A Christian Perspective on Horror in Movies & Culture
- Friday, October 12, 2012
I don't think it is just because of a suspenseful plot. I think all of us share a vague recognition, or at least a suspicion, that there may be more to the world than meets the eye. One of Hamlet's most famous lines in Shakespeare's play addresses this three-way confrontation between skepticism, uncertainty, and belief: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."4 In fact, I believe there is much more. I also believe that part of the fallen human condition is that this knowledge is strongly suppressed, and in turn the suppression itself is suppressed. As a result of the conservation of truth principle, however, we enforce a double movement that overturns this very suppression: first, we make fiction, including movies, featuring supernatural elements; second, we often find these fictions terrifying, even though we believe they are fiction. It has long been said that art imitates life even as life imitates art. I would add to that. We do not believe our not believing.5 Our fiction imitates and undermines the fiction of our unbelief.
It is indeed a strange truth about humanity that we tell ourselves stories that bring about the negative and uncomfortable emotion of fear. Yet—perhaps—not so strange. The actual psychological processes of deliberately induced fear are worth considering. Anytime we watch a movie, we manage quite an amazing feat. On the one hand, we know that what we are experiencing is fiction; it is carefully constructed, produced, and presented as if it is naturally occurring in our conscious experience of the real world.6 This is why effective movies "transport" us, like all great art, as Longinus taught two thousand years ago. When you're watching a really well-made film, you don't realize that this is what you're doing, at least not in the forefront of your consciousness. But at the same time you do realize what you're doing. In other words, your mind does double-duty; you in a certain sense become two persons—one grounded in reality, one in fantasy. This book deals with this phenomenon differently based upon different genres and specific movies, but perhaps the most interesting question we can ask is, what happens when we enter the filmic creation of fear, which terrifies us even when we know it is not real?
In order to answer this question, we need to consider one more kind of fear, as yet unmentioned. This is the fear of God. There are two kinds of fear regarding God: the reverential trust, awe, and fear of giving offense that characterizes believers and the fear of those who do not believe—their fear that they might be wrong. A variation of the second fear can be seen in the person who is sure there is a God of some kind but does not want to follow him and thus lives in fear of judgment, however vague that fear may be. I believe the present fallen state of man is such that our previously natural fear of God—awe, respect, submission, and fear of offending—has been blunted, suppressed, and reduced. It has changed its object, to be precise. Instead of fearing God, we fear any number of other things, whereas if we feared God rightly we would fear nothing else wrongly.
If there is a God, one whom we naturally (and rightly) should fear; and if we have suppressed this truth, as Romans 1 says we have; and if, as I am arguing in this book, powerful truths such as these cannot and do not remain suppressed, then perhaps we now have a way of understanding the business and art of fear for pleasure. If God (and fear of him) has been removed from the forefront of our conscious minds, yet we are "built to fear" something infinitely greater than ourselves, something awesome, terrifying, mysterious, and incomprehensible, then we find ourselves predisposed to replace fear of him with fear of something.7
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