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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Martin Detwiler is mostly normal. For a writer. He is, like most of us, a mess of paradoxes. Dreamer & cynic, philosopher & clown, hopeless romantic & grim realist—if there’s a contradiction, you’ll find it in him somewhere or another. But at the heart of it all, Martin is a man made new by Christ, the Author of that cosmic tale we call history. He has had a passion for stories from his earliest teen years, and the transition from reading others’ stories to writing his own seemed a foregone conclusion. His greatest inspirations are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom stirred a passion for stories that combine the aesthetic and the true in such a way that the reader is given an experiential glimpse of God’s reality.
Martin lives with his wife in South Carolina, where she keeps his sky-high hopes and dreams firmly rooted in the humble yet beautiful soil of reality.