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4 Lessons Christian Writers Can Glean from the Horror Genre

July 22, 2021

Shortly after I graduated from high school, I decided to watch a horror film for the first time. I wasn’t sure I wanted to, because I’d never been a fan of scenes designed to startle the audience, and the prospect of demonic activity layered onto suspense intimidated me. My gut urged me to discount the horror genre as unfit for conscientious Christians, but I knew I needed to experience it at least once to evaluate it fairly. So I went to see The Conjuring 2 with my best friend.

 

Although the movie conveys a nominally Christian perspective (it wasn’t a slasher or anything of that nature), its ominous themes left a lasting impression. I’m not an especially visual person, so I didn’t suffer traumatic aftermath in the form of nightmares or anxiety. Instead, the movie brought on several positive effects:

 

  1. With every fiber of my being, I hate how evil preys on the weak, taking advantage wherever and however it can, and the film stirred up those feelings with new ferocity.
  2. I was moved to prayer, concern, and sorrow for victims of demonic oppression and/or possession in the real world. Beforehand those people didn’t cross my mind as often, or with as much empathy.
  3. I remembered that even though the world’s fallen state overshadows and stings like the vilest midnight, Christ’s love and power always prevails. Light rides on the tails of the darkest storms, and with Him living in me, hope can’t be snuffed out.

The intense and prolonged reaction the film triggered in me made me realize that horror could be an impetus for change if I approached it with discernment. I no longer defaulted to condemning it as a genre.

 

Now, I can’t recommend horror to just anyone, and I won’t ever do so. The more appalling the content, the more dangerous it becomes. Like a sharpened knife, the potential for both good and harm rises in tandem, depending upon how the blade is wielded and received. The same story may send one reader into depression while inspiring another to be courageous. The deciding factor is how each person processes the story. Readers with especially vivid imaginations are likely to be disturbed beyond the point of productive reflection. Horror isn’t meant to suit everyone.

 

But with that important caveat laid on the table, Christian writers can still learn at least four lessons from the horror genre that will help them craft more impactful stories.

 

1. Unsettling Stories Linger with Us

When an event upsets us, it consumes our thoughts. In the best of cases, we’ll cast those cares upon the Lord and honestly examine ourselves as we do so. A transformative story isn’t one that we physically and mentally put back on the shelf. It’s one that stays open in our minds even after we’ve closed the cover.

 

I’m not saying we should pack our stories with gore and monsters purely to shake readers up—that would be reckless and shallow. But shocking readers isn’t always bad. The metanarrative of our universe (redemptive history) leads to the death of God Himself at its darkest point, a willing sacrifice for His own rebellious creation. If that isn’t shocking, I don’t know what is.

 

Thankfully, alarming situations don’t need to be escalated to be potent. The death of one man readers have come to adore will be more heartbreaking than the slaughter of a hundred faceless persons they’ve never met. When they connect to the character first, the author can vicariously inflict a wound that exposes elements of humanity, the world, or God. As readers move on, the wound heals, but they’ll carry the revelations into their own journeys.

 

2. We Need Reminders of the Ugliness We’d Prefer to Shut Our Eyes and Ears to

We tend to turn down the volume on realities that distress us, whether the ongoing global crises of starvation, injustice, and war—or the homeless man trying to make eye contact at a stoplight. In a sense, the weight of all the ills in this world is a burden too heavy for anyone to bear. We can’t wallow in gloom all day, every day. But when we continually add a rosy tint to the lenses we look through, we’ll begin to forget the wickedness and brokenness around us, then we’ll become apathetic to it, which is an atrocity all its own.

 

While a douse of cold water is usually unwelcome, it wakes people up. If we depict evil that readers can’t ignore because it’s essential to the conflict rather than peripheral, we’ll revive moral sensibilities that have become dull.

 

All of us are engaged in a spiritual battle against Satan’s forces. If we don’t dare to stare evil in the face in fiction, we may avoid confronting it in the real world.

 

3. Christian Writers Can Present Compelling Responses to Darkness

We believe in a God who has already endured the despair before dawn, yet He walks through those moments over and over again with those who call on Him. When the bizarre and supernatural terrorizes our characters, we can include whispers of this secret witness and comforter as a source of immense psychological/spiritual strength.

 

Hope isn’t rooted in our present circumstances but in God’s promises about the future. Thus, it can coexist with wretchedness, providing an expiration date for the pain and havoc. Characters who hold onto hope in the midst of overwhelming darkness, like Sam and Frodo in Mordor, besiege readers with the same hope. It’s contagious.

 

We won’t be able to explain the reason for every tragedy and crime, but that’s ultimately not our responsibility. Evil twists the world into a knot that’s impossible to untangle. Why does one man die young while another lives to old age? Why does one infant go to term while another breathes her last in the womb? Why does one woman enjoy safety while another is attacked? To those questions, we must answer that only God knows.

 

However, we can still offer a glimpse at the source and the solution. We understand why evil entered the world (rebellion), how it spreads in the heart and mind (pride), and most importantly, how to fight and defeat it (Christ’s example and sacrifice). If we allude to those truths during our characters’ ordeals, we’ll begin to reveal the threads that, if picked at, will undo the whole canopy of evil.

 

The world can be a miserable place, and familiarizing readers with the concepts of sin and redemption will help them navigate it. Horror can drive them toward those discoveries.

 

4. Darkness Isn’t the Heart of the Story

The thrill that secular horror stories elicit is usually without purpose, leaving readers with a void that returns even after a hero conquers the evil. This also happens in other genres, as Grace Livingston spoke about in a podcast episode we released last year. She encountered an empty feeling at the end of certain books she’d read. The author dragged her through murky waters, but for what? I believe this is one major reason why many Christians disapprove of the horror genre. Sure, good wins in the end, but the unnerving phenomena that precedes it doesn’t seem worth exploring.

 

A perennial pitfall of the horror genre is dwelling too long and too thoroughly on darkness. Because suspense and fear are trademarks of the genre, the antagonist’s unveiling is painstakingly gradual, heightening both curiosity and dread. But it also gives evil an introductory solo on center stage. By the end, the fiendish being that the story seemed to focus on has fizzled out, and readers wonder what their takeaway was supposed to be.

 

As Christian storytellers, we operate under a different set of assumptions, which leads us to a different kind of ending. The struggles humans go through can’t ever be meaningless because of the metanarrative we’re making miniature copies of. Once the conflict disappears, that story doesn’t end because God’s love for mankind is at the core. Evil is only the catalyst that builds to the triumph of good.

 

Think about Christ’s crucifixion in storytelling terms: it’s not a moment of narrative movement but of utter stillness. The story halts for an eternal second because the protagonist is dead, and evil has no true context or role except as opposition. Motion doesn’t resume until the resurrection, when evil is squelched once and for all, restoring communion between God and man. All the darkness and evil contained in the course of history is a detour that man’s sin created, and God Himself paved the road back to paradise.

 

Imitating the bleakness of Good Friday can be a legitimate way to awe readers with a victorious denouement, but it will exact a toll that not everyone can handle. The Bible tackles immorality and violence without flinching—yet it doesn’t loiter there. Those deformities are antithetical to the story and appear only to blacken the canvas in contrast to hope, goodness, truth, and beauty.

 

Three Christian fantasy authors I love and respect (Lewis, Tolkien, and Andrew Peterson) portray endings that mirror God’s metanarrative with resounding success. The anguish the characters undergo never feels gratuitous because the golden glow of kingdom-wide peace begins anew in the closing scenes. If we bestow readers with equally euphoric endings, we can push them through the darkest valleys and they’ll finish the story with tears in their eyes and fullness in their hearts.

 

Fear Is Not the Devil’s Playground

This article is by no means an advertisement to convince you to begin writing or reading horror. Instead, it’s an attempt to tease out the reasons that dark stories are so powerful and uncover the traits that we should (and shouldn’t) harness to maximize our ability to influence readers.

 

My own experiences with the horror genre, although limited, have shown me firsthand that it can be an effective agent for personal change. Imagine what it could accomplish in the hands of artists equipped to wrestle with evil in even more soul-satisfying ways.

 

Fear and darkness have a place in fiction because, in the midst of pervasive evil, we release arrows pointing to the God Who Is There, the God Who Redeems. That kind of fiction ought to be our playground. We should inhabit it quite comfortably, even if it unsettles us.

10 Comments

  1. Brian Stansell

    Thank you, Martin, for writing this article!
    I say Amen to all the points made here.
    I know I probably am annoying some who wonder if I can ever not comment and keep my big mouth shut, but I wanted you to know that these articles are meaningful to me and greatly appreciated and do set me to thinking more deeply about issues and perspectives. I examine them, bookmark them, and know that I will need to refer to these insights again. I do want you to know we are engaged with what you and the team at Story Embers are doing, so my only way of signaling that is by commenting.
    I share some personal connections with my thoughts to show I am engaged with this message, and it resonates.
    One of my many frustrations has been how we’ve let the secular world be the definers of how particular genres are portrayed. I remember a time when certain genres were led by faith-holding people.
    I think of many of the early science fiction writers like Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury, Jonathan Swift, C.S. Lewis, Madeline L’Engle, George MacDonald, Roger Elwood, Stephen Lawhead, etc. who believed in a God-created universe.
    The problem is Christian writers tend to abandon certain genre’s and as a result, the more atheistic writers fill in the gaps vacated by them. I do think horror and suspense have a definite place in Christian fiction, and it is time more of us began to take back the genre, for we are uniquely suited and armored to do so. We have an anchor point, a lifeline, if you will, that allows us to pass through the darkness and emerge on the other side. It is a cathartic passage, to be sure, and one that can demonstrate how God can penetrate even the darkest recesses and rescue the perishing who believe they are too far gone to be ransomed, or too emersed in the muck to ever be washed clean. That sort of thinking leads to despair and limits God’s power and elevates the strength of evil’s grip over God’s ability. I defy that implied premise and reject it wholeheartedly. There is no earth-side pit so deep, that God cannot reach into it and extract the vilest sinner, if only they will cry out to Him. God will not strive with mankind forever, but His ear is alerted and in tuned to the slightest yielding of mankind reaching the end of their own self-sufficiency or alternative pathway to find empowerment.
    The victory is often measured by the obstacles overcome or the foil that is defeated by the victor. Demonic activity is not something to toy with or take lightly, but neither is it something one who is In Christ must fear, as we are called to be overcomers under Christ’s authority.
    Jesus declared from the Cross that the Victory has been won, when he said, “It is finished.” He then enlists His children in a reclamation campaign against every stronghold the enemy has set up, even to the point of charging the very gates of Hell. [Matt. 16:18]
    There is a path into such genres, but I, like you, would not put a novice Christian on the front lines of it, but rather a seasoned, grounded, prayed-up and sober soldier to take back that territory.
    To broach the darkness, one must never lose sight of the light. The 23rd Psalms says in verse 4, that God walks with us through the “valley of the shadow of death”, a very bleak and dark path, but in it, He teaches us about His rod of protection and His staff that keeps us from straying off the pathway going through its foreboding corridors.
    I think people need to learn that God is not removed from us when we must face real-life horrors going through those valleys, and it is reassuring to others, that even in those horrific places, God reaches and holds our hands.
    Gratuitous violence is desensitizing to the importance of empathy for human mortality and the value of human life, so I believe one should be careful to balance what is shown by what is merely alluded to. Readers can fill in the gaps, without being forced to witness the trauma and shock. I believe the monster not shown is often scarier than one revealed in all its brutal fury. The aftermath of a crime scene is often enough to give the sense of what transpired.
    Many secular horror writers are simply plunging their readers into a heart of darkness but offer very little hope of coming out of it. I believe nihilistic, cynical writers of such should be avoided, because of the hollowness they leave in their readers who make the journey through their book out of some bravado or ill-advised demonstration of showing they are “tough enough” to make it through. I totally and personally relate to what Grace Livingston said. It leaves a reader feeling alienated from their fellow man and it is hard to clear the fog enough to come back to the empathy we must feel as Christians.
    We do need an awareness of the traps of the enemy. Christ told His disciples and by extension us, to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matt. 10:16), and therein lies the balance. We hold fast to God’s truths so that we can boldly face the darkness, knowing who we are in Christ and that His promises have overcome it. We are not unaware of its devices and lures and trickery, but are called to expose them and cast them down under God’s authority, and not by our own hubris, or reasoning. 2 Corinthians 10: 4-6 tells us to cast down everything that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, which is an experienced and committed warrior’s duty to make use of the weapons God places in our arsenal for just such a task.
    Fear is not in itself a bad emotion. Sometimes it alerts us to take the proper caution or pay attention to the prospect of perils that are present. Fear is God’s warning system that He implanted in us, and if put into that perspective, it does serve a good purpose. We too often mistake “negative” fear, for “positive” fear. Negative fear is the “spirit of timidity” that paralyzes the Christian from acting in faith. If God calls, He equips us, to overcome if we yield to Him in obedience, despite what we might feel causing the hesitation. Stepping out upon a wildly thrashing sea, in a storm, is a terrifying thing unless Jesus calls you to do so. We are called to fear God in all reverence and to consider His will above the will of others. (Luke 12:5)
    If the Lord leads a writer to pen a horror story, they need to be obedient to do so and let Him lead them in how to go about it. God wants brave souls to trust Him enough to be the good Father, who is capable enough to bring us through ever horror humankind might face, and emerge on the other side as a more sober and hopeful human being, with the added confidence that there is no place or experience that can separate from His love if we rely on Him in full trust of Who He Is.

    Reply
    • Martin Detwiler

      Wow, wow. I agree wholeheartedly with this. Thank you for taking the time to put this down on “paper” and share it with us. I’m glad what I wrote was able to provide a springboard for these thoughts, and I hope they have continued to do so!

      Also, thank you for your sincere encouragement. Every one of these articles is a team effort and we appreciate your involvement in the community, support, and yes, long comments, too. XD

  2. Daeus Lamb

    I’m one of those guys with the vivid imagination. 😄 Point 1 really struck me though. I’m going to have to dwell on this.

    Reply
    • Martin Detwiler

      Sometimes I wish my imagination was more visually vivid. Other times I am glad it’s not. Really interesting how we all interact with stuff differently.

      I’m glad this got you thinking!

  3. Rebekah12

    Wow. That’s interesting.
    I don’t really have an entire monologue about it (good job, Brian), but I am sending it to my cousin, and from what I know of her WIP, I think it’ll help her.

    Reply
    • Martin Detwiler

      Thank you for reading and sharing! I hope it helps your cousin!

  4. Joelle Stone

    “Three Christian fantasy authors I love and respect (Lewis, Tolkien, and Andrew Peterson) portray endings that mirror God’s metanarrative with resounding success.”

    Someone else puts the name Peterson with those of Tolkien and Lewis?!? Yahooo!!!! (And I totally agree – all three endings leave you with that satisfactory ache for something more. Like Andrew Peterson said, “[Men and women] are sitting down to spin a tale that awakens, a tale that leaves readers with a painful longing that points them home, a tale whose fictional beauty begets beauty in the present world and heralds the world to come.” I think Peterson did an excellent job doing that with his own stories, just like Tolkien and Lewis.)

    And while I’m most certainly NOT a horror person (LOTR haunted me for a whole year), you have very valid points I’ll have to think about. 🙂 Thx for the article!

    Reply
    • Martin Detwiler

      Yes, I absolutely put them together in the same sentence. 😅 I still remember my first reading through the Wingfeather Saga, with my jaw on the floor *consistently*, and my heart squeezed with the richness and beauty of the story.

      Thanks for sharing that quote! Love it so much.
      And thanks for reading! I’m glad this could get you thinking

  5. Michelle Rose

    Thank you so much! this just what I needed. I’ve always had a liking for the horror genre for a long time:) This helped put it in perspective for me.

    Reply
    • Martin Detwiler

      Wow! You’re so welcome! Glad I could provide some help to sort through your approach to the genre.

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