The Benefits of Terror

Can movies like “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” help us face our fears?

By: Tom Westerholm

I’m a big fan of horror movies.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no tough guy; indeed, if I was, I think I would enjoy them less. Why watch a horror movie that doesn’t terrify you? It would be like riding a rollercoaster that only rides level, never climbing or falling. No, I thoroughly enjoy the terror. I twitch and jump every time I’m supposed to. I occasionally (if I’m in a dark theater and no one can see me) squint my eyes when a part is particularly tense.

But in a movie genre that focuses so exclusively on evil, I feel it’s important to examine my motives in watching. The evil they show is the focus of the movie. There’s a lot of evil in The Dark Knight, but the focus of the movie is Bruce Wayne’s noble actions. There is good in some horror movies, but the focus is usually on the demon or the murderer.

Even some subgenres of horror movies don’t give me pause, like monster or serial killer flicks. Of course, I’ll still twitch, I’ll still jump, I’ll still close my eyes a little bit if I can get away with it. In no way am I more of a tough guy. I just won’t hesitate to watch them based off content. For example: I watched 30 Days of Night when it came out, a movie about a town in Alaska that has thirty days of darkness and is invaded by vampires. It was startling, violent, and disturbing, but it was also impossible. I knew there was no such thing as a vampire, so I wasn’t afraid to watch.

But when we get into the spiritual realm, I start to wonder about what I’m watching. We are dealing with the unseen and the unknown. I Peter 5:8 tells us to “Discipline yourself and be alert” but are we glorifying the evil and becoming overly fascinated with it, something C.S. Lewis warns against in his classic “The Screwtape Letters”? And should we be disturbed by the fact that evil often prevails? Are horror movies a good way to stay alert?

Maybe. Entertainment has been used in other walks of life to bring attention to problems. Movie-goers were shown the ongoing LAPD racism in “Crash.” Why couldn’t horror movies be used the same way?

Some actually are. Scott Derrickson is a Christian who wrote and directed “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” He, unsurprisingly, has a lot of thoughts about horror movies and Christianity. Sorry for the long block quote, but it’s all important. From Christianity Today:

To me, this genre deals more overtly with the supernatural than any other genre, it tackles issues of good and evil more than any other genre. My feeling is that a lot of Christians are wary of this genre simply because it’s unpleasant. The genre is not about making you feel good, it is about making you face your fears. And in my experience, that’s something that a lot of Christians don’t want to do.

To me, the horror genre is the genre of non-denial. It’s about admitting that there is evil in the world, and recognizing that there is evil within us, and that we’re not in control, and that the things that we are afraid of must be confronted in order for us to relinquish that fear. And I think that the horror genre serves a great purpose in bolstering our understanding of what is evil and therefore better defining what is good. And of course I’m talking about, really, the potential of the horror genre, because there are a lot of horror films that don’t do these things. It is a genre that’s full of exploitation, but the better films in the genre certainly accomplish, I think, very noble things.

The danger of using block quotes in these posts is that often they say what you wanted to say much better than you ever could, and Dickerson’s quote absolutely does. We rarely want to face our fears as Christians. We don’t ever want to see evil prevail. But the problem is that we live in a broken world, and often evil DOES prevail. There’s no point in pretending that it doesn’t. Good horror movies (not the Saw franchise) can be a good reminder of that fact. It’s easy to develop an unhealthy fascination with the Occult, but it’s equally easy to forget that there is another side to the spiritual battle we face every day. As with all things, it’s important to be discerning, to temper the good with the bad.

And it’s always good advice to keep alert.


6 thoughts on “The Benefits of Terror

  1. Steve says:

    I think Roman Polanski’s more horror-oriented flicks and more recently Joss Whedon’s “Cabin in the Woods” explore really interesting existential themes. Any genre can be used…smartly…and shouldn’t be ignored simply because some of the films in that genre aren’t well done.

    • Agreed. The key word here is “smartly.” There are a lot of horror movies (and other movies as well) that are essentially fluff. At that point, I think there is very little benefit to them at all.

  2. Jon says:

    While horror movies don’t really appeal to me, I think I see your point here. It is important to both confront fears and realize that scary (often supernaturally scary) things do exist. I think it’s important, though, that we don’t support media that glorifies evil and that we always go into movies (or tv shows or books for that matter) with our minds focused on examining them through a bibilically grounded critical perspective. I don’t think there’s any such thing as “neutral” media…we have to realize that there’s a point to every movie, book, and song. If we’re conscious of it, I don’t think there’s a problem with watching a given movie. With that said, if the “point” of whatever we’re watching is just mindless entertainment or glorifying evil or sin, well, that makes watching that movie a questionable entertainment choice. End rant.

    • Absolutely. And I think there are a lot of horror movies that simply glorify evil for the sake of evil (Exorcist: The Beginning leaps to my mind). But like you said, there are others that can be viewed with a discerning mind, and they can be used as a way to confront fears.

      Discernment is a big word around here at Cardboard.

  3. marcmarrs says:

    Dear Tom: The director’s cut of The Exorcist is really scary. I have been a long time fan of horror. Thanks for your contribution. Respectfully, Marc Marrs

  4. […] The Benefits of Terror ( […]

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