Sure, it’s easy to spot in people like me. The cancer has grown obvious. But you’re as terminal as I am. You’re as addicted [to sin] as I am.” The only difference between the living and the undead is that the vampires are aware of their corruption, while the living are self-deceived in thinking they are not. Pure Romans 1 through 3 with a vengeance.

The vampires expound on the metaphysics and ontology of evil as well as the philosophical inadequacy of man’s worldviews to account for or even condemn that evil. In the scene described above, Kathleen’s friend is shocked at being bitten. She anxiously blurts out, “How could you do this? Doesn’t it affect you? How can you do this to me?” To which Kathleen sardonically replies, “It was your decision. Your friend Feuerbach said that all men counting stars are equivalent in every way to God. My indifference is not the concern here. It’s your astonishment that needs study.” This reversal is an apologetic argument against unbelief, par excellence. If God is dead, as the modern secular mindset proposes, and man is his own deity, creating his own morality, then why is anyone surprised when people create their own morality that justifies feasting on the life blood of others? Without God, there is no such thing as “evil.” Later in the movie, a vampire even quotes R.C. Sproul when complaining about our original sin nature: “R.C. Sproul said we’re not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners. In more accessible terms, we’re not evil because of the evil we do, but we do evil because we are evil. Yeah. Now what choices do such people have? It’s not like we have any options.”

The Addiction is one of the most poignant artistic expressions of the epistemological self-consciousness that Christian apologist Cornelius Van Til wrote about. As the difference between sinner and saint expands, both become more aware of this antithesis, which results in an increase in social and historical hostility between the two camps. After Kathleen passes her graduate thesis examination, she and her epistemologically self-conscious vampires throw a party for her other college acquaintances. She shepherds them all into a room and announces with a taste of irony, “I’d like to share a little bit of what I’ve learned through these long hard years of study.” The vampires then proceed to feast upon their unsuspecting victims with a frenzy. It is the very godless philosophy taught in school that comes back to bite its teachers. Ideas do have consequences.

But the tale is not without redemption. After Kathleen gorges herself on the blood of others, she arrives at a point of total despair and finds God as the only salvation from her dark nature. She then stands by the grave of her “old self” and walks away in the light of freedom as we hear her voiceover, “To face what we are in the end. We stand before the light, and our true nature is revealed. Self revelation is annihilation of self.” When God resurrects the “living dead,” he kills the old sin nature and we become a new creation; A picture perfect expression of “dying to self.”

Modern culture has always considered the doctrine of Original Sin to be offensive. Many movies are more oriented toward promoting the inherent goodness of human nature as well as our ability to fix ourselves by getting in tune with that natural goodness. The scandal of some horror and thriller movies is that they can most effectively incarnate the sin nature of man and his constant unrighteous suppression of that truth beneath apparent normalcy in a way that makes it very difficult for postmoderns to ignore (Romans 1:17).

Consequences of Denial

Another way in which horror and thriller movies can communicate truth in today’s postmodern climate of relativism is in their simple but believable portrayal of real and undeniable evil. Showing the harmful results of a belief has been traditionally called via negativa, or the “way of the negative.” It is making an argument against a certain viewpoint by showing the negative conclusion to which it ultimately leads. This is likened to the biblical injunction to expose the “unfruitful deeds of darkness” by bringing to light such “shameful” things “done in secret” (Ephesians 5:11-13). In this case, the person who believes morality is relative and that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, simply has no moral or intellectual authority to argue against the soul-wrenching dramatic expressions of the most vile of human behaviors. Herein lies the moral force of displaying the worst of man’s inhumanity to man: When one watches the “gourmet” appetite of Hannibal the Cannibal in The Silence of the Lambs, or the murderous religious liturgies of John Doe in Seven, and Jack the Ripper in From Hell, no one can convincingly argue that such atrocities are not actually evil, but merely morally neutral behaviors that simply defy the social constructs of our culture. After all, if morality is truly relative, then one man’s serial killer is another man’s übermensch.

True, university professors and other fools trying to be consistent with their nihilistic philosophy will try to maintain such absurd consistency in order to accomplish their agendas of power, but their folly will be made known to all those whose hearts are not yet hardened, whose consciences are not yet seared. An example of this folly can be found in the movie, Seven. When John Doe, the killer played by Kevin Spacey in the movie, explains the moral rationale for his unspeakable crimes, he is, in one sense, philosophically correct! He tells the detectives: “I won't deny my own personal desire to turn each sin against the sinner. I only took their sins to logical conclusions.” When challenged by Detective Mills (played by Brad Pitt) that he killed innocent people, John Doe replies, “Innocent? Is that supposed to be funny? Look at the people I killed.” He rattles off the victims who embodied five of the seven deadly sins and concludes:

“Only in a world this sh**** could you even try to say these were innocent people and keep a straight face. That's the point. You see a deadly sin on almost every street corner, and in every home, literally. And we tolerate it. Because it's common, it seems trivial, and we tolerate, all day long, morning, noon and night.”

Even though the killer is wrong in claiming God’s authority behind his murders, he is unwittingly making what is called a presuppositional moral argument for the existence of God. That is, it illustrates the impossibility of the contrary to Christianity: Without God, there is no such thing as “evil.” When society negates the moral categories of evil defined as “sin” by God, then all sorts of evil will not only result in society, but there will be no moral authority to condemn such behaviors.[1]

Nature and Nurture

Another aspect of the consequences of denying the existence of absolute morality is the downright foolishness that can be made of the theories that attempt to reinterpret evil in terms of environmental, psychological or sociological determinism. In addition to the basic goodness of man, another fallacious category of truth we have inherited from the Enlightenment is the ultimate authority of human autonomous reason. This view claims that only that which aligns with the canons of human logic is true. The problems of this world result from human ignorance. If we can only make people more rational, then they would become less savage in their behavior. Education is salvation. Goodness is associated with intellectual development. Since man is assumed to be basically good, then actual wickedness and cruelty cannot be strictly evil, but essentially irrational. Thus the prevalent usage of “insanity” in our legal culture in reference to heinous crimes. People just cannot accept that anyone can be truly evil, so we shift the blame onto something else: biology, society, upbringing, anything but our nature. The biblical truth of the matter is that evil springs forth from both nature and nurture, but the dominant hegemony of theories tend against nature because of its all too familiar connection to the Christian notion of Original Sin.

So here is the problem: Serial killers like Ted Bundy and Jack the Ripper and their fictional counterparts like Hannibal Lecter and John Doe are so utterly rational and intelligent that their very presence defies the notion of insanity as itself insane.[2] Legally, insanity means the inability to know the difference between right and wrong. But the most obvious option never enters the minds of most Enlightenment-influenced modern thinkers: That people do know the difference between right and wrong whenever they engage in evil; the problem is, they simply don’t care. What many psychologists call sociopathic behavior is really the norm for the evil that men do, rather than the exception. Sinners know right from wrong, but they choose wrong anyway (Romans 1:18-21).

Modern society is utterly confounded by the extremes of evil done by some intelligent, cultured, even well-adjusted, members of society. This confusion is expressed with poignancy in the Jack the Ripper movie, From Hell. An investigating criminologist played by Johnny Depp, explains to an inspector that Jack the Ripper was probably an educated man with medical knowledge. The inspector replies with shocked incredulity that no rational or educated man could possibly engage in such barbaric behavior. His Enlightenment assumptions blind him to the fact that education does not make men good, but it can make men more efficient in their evil.[3]

Author Thomas Harris reveals this inadequacy of humanistic science and psychology through Hannibal Lecter, when Lecter explains to Special Agent Clarice Starling, “You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviorism, Officer Starling. You’ve got everybody in moral dignity pants—nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I’m evil?”[4]


Horror and thriller movies are two powerful means of arguing against the moral relativism of our postmodern society. Not only do they tend to reinforce the doctrine of the basic evil nature in humanity, but they can personify profound arguments of the kind of destructive evil that results when society denies absolute morality. Of course, this is not to suggest that all horror movies are morally acceptable. In fact, I would argue that many of them have degenerated into immoral exaltation of sex, violence and death.[5] And it would be vain to try to justify the unhealthy obsession that some people have with the dark side, especially in their movie viewing. Too much focus on the bad news will dilute the power that the Good News has on an individual. Too much fascination with the nature and effects of sin can impede one’s growth in salvation. So, the defense of horror and thriller movies in principle should not be misconstrued to be a justification for all horror and thriller movies in practice. It is the mature Christian who, because of practice, has his senses trained to discern good and evil in a fallen world. It is the mature Christian who, like the Apostle Paul, can expose himself to his culture and draw out the good from the bad in order to interact redemptively with that culture (Acts 17).

Brian Godawa is the screenwriter for the award-winning feature film, To End All Wars. Most recently, he adapted to film the best-selling novel The Visitation by author Frank Peretti for Ralph Winter (X-Men, Fantastic Four). Mr. Godawa’s articles on movies and philosophy have been published around the world. He has traveled around the United States teaching on movies and culture to colleges, churches and community groups. His book, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (InterVarsity Press) is in its seventh printing. Mr. Godawa is a member of the Studio Task Force at Biola University; a founding member of Arts & Entertainment Ministries, LA; the Senior Fellow of Film for the Center for Cultural Leadership, CA; and on the advisory board of The Apologetics Group, Nashville, TN. His website, www.godawa.com, contains more of his cinematic, theological and philosophical musings.


1. It would have been even more biblical had the writer used the Ten Commandments rather than the medieval categories of “seven deadly sins.”

2. The fictional characters are just as exemplary as the non-fictional because they often reflect the very kinds of killers that actually do exist in our world.

3. Unfortunately, the movie adds the hint of a supernatural element to the Ripper’s character, which is also a shift of blame and therefore responsibility away from basic human nature.

4. Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), p. 19. Unfortunately, this profound little piece of dialogue did not make it to the movie.

5. A good example of this exploitation is the heroic status that has been given to Hannibal Lecter. So much so, that the sequel, Hannibal, was written with the villain as hero, indeed as a Christ figure.

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Δυστυχώς όχι.
Βασικά, μετά από μια γενική παρουσίαση της κουλτούρας τρόμου, το κείμενο μιλάει για τη σκοτεινή πλευρά της ανθρώπινης φύσης (κατ' εμάς, συνέπεια της αρχικής πτώσης), όπως τονίζεται στα θρίλερς.
Στα θρίλερς επίσης, αν και τονίζεται το κακό, δεν δίνεται η λύση για τη διαφυγή απ' αυτό - και εδώ είναι που μπαίνει στη συζήτηση, αν ποτέ γίνει στα σοβαρά, η ορθόδοξη θεραπευτική παράδοση...