Macabre and the Christian Psyche

October 30, 2012 — 5 Comments

“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones,” wrote Stephen King.

Horror, macabre, and love of the dead has wrapped its lifeless fingers around the broader culture.

Across the centuries there has been a fascination with the dead and it would be unwise to pounce upon our culture and hail the Armageddon. This shows historical myopia more than careful thinking.

But it still seems to me that I have heard very few Christians stop and think more deeply about this issue.

What is the relationship between Christians and horror? Can Christians watch horror shows? What about shows with zombies? Should they dress up as the dead?

Doug Wilson recently broached this topic (cuz he ain’t scared) and said it stems from the folly of guilt, and in particular, sexual guilt. He continues:

In Prov. 8:36, Wisdom (a great lady) is speaking, and she says, “All they that hate me love death.” So a fascination with the things of death is hatred of wisdom. Folly is attracted to death.

Horror is a feeble attempt at catharsis. A sinner, one who deserves to die, goes into a theater, and a couple hours later comes out of the theater again — alive. There has been judgment, there has been blood, there has been justice, after a fashion. The spectator has put his ten bucks down for the privilege of laying his hands on the goat before it is slaughtered up there on the screen. The same goes for some creeptastic haunted house event. You go there, get yourself whipped up as though you were going to die in that place, somebody else dies instead, and out you come again. Resurrection has never been so easy.

Wilson has some fine points here, although I wonder about the connection with sexual guilt. That connection is not, well…connecting in my mind.

There seems to me to be a very simple way to deal with this issue of horror, macabre and death, and a very hard application of it.

The simplicity is in the principle.

There is a difference between celebrating death and horror, and using it for constructive purposes.

The problem remains that the difference is not definable so you won’t walk away from this post with a neat table of the shows and movies split into lines of holy and unholy.

So how can this genre be constructive?

More Horror Please

First, I began this article with a quote from Stephen King to remind us that there are real horrors. We fight a spiritual battle and that spiritual battle gets physical. Death is the last enemy and death is not standing at the door in a pretty white suit. No, death stands ready to swallow us, and that swallow includes teeth. Death stands to take our last chance of turning away from the darkness. Therefore, horror is real and Christians may need to stop shutting their eyes to the “dark” side of Christianity. As Richard Mouw said, “Halloween is one important occasion for reminding ourselves that the power of the Evil One is still with us.”

Second, unlike some art, horror and death have a very powerful way of distinguishing good from evil. Sometimes it is right to mask evil in the form of good, for wolves come to us in sheep’s clothing. But the mask must also be removed. The great red dragon of Revelation comes forth trying to devour the newborn child. It is appropriate for evil to be portrayed without makeup. In a very real sense, the world can be colored in black and white.

Third, George McDonald in his Letters from Hell points out that horror can show us the awful “dehumanizing” effect of people who stray from their purpose. God created us to be a certain way, and when we stray from the straight and narrow, things are not as pretty as the chick-flicks portray.

Fourth, at the center of Christianity stands a blood stained cross. Christianity is not a nice bed time story. It is a story of murder, betrayal, faithlessness, lying, cheating, and greed set against the backdrop of all pure God who sacrifices his Son for the very men that drive the nails into his hands.

Fifth, as Jacob Davis reminds us, the portrayal of horror can remind us that Jesus is victorious. Jesus comes crushing the head of the serpent. The great dragon is thrown down to the earth and Christ places his foot upon their necks in preparation of the death blow. Some of depictions of evil can be so moving that we rejoice that one day Jesus will wipe all this away with a word from his mouth.

Time To Celebrate

But cautions should also be sounded. There is a point where the constructive turns to celebration.

And to celebrate these things is an outright rejection of the created order.

Death came about by sin and is intimately tied to it. We need to be aware and careful of the following.

First, many turn to horror as an adrenaline rush. When everything is trivial, horror seems heavy and weighty. But those seeking this rush are not seeing the real world as I have described above. In other words, rather than turning to horror for a fix, they need to turn to the real horrors of life and begin to meditate on the spiritual forces which are battling over their souls. Ironically, those Christians who turn to horror the most, don’t understand sufficiently the real horrors all around us.

Second, I think Wilson is onto something when he speaks about guilt. In horror films there is bloodshed, and then the viewer walks away. They have escaped again, but only to come back to the blood repeatedly. Soon for those outside of Christ, the blood that will be required is their own. But if they would see that the blood of Christ has covered all, then their consciences would be washed with pure water.

Third, celebrating horror in my mind looks like watching horror for horrors sake rather than allowing it to serve its purpose. Strictly horror films at best are bad art, and at worst are an abomination to the Lord. To put it in another movie metaphor, a string of explosions for the sake of explosions is a lame show. Yes, the sixteen year old’s dropped off by their mom may enjoy it, but there is no substance, and the director has resorted to the easiest form of entertainment.

Fourth, we need to think long a hard about whether these things are holy. Doug Wilson again says it better than I can. “God calls us to holiness, and this does not mean that we are to meditate on zombies eating brains. I hate to break it to you, but that doesn’t qualify.”

Fifth, related to four, we need to ask ourselves if it is wise to take something connected so closely to sin as a reminder. How do we want to be reminded that pornography is bad? Do we want to dress up one day a year to show victory over this and satisfaction in Christ? And are we really doing this to remind ourselves that death will be defeated, or is it because the wider culture finds it intriguing?

These questions I cannot answer for you, and maybe the example above is unfair. But with death swirling in the air, we need to think carefully and cautiously about these things remembering that good brothers and sisters can disagree on these things.

Charles Baudelaire said, “As a small child, I felt in my heart two contradictory feelings, the horror of life and the ecstasy of life.”

We all have to admit that there are real horrors. The question is, how do we dress them up.


Many thanks to Jacob Davis who is writing “Veiled in Darkness” a book he is looking to publish. He sent me portions of it to help me think through these issues.





Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

5 responses to Macabre and the Christian Psyche

  1. Great thoughts, Patrick. Great to hear someone else thinking through the many issues involved. One note, though… I don’t have a publisher yet for the book, wich is still a work in progress.

  2. Thanks Jacob. I thought I saw Crossway on the excerpts but I must have read it wrong.

  3. Patrick,
    Great article. I read Wilson’s too, and I think his connection to sexual guilt was tied to the underlying guilt from abortion. You want a truly horrifying word, consider God’s word to Cain, “Your brother’s blood cries out.” The blood of millions of innocents, murdered in the name of sexual liberty, cries out, and the world is troubled by a gnawing guilt. We try to mute the cry by flirting with death in a safe environment – movies, costumes, etc… – but without the forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ, that cry will lead to judgment.
    Thanks for the message – keep pointing to Christ.

    • Ethan

      Good point about Cain. I am still having a hard time connecting how playing with death mutes that guilt. I am not entirely opposed to it but it still just does not seem to be a tight correlation.

  4. Fun fact: Stephen King was mainly published in adult magazines until the early 80’s.

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