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March 4, 2011

Shining Light Into the Darkness of Horror Tales

Sacramental Horror Stories: Shining Light Into the Darkness of the Human Heart

Rev. Jonathan Weyer (Author, 'The Faithful')
March 3, 2011

As a kid growing up in Southern Indiana, I wasn't allowed to watch horror movies, like Friday the 13th or Halloween. Having kids myself, I now completely understand why I wasn't allowed. The last thing I want to deal with in the middle of the night is a screaming 7-year-old scared by something he saw on TV.

Still, I loved to be scared so I snuck in real ghost stories while staying at my grandma's house during the summer. I shivered into the night as I read story after story about ghosts. I loved it. The love of being scared has followed me into my adulthood. Many Christians find it it odd that I have an interest in scary things. They are completely weirded out when they find out I have written and just published a horror novel.

I usually start with a Stephen King quote. He wrote in his masterful survey of horror, Danse Macabre, that, "Traditional Horror has a morality that would make a Puritan preacher smile." King demonstrates that Traditional horror recognizes that there is a moral order to the universe. Brahm Stoker wants us to think about the horror of killing children as the brides of Dracula eat a peasant baby. Oscar Wilde's masterful uncanny horror story, The Picture of Dorian Gray, invites us to consider the difference between our private and public life through the rotting painting of Dorian Gray's soul.

The Nicene Creed, one of the foundational statements of Christianity, states that God is the creator of the seen and the unseen. Many of us have no problem with the seen part. Human beings long to know everything. Science is based on that very idea. My worldview tells me that God wants and loves the scientific impulse. The problem comes when that scientific desire becomes spoiled by a narrow-minded skepticism that betrays good critical thought. A naturalism that refuses to accept the possibility that there might be something beyond what our five senses can understand.

The Southern writer Flannery O'Connor once wrote that to reach the deaf sometimes you have to shout. Uncanny horror, through its scares, prickles and bumps in the night, shakes us out of our materialistic slumber. Unsettling horror can shake us out of the naturalistic stupor.

I'm always reminded of Medieval paintings when I think about horror. These paintings are full of horrific symbolism about death. Paintings done during the Black Death are full of skulls, skeletons and demons. The horrifying images invite us to consider that we are mortals doomed to die. The medieval mind considered loving God and loving their neighbor as the highest good, the good that should be our ultimate aim. Through grossing us out, the medieval painters pointed us to thinking about serious things.

Gross-out horror can serve this function in modern horror books and movies. A zombie eating brains, Dracula's fangs sinking into a tender throat and the horrible death of a beloved character can force people to realize the fragility of our own lives. We live such sterilized lives when it comes to death. Funerals are held in antiseptic funeral homes with unnaturally arranged flowers and bad food. When we go to a funeral, we want to get in, hug the family and get out. Rarely are we given time to reflect on the person's death or to think about our own death.

Gross-out horror doesn't just invite us to contemplate death but also to make fun of it. The Irish Christians still celebrated Halloween after their conversion as a way to mock death and the grave. Many of our Halloween traditions can be traced back to the medieval Irish practice of mocking death. They believed in the resurrection of Christ and knew death would one day be defeated.

However, gross-out horror can lead to the last category, torture porn. In the past 20 years, movie theaters have been flooded with movies that delight in killing, maiming and torturing. Hostel, Saw and even the movie Hannibal delight in casting out the traditional morality of old school horror. Even the "heroes" in these movies are sadistic, vengeful people who take delight in not just killing someone, but utterly dehumanizing them.

Torture porn wants you to root for the killers and to cheer each splatter of blood. Torture porn isn't humanizing. In fact, it dehumanizes to justify its glorification of torture. The stories don't invite discussion about deeper questions. Torture porn wants us to delight in pain.

Sacramental horror does the opposite. By combining uncanny and gross-out horror, we can become participants in the signs and seals of a bigger picture. Sacramental horror invites you to think about realities you can't see, touch or taste, but still exist. By horrifying us, horror humanizes by making us consider the evil that is loose in the world of our own hearts. Stories of sacramental horror shine light into the darkness of the human heart and exposes what's there. These stories help us partake in the idea that there might just be more to our world than what we can see.