Ought Catholics to enjoy horror stories? They do, you know. Or many of them do, at any rate and they always have. In fact, it might almost be argued that Catholics invented the genre. Certainly some of the world’s best tellers of such tales have been Catholics and faithful ones. But is this a good thing or a bad thing?
God’s Ghost Stories
Many Christians would respond with a quick resounding condemnation. Monsters and murder, witches and demons, violence and death what fellowship can there be between these things and the children of light? Didn’t St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Philippians, write the following words as our guide in such matters?: “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” [1:9]. That slams the door pretty tightly, does it not? An open and shut case.
And yet if we were to insist on taking the Apostle’s words at face value here we’d have to discard much of the rest of the Bible we find them in. The Bible is full of horror stories; so full, in fact, that modern scholars continue to mitigate the horror by “toning it down” in translation. There are monsters and witches in the Bible, seances and ghosts, revenge plots, murder pacts, cannibalism, incest, and rape. Judith, in the book bearing her name, drugs a guy, saws his head off in his sleep, and carries it away with her as a trophy. Elsewhere, Jael, wife of Heber, hammers a fellow’s head to the ground with a tent peg. And in that same book of Judges the mighty Samson hacks, in one 12-hour period, 10,000 men to death with the jagged jawbone of an ass a record not even Freddy or Jason has yet managed to equal. None of this is particularly lovely, particularly pure, or of particularly good report. Yet there it all is and Paul himself calls it the Word of God.
Clearly, St. Paul must have had more sophisticated ideas about truth, purity, and virtue than one gets down at the Inspirational Family Bookstore. This is because Paul, like most Jews, had a healthy sense of pessimism about this fallen world we live in, about “this present darkness” as he called it elsewhere. (This Present Darkness, by the way, became the title of one of the most successful of all Christian horror books by Evangelical author Frank Peretti). “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood,” the Apostle wrote, “but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” [Eph 6:12]. Pauline Christianity is inspirational, to be sure, but not because it offers any rosy spiritual passkey to “Success ‘N Life.” It would be truer to say that it offers success in death; the only plausible source of hope on a planet where the death rate is 100%. Hope against hope, what the New Testament offers (and St. Paul wrote 14 of its 22 books) is a potential happy ending for a race of people trapped on a haunted world a planet infested with demons, ruled by a devil, wracked with every form of violent death and degradation. In fact, St. Paul’s scheme of religion might almost itself be the plot of an exciting horror movie!
“But isn’t this cheating?” doubters might excusably ask. “I mean, the Bible is in a category of its own, right? We don’t really expect it to make a whole lot of sense. And just because it’s okay for God to tell bloody and seemingly pointless anecdotes doesn’t mean it’s alright for us to go and start doing the same, does it?” A more sophisticated version of this objection might run along these lines: “Okay, I admit that the Bible does recount some pretty hair-raising tales. And yes, it does take some pretty fast exegesis to mine any kind of edifying moral out of some of them. Yet surely we can trust that they are all being told for a reason, can’t we? Told for some higher spiritual purpose, that is. Not just for kicks and giggles, as seems to be the case in Stephen King and trash of that ilk.”
Here at last, I think, is a capital point: God tells his scary stories for a reason. And in doing so, He doesn’t limit himself to the pastel colors and soothing tones favored by the likes of Guideposts magazine. My inquiry today, then, comes down to something fairly simple. What if horror stories could have a higher spiritual purpose outside the pages of Scripture as well as in? What if violent and horrifying tales could be told for some good reason by profane writers as well as sacred? And what if it were permissible for human artists to paint their own parables in terms of blood and thunder at times just as God himself often does?
If so, then there might be within limits just a bit of room for Christians (Catholic and otherwise) to enjoy horror stories. And obviously, I think there is. In this article I’m hoping to convince you of the same and also to provide some tips and guidelines for enjoying them in an intelligent and Christian way yourself.
The Violent Bear It Away
Ever since the first peasant drove the first vampire away with a crucifix, Catholics have instinctively known that horror stories were more than just “trashy entertainment”. The Big Issues of life have always been at stake here, with good and evil, heaven and hell, death and judgment looming large in practically every horror plot from Dracula to The Exorcist. Modern secular America may have succeeded in banishing the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress into the ghetto of fundamentalism, but so long as Buffy the Vampire Slayer is playing in syndication or Michael Myers rises from the dead every Halloween we’ll all be pondering at least a few essentially Catholic ideas from time to time. It is true, of course, that secular storytellers don’t always draw the proper morals from these musings. At times, they’ve even been known to side with Dracula, et al (one thinks of the reprehensible writings of Anne Rice an author who really does illustrate the need for vigilance when Christians go sampling at this well). Nevertheless, God has not left himself without a witness; in practice, I’ve found, any pondering at all about the things of the spirit is better for today’s youth than no pondering at all and they’re often likely to go places in their thought lives never consciously intended by anyone. For instance, I once knew a fellow who was converted to Christianity by watching David Warner’s frighteningly funny performance as the Devil in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits!
A recent Catholic writer who had particularly keen insight into these possibilities was the great Flannery O’Connor. She created her own unique sub-genre of horror that has come to be known as Southern Gothic. In unforgettable stories like A Good Man is Hard to Find and The Lame Shall Enter First, this diminutive, ladylike Georgian stubbornly orthodox and a daily communicant created shattering tales of horrific murder and grotesque deformity, both physical and spiritual. In fact, one of her commonest themes was the total and terrifying inadequacy of that same “inspirational” brand of Christianity we discussed earlier. Living deep in the Bible Belt, Flannery O’Connor was surrounded by members of a genteel, scripturally literate gentry (not all of them Protestant), who had tamed St. Paul’s vision of violent spiritual warfare into something not much more than a polite social convention. So again and again, the soft-spoken Miss O’Connor sent her complacent and comfortable protagonists into close proximity with the most extreme examples of Man’s fallen condition close encounters with racists and retardates, with circus freaks and serial killers. More often than not, these encounters end in tragedy, with O’Connor’s heroes and heroines victims of their own spiritual unpreparedness. A lifetime of shallow and superficial “churchianity” has prevented most of them from ever asking one genuinely religious question in their entire lives. Yet in the true spirit of Catholicism, O’Connor’s heroes and heroines do occasionally survive their respective comeuppances. For all Catholics know (or used to know anyway) that suffering can be redemptive and sometimes in Flannery O’Connor an encounter with soul-shaking horror ends up becoming a soul-saving epiphany.
Someone who did similar work in a different field was the great British film director Terence Fisher. Fisher (not actually a Catholic but an Anglican with a very Catholic theological outlook) made the best of the classic Hammer Studios horror movies of the 1950s and 60s; films such as The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Curse of the Werewolf. Christian writer Paul Leggett, in his recent book Terence Fisher: Horror, Myth, and Religion , argues persuasively that Fisher’s films are so steeped in Christianity they ought to be classed with the works of his contemporaries C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien! Two of his greatest and scariest movies are 1960’s Brides of Dracula (a horror film so explicitly Christian that many unbelievers find it offensive!) and 1967’s The Devil Rides Out. This latter, a story of suave and elegant Satanism amongst the British upper classes, has something the lack of which has destroyed many other horror movies before and since a hero, that is, who is as powerful and compelling as the villain. Played by veteran Hammer star Christopher Lee (seen recently as Saruman in the Lord of the Rings films) the figure of the Duc de Richleau is one of the most charismatic and commanding Christian heroes ever put into a work of fiction. Leggett rightly reckons The Devil Rides Out as the greatest film of a workaday Christian doing great work in a totally secular situation. “As an allegory of the struggle between good and evil”, he writes, “it achieves an almost poetic level. It is supremely a film of spiritual hope. Fisher could not have known in 1967 that horror films would soon lose any sense of hope in what would become [for the most part] a depressing celebration of evil. This only makes The Devil Rides Out a film to be appreciated more now than when it was first released.”
Part of Terence Fisher’s inspiration for The Devil Rides Out was almost certainly the work of Charles Williams, another Anglican fantasist of the period. Here the connection with Lewis and Tolkien is complete for Williams was the close friend of both writers and an actual member of their literary circle, the Inklings. In Williams we have the mythopoeic Christian horror writer par excellence; in fact, he was memorably described recently as “H.P. Lovecraft without the atheism.” In a unique series of what he called “supernatural thrillers” books with titles like All Hallows Eve, Descent Into Hell, and Many Dimensions Williams crafted a complex series of theological ghost stories that are at once profoundly disturbing and profoundly Christian. His admirers include such well-known Catholic authors as Joseph Pearce and Thomas Howard.
Wrestling with the Devil
Is it possible, then, that horror is unhealthy for a different reason; i.e., that it wastes time a Catholic ought to be using in the real-life war between good and evil? Peter Vere doesn’t think so. Pete is one of the front-line troops in a spiritual battle ripped right out of today’s headlines the on-going fight taking place in Florida for the life of Terri Schindler-Schiavo. Yet he has also found time to compose a thoroughly Catholic anthology of horror tales called Schism and Other Stories just released by e-book publisher Francis Isidore Electronic Press.
Author Vere describes his motivations in the introduction: “As a teenager blessed by God with a vivid imagination, I aspired to write fantasy and horror. In fact, I spent much of my early to mid-teens exploring these genres in my writing. This no doubt surprises many of my usual readers, since most of you came to know me through my writings on canon law. Unfortunately, when I became involved with [a certain post-Vatican II schism group] in my later teens, these writing interests were strongly discouraged. They simply would not fit in with the prevalent reactionary mindset as well as the static creative hegemony imposed by this schism's rigorarchy, which believed itself more Catholic than the Pope. I abandoned this schism over seven years ago. Yet only in the last six months, beginning with The Raven and the Priest, (originally published as part of the Art of Horror's online Halloween Anthology) has my wounded creativity healed to the point where my confidence allows me to once again attempt horror and fantasy. So this is a first attempt to recapture my creativity in almost ten years. I pray you, the reader, will enjoy it.” Undoubtedly, many of you will; Schism is a one-of-a-kind collection that will be especially meaningful to Catholics who have lived and thought their way through all the various post-Conciliar controversies of the last thirty-five years.
In The Raven and the Priest, a modern canon lawyer finds himself recapitulating true-life horror stories from the life of St. John Vianney. Canons in the Night, also set on the marriage tribunal of a modern Catholic diocese, is a wrenching love story about a couple forced to take their sacramental theology seriously by an act of bloody murder. A fallen-away French-Canadian woodsman learns first hand that love is stronger than death in The Forest for the Trees, and in Schism, Vere’s most personal story, a young priest ordained in a Catholic splinter group experiences the torments of the damned as he wrestles to find the authenticity of his own calling. All of these tales show what a truly Catholic imagination can do when exploring the dark side of life and do without compromise of either the Church’s moral standards or her ultimately optimistic message. It should stand as an inspiring example to any other creative young teens out there (and older people as well!) who might be tempted to let their creative instincts languish in a well-meaning attempt to be “more spiritual.” God needs storytellers, too! In fact, He’s an old hand Himself, and eager to pass the art on to a new set of apprentices.
One of the most phenomenal publishing successes of the past fifty years needs to be discussed in this context as well: the Left Behind series by Evangelical authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Nearly a billion of these books (which have the overall tone and flavor of supernatural thrillers such as The Omen) have been bought since their introduction in the late 1990’s and not all of them by Christians. The Left Behind novels, in other words, are essentially Christian horror fiction, and are being appreciated as such by many readers only marginally interested in their eccentric theology. Indeed, that eccentric theology is, in truth, a rather toxic brand of millenarianism that was examined and rightly rejected centuries ago by the Fathers of the Church. It hampers these books rather than helping them, just as error always hampers creativity. Yet the instinct to preach the Faith by means of fiction extravagant, even frightening fiction continues to be sound, and its soundness is borne out by the Left Behind books and their ongoing, astonishing popularity.
It’s a formula that worked when Dante Aligheri went on a journey to the center of the earth with the poet Virgil and found himself in The Inferno instead. It’s a literary device that wowed ‘em when John Bunyan put his hero Christian in a fight to the finish with the monster Apollyon in Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s still packing them in today as Frodo Baggins carries his ring-shaped cross up Mount Doom for a final confrontation with the Dark Lord in this year’s upcoming blockbuster, Return of the King. Yes, it is certainly true that Catholics need to be careful when venturing into these realms. The collapse into evil that Paul Leggett bemoaned above has indeed progressed very far in our rapidly re-paganizing nation. Yet we mustn’t allow the fact that a thing can be abused to lead us into denying its legitimate uses. We need to recognize and honor the storyteller’s charism in our churches. We need to see him for what he is; an evangelist. We need to give him our blessing and our support.
You can start by ordering Peter Vere’s Schism here as an e-book. For a one dollar download fee you will have the perfect read for tonight. Schism is also available here in soft-cover. And with the arrival of Halloween tonight, I feel sure that one of Terence Fisher’s horror parables will be available on TV or that an old copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is lying around within reach, waiting to be re-discovered. If you’re feeling especially stout-hearted…why, you might even crack open the Old Testament for a while.
Personally, I hope they scare the Hell out of you…and scare the Heaven in.
© Copyright 2003 Catholic Exchange
Rod Bennett is the editor of WONDER Magazine and author of FOUR WITNESSES; The Early Church in Her Own Words from Ignatius Press, available in our online store. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and two children.