An ax comes through a white panel door. From the rattle of chains and dripping water a xenomorphic beast makes a man disappear in a shower of blood. Running through the woods a group of startled teens are stalked by a madman with a chainsaw. Lights flicker. Strange creaking. A girl crawls out a TV screen. A head turns 180˚on its neck. A priest dies. A corpse stumbles towards an unexpecting traveler, wanting flesh. A bat-like shape descends to suck blood. A demon-child grows with paranoia in a woman’s womb. In flame and blood a high school prom becomes a massacre. Madness stalks the ice of the South Pole.
I’m not a fan of horror films. I don’t like being scared. Fear is not fun for me. Yet there is something that draws people to the spectacle of terror. Stephen King books fly off the shelves. Over a dozen horror films have been released so far this year alone. In 2012 Horror was a $413 million industry in Hollywood. Packed houses show up to be frightened and many tune in for the slasher film and monster flick marathons which make up much television programming throughout October. I may not like Horror but a whole bunch of people do.
My thinking on the Christian relationship to Horror began as I was talking with a group of friends about what exactly it is that constitutes a horror film. Surely the worlds of 1984 or a Brave New World would be horrid places to live, yet neither of these are works of Horror. Movies like The Village, The Sixth Sense, or Zodiac play with themes of suspense, mystery, and serial killers yet they are not often considered Horror. The recent fad of teen glitz monster fare with Twilight and The Vampire Diaries may have the whole cast of characters from a gothic monster flick but they are not horror films.
What is it that separates Horror from a hard-nosed detective serial killer film, or from a dystopian tale of the future, or from a monster romance? The answer, I propose, lies in how Horror frames evil. Evil, as we should come to expect, is the name of the game in Horror and as such is also the place where our most fruitful theological discourse can take place. As often is the case with the peculiar, these film may afford us an unexpected place to ponder theological questions we rarely are given a chance to discuss.
Evil, in Horror, is always more than human.
What separates Hannibal Lecter from Al Capone or Michael Myers from the Unabomber? All guilty of multiple murders, all with sickening sides, all criminals yet not all the subjects of Horror. What makes the Xenomorph in Alien or the thing in The Thing so different from the lions in Ghost in the Darkness or the wolves in The Grey? What makes the terrors of the occultic paranoia in Rosemary’s Baby, the possessed little girl in The Exorcist, or the violent coming of age in Carrie so drastically different from the respective paranoia of the surveillance expert in The Conversation, the mental disturbance of the sociopathic Lisa in Girl, Interrupted, or the coming of age tragedy of The Virgin Suicides.
What makes the latter examples dramas, thrillers, and action/adventure while the former is Horror?
Evil in the horror genre is not natural. It comes not wholly from within the person who is doing violent acts nor does it wholly come from nature itself. Rather evil in Horror is the radical other. As a prime example, consider Kubrick’s masterful adaptation of King’s horror classic The Shining. As the film progresses we see the state of our protagonist-turned-antagonist shift, spiraling downward into darker and darker paths until he comes after the family he loves with ax wielding fury. Most of us are familiar with the splintered white panel door and the crazed “Here’s Johnny” as Jack comes after his family. Yet, with even a cursory viewing of the film the audience is aware whoever it is coming through the door, it is not the father we saw at the beginning of the film. Something else has taken over. However we interpret that force, whatever we think finally possesses Jack, the evil that stalks down Wendy and Danny is not human. There is something more at work.
In films such as Alien or The Thing we see this evil in a different way. As the crew of the Nostromo are stalked through the winding corridors and dark underbelly of their ship by an aliens life form set on their destruction it is more than just fear of some deadly predator that fills them. As each crew member is one by one extinguished in blood and screams there is the realization that this beast is not merely a powerful force of nature but is, behind those dark glassy eyes and dripping slime jowls, truly evil in a way completely different from the threat of the grizzly bear, lion, or wolf. Ripley’s final encounter with the Xenomorph demonstrates her belief the creature is not merely dangerous but is in fact of a category of evil which exceeds the natural.
Perhaps the subset of the horror films that most fits into a Christian category are those best represented by the pinnacle example of The Exorcist. Since demons populate both the pages of scriptures and the landscape of many Evangelical minds, it would seem as if there was any place to find a similarity between Horror and Christian thought, it would be in those films depicting demon possession and exorcism. It is not that these films lack the similar layout of evil being something more than or beyond what is natural or human but rather by framing these forces within religious language it is easier to miss the forest for the trees. Over familiarity with the images of demons coaxes us into believing we know what the story is about before it even begins. There is a temptation to rush to the conclusion that the evil force, portrayed in the film orthodoxly or not, is really just a demon all along. By providing a incarnation of evil we are inclined to think we have a category for we oversimplify and personalize a force which should rather be understood more broadly. If the word “demonic” is going to be used at all, and I think I should be, it can only be in our ability to move past the simple and specific image of the demon possessed girl to see a more nuanced and broad force at work.
Horror presents a way of talking about evil that extends beyond our ability to fully understand or contain. Something about the violence and terror we see in the world makes us want to tell stories in which evil is shown having some causation outside of nature. It is an important caveat that this way of talking about evil does nothing to change the ontological source of evil. Just as saying the presents under the tree are from Santa doesn’t change the fact our parents bought them, so too the way we describe evil as having some extra-human source does not retroactively insist this really is the case (though the inverse is true as well). Rather, talking of evil as extra-human, as something more than human, gives us a category to express fear, disgust, revulsion, and rejection toward evil actions and events which lie so far outside our ability to accept that no amount of historical, sociological, or psychological explanation can sufficiently contextualize or rationalize them.
Consider infamous serial killer, the Milwaukee Cannibal, Jeffrey Dahmer. During the course of over a decade, from 1978 to 1991, he raped, murdered, and dismembered 17 men and boys, the later murders including necrophilia, cannibalism, and the permanent preservation of body parts. This is no horror film. This was real life. Though we know Dahmer was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder by psychologists and prison psychiatrists when learning the atrocities he committed few of us are willing to accept this psychological explanation as completely accounting for Dahmer’s actions. There is something about the extent of their evil which makes many feel we need a stronger way of talking about these events than those provided us by the mental health, sociological, or historical community.
We need language to talk about radical evil. We need a word to call what Hannibal Lecter does. We need a word that describes evil which extends itself beyond just that of nature or what is human. This is the type of evil which horror films explores. The best word we have for this evil in a Christian theology is the demonic.
The word demonic carries a lot of baggage, not least because of the very horror films we have been discussing and the countless overplayed tropes within exorcism films and stories which drawn on a whole host of imagery, most of which has as its source medieval Europe and Dante’s Inferno rather than the imagination of the biblical writers. Often the language draws up a whole mythology of a fallen Lucifer, angels-turned-demons following him out of heaven in their war against God. It can call to mind images of sinister beings prowling the earth, coming into our churches, schools, businesses, and neighborhoods to lead the faithful into temptation and deceive and mislead the sinful. All of this raises a host of questions, concerns, and interest from a broad spectrum of Christians, for some positive but for many negative.
It would be tempting to believe the word has outlived its usefulness. Yet when situated within the landscape of evil, and contextualized as to make sure that those images of personal demons and evil spirits are not the sum total what the terminology is intend to elicit, the word is perhaps the only one invested with enough intellectual and religious capital to adequately describe the ‘otherness of evil.’ The part of evil that is not just human, that exceeds its bounds. The part of the serial killer in Halloween, Nightmare of Elm Street, and Saw which is beyond human, the element of the beast in Alien, The Thing, or even Jaws which is not just natural, the sneering contempt of the possessed girl of The Exorcist, even the madding fear that finally overflows in death and flame at the end of Carrie, is best termed demonic. It is not something, as I stated above, necessarily ontologically present, rather it is a way of talking about evil which allows us to give a name to that terrorizing force that seems always to extend beyond our ability to understand. It is the left over. What is left of evil when we subtract the historical, social, and psychological factors which influence an individual or group to commit acts of radical violence. The residue that remains. The evil we can’t explain away. That is the demonic.
Horror helps us talk about this evil. It gives us the ability to explore at a distance the otherness of evil. To encounter without encountering that element of evil which is beyond human. The Christian recognition that we live in a world marred by evil means we must find space to pause and consider the implications of living in a world where the causes and effects don’t add up. Where there is a residue. Horror helps us have this conversation. It gives us the ability to see the demonic as an evil without us, like Hannibal, the Xenomorph, or Michael Myers, but also see the possibility that the evil might be closer, to address the fear that the residual, as in Carrie, might be lying somewhere inside of us. That the demonic may at times be from the without, and others from the within. Living in a world full of radical evil means we always run the risk of running into that residual force.
The film The Exorcist is about the loss of faith. Evil is presented through the trope of the demonic much like it is presented through the form of an alien life form in Alien or The Thing. The evil that it carries with it is more than human, more than this priest can contend with. Coming up against the evil upstairs his faith is fragile and weak and ultimately insufficient to face the residual horrors which await him. It is not a story Christians like much. Perhaps even one we are given to sneer at. We shouldn’t. Horror gives us a chance to go up the stairs with this priest, to face the residual evil that lies there, to face our own lack of faith in the face of it. Horror give us the opportunity to give name to this force of evil, not just the names of the trope; vampire, alien, slasher, evil spirit, demon, thing, but rather the name of identification as residual evil, as demonic, as the ‘otherness of evil’ and in so doing so to rob it of its power.
 I owe a great deal of my thoughts here to Richard Beck in his series Notes on Demons and the Powers