October has arrived and Halloween is right around the corner. True to form, Hollywood is unleashing all sorts of horror movies upon us—including at least one more this Friday, Scott Derrickson's Sinister (pictured at the top of this page), which looks to reach out and terrify its audience. On the lighter side, Tim Burton's Disney film, Frankenweenie, released last week.
All sorts of scary flicks are playing on the big screen—and they started earlier than usual this year. Possession ruled the box office in early September, followed by Resident Evil: Retribution and House at the End of the Street. October brings the aforementioned Sinister and Frankenweenie, plus Paranormal Activity 4 and Silent Hill: Revelation 3D. It's enough to keep any horror movie fan coming back for more.
I count myself among them. Not only do I like horror flicks, but my bookshelves are full of classic horror novels. And I'm about to have an urban fantasy/horror novel published. But I don't take any of this lightly—and some might wonder why a Christian would invest time or money into such things at all.
It's because I find meaning—including biblical truths and theological implications—throughout much of the genre. My appreciation for meaning in scary stories finds its roots deep in the works of H.P. Lovecraft and his concept of "cosmic horror," as well as in the works of Arthur Machen with his notion of "holy terror." One is rife with despair, the other clings to hope. The contrast between the two results in a remarkable tension found in the history of horror.
More on those guys in a bit, but I'll begin the discussion with a few illustrations from a horror film that came out earlier this year—Joss Whedon's The Cabin in the Woods, which promised to explore themes I've been exploring in my own thinking and storytelling.
Horror engineers and cosmic despair
The Cabin in the Woods film begins like a conventional horror film. College students go to the titular cabin for the weekend. They run into creepy locals (including the stereotypical "harbinger"), find hints of a macabre history for the cabin, and encounter some minor scares along the way. The next steps were predictable: Teens would die horrible deaths at the hands of a crazed killer, a ghostly entity, a zombie, or some other monster.
But Whedon tosses in a wicked curveball to the formula: Two men in lab coats who work in a government-like facility are controlling every move of the college students through the cabin's environment. These "horror engineers" push the students to become the prototypes of modern horror films—the brainy blond becomes a sex-crazed teenager; the athlete becomes a testosterone-fueled, unthinking jock; the nerdy geek becomes the brave guy with a heart of gold; and the virgin survives to destroy whatever wicked this way comes.
But this time the "virgin" doesn't get to kill the "evil." She finds the secret facility and discovers, to her despair, that she is destined to be "offered as a ritual teenage sacrifice to appease the elder gods and prevent the destruction of the Earth." Whedon uses this clever twist as a critique of modern horror films: the "rules" which govern the plot, obsession with bloody death, and the audience feeding off the hopeless despair of the victims. He uses humor in an attempt to get around such cosmic despair.
Why is there so much hopeless despair in modern horror? Part of the answer can be found in Lovecraft's writings and his concept of "cosmic horror." He explains his view of the end of the world: "The human race will disappear. Other races of beings will appear and disappear in turn. The sky will become icy and void, pierced by the feeble light of half-dead stars. Everything will disappear. And what human beings do is just as free of sense as the free motion of elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, feelings? Pure 'Victorian fictions.' Only egotism exists."