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."
Heady stuff for stories usually found in early science fiction or horror magazines read by young boys.
Lovecraft injected this worldview into all of his stories. Lovecraft fans discuss the "Cthulhu mythos," based on one of his short stories, The Call of Cthulhu. A malevolent entity, Cthulhu becomes a stand-in for all the monsters or aliens of the Lovecraft universe. He drives home his committed atheist worldview through his "old ones"—alien "gods" from other worlds who either do not care about ours or actively seek our destruction. Cosmic horror is what happens when the characters in Lovecraft's stories face this reality and react in utter despair at the futility of doing anything about it.
Modern horror films have drunk deep from Lovecraft's well, repeatedly depicting a dreary cycle of trying to escape the despair. Whedon, an atheist who nonetheless has stated a fascination with "Christian mythos," pushes back against the brutal worldview of Lovecraft with The Cabin in the Woods—trying to avoid cosmic horror by smiling, even laughing, at it. Whedon seems to be saying, "Pay no attention to your annihilation; it's going to happen anyway. Smile. Whistle in the dark and ignore the monsters." Such humor was also used in Whedon's popular TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Prometheus's promising premise
Another recent film, Prometheus, also tried to break Lovecraft's vicious circle of despair, though director Ridley Scott tries a different path. The film attempts to use the faith and hope of one its characters—Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace)—to fight despair. Digging around archeological sites on Earth, Shaw finds what she believes is an interstellar "invitation" to visit her Maker—but in this case, the creators are alien Engineers. An expedition travels to a seemingly uninhabited—perhaps abandoned—alien planet. The team learns that the Engineers aren't so altruistic, and when a live one is discovered, he turns out to be a very Lovecraftian god, bent on the destruction of humans. He begins to kill everyone on the team and will go to Earth to complete the job.
But Shaw refuses to lose hope, and a flashback scene shows us why. Her missionary father had given her a cross, encouraging her to always have faith. She grew up to confuse an orthodox Christian faith with a complete trust in the Engineers; she refuses to believe that all of them are bad. The movie ends with Shaw flying off into the stars, seeking answers from other Engineers—but we are given no real reason to hope she'll fare any better. Her faith is blind, ignoring every piece of evidence.
Scott and co-writer Damon Lindeloff (TV's Lost) fail to escape the orbit of Lovecraftian despair because there is nothing to hang our hope on. They give us nothing concrete to trust. Shaw's weak, ill-defined faith fares no better than Whedon's knowing humor. Lovecraft himself would have found both attempts pointless. He wasn't afraid to ignore the implications of his own worldview in his stories and would have been pleased with the modern horror films he inspired.
Machen a difference
Lovecraft, Whedon, and Scott fall into a deeper current of attempting to find meaning through horror. Whedon and Scott at least take it to the next level by asking deeper questions about how human beings find hope, but they fail because there is no way around Lovecraftian despair while playing under Lovecraft's rules. A different playbook is needed, one written by Arthur Machen.
Most modern horror filmmakers have long forgotten Machen, an under-appreciated legend. Lovecraft himself wrote, "Machen is a titan—perhaps the greatest living writer of the horror tale—and I must read everything of his." Scholars acknowledge Lovecraft's heavy borrowing and recasting of Machen's literary themes.
While Lovecraft was an atheist, Machen fully embraced the doctrines of his Anglican faith. His horror contained the mystery of abandoned places, forgotten gods, and utter terror at the unknown, but also the possibility for humans to find hope beyond despair. Unlike Lovecraft, Machen pushed toward a more holy terror, a sacred fear that could prompt a person to kneel before God.
Machen felt despair could be avoided by seeing the good God who ruled over the world "behind the veil." A person could experience holy terror like the prophet Isaiah felt when he stood before the throne of God—or, to bring it back to movies, like Indiana Jones showed in Raiders of the Lost Ark (telling Marion to respect the ark's power by not looking at it when it was opened) and The Last Crusade (when, to reach the Holy Grail, he had to navigate a treacherous maze requiring him to kneel, to spell God's holy name, and then take a literal "leap of faith"). Machen uses sacred terror to not only scare us, but to push us deeper to think about "unseen realities." Through this sacred terror, he created stories richer and more terrifying than anything Lovecraft could conceive. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, "Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again."
Most modern horror filmmakers avoid Machen's worldview; they may not like Lovecraft's cosmic horror of despair, but to confront Machen's hope-filled holy terror may prove too much for the imagination. Such reluctance can be seen in the film adaptations of Stephen King's novels.
When the two sides meet
King's work is an interesting mix of "cosmic horror" and "holy terror." The tensions between the two are what make his work so rich—but it gives modern horror directors fits, and they often miss the point. Stanley Kubrick's wrestling with adapting The Shining illustrates the point. In Kubrick's version, the father (Jack Nicholson) is turned into a psycho killer driven to ultimate despair by the demons of the hotel.
Kubrick, to no one's surprise, chose Lovecraftian despair, but the book's ending is far more Machen-esque. The father almost falls to evil, but he ends up sacrificing his life for his son, who is wanted by the hotel demons. King hated Kubrick's interpretation, and he wrote his own TV miniseries to correct the errors.
The tension between holy terror and cosmic horror comes to a head in Signs, the 2002 film by M. Night Shyamalan. In the movie, a priest, played by Mel Gibson, has lost his faith. He and his brother watch TV news reports as strange lights appear in the sky. The veil has been lifted from everyone's eyes. Gibson's character says there are two groups of people—those who believe in miracles and those who believe there's no one there to help them. As we find out later, Shyamalan reveals his own point of view—and it's Machen's. Hope lies beyond the terror and beyond the veil.
Will hope be found in any of the latest horror offerings at your local cineplex? Here's hoping Machen finds his way into the imagination of more modern filmmakers.
Jonathan Ryan, a critically acclaimed novelist who lives in Ohio, has a Master's of Divinity degree in theology.
Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.