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horror filmsIn The Heart of Darkness Conrad’s madman Kurtz whispers his last words, “The horror. The horror.” The novella is aptly named for it takes the reader into the heart of darkness and is thus a forerunner of the horror genre in literature and film.

The horror genre answers the question, “How can literature and film most successfully deal with spiritual realities?” Motion pictures are pictures that move, but spiritual struggles are invisible. So is it possible therefore to make spiritual conflict visible? This difficulty is the stumbling block for many religious filmmakers who have more enthusiasm than skill. Thus we are encumbered with too many worthy but dull films about saints. To show spiritual joy the director resorts to sentimentality: showing us the saint running in slow motion through fields of wild flowers. To film their inner struggle we watch the saint talk to a crucifix about how bad they’re feeling. It doesn’t work.

While biopics of saints may inspire, they too often induce yawns. Spiritual battle is made real for the masses through the horror genre.

At the infancy of the film industry horror was one of the art form’s baby steps. In 1921 the German Expressionist film Nosferatu captivated audiences with an adaption of Stoker’s gothic horror story, Dracula. Since then movies have provided a steady stream of stories that make the darkness visible.

It would take a huge volume to chronicle just the multitude of cinematic vampire tales, not to mention all the films on various other “monsters of the deep.” The horror genre has spawned various sub genres: schlock horror with blatantly explicit violence, space horror in which the creeps are aliens, crime horror with psychopathic villains, spiritual horror, science horror in which experiments go terribly wrong, and good, old-fashioned monster movies. All the genres essentially deal with the same human condition: our existence in a dark and fallen world.

aliens 1986There is a scene in the 1986 film Aliens which symbolizes the whole horror genre. The heroine Ripley, and her alter ego, a little girl named Newt, literally peer under the bed, then hide under the bed from the beast. The scene reminds that the whole horror genre represents our need to summon our courage, enter into the heart of darkness, and face the monsters under our bed.

Horror movies engage us in the psychological and spiritual drama of the encounter with evil. In horror movies the evil is not simply human frailty or the quest to overcome a stock villain. Instead the hero must face an evil force that is deadly, irrational, unpredictable and purely evil. This evil wears many masks. It may be a person deformed by the experiments of a mad scientist. It may be an unimaginable monster from another world. It may be a psychopathic criminal or a madman with a murderous line of chainsaws. Whatever mask he wears, the villain represents the demonic. He is the one who makes darkness visible, and as the hero engages in the great battle we go on the journey with him and so face the horror within.

the uses of enchantmentThe horror films that are successful commercially exploit this quest into the dark unknown and take the audience on a journey of terror which is cathartic. The horror film may have spooked us and made us scream, but why do we go back for more? Because the experience was cleansing. We faced the dark with the hero, and we feel stronger and more courageous for having done so. In this respect, horror films are the direct descendent of fairy stories. As the psychologist Bruno Bettleheim has shown in his seminal work The Uses of Enchantment, the dark and horrible aspects of fairy stories enable the child to encounter the threatening forces within the psyche in safety and with confidence.

When successful children’s films are analyzed, it is interesting to see how many stock devices and characters appear from horror films. The most successful children’s movies carry their young audience to dark places, and it is no co incidence that a major sub genre of horror is teen horror—in which the victims (and the audience) are teenagers. Teens are at a transitional stage from childhood to adulthood. This is a threatening and challenging time, and teen horror films provide the same safe, but cathartic effect as fairy stories and fantasy films do for their younger siblings.

The horror films that are artistically successful are made by directors and writers who understand the human emotional and spiritual transactions that are going on, and use the process to explore the more complex problems of inner evil and the human response. Alfred Hitchcock’s films are famous for not only spooking his audience, but using visual storytelling to unlock the deeper emotional and psychological conundrums within his characters, and therefore within us. That Hitchcock was a Catholic was not lost on film critics who constantly see within his films a Graham Greene-like struggle with profound moral issues that take the individual into the deep and dark corners of the heart.

signs3The fact that the horror genre makes darkness visible makes it one of the most fruitful artistic mediums for dealing with spiritual truths. M. Night Shyamalan’s film Signs, in which a doubting Episcopal priest (Mel Gibson) comes face to face with hostile aliens, is an excellent, extended metaphor for the spiritual person who has to face his own “inner demons.” Similarly, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Rite and The Exorcism of Emily Rose work well as cinema because they make the spiritual struggle visible in just about the only way possible: the battle of exorcism.

This is not to say that every film that makes the darkness visible is a good film either artistically, morally or theologically. A film that glorifies violence, delights in the demonic, revels in the occult, or remains morally neutral in the face of evil is counterproductive and even dangerous. Horror films can be horrible, and discernment is needed before opening ourselves to what may be dark influences.

However, a horror film which portrays a hero engaging the darkness in battle reminds the audience of the reality of the spiritual battle. When the film is resolved justly, and with appropriate subtlety, the result is satisfactory. When the hero eventually overcomes the darkness through spiritual and moral strength, and ultimate self-sacrifice, the film keeps alive in a godless culture not only the importance of the battle between good and evil, but also the power and possibility of redemption.

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4 replies to this post
  1. Fr. D.L.:

    I think the same might be said for horror fiction. I am just finishing “The Strain” trilogy, by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, and have found it to be wonderfully illustrative (so far) of the effect you mention – namely ” a hero engaging the darkness in battle” reminding “the audience of the reality of the spiritual battle.” If you have not read it, I highly recommend it…among many other horror works, for that matter.

    –Jonathan W.

  2. Yes, and this is why I much prefer Dean Koontz to Stephen King. That Koontz understands the tension of existence and Mr. King, I think, is a bit wobbly on the subject.

  3. Koontz, to my mind, is still figuring out how to integrate his increasing religious leanings into his writing. His Frankenstein series is quite good, but at times, seemed a bit…obvious…?…with it’s use of religious themes. Still and yet, he does understand that tension.

  4. Liking Conrad and fetched by the title, I read “Darkness’ some years ago. I decided that it should have been titled “The Heart of Boredom.” References to Kurtz in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism
    led me to reread it, with the same conclusion. This post sent me back, and I suffered through a third serving. In spite of Kurtz’s pronouncement, I found no horror–unless the statuesque, overornamented female spotted ashore calls to some reader’s mind a recent spouse.

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