It’s Halloween season, which means that people all across the country are gearing up for a night of ghouls, ghosts, and everything scary. They are figuring out what costumes they will be wearing, picking out just the right pumpkins for their jack-o-lanterns, and getting ready to watch a bunch of horror movies. But not everybody will be participating in these time-honored traditions.
Some people believe that focusing our attention on scary things like monsters and ghosts is wrong, so they forego the spooky costumes and the scary movies, choosing more family-friendly alternatives instead.
In this article, I want to take a look at this issue. Specifically, since I’m somewhat of a film buff, I want to examine the issue of horror movies. Many Catholics believe that such entertainment is morally problematic. They think that these movies glorify evil, so they should have no place in a godly life. Others, however, believe that as long as we can separate made-up stories from real life, there is nothing wrong with the genre.
So which side should we fall on? Is it OK for Catholics to watch horror movies?
Glorifying vs. Highlighting
I would argue that there’s nothing wrong with the horror genre, at least in principle. Sure, just like anything else, they can be taken to unhealthy extremes, and there are certain kinds of horror movies that I have big issues with, but I do not think there is anything inherently wrong with the genre itself. Now, there is a lot that can be said in defense of horror movies, but I think it ultimately boils down to a principle enunciated by Pope St. John Paul II in his Letter to Artists:
“Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.” (Letter to Artists, 10)
This, I would suggest, is the key to understanding why Catholics can watch horror movies. Contrary to the belief of some, good horror doesn’t actually glorify evil. Instead, good horror highlights it and, in so doing, shows it for exactly what it is. It shows that evil is not a good thing to be celebrated, emulated, or sought; rather, it is something we should fight against and try our best to conquer and escape. Simply put, the horror we see onscreen should remind us of our need to be saved from the horror we experience in the real world.
That is the general principle that should guide how we understand horror movies, but how does it work out concretely? How do certain movies express our need and desire for redemption? To understand this, let’s now turn to some recent popular films and see how exactly they embody this principle.
One of my favorite horror movies of the past several years is The Conjuring. It came out in 2013, and it tells the story of a family that is afflicted by a particularly nasty evil spirit. This is one of those movies in which the victims call upon the Catholic Church (more specifically, a practicing Catholic married couple that specializes in this sort of thing) for help, and God comes through for them in the end, making it very easy to see that it doesn’t actually glorify evil. Instead, the whole point of the story is to show the power of God over the forces of evil, and this is evident all throughout the movie.
On a more general level, The Conjuring exemplifies the most obvious way that many horror movies express our desire for salvation: they show evil being defeated. This one even shows the role of God in that defeat, although not all of them do. Nevertheless, whether God is explicitly mentioned or not, these kinds of horror movies express our desire for salvation by showing miniature versions of that salvation. They portray people being afflicted by evil and then being rescued from it, which reminds the audience that we too experience evil in our lives and want to be rescued from it.
On the other side of the horror spectrum, there is a whole slew of movies that end with evil emerging victorious, and one of my favorite such films is Paranormal Activity. This one tells the story of a young couple that is plagued by a malicious spirit, and despite their efforts to break free of its grip, the spirit overcomes them in the end.
Because of its bleak ending, many might be tempted to write it off as a glorification of evil, but I would suggest that from a Catholic perspective, this movie actually has a really good message. Granted, the filmmakers probably didn’t intend that message, but it is there nonetheless.
When I watch this movie, I am reminded of those parables in the Gospels that end badly for the main characters. In these passages, Jesus tells stories that exemplify how we should not act. For instance, in the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), a man decides to hoard his riches, but then God tells him that he will die that very night, making all his plans futile. The point of the story is that we should not act like the rich man, and Paranormal Activity is similar.
In this movie, the characters make three really big mistakes in their fight against the spirit that is afflicting them. First, they go to psychics rather than to the Church; secondly, one of them taunts and mocks the spirit, arrogantly daring it to do its worst; and finally, they use a Ouija board to try to find out what the spirit wants.
Those three things are exactly what we shouldn’t do when we encounter evil in our lives. First, we should never turn to psychics, mediums, or occult practices like Ouija boards for help; rather, we must always take refuge in God and His church. Secondly, we should never mock evil or think that we are more powerful than it. Instead, we need to recognize our total dependence on God and our inability to conquer evil ourselves. As a result, much like Jesus’ harsher parables, Paranormal Activity actually has a really good message for Catholics; it shows us how we should not approach evil, which then helps us to understand what we should do instead.
Turning again to a more general level, horror movies in which evil wins express our need for redemption by showing just what we are up against. By depicting evil conquering people who ignore God and rely on their own strength, they show how powerful evil really is, which reminds us just how much we need to be saved from it. In a nutshell, while movies like The Conjuring portray the positive side of our desire for salvation (the salvation itself), movies like Paranormal Activity represent the negative side (the evil we need to be saved from), and both are important.
Catholics and Horror
All that being said, we have to acknowledge that not all horror films are worth watching. Some movies, filmmakers, and fans really do glorify evil, and that’s never good. We should stay away from movies that are all about excessive gore and violence with no narrative value, and we should never enjoy watching human suffering simply for its own sake. Nevertheless, we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Just because some horror movies are bad does not mean that all of them are. There are good ones that express truth about evil and our need for redemption, so Catholics can watch and enjoy them. We simply need to be prudent about our entertainment choices and make sure that if we decide to watch horror movies, we watch the ones that highlight evil and show it for what it truly is rather than those that glorify it.