A Catholic View on the Purpose of Horror

In Culture, Featured, James Powers by Amanda Valdovinos

– By James Powers –

My dad is a voracious reader, and as a result one fixture of my upbringing was the shelves and shelves of books lining the living room wall – sci-fi anthologies, historical volumes (he’s obsessed with the Civil War), political commentaries, paperback fantasy. We had moved maybe a half-dozen times by the time I turned eighteen, but in every house those books invariably managed to take over the living room. Most of these books were out of my league for most of that time, but nonetheless, one of my favorite pastimes when I was little was to browse through those shelves, looking at titles, covers, illustrations, synopses – occasionally even reading a page or two (or more, as I got older). Some of the books that gripped my attention most were the many Stephen King volumes – It, The Dark Tower, Insomnia, Different Seasons…the list goes on.

In high school I finally got around to reading King’s novella The Mist, and from that point on I was hooked – not just on King’s work, but on horror period. And I’m still trying to figure out exactly what it is about this genre that has gotten such a hold on my attention. It is especially perplexing because, as a Catholic who cares deeply about his own spiritual growth, I take seriously such words as St. Paul’s: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).

But how does horror, with its demons and splatter and dark magic and shambling undead hordes, fit into Paul’s criteria at all? Many Christians think that it mostly doesn’t, and I would say that they are at least correct to approach the genre with caution. But to dismiss it altogether is also, I think, a mistake. A big one in fact. Let me explain: one obvious way to interpret Paul’s words is to think of them as an exhortation to the “three transcendentals,” as Aquinas called them: truth, goodness and beauty. And despite its dangers, I believe that horror is very uniquely capable of communicating truth, goodness and even beauty.

The Magnifying Glass

The first and perhaps most obvious function of horror, especially for Christians, is to help us see the truth. “Hey kids,” it tells us, “evil is real and this is what it looks like.” Hannibal Lecter, Cthulhu, Mr. Hyde, the Babadook – all these demonic figures show us different types of evil both human and cosmic. Not only do they show us evil, however; they magnify it 800x so we can see it more clearly. And this is very important. There’s a reason Hitler is everyone’s go-to example of historical evil: because he made it so obvious. But most of the time, in the real world, evil tends to be ambiguous, complex and hard to precisely identify (if you disagree with me on this point, go have a discussion with one of your pro-choice friends and actually listen to their reasons for supporting abortion, then let’s talk). And although it is of course harmful to dwell on evil, failing to recognize and understand it is downright fatal. This is why C.S. Lewis bothered to write The Screwtape Letters. And, more importantly, it is why Christ instructed us to be not only “as gentle as doves” but also “as wise as serpents.”

Did you catch that? He told us to imitate the creature that has been the symbol of evil since, literally, the beginning of history. Know thine enemy, in other words.

But why do we need horror particularly to serve this purpose? Can’t we have something more restrained, something that just sticks to the facts rather than going over the top with the ghouls and blood and shrieking? Shouldn’t, say, historical accounts of evil be sufficient? Well sure, I guess you could do that. But if historical accounts or “real life” were sufficient for us to understand human experience, we wouldn’t need stories. So if real life alone is going to be your strategy, well…you’re reading the wrong blog.

The purpose of horror, at least as far as truth is concerned, is to give us that magnification I spoke of earlier, to some extent or other. A great recent example is Jennifer Kent’s 2014 film The Babadook, in which the eponymous beastie serves as the larger-than-life manifestation of a struggling single mother’s resentment toward her problematic son. Do single mothers with difficult children struggle at times with such feelings as resentment and despair? Definitely. Could we be made to understand this struggle with a documentary? Perhaps. But for me at least, the feeling is driven home much harder when it is symbolically represented with looming black wings, leering teeth and an otherworldly voice issuing from under the bed.

Into the Ring

But horror can do more than simply help me to understand evil. It can also, in its way, help me to face it. Between its vivid depictions and my own imagination, it throws me into a virtual coliseum against all manner of threats. In other words it provides catharsis, which Aristotle identified as a basic function of tragedy in his Poetics. And in fact horror can basically serve as a contemporary version of tragedy: a film such as Hereditary evokes the same potent mix of pity and fear as does Oedipus Rex. Both forms of storytelling allow us to “rehearse” such emotions as terror and rage and grief without directly suffering them ourselves, but the value of catharsis is more than just the adrenaline rush we get from doing so. It is more than just fun. For Christians in particular, it can broaden our capacity for virtue and strengthen our faith.

Wait what? You’re saying that something like Silence of the Lambs can “broaden our capacity for virtue?” Well, yeah, if you use it right. In addition to helping us understand the evil that’s “out there,” a well-crafted horror story can help us understand the evil that’s much closer to home. To borrow the words of Stephen King himself, it will hit those “phobic pressure points” that we each individually have, the fears and other hidden dark spots that perhaps we aren’t even aware of, shedding light on them and flushing them out.

And the spiritual value of such an experience should be obvious. If you consult the writings of just about any saint, you will find exhortations to humility. And humility, among other things, means an awareness of our own brokenness, of the ways in which we have been hurt by evil and are evil ourselves, for it is only in doing so that we can truly open ourselves to grace. I think that God is more than happy to use a good horror story, at least from time to time, as a means of helping the soul to see itself more clearly, and from there grow closer to what it was made to be.

That is what I mean about broadening our capacity for virtue, but what of that thing about strengthening faith? In fact, this is one of my favorite characteristics of horror: it can, through the power of story, serve as a sort of weight-lifting regimen for heart and soul. Just as we strengthen our muscles by exposing them to resistance, having them work against an obstacle, our faith and our will are strengthened by encountering resistance (which, let’s be clear, is not the same as recklessly jumping into near occasions of sin). Here’s the thing: it is easy to believe in the power and goodness of God when life is good, but our faith isn’t satisfied with such a simplistic view. The whole proposal of Christianity is that that very same God works in this world despite (or even through) the evil that we suffer and inflict.

Now I’ve found this a very hard pill to swallow, many times. But over and over, stories of darkness and evil have given me the opportunity to ask myself the question, to rehearse it or exercise it in a setting that is much safer than the real stakes of my own life: where is God in such a world as this? How does my faith respond to such specters as the cruelty of nature (e.g. Alien), the destructive potential of sex (It Follows), or society’s power to strip us of our humanity (28 Days Later)? Come to think of it, are there ways that even my own search for God can be twisted against me (The Witch)? These are scary questions to ask, but they are deeply important and we must be asking them of ourselves if we are to have a truly mature faith. Granted, horror is not the only way to grapple with them – all stories do the same thing to some extent or other – but if your imagination is wired a particular way, you may find it more helpful than expected.

The Beauty of a Crucifix

So we’ve seen how horror can bring us closer to truth, by helping us understand the reality of evil both in the world and in ourselves. And we’ve seen how, paradoxically, it can open us up to goodness by pushing us up against its opposite, rather like how our muscles are strengthened by counterweights against them. But how does horror communicate beauty?

Ok…this one is perhaps the most counterintuitive, and I’ll admit that it might come more from my own quirkiness than anything else. But for an example, look at Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Dracula or, for something completely different, Henry Selick’s adaptation of Coraline. Although both are definitely horror stories, both also have a certain lushness to their production design, an artistry that is beautiful because of its darkness, not in spite of it. It’s the same sort of beauty that we see in those Gothic ghost-story mansions or even in the creature design of Alien. And I don’t think that this beauty is due merely to the illusory attractiveness of sin, although that does frequently get tangled up in it.

To make my point clearer I’ll bring in, of all things, a Disney movie: one of the classics and one that, while not being a horror movie, definitely revolves around some of the aesthetic trappings of horror. Namely, Beauty and the Beast. Belle is obviously beautiful…but there is also something about the Beast that attracts us, isn’t there? He and his glowering castle are fascinating, even alluring, but this doesn’t really have to do with him being an Edward Cullen-esque “bad boy.” After all, remember that what makes him “bad,” his sin at the beginning of the film, is thoroughly prosaic, petty and unattractive – namely, being an arrogant brat. Pfft. Not sexy. Still evil, but not sexy.

No, I think what makes the Beast so alluring is the darkness of his pain rather than that of his sin. It is pathos, not concupiscence, that draws us to him, and his whole castle communicates this. The heavy curtains, twisted statues, wilting rose…all are dark symbols of a suffering heart, and I think it is a certain instinct for compassion that causes them grab our attention. Not to repeat a cliche, but recall the literal etymological meaning of compassion: com-passio, “to suffer with.” Perhaps I’m the only one to have this experience, but as a kid, I was a little disappointed when the Beast turned into the Prince. The Prince was too perfect; I liked the Beast better because he felt more real, more relatable. I had compassion for him.

Recall Aristotle’s definition of tragedy that I referenced above, and that I think applies to horror as well – it is a genre designed to evoke fear but also pity, at least when it’s done well. The resonance of pity is simply our hearts recognizing the human condition, in which good and evil are both subtly interwoven, suffering is inevitable, and grace lives within sinfulness; in which, also, appearances aren’t always what they seem. Sometimes Satan masquerades as an angel of light, and sometimes the Beast conceals a Prince. Or, to go all the way with this reasoning, a crucified convict embodies the Son of God.

Granted, evil does have a very real and dangerous allure to it, and I won’t deny that horror often exploits this fact. But darkness and evil are not the same, and horror is also full of a nobler sort of dark beauty, one that reflects the beauty of the cross. Ever wonder why Catholic imagery is so prevalent in the horror genre – churches and burial stones and especially crucifixes? Does Dracula’s cape ever look weirdly liturgical? Hmmm…

This symbolic association isn’t just because we Catholics have exorcists and affirm the existence of demons: it runs much deeper than that. It’s because we affirm the Incarnation, the notion that “he who had no sin became sin for us,” that the most unspeakable evil can be a vehicle for the most unspeakable grace. Let’s face it – with its focus on the Eucharist, the Crucifixion and redemptive suffering, Catholicism can come across as kinda morbid. But this isn’t because we’re fixated on death (fight me Nietzsche). Rather, it’s because we’re too devoted to life to settle for the cheap version. Real life – real truth, goodness and beauty – is only achievable when, like Christ, we find the courage to stare death in the face.

What better way to practice doing so than with a monster movie?

About the Author

James Powers is currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.