Saturday, January 2, 2010

Rei Theologiae

On Horror

I don't know who owns the following thoughts of mine, whether I do or First Things does. I wrote it, they edited it. I do not imagine that they would mind me including it here, but if they do, please, no offence is intended, my dear editors! If you want to see the original article of Mr Goldman, please visit their website. Here is my letter:

David P. Goldman misses something in his analysis; had he considered it, I think his (certainly provocative) reading of American history may have turned out somewhat differently. He forgets that horror is not new. Nor did it begin with Dracula and Frankenstein and so on. It predates the invention of the moving picture; it predates writing, even in the non-Teutonic world. For as long as people have told stories, they have told scary stories. There was much in nature to inspire them, and life itself was scary.

Telling stories about scary things has always given man some sort of control over his native fears. The great Homer himself had terrifying creatures in the Odyssey—as gruesome as man could imagine. The Babylonian and Greek creation myths are full of horrible and powerful creatures. Nor is this dimension absent from the Bible: There is Job’s horrible Leviathan, Exodus’ irresistible Angel of Death, monstrous Goliath, bloodthirsty Jezebel, the dead rising up in the Gospel of Matthew (27:52–53), and the beasts and dragons of John’s Revelation. It is difficult to come up with criteria that make these instances of horror okay while excluding those presentations of more recent vintage. I was hoping Goldman would have brought the role of subliminal manipulation into the discussion.

As a theologian, I would say that the morality of enjoying horror should be considered in the context of the morality of enjoying anything. Saving Private Ryan and Braveheart were excellent films, in my opinion. They were also gruesome. I brought my fiancĂ©e to the former, and am glad she decided to marry me despite it. Is fear qualitatively different from jollity, from bravado, from the heart flutters induced by romance? And why is the fear of blood and death associated with zombies different from that associated with Nazis? Of course, obsession with anything other than God is immoral. This includes obsession with Darth Vader, the Borg, Klingons, Sauron, and zombies. It also includes obsession with Chesterton, Dante, Dostoevsky, and Aslan. St. Thomas Aquinas did not believe that all the emotions were on an absolutely equal moral footing (see Summa Theologica, 1a, 2ae, qq.22–48), but they were, for the most part, just emotions. It would be hard to say, based on his teaching, that subjecting oneself to fear of zombies is immoral while subjecting oneself to fear of Nazis, Grendel, and Iago is not.

I’m not sure that there is a “growing morbidity” in America’s imagination, as Goldman says, or that, if this is occurring, it is because America is watching too many horror movies. I do not exclude the possibility that this is so. I think it is more likely, however, that this is just a fad, and, like every fad, will lose and gain popularity over time. Goldman’s analysis of box-office proportions is simplistic. Although I am loath to defend Hollywood, it is nevertheless true that the movie phenomenon is still so new in our culture, still finding itself. That the place of the horror movie in Hollywood should fluctuate is neither here nor there. On the other hand, perhaps the increasingly significant position of the horror movie in Hollywood’s offerings is a part of the growth of paganism. But to say that it is a part of resurgent paganism does not prove that it is evil in and of itself: In terms of their origin, the play is pagan, the tragedy is pagan, the epic poem is pagan. Pagan is not necessarily the same thing as evil.

I think the current fascination with zombies is man reflecting on—whether consciously or unconsciously—how much he hates and fears his neighbor. Zombies are about the crisis of community, about our loss of trust in our neighbor—a trust governed by our previously unquestioned and naive liberal-democratic anthropology. Is realizing that one hates one’s neighbor a bad thing? No, it is a good thing. It is to make a beginning in the truth.

Overall, I think Goldman is correct that there is a link between the horror genre and paganism. The link is especially evident in the fact that the heroes of these movies are generally cowards. They are not instantiations of Christian heroism, the kind of heroism that can stand up to a Diocletian or an Adolf Hitler, but of the spineless Stranger of Camus. These antiheroes are intended to be accurate reflections of human nature—and maybe they are accurate. It could be argued that movies should not teach that such cowardliness is okay or normal. Yet art can, or maybe even ought only to, reflect reality; I accept that. I do not watch movies to learn what I should do in case of a zombie uprising. I pay my ticket price, in part, to enjoy the smug feeling of superiority I get in condemning the heroes’ cowardliness, a cowardliness you would never see me guilty of in a similar circumstance—which is what I tell my buddies as we leave the theater. Of course, pagan does not mean amoral. It is clear, however, that if the audience were more Christian, it would insist that a clearer line be drawn between good and bad behavior; and Christians, although not pagans, possess a sophisticated enough vocabulary to navigate this fundamental distinction.

Colin Kerr
Ontario, Canada


As you will have figured out, I am a fan of the horror-movie genre. I took the occasion of Mr. Goldman's article to think through some of the issues involved - I know there are issues involved for a Christian! By no means have I exhausted the topic here. I really like Mr. Goldman's reply to my letter too (again, see the First Things site).


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