Sense of Wonder: More Bashing Christian Horror

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)Over at the Groovy Age of Horror, Curt Purcell responds to my post “Bashing Christian Horror,” which was in itself a reponse to an earlier post of his. Purcell accuses me of not having carefully read what he wrote “because most of [Biodrowski's] ‘objections’ are addressed in the post itself or at least in the comments.”

I find the use of the quotation marks around the word objections odd, since it seems to imply that my points were not really objections (then what were they?) I assume Purcell really means they were not valid – even though he admits he wrote the piece “off-the-cuff” and that some of these points needed to be clarified in the comments section. In fact, I did read Purcell’s post carefully, but that was weeks ago, and I don’t think all the comments he refers to had been posted at that time.

In any case, Purcell’s response tends to validate my points, although it is written in a way as to obscure this. Essentially, this is what logicians call a “verbal disagreement,” in which the different parties are arguing not so much over substance as over terminology. Purcell argues that “Christian Horror” is more or less an oxymoron; I disagree. But that’s because his definition of “Christian Horror” and mine are different. Purcell writes:

I kind of thought that’s what we were talking about–horror that could be shelved in the “Inspirational Fiction” section of Barnes & Noble, or sold in Family Bookstores, or reviewed in Christianity Today, or consumed by people with iPods full of Christian rock (or whatever genre of Christian music they listen to). Because when you’re talking about “Christian _____,” that’s the market you’re talking about. Because who else ever demands a specifically Christian version of whatever? I’d guess most “mainline” (i.e. non-evangelical Protestant) Christians don’t particularly care if their entertainment caters to their religious worldview, so long as it doesn’t blatantly offend their sensibilities. No, it’s evangelicals who are so determined to filter the whole of their experience through their faith that they support entire industries devoted to supplying them with the Christian version of everything.

Purcell may be right, but I prefer not to define “Christian Horror” in such narrow terms. Purcell needs the limited definition to prop up his argument, but it seems like a strawman that he sets up because it is easy to knock down. And, strictly speaking, Purcell was not writing only about “horror that could be shelved in the “Inspirational Fiction” section of Barnes & Noble, or sold in Family Bookstores, or reviewed in Christianity Today, or consumed by people with iPods full of Christian rock…” In his original post, he disapprovingly quotes critical analysis of two HELLRAISER films and poses this rhetorical question regarding HELLRAISER: BLOODLINE:

Funny, that–the “poorest” film of a franchise is the one that best exemplifies “the quintessence of the relationship between cinema horror and religion.” Coincidence?

This pushes the subject beyond the limits of a theoretical form of “Christian Horror” that would be marketed only to evangelicals; it suggests some kind of causal link between religion and low quality in a mainstream horror franchise, as if the law of diminishing returns (coupled with budgetary limitations, an inexperienced director, and a worn-out premise) had nothing to do with the poor quality of the fourth HELLRAISER film. Under the circumstances, I feel justified in having pointed out some counter-examples that were not specifically evangelical.

CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF: Dont let that baptismal fount fool you into thinking this horror is Christian.

CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF: Don't let that baptismal fount fool you into thinking this horror is Christian.

In his response, Purcell notes that he is aware of these examples, but in a comment at TheoFantasitque, where the subject originated, he writes, “If you want to claim BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA for Team Christian, I’m not convinced.”). We’re back to the old verbal disagreement: the Christian element in Dracula does not count because that is not “Christian Horror,” even though Stoker chose the name “Dracula” precisely because it means “Devil.” Presumably, the overtly Christian CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF doesn’t count, either, because it is not designed specfically for an evangelical audience.

To some extent, I can understand the rational for such a distinction. The creators of CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (to take my example) were trying to make an entertaining movie, not prosletyze their audience. When confronted with reactionary dogma masquerading as art, I have a knee-jerk reaction similar to Purcell’s. However, it makes little sense  to me that novels like Dracula and The Exorcist, written by true believers who were clearly espousing a Christian point of view, should somehow be shut out of being called “Christian Horror.” Nor do I see why any modern practitioner who aspires to write “Christian Horror” cannot take a leaf or two out of those books and put it to good use.

Purcell also shakes his metaphoric head at my assertion that “horror does not celebrate monsters, darkness, and chaos,” but he cites no evidence to the contrary. I suppose we could find some examples: Tod Browning’s FREAKS, for instance, simultaneously exploits the title characters and urges sympathy for them.

Nightbreed (1990)

NIGHTBREED celebrates monsters - to their detriment.

Many films do in fact celebrate monster, but these cease to be horror films when they do so. (DRAGONHEART, anyone? How about TWLIGHT?) The most obvious attempt to celebrate monsters that I can think of was Clive Barker’s botched NIGHTBREED, in which the monsters portrayed as some kind of victimized minority, effectively emasculating their power to horrify. Ironically, the most compelling “monster” in the movie is the one with whom we are not supposed to identify: the homicidal psychiatrist played by  David Cronenberg. The lesson here is that we should not de-fang our dragons.

In an update at the bottom of his new post, Purcell revises/clarifies his postion  slightly:

Obviously, plenty of Christians, whatever that means to them, are fans of horror to varying degrees. That doesn’t mean the notion of “Christian horror” makes a lot of sense. I’d be curious to see some examples that really get it right, in his estimation. Maybe I need to comb [John D. Morehead's  TheoFantastique] blog a little more closely; I know he has a lot of examples of various Christian critical approaches to horror, but I can’t recall any examples of the kind of “Christian horror” he’s wishing for.

Basically, the argument has shifted from theory (Christian Horror cannot work) to practise (Christian Horror hasn’t worked). Whereas  Christianity and horror were previously seen as being incompatible (”intractable” was Purcell’s word for the conflict he described), now Christian Horror is merely not a good idea.

This subject was launched by John D. Morehead at TheoFantastique. Morehead was clearly addressing himself to evangelicals, but he was equally clearly calling for literature and cinema that would have mainstream appeal, along the lines of work by C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein – neither of which is limited to the Inspiration Fiction section of Barnes & Noble or consumed only by people with iPods full of Christian rock. Purcell may not recall many successful examples of the kind of horror that Morehead would like to see, but that was part of the motivation for Morehead’s post: he wants more Christians to try their hand at the genre, instead of disdaining it for religious reasons.

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Mel Gibson proved that horrific Christian imagery can yield blockbuster results.

Purcell believes such efforts are doomed to failure – or at least to never succeeding beyond a narrow audience. However, this is at least debatable. I’m not sure whether Mel Gibson’s torture-porn approach to the crucifixion in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST qualifies the film as horror, but this very conservative Christian film became a worldwide blockbuster. Even granting Purcell’s argument, this is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s rather like gay filmmakers and/or critics who complain that mainstream audience will not accept a gay film – which turns out to be true, because their definition of “gay film” is one that will appeal only to gay audiences. (This is another example of begging the question: Remove the verbal camoflage and you can see what is really being said: A film that only appeals to gay audiences will only appeal to gay audiences – which isn’t really saying much.)

In the same way, we could agree that, if a group of writers who hate horror for religious reasons write stories to entertain readers who hate horror for religious reasons, the results would likely appeal only to people who hate horror for religious reasons. But is such a statement even worth making, or is it merely over-stating the obvious?

This article has been slightly edited to correct spelling and clarify meaning.

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About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

2 Responses to “ Sense of Wonder: More Bashing Christian Horror ”

  1. Well, look–this all began with Morehead lamenting a dearth of critical and creative engagement with the horror genre on the part of evangelicals in particular and probably to a lesser extent Christians in general. He speculated on some of the reasons for that, and I chimed in with a few additional reasons that seemed to me both more likely and more fundamental. “Intractable” was maybe too strong a word, I’ll grant, and maybe that’s what set off so many objections, because I don’t recall anyone rushing forward to dispute Morehead’s characterization of the situation, which served as my point of departure.

    As I’ve tried to make clear in the comments, both on my blog and John’s, I don’t think “Christian horror” is “oxymoronic” in some logical, categorical sense, which is why I don’t particularly care about these supposed counterexamples like Arthur Machen and DRACULA. If you want a REAL counterexample, I’ll give you one myself: George MacDonald’s LILITH, which is sexier, more violent, more nightmarish, more fantastic, and more overtly Christian than anything anyone’s mentioned so far. Pretty much nothing I wrote in that post applies to it. It’s also very good, and if you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend it. It’s also such an extreme outlier, I can’t think of anything else quite comparable. Whether either of us likes it or not, I guess we should also mention TWILIGHT–a Mormon mom writes an Abstinence Only parable with vampires and werewolves that turns out to be ridiculously popular. So, heh–what do I know?

    The fact remains, there are strong currents in Christianity, especially the evangelical culture most likely to aim at producing anything that could be called “Christian ______,” that run strongly counter to equally strong currents in horror.

    As I type this, I’m literally, not metaphorically, shaking my head at your claim that horror doesn’t celebrate monsters. What’s on the cover of just about every horror dvd, comic, magazine, paperback, or product of any sort in any medium?–unless it belongs to a strictly naturalistic subgenre like “torture porn” or home invasion (neither of which interest me at all), chances are you’ll find a picture of a monster. Surf horror blogs and websites, and what do you see? Monsters, monsters, monsters, monsters, monsters, monsters, and monsters. Oh, and monsters. How many movies have been made about Dracula? Now how many about Van Helsing?–and VAN HELSING is a wall-to-wall monster-fest, in which Van Helsing himself becomes a werewolf in the end. What costumes do people dress up in at cons? Really, if all that doesn’t count as “celebration,” I don’t know what does. And my question is, how much permission will Christian horror creators give themselves to participate in that? As I said in my comments:

    “Now, I have no doubt some Christians can tell a story that satisfies enough genre conventions to be recognizable as horror. What I wonder is, 1) how much free rein can they give their imaginations to go to really dark, violent, even darkly erotic places?, and 2) can they commit to that kind of material passionately enough to bring it alive on the page or screen? If their imaginations are too constrained within safe boundaries, or if they resist the horror they’re depicting and can only deal with it at arm’s length, their horror will inevitably be second-rate or worse.”

    I phrased that as a question and a conditional because I don’t think it’s “oxymoronic” that a Christian could achieve that. Still, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it, and I’d be very shocked if it blossomed beyond the rare outlier like LILITH into any kind of trend, movement, or established subgenre.

    Well, that doesn’t address all your points, but it’s as much as I feel like writing for now, so until next time . . . ;-)

  2. Thanks for stepping into the lion’s den and clarifying your comments.

    I am willing to concede that horror “celebrates” monsters in the way you describe, but this gets back to the old problem of verbal disagreements. I think David Pirie in “A Heritage of Horror” quoted someone saying that horror allows audiences to enjoy “vice in practise and virtue in principle.” This hypocrisy is a big part of the secret of horror’s success: it is perfectly easy to “celebrate” monsters while simultaneously condemning them.

    Consequently, I see little problem with Christians giving their imagination free reign in the genre. Have you ever seen the HELL HOUSE documentary, for example, about the Christian alternative to secular Halloween attractions? All the local church-goers are not only willing but absolutely eager to get involved playing demons, rapists, adulterers, drug addicts, and murderers. Ostensibly, they’re doing it because they believe in the message of salvation being presented, but the documentary’s sly joke is that for many of them this is a chance to act out wish-fulfilmments of things they cannot do in real life.

    Thanks for the recommendation regarding “Lilith.” I will be looking for a copy ASAP.

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