Watching in the Dark: horror films & spiritual reality
Does the genre of horror complement the physical and spiritual parameters of our current existence?
It’s that time of year again when otherworldly creatures roam the streets. Ghostly figures, warty faces, the walking dead – no, not NBN salespeople, but greedy children trick-or-treating. Another tradition is television networks filling their programming with horror films ranging from friendly-witches for kids to chainsaw-wielding psychos for mum. But, before we reach for the popcorn and dim the lights, we should ponder: how can such films correlate with our spiritual lives?
‘Horror’ is a physiological and psychological response whereby we experience intense feelings of fear, shock or disgust. In the creative realm, ‘horror fiction’ induces these feelings and achieves two things: to entertain and/or teach the audience via allegories of dangers in society. To a certain degree, horror can benefit a person; making them more cautious with their choices of people and actions. Horror differs from thrillers in that the atmosphere is dark, haunting and usually entails supernatural or amoral characters who unleash evil upon the world (The Smiling Man, 2015).
As an emotional response, ‘horror’ is an important component of our human nature. The same reason God gave us emotions (i.e. empathy, love, humour, etc.) and instincts (including ‘fight or flight’) that, if exercised correctly, help us live our lives safely and according to His intentions. Horror and fear can help us identify when something feels wrong and react with disapproval. However, there’s a negative flipside.
The fright we get from horror creates adrenaline, which excites our brain and body to react, giving us what we would deem a ‘thrill’, just like that achieved from skydiving. However, for some, they associate what would normally be a positive response with images of blood, graphic violence or demonic activities. There’s also the risk of some individuals being influenced by these ideas and attempt to live them out as fantasies. This is an example of how humans can manipulate God-given emotions/instincts for ill intentions. For example, sometimes we need to physically fight to protect ourselves or when someone’s in danger, but some fight because they enjoy inflicting pain.
A film’s Internal Logic
We must remember one factor true of all fictional works: it’s an invention. Virtually all horror films exist because of, what we will call, a film’s ‘Internal Logic’. It’s the formula or guide by which ‘how’ and ‘why’ the film’s universe exists. In The Ring series, the victim must watch the tape in order to be killed by the dark force. It’s important to understand the insulated operations of the film’s moral universe are not a true reflection of how it would operate in the real world.
A film’s sense of evil only exists within the structure devised by the filmmakers. In the real world – which God created and where the events of Jesus Christ’s took place – those ‘rules’ fail when confronted by Divine power. There are many accounts of saints who encountered demons in the form of other saints; in order to test them they made the sign of the Cross. Upon seeing the Cross, the evil spirits would disappear like smoke in the wind. There’s nothing more troubling than seeing a film where the evil power conquers God. How can something that destroys be greater than something that creates and sustains?
The only time evil is more powerful than the Cross is because the film’s Internal Logic makes this possible. People must realise the creators who generate these stories usually have little or no Christian spirituality or do it to acquire money and fame. Even though many horror plots do not make reference to God, it’s important that we, as paying Orthodox Christian audience members, are fully aware of the film’s lack of true spirituality. Whether it’s film, social media or literature, we always need to carry our Orthodox mindset when appreciating such creative works.
Mental and spiritual health
There are many film critics and fans that would argue this article is over-analysing the concerns against horror entertainment, but we need to consider the mental impact on audiences. There have been several films where I only read the plots on Wikipedia but the ‘pictures’, which I only imagined, were so disturbing they still haunt me. Without a doubt, watching a horror film can be as traumatic as actually being involved in the act depicted. Though horror films allow us to observe terror and gore within a safe environment, the imaginary can remain with us indefinitely.
One of the most confronting aspects of horror is the depiction of torture. Unfortunately, there’s an entire dedicated sub-category. Some filmmakers believe pushing the envelope and manipulating the fright/adrenaline response is a legitimate form of art. What they don’t appreciate is the sanctity of the human being as the image and likeliness of God, instead of as a piece of meat. By inflicting pain upon the character, the filmmaker is essentially doing the same to God.
Another sub-category are stories based around curses. Almost every film revolves around the characters seeking the help of magic (The Skeleton Key, 2005), mediums (Drag Me to Hell, 2009) or themselves (It Follows, 2014), but never the Church. In such films the characters are held at ransom by the power of the curse; this is where having an Orthodox approach would make the outcome less intense and conclusive. The Church has prayers to ward off the Mati (curse of the Eye) as well as prayers for exoticism, holy relics and an entire Heaven filled with saints – an impressive collection of spiritual weapons.
If an Orthodox-themed horror flick were to exist, the film would unfortunately end as soon as it began after making the sign of the Cross. It would be a commercial flop. Filmmakers want drama, bleakness and suspense, not a defining Truth.
The Internal Logic of horror films, especially supernatural powers, cannot survive in reality. Such ‘creations’ are that of filmmakers and are as substantial as smoke. More physical expressions of horror, including extreme violence and torture, though they happen amongst us, still is something we shouldn’t treat as another form of entertainment, like RomComs or crime dramas. Just because it may not be real doesn’t mean it can’t have a negative impact on the individual or society.
In order to evaluate the merit of horror films, we need to compare them against our Faith. Though such films can be used for allegories they still have to be consistent with the spiritual truths and laws of this world. Just like anything we encounter in our daily lives, we must carry our Cross and remember evil can’t overcome good.
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