Sunday, February 26, 2012

Horror, Tragedy, and the Sovereignty of God

Horror fiction is something I've been thinking through somewhat in the last few years. Not that I have ever sought it out. The genre more or less began with the eighteenth and nineteenth-century gothic novels, atmospherically spooky books, generally for a female readership, that flirted with the taboo and grotesque. Jane Eyre is one of the most famous of these; others include Mrs Radclyffe's Mysteries of Udolpho and Walpole's Castle of Otranto. Critiques of the genre like Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey warned against taking these sensational novels so seriously that they become more real than reality. 

The intersection of the gothic genre with the horror genre—which exists primarily to create thrills through terror and disgust--came early, with works like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

It is debateable whether Bram Stoker's novel Dracula is better described as a gothic novel or a horror novel. Perhaps it is most just to say that it has elements of both, with the heroes fighting a scary, demonic threat. I did not find the story particularly frightening, though I realised its power. 

A couple of years ago, I dipped into the horror fiction of Dean Koontz, primarily out of respect for his conservative, Catholic, Chesterton-and-O'Connor-influenced worldview. And apart from Frankenstein and The Night Land, that's about it for me and horror.

I've had occasion to rethink horror somewhat in the last little while. And it is a fascinating topic. To begin with, as E Michael Jones points out in his book Monsters from the Id, horror fiction is usually used to sublimate and redirect cultural guilt. Cultural rebellion against God makes us anticipate, on some level, the wrath to come. That wrath becomes a monster pursuing poor innocent us. We make ourselves victims of our sins, not perpetrators.

In my previous review of Dracula, I recognised this (Victorian infidelity, punished with the scourge of syphilis, is symbolised in the book by the vampire) but was not sure if this means horror is an illicit art form. I have had the opportunity to rethink this point a little, and here are some further thoughts.

First, when viewed as a way to deal with guilt and cast sinners as innocent victims, horror fiction is closely allied to Greek tragedy. Of tragedy RJ Rushdoony has said that it was a fundamentally anti-Christian artform, since it depicts basically good people being tossed about and ultimately humiliated and destroyed by blind Fates. Ostensibly, Oedipus's sin in killing his father and marrying his mother leads to his punishment and death. However, he did this unknowingly. Nobody would convict him in a court of law, for instance, since he lacked the mens rea, the guilty mind. In the final analysis, he is an innocent victim of circumstances

The character of Oedipus is also, interestingly enough, intimately connected with a good reason for Greek guilt. Like many Greek babies, he was exposed as a baby to die on a hillside. His story is classified as tragedy, but it is also a horror story.
Second, not all tragedy and not all horror depicts man as an innocent victim. Exhibit A is Shakespeare's Christian tragedy Macbeth. Macbeth is no innocent. He is a weak man who has never previously transgressed only because his latent sinfulness had had no opportunity. That opportunity is given when the witches and his wicked, masterful wife talk him into committing murder. From then on, Macbeth's sinful nature is freed from its previous restraints and he begins a reign of terror. Justice and righteousness is restored when Macbeth is beheaded at the end. 

Macbeth could have been a comedy—after all, it has a happy ending where the bad guy dies and everyone left alive lives happily ever after. The only reason it is a tragedy is because the life of its main character is a tragedy; and his life is a tragedy because he undergoes his just judgement at the hands of a righteous God, not because he offends a capricious Fate. Macbeth, you see, gets everything he deserves. It is a tragedy when a soul goes to Hell. It's Christian tragedy, tragedy mixed with Divine triumph.

If tragedy is analogous to horror, then it is easy to imagine a horror story which shows the terrifying justice of God pursuing sinners. Flannery O'Connor's short story A Good Man is Hard to Find is an example of this. Its main character is a selfish old woman who has never rised above a lacklustre formal religion. One day she meets a serial killer and is forced brutally into the antithesis between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. And there, in the last seconds of her life, grace comes to her.
"She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
But of course, Flannery O'Connor's story is not so much horror as something else—something still extremely disturbing, but not intended solely for thrills. Which leads into this...

Third, the ultimate question is this. What do you fear? Just as we are forbidden to sell ourselves into slavery, for we were bought with a price, so we are commanded not to fear anyone but God. Horror, by definition, cultivates a fear of something other than God. It is a way to distract ourselves from a just fear of God, by cultivating a frivolous fear of something else—a monster, a demon, a serial killer. But if you fear God, horror cannot last beyond the revelation that God is merciful. God's mercy may not be shown to Macbeth, but it is shown to Scotland in his death. Or, in the case of O'Connor's grandmother, her death comes as mercy. It is the only thing bad enough to break through her self-absorption.

So what should Christians do about horror fiction? Well, first, generally we should leave it alone. We are only to fear God. Bravery demands that we conquer other fears by cultivating a true fear of God; but wisdom demands that we not go looking for trouble.

Second, some of us should read it with discernment. Dracula and Frankenstein are both classics of Western literature, part of the great conversation of books. As we engage our culture and think about the regnant follies, a knowledge of horror and its underlying motivation of guilt and fear should help us to understand why our culture produces so many horror movies and horror books—and even why there is a fascination with horror that begins to depict the monster as glamorous and desirable. 

Third, we should acknowledge that there are frightening things in the world. When I was a small child, there were many books that were too intense and frightening for me, including Biggles Defies the Swastika (believe it or not!). Maturity involved developing more of a backbone. Maturity involved realising that some things aren't really frightening—at least not compared with the awesome might and worth of God. When Tolkien includes those beings of pure terror, the Ringwraiths, in his Lord of the Rings, the aim is not thrills and chills, but the joy in courage that comes from seeing the characters defy them. God has told us only to fear Him. And He has put us in a world where that requires effort. We should not shrink from it.

Fourth and most interestingly, we should think about how we can communicate the glory of God or the depravity of man through something that isn't quite horror. Like Shakespeare and O'Connor, we can display God's justice in judgement to the stiff-necked, and His mercy to the repentant. He alone can safely be feared, because the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom; it is not a formless and lunatic panic.

Horror might also be used to discuss the total depravity of man. There's an interesting vampire movie which I don't ever intend to see, The Addiction, which seems to take this slant. Its main character, a philosophy student named Kathleen, becomes a vampire and begins to realise that everyone carries evil within them—the vampires are simply more epistemologically self-conscious. Brian Godawa says
Kathleen's friend is shocked at being bitten. She anxiously blurts out, "How could you do this? Doesn't it affect you? How can you do this to me?" To which Kathleen sardonically replies, "It was your decision. Your friend Feuerbach said that all men counting stars are equivalent in every way to God. My indifference is not the concern here. It's your astonishment that needs study." This reversal is an apologetic argument against unbelief, par excellence. If God is dead, as the modern secular mindset proposes, and man is his own deity, creating his own morality, then why is anyone surprised when people create their own morality that justifies feasting on the life blood of others? Without God, there is no such thing as "evil." Later in the movie, a vampire even quotes R.C. Sproul when complaining about our original sin nature: "R.C. Sproul said we're not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners. In more accessible terms, we're not evil because of the evil we do, but we do evil because we are evil. Yeah. Now what choices do such people have? It´s not like we have any options."
I believe that horror is a genre which should be approached with care: it teems with suppressed guilt, misdirected fear, attempted self-righteousness, and depravity. But all the lies and the misdirection is rooted in fact—the fact that there is a sovereign God with the right to judge us and the will to be merciful to us. The fact that we are the monsters. And perhaps the horror genre can be redeemed to show the truth rather than the illusion.


Elizabeth said...

I know this was posted in February, but I'm just now reading it. What a thoughtful exploration of the horror genre -- a genre that I am to squeamish to read much of (or to watch much of, for that matter). It is an interesting premise that the fictional monsters we create represent cultural guilt. I remember hearing a comparison recently of the original Dracula and today's Twilight series. The point was that in Dracula, evil is shown for what it is, while in the Twilight series, the vampires are presented as being attractive, albeit in the tragic hero sort of way. The reviewer saw lessons that could be learned from reading Dracula but felt that the Twilight stories, with their romantic sugar-coating, were more subversive in a way. I haven't read either one.

Joseph Jalsevac said...

Wow, thank you so much for that excellent insightful analysis of horror! I couldn't ask to have it put more simply and clearly and accurately.


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