There’s an old adage that if a headline asks a question the implied answer is “No.”I’ve found that to be true, largely.I hoped differently when I saw the article titled “Are Horror Films Secretly Spiritual?” by S. Rufus in Psychology Today.Rufus, admittedly not a fan of horror, ponders whether it might not meet a spiritual need for some.She would not count herself among that number, should the assertion prove to be the case.Indeed, her post has more sentences ending in question marks regarding this assertion than it has straightforward declarative ones.Rufus notes that ancient religions involved a kind of fear-based response appropriate to the lifestyle of those open to constant threat by the natural world.She seems to believe that civilization has saved us from that.
Now one of the questions with which I constantly struggle is why I watch horror.I do not like being afraid, and when people find out about my fascination with horror they tend to treat me as if there’s something wrong with me.I guess maybe I think that civilization has not so much eliminated the sources of threat so much as changed them.Those who grow up poor know fear.Fear of want is extremely prevalent in our capitalist society.I see the “street people” when I go into New York City.They are not few.Once you start to get away from affluent suburbs just about anywhere you start to see the run-down houses of those who can’t cope with the demands of a consumerist society.Even those of us with an education are liable to joblessness and the very real terror that attends it.
Civilization, in other words, comes with its own costs.Religions originally began—some of them at least—largely from the fear response.Yes, people were afraid.The gods, properly propitiated, stay the hand of disaster.For now.Some religions, such as those in the monotheistic family tree, tend to suggest higher principles like love can be the motivation.These religions, however, quickly begin to make threats against those who are heterodox, and reintroduce fear into the formulation.I suspect, from my own experience of all of this, that the answer to the question may actually be “yes”—horror films do offer something spiritual.There is a catharsis, if I may borrow a term from psychology, in them.The spiritual element may, however, run much deeper than that.Until human society truly takes love and justice as its operating principles, we will have horror films to help us learn to cope.
There’s a narrative of fear in Christianity that seems to have been absent at the beginning.This is evident when driving the highways of America where you’ll see billboards (which are meant for selling things) advertising the truth of a kind of biblical Fundamentalism.On my recent trip across Pennsylvania this fear stood out in some rather obvious ways.And it doesn’t reflect the Christianity reflected in the Good Book.Stop and think about it: although the persecution of early believers was probably never as widespread as the usual narrative says it was, the writings we have describe facing persecution with joy.Believing that they would be delivered, the oppressed welcomed the opportunity to prove their faith.The Chick tracts I read as a child, however, focused intently on how scary the future persecution would be.Fear, not joy, was the motivation for belief.
As we stopped in a turnpike rest area, we noticed a kiosk of Christian books amid snacks both salty and sweet.The only other reading material available had to do with tourist attractions and finding directions.It was, upon retrospect, odd.Pondering this I recalled the narrative I heard repeatedly in my youth—a time was coming when it would be illegal to be Christian.There would be persecution and the only proper response was a faith borne of fear.This was not a religion of love thy neighbor.No, this was a religion of armed survival based not on turning the other cheek, but on asserting itself with a show of firepower.This kind of weaponized evangelicalism has taken over the narrative of Christianity.Paul of Tarsus, knowing he would likely be executed, wrote of his joy from prison.In the land of plenty we tremble.
The more cynical side of my experience suggests that politicians—who have learned that fear gets them elected—found in this form of Christianity a convenient set of sheep without a shepherd.There’s fear in these billboards.Fear that another religion may take over.Or that secularism may make cherished beliefs illegal.This isn’t cause for celebration, as the sermon on the mount proclaims it should be, but rather a call to arms.In this country we have more than enough.Among those left out, however, this fear grows just as rapidly as among those who fear they may lose the abundance they have.They try to convert the weary traveler whose eye is drawn to the billboard.And even those who stop for a drink of cold water which, the Bible suggests, should be freely given.
“Theology” is a word that means very different things in different contexts.I dislike labels in general and I seldom call myself a “theologian” since that implies a systematic or “dogmatic” theologian on this side of the Atlantic. (And a better paying job.)In the about to exit Britain “theologian” tends to mean someone who studies religion and can be used regardless of discipline.In any case, I avoid the use of the title since my interests tend toward the history of religious ideas, not making them into a workable system.I was a little surprised when I received an invitation from the journal Horizons in Biblical Theology to contribute a piece on horror and the Bible.The issue in which the article was published (41) has just appeared.Ironically, invitations to contribute seldom came when I was employed as an academic.Of course, “independent scholar” is now a fairly common avocation.Especially in theology.
I won’t post any spoiler alerts for the contents of the article—I don’t want to quell the stampede of those eager to read it—but the basic idea is that biblical studies has embraced horror.Like long-lost cousins, they have come together at last, realizing that they are both pariahs.People generally don’t know how to carry on a discussion with a biblical scholar, as if those of us who spend time with the Good Book are constantly judging others.I can’t say as I blame them since that image is reinforced fairly constantly.Horror scholars, on the other hand, are thought to be weird examples of arrested development—stuck in the juvenile phase.Social respectability isn’t their strong suit, although horror movies do well at the box office and one of the most successful writers ever is Stephen King.
Religion and horror share more than being associated with troglodytes, however.Both address primal human fears.Religion may not be “all about” fear, but a healthy dose of it is.If life was peachy all the time, would we have any need of religion?We need help coping with our fears, and religion has a long history of dispensing it.Knowing we’re going to die, and in all likelihood will experience some suffering before that, whether physical or psychological, is a heavy burden to bear.Religion has always been there to provide meaning and sometimes even solace.Horror, or at least the best of it, does so too.I’m not sure I would call it theological, but if you’re interested you know where to find my latest musings on it.
Among the constant topics of discussion, both in the academy and in its publishing ancillaries, is the loss of interest in religion.After a period of growth early in the new millennium, as measured by college majors, interest has dropped off and Nones are set to replace evangelical Christians as the largest religious group in America.The corresponding lack of interest in religion is extremely dangerous.I’ve often posted on the necessity of looking back to see where we might be going, and the further back we go the more we understand how essential religion is to the human psyche.My own academic goals were to get back to the origins of religion itself—something I continue to try to do—and I discovered that they rest in the bosom of fear.I’m not the first to notice that, nor have others been shy about using it to their advantage.
Lack of classical education, by which I mean reading the classics, has led us to an extremely tenuous place.More interested in the Bible, I followed the track to another ancient system of thought, but as I find out more about the religion of classical Greece and Rome, the more I tremble.You see, ancient Roman writers (especially) were extremely conscious of the fact that fear motivated people.In order to construct a steady state, they infused it with a religion based on fear and supported by said state.An overly simplified view would suggest that the Jews and Christians took their religion too seriously and refused to play the Roman game.When they wouldn’t worship the emperor (who surely knew he wasn’t a god) they threatened the empire.The response?A good, old-fashioned dose of fear.Crucifixion oughta cure ‘em.
See what I mean?
The thing is, our American form of government, buoyed up by an intentional courting of evangelical Christians as a voting bloc, manipulates that fear even more stealthily than the Romans did.People ask me why I “like” horror.I don’t so much like it as I see its role as a key.It is a key to understanding religion and it has long turned the tumblers of the state.Ancient societies kept religion under state control—something the Republican Party has been advocating as of late.Why?Religion, based on fear, ensures the continuance of power.Those of us who watch horror are doing more than indulging in a lowbrow pastime.We are probing the very origins of religion.And we are bringing to light the machinations with deus.Let those who read understand.
Every politician knows that fear wins elections.Just how deep into Orwellian territory we are became clear at 2:18 p.m. on Wednesday.A man I loath and distrust, who happens hold high office sent out a national presidential alert to cell phones everywhere.After being awakened at odd hours a time or two over my cell phone owning years, I’d turned off my smart phone alerts.I wasn’t out driving to spot amber alert situations in the middle of the night.If there’s a severe thunderstorm coming, I’m already awake.The idea that if everyone with a phone is on the lookout we’ll all be safe seems a bogus one to me.There is, however, no way to turn off a presidential alert.Like most Americans I was working when my phone went off.I wasn’t afraid.Just annoyed.
Random scary sounds are among the most frightening things people experience.I recently started writing in the attic (if you read this blog regularly you won’t even ask why).As I was writing this post a gust of wind blew and it sounded like the roof might collapse upon me.Sudden load sounds make us look for comfort in a strong person.On a national scale that means, God help us, politicians.When my phone alert goes off, it’s telling me to vote for the party in power.There’s psychology afoot here.This was no accidental coincidence.Midterm elections are just weeks away.
I know something about fear.Not only do I write about horror films, I grew up with so many childhood phobias that my mother wondered how I would ever get along.Those phobias may have gone underground when I became an adult, but they never truly left me.I don’t encounter them on a daily basis, but I can draw on them for my fiction.I don’t, however, appreciate my government using them against me.Perhaps this sounds paranoid.If paranoid it’s by design.Even if 45 can’t see beyond his own proboscis, those on his team know the fear factor works.Winston will come to love big brother.Fear robs rationality.We’re mere primates, after all.Was it coincidence that there was what appeared to be an impromptu Trump rally later that afternoon?There is a difference between paranoia and naiveté.We’re a wired nation and the Republican Party has the phone number of each and every one of us.If this is not a drill, you know where to find me.
I can tell that I’ve been far too busy when I don’t have time to prepare for Halloween. I don’t mean commercially—running out and buying decorations and the like—but mentally. For reasons perhaps only understood by psychologists, Halloween is my favorite holiday. I love the comfort of being with my small family on Thanksgiving and Christmas, huddled inside while the cold whistles against our windows. The sense of relief at not having to go to work even though it’s a weekday, and that increasingly rare luxury of simple breathing space. Still, Halloween takes me back to a childhood with which I resonate in a way against which other holidays only vibrate in sympathy. The days are undeniable darker. My fears, I’m told, are not unfounded. I wear a mask and am free to be myself.
Commuting prevents me from getting out to see the decorations for which some neighborhoods have become notorious. The large, billowing, air-filled frights, however, are just hot air. Even the younger generation at the office, whispering among themselves that this is also their favorite holiday, decorate their cubicles in a way that’s more cute than chilling. No, I’m not a fan of gore—this is more subtle than that. Those who’ve long dwelt with existential angst are connoisseurs of dread. We know, for example, that it will be many months now before we step out into the morning light or come home from work able to see our way clearly. The shades of darkness aren’t always the same. There’s a texture to them. To prepare properly, you need time. The very commodity of which I’m being drained.
Those who know me as a mild, “uncomplicated” sort of person don’t know me. They’ve only become accustomed to the Halloween mask that I wear almost constantly now. Life can do that to you. Instead of the creepy novels which generally crowd my autumn, I’ve been spending time with the existentialists, listening to them reflect on death and its meaning. Or lack thereof. Religions, of course, hurl themselves into that void offering plans of escape. And yet in October that man who walks his dog before dawn wearing a white bathrobe sure looks like a ghost to me. And I’m standing on this street corner utterly alone as the wind blows down the avenue, chasing frightened leaves past me, sending a chill down my spine. I’m looking forward to sitting on a bus to get out of the cold. I’m complicit, I realize, in the death of Halloween.
One of the surest signs of hope for the world is that academics are beginning to notice monsters. A trickle began some time ago and it’s probably best to call it a trickle still, nevertheless, the quality of the trickle is improving. Some serious publishers are now counted among the mix of those who pay attention to the lovable unlovable. Greg Garrett’s Living with the Living Dead: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse is one of the more recent approaches to the undead that looks for religious themes among them. They’ve been there from the beginning with zombies, of course, but few with tenured positions bothered to look. It’s an open question how long the current fascination with the undead might last, but Garrett’s treatment finds them useful sources of theological thought.
Perhaps the aspect of my own fascination that I feel most often compelled to explain is why fear has such an appeal. Garrett makes the point that fear often causes people to make bad choices, and I would have to agree. It is, however, the fear of fear that takes a greater toll. You see, fear is a survival instinct. Without fight or flight we’re all zombie food. Some of us learn this harsh lesson early in life, and if we manage to survive long enough we might even become nostalgic for it. It’s not that I like be afraid, but I do know that if we fear fear—if we avoid looking at what scares us—we put ourselves in danger that the flight response might well prevent.
Garrett’s treatment is helpful in demonstrating that there is a reason for such stories. In fact, according to his analysis zombies can leave you with a profound sense of hope. He uses the living dead as a means of thinking about community, ethics, and apocalypse. Not all end of the world scenarios are that bad. How we treat the living dead may tell us quite a bit about our own rectitude or lack thereof. In other words, zombies are more than their puerile thrills might suggest. There’s something of substance here. I don’t agree with all of Garrett’s conclusions, but he offers a stimulating tour of the current media frenzy around the living challenged and is surely correct that there is more going on with monsters than many of our parents would like to have a religion expert admit. Those childhood years might not have been wasted on monsters after all.