One curious fact about myself is that whenever I feel lost, or not in control of my life, I suddenly become an avid reader of horror stories. Though I generally prefer more cheerful types of fiction, as soon as my life takes a turn downwards, I find myself turning to stories of fear and hopelessness, until the my day-to-day commitments start to look a little hopeless too. Without excusing my own laziness and apathy, I thought it would be worth examining why horror stories have such a wide appeal, and also how that relates to us humans as spiritual creatures.
There is a scene in an old black-and-white movie called ‘The Detective’, featuring G.K. Chesterton’s amateur detective priest, Father Brown, which I feel provides the key to my own understanding and analysis. In this scene, the good Father (played by the amazing Sir Alec Guinness, perhaps better known as Obi-Wan Kenobi) preaches a homily on why sin horrifies us so much. Father Brown points out that is not the idea that we would never be capable of such a horrible act of sin, but the idea that we are capable of such acts, that horrifies us. In the end, none of us can escape the stain of Original Sin, and the great atrocities of the world, without exception, have their roots in the hearts of each individual human being.
So let’s think about this in relation to the average horror story. Isn’t it funny how so many generic horror creatures can turn you into one of them by some sort of infection? Vampires, werewolves, zombies, etc. In my opinion, it’s quite a neat metaphor for the corrupting effects of sin in our lives.
So that is what horror does for us as readers or viewers. More than just bringing us down dark corridors with a cheap scare waiting for us behind the corner, horror unsettles us. It peels back our assumptions of the world and of ourselves, showing us how monsters can be born out of our human weakness.
Small wonder then that some Catholic writers seemed to almost exult in the portrayal of, if not outright horror, then at least the grotesque. I remember starting on the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, knowing she was a Catholic writer, and being utterly shocked. “What was wrong with that woman?” I asked myself. “Why is she making me sympathize with these horrible racist and fundamentalist characters, showing how God’s grace is present even in them?” Similarly, Shusaku Endo’s Silence was unsettling as it showed how fragile faith can be and how what simple matters of belief could have such complexity under the surface. In both cases, and many others, these writers challenge our preconceived notions of holiness and what it means to serve God.
Another aspect of horror that I think relates to spirituality is the idea of the Unknown. In horror stories, the protagonists are clearly out of their depth, up against a challenge that it seemed like they have little hope of overcoming. For me, I see in that something of the God who always calls us out of our comfort zones into the unknown. Think about Jesus calling Peter out upon the waters. Staying in the boat seemed unwise in the midst of the storm, but to tread upon the waves is outright impossible. As Father Dwight Longenecker points out in his book, ‘The Romance of Religion’, the Jews as a race were generally not seafaring types. In fact, water for them was associated with sea monsters like Leviathan and chaos in general. Think also of how Moses parted the Red Sea so they could cross to safety.
But yet it is this idea of facing this horrifying unknown head-on that is necessary for us in our Faith journeys. When we venture out into the unknown into the place that God calls us to, coming in contact with our fears, we then know who we really are. We know what we’ll do when the chips are down, whether we would be faithful when it comes to the crunch. As the First Reading on the Feast of Corpus Christi reads:
“Moses said to the people: ‘Remember how the Lord your God led you for forty years in the wilderness, to humble you, to test you and know your innermost heart – whether you would keep his commandments or not. He humbled you, he made you feel hunger, he fed you with manna which neither you nor your fathers had known, to make you understand that man does not live on bread alone but that man lives on everything that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 8:2-3
And indeed, some of the most classic horror stories show how faith enables one to overcome terrifying evil, be it within us or without. If there are vampires, then there are also vampire hunters. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for example, the vampire count is opposed by Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, a man of deep faith and reason, and who uses both to encourage his companions and to put a stop to the evil that plagues them.
So perhaps horrifying situations are there for us to learn more about ourselves, and thus take the necessary actions to rectify our behaviour towards God and our neighbours – to keep the commandments of God. And to know, as well that once God took the ultimate symbol of horror – the Cross, and turned it into one of hope and salvation.
© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng