The Theological Significance of Horror

While some Christians debate the ethics of celebrating Halloween, I think that, if nothing else, the Halloween season is a good time to reflect on the theological significance of horror. I’m not an expert on the subject, but that probably won’t matter since most of you probably didn’t know until now that there are any experts. But there are. I know of two, Matt Cardin and Kim Paffenroth.

I only know these gentlemen through cyberspace, although Cardin happens to work for my former part-time employer. I haven’t had the chance to read any of his stuff yet, but I’ve read two works of fiction by Paffenroth. He has some nonfiction on the subject which I also haven’t read, but I think I have the gist of this Christianity and horror thing figured out. Here’s the main idea: Horror fiction illustrates the sinful human condition. This is usually done allegorically, though it doesn’t have to be.

I’ll illustrate with a few examples.

  • Example #1: Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Christian rock band Petra figured this one out in their 2003 album Jekyll and Hyde. As they say in the title song, “Sometimes I feel like Jekyll and Hyde. Two men are fighting a war inside.” Whether Stevenson intended to or not, he created a terrific allegory for the words of the apostle Paul in Romans 7.
  • Example #2: VeggieTales. This is not your typical horror fiction, but it makes the same point. In Larry-Boy! and the Fib from Outer Space and Larry-Boy and the Rumor Weed, the everyday sins of fibbing and gossiping are personified as hideous monsters with the power to destroy an entire city. At least one of the monsters is capable of eating children; if that’s not creepy enough, you should know that it was children who made the monsters grow in the first place. (To be fair to the children, they didn’t create them; they just made them grow.) But this is how sin works; we indulge in it for our own interests, and pretty soon it ends up eating us alive. These VeggieTales episodes focus on the sins of lying and spreading rumors. Sin’s power to destroy is only more obvious with some other sins: illegal drug use, drunkenness, adultery.
  • Example #3: Paffenroth’s Dying to Live: A Novel of Life Among the Undead, a fascinating book that deserves a fuller review (around to writing which I may get someday). Now I’m not recommending you read this book, not only because I don’t know who you are but also because this is a book to be handled with care—for several reasons. But there are some people in the world, most of them zombie enthusiasts, who could profit from reading it.
  • I think there are two basic lessons to this book, but I can only cover one of them here. To make a long story short, Paffenroth’s book helped me see how zombies portray human sin; they are carnal images of our spiritual condition as described by the Bible. Most zombies suffer from a creepy compulsion to do harm to people. This is what we human beings do to each other on an everyday basis—albeit usually with sarcasm, slander, gossip, a withering look, an unduly critical tone of voice, or something else not so physically violent. We can fight our compulsion to do harm; we can keep it within limits; but it always causes us to misbehave in the end. Were a zombie conscious and reflective, it would agree with the apostle Paul. Romans 7 again:

    “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:15 and 7:24, New International Version)

The spiritually dead

Now I am not saying that the Robert Louis Stevenson and other creators of horror fiction are consciously trying to illustrate the sinful human condition. All I am saying is that they frequently succeed.

(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)
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