In "The Idea of the Holy," theologian Rudolf Otto contends that the first religious feeling people experience is terror – often in the form of demonic dread. It is only when people believe that there are other spiritual forces operating in the universe that they begin to question their relationship to them. The fear of spirits is often the precursor to people recognizing their fear of God, which Proverbs tells us "is the beginning of wisdom" (Prov. 9:10).

It is not surprising, then, that when the pulpits of the West give lip service to, or completely abandon any mention of, the transcendence of God, that people will seek transcendent experiences elsewhere. One of the places they go to get their transcendent itch scratched is at the movies where they can experience transcendent horror from the relative safety of their theater seats. I am going to define transcendent horror films as films that have as their source of terror something supernatural – for example, demons or ghosts.

In the past, Western audiences had an inkling of what they would see when they went to a horror film – horror and terror have a long tradition in the West. The arrival of the supernatural menace was usually linked with some moral violation and overcome by sacrifice or making the wrong right. With the arrival of horror films from the East – particularly Japanese horror films (like "The Grudge," which grossed nearly $40 million in its opening weekend) – all bets are off. Rather than dismiss the impact of horror films, Christians would do well to grasp the implications of this shift in these spooky ideas as we move from West to East.

The Morality of Horror in the West

Western horror is, historically, firmly grounded in moral principal – something has gone wrong and it is up to the protagonists to fix it. William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist" has 12-year-old Regan innocently play with a Ouija board, only to discover too late its malevolent connections. In "Ghost Story," a group of men take advantage of a flirtatious female acquaintance, and when she is injured and feared dead, they compound their sin by attempting to cover it up by pushing what they think is her lifeless body into a lake. "Poltergeist"'s action is predicated on religious desecration, and even "Nightmare on Elm Street" begins with the vigilante actions of parents against an accused child molester.

The evil supernatural forces arrayed against the heroes of these films are powerful. Demons and ghosts draw their strength from the fear and guilt of their victims. When Father Karras, who is so jaded by years of scientific explanations that he cannot even recognize demonic possession when it stares right into his face, finally believes, he is initially driven back. In "Ghost Story" the guilty are terrified as they see their past literally come back to haunt them. In "Poltergeist" the young family is terrorized because they unwittingly have purchased a home built on a sacred burial ground; and in the Freddy films the razor-gloved one hunts down children for the sins of their parents. Because the problems that initiate the supernatural contact are moral, solutions through sacrifice or change of behavior can overcome the evil.

Depending on how you see Father Karras' final flight through the window, he overcomes the demon and saves young Regan by sacrificing himself (although the full nature of that sacrifice becomes questioned in the third installment of that series). In "Ghost Story" the guilty pay for their sins because they never confessed. "Poltergeist" demands the return of the land. Since Freddy is not himself an innocent, he is not to be appeased, but fought so that the curse can be broken.

Ultimately, then, these films have a redemptive quality to them. Evil is committed and then loosed – manifesting itself in the lives of the possessed or haunted. Once the terrorized humans believe, then action can be taken to combat the evil. And once the sin has been paid for or the evil resisted properly then good triumphs. The only real exception to this rule is the slasher films like the "Nightmare on Elm Street" series that posits the eternal nature of evil, and teenage victims who never seem to understand the transcendent nature of their enemy. The teens will fetch a pistol, but rarely a pastor. Eastern horror, however, does not play by the same rules.

The Fatalism of Horror in the East

Within the last two years, two films that are faithful remakes of Japanese horror movies have hit the box office with a vengeance. In 2002 "The Ring" shocked theater goers out of nearly $130 million with the story of an otherworldly videotape – watch it, and seven days later you die. "The Ring" is one of the top grossing horror films of all time. Set to give "The Ring" a run for its money is the latest entry, "The Grudge" – the tale of a house so malevolently possessed by the spirits of a murdered family that death strikes anyone who enters.

What sets these Eastern horror films apart from their Western counterparts is that the moral violation that sets the evil in motion is completely unconnected with nearly all of the subsequent victims. It is evil without a purpose – thoughtless, rampaging – it just is. Once stumbled upon, the outcome is unavoidable. Even when the protagonist thinks they are doing good:  rescuing a child, protecting an old woman, it counts for nothing – something is coming for you in the dark, or through your television set.

"The Grudge"'s premise is simple – enter the haunted house and you die, call for help and they die too. Worse yet, "The Ring" presents a significant moral dilemma. Since the only way to save yourself from the consequences of watching the demonic video is to make copies to show to others, you are left with only two unsatisfying choices – be a victim of evil or a perpetrator. The fatalism of many Eastern religions infuses these horror films. What can a moral voice say in the face of demonic fatalism?

What Does it All Mean?

One thing I have to grant to fatalistic horror films – they are more frightening than moral horror films in one key respect: there is no way out. Fatalism says we are without hope in the face of supernatural terror. Since the kinds of people who attend these films are coming for a good scare, they won't be disappointed – but what about after the film?

We are remiss when we talk to our friends who see horror films and dismiss all that they experience as make-believe. Satan is real, as are all of the other principalities and powers. While they rarely manifest themselves in the same way they are portrayed in popular film – C.S. Lewis has senior demon Screwtape tell his nephew Wormwood that it is best if they are not noticed at all – the Apostle Paul reminds us that they send "fiery darts" and seek people "to devour." Fear is real as well. Sometimes the keen fear people experience at the cinema temporarily masks the multitude of little fears they feel each day. Fear of alienation, loneliness, a life without meaning, sickness, and death stalk many thinking people.

The Bible acknowledges the existence of demons, spirits, and the daily fears that afflict us all, but it rejects the fatalistic approach that says evil is unavoidable and irresistible. Modern Western horror films may be wrong about the method – you can't beat supernatural monsters into submission with your fists; shamans won't help either – but they are right about the principle. You can fight supernatural horror, and win, as long as you reach out to God and sign up for the right weapons – truth, righteousness, the Gospel, faith, salvation, the Word of God, and prayer (Eph. 6:11-17).

We do have something to say when faced with fatalism – it's not true. God gives us a choice between life and death, and we are told to choose life (Deut. 30:19).  We can fight against supernatural evil – we are commanded to resist the devil and he will flee (Jas. 1:7). Best of all, God will triumph over evil (1 John 3: 8).

The popularity of horror films peaks this time of year. If we understand the affinity people have for horror – the desire to taste something otherworldly and to gain meaning for the evil they experience in life – we can use the draw of these fictional films to introduce them to the supernatural reality of God. In doing so, we can begin to move them from the fear of the demonic to the wisdom of the life-giving fear of the Lord.


Marc T. Newman, Ph.D. (marc@movieministry.com) is the president of MovieMinistry.com (www.movieministry.com) – an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people.

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