Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Defense of Enjoying Scary Things

Some people would say it's wrong to enjoy horror or a good scare.  I'm not talking about people who merely don't like the horror genre, who don't understand it or who find it too scary.  I mean that there are people who take a matter of taste and turn it into a matter of principle.  These are the sort who take it upon themselves as a kind of duty to instruct their fellow Christians as to the immorality of enjoying scary stories, films, or activities, and claim a moral high ground on the basis that their interests are more "godly" than the dark, demented, "twisted" interests of those who would dare to enjoy something scary.  They might even go so far as to instill, deliberately, a disdain for horror in anyone (say, a new Christian initiate or godchild) whose religious education is their duty.  Keep in mind, this disdain for horror is generally applied to even those examples of the genre that match up to the guidelines in my last post.  Just because it's scary, evidently, is reason enough to condemn it.

Now, despite the fact that I can't help but get annoyed with this attitude, I want to admit that I see where these folks are coming from, and there are probably even a few people I like and admire who have this attitude.  We Christians, the scriptures say, are to focus on "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable" and "anything [that] is excellent or praiseworthy."  Also, "what fellowship has darkness with light?"  So it would seem, to many, that such verses preclude an enjoyment of horror or scary things.  I get it; I really do.  And although I disagree, I can respect those who come to this conclusion, despite my personal annoyance at it.

However, I would first argue that if we take these admonitions to mean that it's wrong to enjoy he horror genre, it would also be wrong to enjoy any cathartic entertainment that was anything but happy and saccharine.  Horror is not the only thing, if one is being fair, that could be called "dark."  Sorrow is dark.  So much for enjoying a tragedy.  What could be darker than war?  War films, too, must be eschewed then.  Sin is the ultimate darkness, and so any story in which characters sin is out; no matter if the moral of the story itself is sound, and merely the characters sinful, because such considerations--in the minds of such people as morally oppose horror--would NOT redeem a horror story, after all.  In not condemning these other things, nor holding them to the same strict "You should only ever think of nice things!" standard, opponents of horror show that their opposition is fueled by more than a little bit of their own personal taste.  "I find horror unpleasant and dark, so surely God must too."

I'm sure that's in the Bible somewhere...
Or maybe in a Church document?

But horror, for all its detractors, is just one more variation on what all storytelling is about:  Conflict and resolution.  The chief difference between a well-made (key phrase:  "well-made") horror film and, say, a crime drama is that in the horror the villain and conflict happen to strike a "creepy" nerve, whereas in the crime drama the more mundane villain and conflict do not do so on so primal a level.  In some cases this is literally a matter of circumstance:  That we are more viscerally spooked by a misshapen monster with claws and sharp teeth than we are by a suave crime lord with a gun has no bearing on whether or not it is immoral to watch a movie where the villain is a former but okay to watch one where the villain is the latter.  So the horror genre, in and of itself, is not materially different from any other genre--although to be sure the execution of a particular story, just as in any genre, may be in violation of sound Christian principles, but we're speaking of the inherent idea of horror here--and only differs in the particular presentation and choice of villain, conflict or setting.

In the most blatant cases where there is a double standard, stories that the horror haters may accept even have scenes or passages straight out of the horror genre.  Why is it okay to watch Frodo, from Lord of the Rings, battle for his life with the horrific eight-legged monstrosity that is Shelob, but it's immoral to watch a film whose entire plot is about a giant spider?  Let's assume that the protagonist of the latter film even survives and conquers the beast, so that it can't be argued that the latter film presents a more pessimistic or cynical worldview.  Is it really different just because the Shelob plot is a subplot and not the entire story?  Would it be, then, immoral to--for whatever reason--pop into the room just as Frodo was fleeing Shelob, but to leave the room as the battle was over?  I think most people would know how ridiculous it is to assert that the Shelob sequence is suddenly immoral if isolated, where it was just fine otherwise, yet that's precisely what is suggested when we say that it's okay to enjoy stories with scary elements, but not to enjoy scary stories.  

In fact, there are a number of merits to the horror genre.  So not only is horror in itself neutral, there can be arguments made that it has real value, at least--as with anything else--if enjoyed with the proper mindset.

First of all, an enjoyment of horror and scary things stems from the same fascination that drives us to fully appreciate God's creation.  I think we sometimes like to forget that the same God who made puppies and flowery meadows also  made hairy spiders and terrifyingly dark caves.   Are we to say that these latter things are bad?  Did God make a mistake?!  Of course not!  Then why might we condemn the person who, for Halloween, dresses up as a spider, yet embrace the one who dresses up as a historical figure?  God made both the spider and the man!  Or why condemn the man who dresses up as a fictional monster, but not the one who dresses up as an elf?  God endowed man with the creativity to dream up both creatures, the former reflecting the Divine Creativity that made the scary spider, the latter reflecting that very same Creativity which also made the graceful swan.  Is a man who appreciates the former morbid, yet the man who appreciates the latter healthy?  Did God, Who hates nothing He has made according to scripture, wish for only some of His creations, and only the creations of man which reflect those, to be appreciated by us, while the others should be hated?  I think not!

Swan!  That is all.

Second of all, many horror stories illustrate the battle between good and evil in more direct terms than a great many other genres.  So many genres portray the forces of good and bad in shades of gray, as is only natural when working with mundane subject matter.  Horror is right up there, however, with fantasy in being prone to drawing clear lines between light and darkness, good and evil.  The villain is often enough a soulless killer or a monster, representing (if only on a subconscious level) the cosmic battle between humanity and our horrific true enemy, Satan.  In the ultimate battle we fight, there is no ambiguity, no shades of gray.  We face a dragon, a beast, a creature more horrific than anything a horror writer or director could dream up.  Scripture often paints that battle starkly, without ambiguity.  Most other genres that are supposedly "okay," such as drama, comedy, or whatever else, tend by nature to blur those lines, understandably so because they deal in mundane mortal life, in "flesh and blood", and as we know, the enemies against whom we fight are not flesh and blood.  On the other hand, horror, alongside fantasy and sometimes science fiction, has the unique tendency of outlandish plots that go beyond "flesh and blood," where often enough even human villains are essentially "monsters in human form," an embodiment of unambiguous evil.  Humanity needs such stories.  This is why the old fairy tales and morality tales are often enough horror stories in their own right (somehow being "grandfathered" in so that horror haters consider them acceptable).   For this same reason, when interpreted through a Christian lens, horror stories can make particularly good allegories for the inner battles Christians face.

Third, horror offers a catharsis that no other genre does.  It is in our very being, biologically, to need an outlet for our fight or flight tendencies.  Long ago, life was largely a horror story.  Humanity was surrounded on all fronts by a mysterious and terrifying wilderness, full of creatures and threats that were unknown to us.  The feeling that we get when we watch, read, or see something scary is a feeling that our distant ancestors would have known just by their existence, an existence where fear of the unknown "monsters" waiting out there in the darkness was very practical.  And in many ways, we still have reason to entertain such fears, we just have a way, in modern society, of covering it up with a veneer of technology and complex civilization.  But our nature remains unchanged.  There are those who would like to live their lives ignoring this "scary" side of reality, but I don't think it's healthy.  In ancient times, people deliberately told scary stories to prepare each other for the genuine horrors of life, to keep each other "on their toes" via the cathartic effect those stories had.  Such stories and works serve the same purpose today.

Fourth, horror offers a continuity with our ancestors, both recent and ancient, that we lack if we smugly insist that scary tales have no place in our lives.  Just listen to the stories told by our medieval and ancient ancestors.  Many of them, if we weren't so familiar with them, would make our hair stand on end!  Just look at the artwork in some of our ancient places of worship.  Statues of gargoyles, demons, and ghouls were meant to remind people of the darkness that exists.  How ludicrous it would be if, back then, our deeply religious forbears would include such imagery in their most sacred spaces,  yet we "enlightened" ones should turn up the nose at such imagery or descriptions in our fiction or in our spookier celebrations, let alone in our parishes--oh the horror!  What a loss of continuity, a break with tradition, if we are too faint of heart to handle scary things when those who came before were willing to give such things a prominence even in churches!  Are we, with our whitewashed aversion to whatever reminds us of mortality and the existence of evil, better than they?  I can't buy into the notion that we are.

We don't make things like this now that our society is more
Christian than it was a couple hundred years ago...  Oh wait...

I'm not saying, by any stretch of the imagination, that everyone should be a fan of horror.  And I'll be the first to admit that a lot of particular entries in the horror genre these days are trash.  But that's a matter of circumstance, not inevitability.  And in fact we only further this unfortunate circumstance if we, the people with the right values, snub this time-honored genre while only those in the secular, cynical culture around us are willing to take it on.  If you do not personally enjoy the horror genre, my aim here is not to "convert" you.  People enjoy what they enjoy.  I'm also in agreement that anyone who was obsessed with horror, to the point of neglecting the "lighter" things, the pleasant things, would be morbid.  I'm not here to defend a consuming obsession.  Rather, I seek only to point out the deep error of condemning the genre, and the enjoyment of it, as being incompatible with Christian virtue.  Historically and logically, that's just not true, and the attitude is more a product of a modern, sanitized culture which desperately denies mortality and the existence of danger or evil--perhaps with a hint of Puritan influence--than of historic Christian morality, which has long made room for the horrific and the frightening right alongside its focus on the lofty and the beautiful.  It's simply not "either/or" here.  It never has been.

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