My friends and I were hot stuff in 11th grade, and we knew it. Most of us could drive, so we didn’t have to walk to the CVS to buy sour gummy worms, and we had debit cards so we didn’t have to fumble around with our cash when we were paying the box office for our admission to Tron:Legacy.
But one of the ways this newfound freedom manifested was in a fascination with horror movies. None of us felt particularly strongly about horror movies, except maybe Dan. Dan was our edgy friend whose parents sent him to the only Catholic private school in the area when we were freshmen, in hopes of quelling his edginess. But it wasn’t so much the movies as it was the idea of them. Every couple of months we’d designate a Friday night to stay up and watch 3 or 4 horror flicks in a row. We ate pizza and joked through the tense parts so as not to let on that we were all legitimately made anxious by the suspense being built.
I’m not into horror movies any more. At least not in that capacity. And I don’t want you to read this post in a light of, “Oh, Kevin’s promoting Rob Zombie’s Halloween, how irresponsible.” I’m not. But I do believe that there is space in every narrative for us to draw nearer to Christ’s heart, and that is worth venturing into some of the darker places. So if this topic makes you uncomfortable, that’s fine. That’s probably even good in some ways. But there’s at least a little bit of light in there, so I hope you’ll let me share it.
As a comic book fan, I’m a little shocked by the lack of evil on the page and on the screen these days. Not that I’m pumping a picket demanding more evil, but there’s this trend that’s been pervading a lot of sci-fi/fantasy that tries to make the villain a rationally sympathetic character. They want to make the world a better place, but they’re going about it the wrong way. They’re willing to make sacrifices for “the greater good.” And that can lead to evil, yes, but I don’t think that’s a very good standard.
Shortly after my stint with my friends watching horror movies in high school, I learned about the exploitation genre of films, especially through a weird, somewhat inexplicable (not really inexplicable; by definition they’re just grubbing for money, so that’s nothing new, nor does that mean it’s likely to end) and brief resurgence around the early 2010s. What fascinated me wasn’t any of the content, but really just the underlying idea that no one seemed to acknowledge: what does a world look like if there are no rules? And the answer, exploitation films would suggest, is that it would be hyper sexual and hyper violent. Sensory overload on all fronts and no one would benefit from it.
I think one of the values of horror films, heralded by my observation of exploitation films, is that it is one of the few places where we see evil portrayed without any need by the narrative to rationalize it. It’s Michael Meyers growing from disturbed child to indestructible killer tromping toward you. It’s the horde of zombies finally crashing through the boarded up doors into the shopping mall where you’ve taken refuge. It’s unhinged and unleashed, and we watch for an hour and a half as people react to it.
Horror movies are some of the best at establishing “rules” for the world of the movie. Movies like Scream and Cabin in the Woods met a lot of success for playing off of these classic rules and tropes that became big in the late 70s and 80s when slasher flicks and scary movies hit their heydays. For example, if you go to investigate a noise, you’re probably going to die. If you’re someone who parties, you’re probably going to die. If you’re not a virgin, you’re probably going to die. And so on, highlighting that there’s some sort of semi-ambiguous moral code underscoring all the terror befalling these characters.
And yet, for all those rules that are specific from movie to movie, I’ve found that one thing is pretty consistent. We’re watching these characters struggle to learn these specific rules, yes, but even more than that, we’re watching a group of people who are thrown into a situation in which they have no control.
And that is where fear is rooted.
The “rules” act as a measuring stick for who “deserves” death in the movie and who doesn’t (and what a terrifying idea that is in itself, that we’re put in a mindset to think someone, albeit a fictional character, deserves or in some way has “earned” death). It helps us manage the lack of control unfolding before our eyes. And they offer the characters an opportunity to grapple for some sort of foothold of taking their situation back under their control.
So take, for example, the movie Sinister. Spoilers ahead, if you care about that sort of thing. So Ethan Hawke plays this true crime author who moves into the old house of the murdered family he’s basing his next book on. Turns out there’s this Babylonian deity behind a long series of gruesome deaths of families. So while Hawke’s character is researching these murders, he begins to learn about the deity and eventually discovers the way that the cycle has been taking place- the deity uses images of himself to come into the world and possess the youngest children in the families who then kill the families and go back to the deity’s own dimension. But they’re only killed once they’ve gone to the house of a previous family in the cycle and then move back to the house they owned before. And of course Hawke discovers that little bit the night that they move back to their old house after getting too freaked out at the murder house. Thus, his little daughter drugs him and his wife and son and kills them.
So yes, it’s scary and horrible because death comes into the family and evil wins. But at the same time, there’s a sort of dignity to it. Hawke learns the rules. Is he too late? Yes. But he dies knowing why. And there’s a sense of ownership, of control in that. And the relatable character having control in this scenario isn’t horror.
Horror is The Strangers when a couple is terrorized all night by home invaders, only to be given the explanation that they did it “because you were home.” Horror is House of 1,000 Corpses where several couples watch helplessly as their mates are killed and disfigured in front of one another for a simple insult. These things are horror because there is no reason, no rationality. Chaotic evil. Unhinged. Inflicted upon someone who could be anyone.
Control belongs, in these situations, to a single entity, and that entity is an embodiment of evil. And I don’t think that’s an accident. Evil and the possession of control are closely related.
In the Garden of Eden, humanity falls. For a piece of fruit. Not really for a piece of fruit, but what it symbolizes: control. Security.
The serpent lies and deceives, yes, but that is water on a seed of mistrust in God. And when the fruit is offered, and the assertion is made that God is wrong and trying to hold humanity back and humanity can be like God, the question is posed: where are you going to place your security? Who is going to be in control?
We chose ourselves. And evil came into the world.
We are asked that question a thousand times each day. Humanity speaks the language of power and control. It’s what we long for and strive toward, whether we want to admit it or not. We are comfortable in the skin that has the most influence, the most friends, the most appeal to the general public. And every time we are faced with a decision, we have to answer the question of where we’re placing our security.
I’m not going to pretend that relinquishing control is an easy thing to do. It’s one of the single hardest things to do. It has been since the beginning. But you know who lives the longest in horror movies? The person who is adaptable. There is typically a character who will take charge and decide they have a plan and they’re just going to barrel through the frightful situation (for those of you keeping track of archetypes, this is usually the jock or the hot head/hotshot). And more often than not, they will die. Meanwhile( and this is admittedly a more mixed bag) the stoner or “space-y” character will usually make it pretty far if not survive the movie because they are literally so easy going that they can make like a pinball and just glance off the bumpers. The main character is usually portrayed as an Average Joe or Jody and responds to each situation as they come, not trying to seize the whole terrible circumstance by the throat in hopes that they’ll be released from it.
Evil is present in our lives in very real and horrible, gruesome ways. Humanity ushered in every form of evil with a single act: demanding control instead of daring to trust. Sometimes the evil in this world seems insurmountable. We want to do something about it. We want to fight back against it. And suddenly we’re forming a plan and saying “let’s split up, gang,” because if we have a good strategy and if we fight hard enough and smart enough, we can outrun or outlive whatever movie monster is knocking on our door.
If we can get control of the situation, we can beat the monster.
But you can’t beat the monster by grasping for the thing the monster has, the thing it is. That only makes us more like it.
So when we let go of that thing, we send our need to control away. And where does it go? It doesn’t go to the monster.
It goes to the only One who is capable of making a world where the monster has no more power. If only we are brave enough to trust that the One will do just that.