Religion and Horror: Unexpected Compatibility 24 July 2016

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My colleagues are baffled. To them, my interests appear ambivalent—or at the very least, enigmatic. How can a guy be into both religion and horror? Why would a religious person research horror films? Why would a “horror hound” go to church?

Yes, I study Christian theology/spirituality as well as the mechanics of horror fiction. One month I may speak on Thomas Aquinas at a conference, and then the next month I may publish on Japanese horror films. Why? As strange as it is, both subjects exhibit several overlapping qualities. So if you find yourself drawn to horror fiction and Christianity this may be why:

(1) Faith

Protestant philosopher Soren Kierkegaard defines faith as the “passion for the impossible.” As a champion of the role of subjectivity, Kierkegaard emphasised the inwardness of faith. Clearly, religion is built upon faith. Reason is important as well—to better understand faith—however, inward affirmation of the materially “impossible” sets religion apart from being a mere club or academic discipline. Faith makes interiority a way of life.

Horror is not particularly a way of life in the same sense. Nevertheless, inward belief in the impossible pervades the genre. Horror-art often concerns the impossible—that is, related to the non-real and the fantastic—which lasts the duration of the film or the read of the novel. Without an audience’s hunger for impossible—without the suspension of disbelief—horror would not work. The same applies to religion. The type of faith differs between religion and horror, but both are fueled by the “passion for the impossible.”

(2) Paradox

Both religion and horror embrace and delight in paradox. They don’t necessarily aim to resolve paradoxes, but rather, both are content to dwell with them and within them. Several examples from the Bible: “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14), the Trinitarian nature of God, the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the hypostatic nature of Jesus (fully divine and fully man), and the list goes on. As pointed out by Christian mystics and theologians alike: Christianity revolves around fundamental paradoxes. The fundamentals of horror-art dwell within paradox as well. As horror scholar Noel Carroll points out: horror is simultaneously repulsive and attractive. Viewers of horror fiction often keep participating in the fiction, despite being horrified. This is paradoxical. Additionally, horror is a medium that explores paradoxical content. Consider the paradoxical relationship between pleasure and pain in Clive Barker’s The Hellbund Heart/Hellraiser. Or consider the “hypostatic nature” of Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s Halloween. Isn’t Myers both mortal man and immortal evil? Doesn’t Dr. Loomis eventually label Myers “evil on two legs”?

(3) “Darkness” / Void / Unknowing

Postmodern theorist Eugene Thacker develops not the “philosophy of horror” but the “horror of philosophy.” In short, he spotlights the unthinkable, non-human Nothingness that extends outside human understanding. He maintains that any attempt to grasp this dark void can lead to fear, pessimism, nihilism, and horror. Conversely, if this void is navigated in a theological direction, it brings one closer to God. This is what Christian mystics such as John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, and Dionysius the Areopagite were driving at: the role of mystic experience to navigate the “cloud of unknowing.”

Religion and horror grapple not merely with the unknown, but with the unknowable—the void beyond rational and scientific understanding. Religion and horror both signal to the same mysterious veil, just in different ways.

(4) Spiritual Warfare

When I don’t have time to explain fully the compatibility of religion and horror I usually just utter two words: The Exorcist. Then people usually nod, understanding the association. The subgenre of “possession horror” has existed for over forty years. What do these movies, like The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror, The Conjuring, have in common? Spiritual warfare with the devil or demons.

Spiritual combat with the devil—either literal (Roman Catholicism) or figurative (some Protestant denominations)—is presented throughout the New Testament. This type of combat—albeit spiritual, through prayer and sacraments—is central to Christian salvation, theological ethics, and personal spirituality. Similarly, demonic possession narratives often engage religious imagery and religious characters—often Catholic—to help represent the spiritual warfare. Since the religious life pivots upon a battle against temptation, religious audiences can identify with the often sensationalist representations found in horror fictions. Whereas non-religious audiences may experience these narratives as mere entertainment, religious audiences may find them spiritually profound.

In sum:

Not all horror-art fully cooperates with these points; however, more often than not, they will appear in varying degrees. Therefore, I would argue that anyone being badgered by family member or a colleague for embracing both horror and religion shouldn’t feel like a hypocrite. Both religion and horror can share similar faith-based narratives that explore paradox, epistemological voids, and spiritual refinement. Religion and horror probe the boundaries of human knowledge and imagination. And both can be applauded for doing so.

This article is from Issue 13 of On Religion. You can subscribe to the print magazine for just £19 a year by Direct Debit. Subscribe Button

About Gavin Hurley

Gavin F. Hurley is an Assistant Professor of Writing at Lasell College in Newton, Massachusetts (USA) where he teaches composition, rhetoric, and interdisciplinary humanities courses. Dr. Hurley has published essays in The Poetics of Genre in the Contemporary Novel (Lexington Books, 2015) and The Cinema of Rob Zombie: The Social and Political Philosophy of Horror (Forthcoming 2016). His research interests include spiritual and religious  discourse,  composition pedagogy, and the rhetoric of horror fiction.

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