I Go to Church. I Like Horror Movies. Sue Me.
As a lifelong churchgoer, I get funny reactions from people when I mention that I’m writing a horror film. This isn’t new for me. Once, when I was introduced as a filmmaker to the wife of the new head pastor at my former church, she looked at me with uncertainty and said, “Family movies, I hope?”
I’m leery of the label Christian, though who I am and the things I think about have certainly been shaped by my trying to follow Jesus. I have little interest in the safe, clean and cute stories that permeate the churchgoing subculture, and instead have been inspired by a director named Scott Derrickson. When the National Catholic Register recently asked him what a “nice Christian guy” is doing writing and directing horror movies like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister and most recently Deliver Us From Evil, he responded:
For me, [horror] is the perfect genre for a person of faith to work in. You can think about good and evil pretty openly. I always talk about it being the genre of non-denial. I like the fact that it’s a genre about confronting evil, confronting what’s frightening in the world. I like the mystery of the genre. There are a lot of voices that are broadcasting that the world is explainable. Corporate America limits the world to consumerism. Science can limit it to the material world. Even religion limits it to a lot of theories that can explain everything. I think we need cinema to break that apart and remind us that we’re not in control, and we don’t understand as much as we think we do.
I primarily write science fiction. But only an thin line separates sci-fi from horror. And I’m drawn to sci-fi and horror and thrillers for the exact reasons Derrickson expresses. The mysteries of life, the things I fear, the cautionary tales that are part of the sci-fi and horror universe all call to me. Horror specifically invites us to wrestle with and make sense of spiritual realities that are too often pushed aside by our affluent and primarily empirical American way of life.
I definitely understand that some people avoid horror because there is too much focus on evil. It’s not for everyone. But it is one of Hollywood’s most popular genres. Numerous magazines and websites are dedicated to it. Its fans are offered uniquely profound conversations about how to confront evil, how to look for a powerful good and how to think about the consequences of our own evil choices.
Some horror movies miss this opportunity. (For instance, Paranormal Activity.) But others grasp it with gusto. I love The Conjuring, which unflinchingly deals with demons in its modern setting and which brings up profound notions about the larger struggle between good and evil. It even has a silent-but-ever-present character who is referred to by two Catholic characters as God.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose remains one of my favorite horror films. What makes good horror is the human drama, the romance, even the humor. Emily Rose wrestles beautifully with a profound spiritual double question: Is the demonic world real, and would God allow someone to die under demonic procession in spite of their stated faith? The film also considers the flip side of that question: Was this young woman simply tragically ill and in need of medical help? It’s an important conversation, at least to me. The film, part possession movie and part courtroom drama, invites multiple viewings and deep discussions. I showed it once at The River Film Forum, a monthly event I host. After seeing it multiple times, I still oscillate between a spiritual view of the story (which is based on actual events) and a medical and mundane interpretation. This is the mark of thoughtful horror storytelling.
I hope to pull off a story like that with this script I’m working on. And I hope you’ll join me in my appreciation for “the genre of non-denial.”