There’s been a fascinating upward tick in the horror genre’s popularity lately, especially among young people.
Just two decades ago, drama was by and large the most popular genre for TV and movies. But a 2022 Deloitte study found that Gen Z’s third favorite genre is horror, just one percentage point less than action, with comedy at number one. The genre’s popularity extends beyond Gen Z: Among American adults, 71 percent of those under the age of 35 say scary movies are enjoyable (compared to only 23 percent of those aged 65 and over). That said, I’m among the 29 percent of young adults who don’t like scary movies.
Paranormal horror manifests the unseen reality of spirits and demons beyond my control, making it hard for me to brush my teeth without feeling like something is watching. Gothic horror affirms that what was done in the past can haunt me. Slashers make me question human beings’ capacity for evil, making everyone suspect. In short, horror movies are horrifying to me precisely because they spotlight the darkest parts of the human heart and of the world, and I don’t always want to be reminded of that. And like many Christians, I wonder how watching horror movies and shows can be edifying.
But given horror’s current cultural moment, some believers have made compelling defenses for the genre: Horror can speak to the supernatural reality of the world, demonstrate the power to overcome evil, and become an evangelistic tool to reach unbelievers. Recent popular shows like Midnight Mass are praised for their “thoughtful and thorough critiques of religion.” In fact, nearly every one of the top horror movies of all time deal with some kind of Christian theme or portray a Christian character. One article goes so far as to call horror movies “the last mainstream vestige of religion in pop culture.”
After watching season one of Netflix’s Wednesday—the streaming giant’s most popular English-language series of all time, which has just been renewed for a second season—I have come to realize another potential benefit of horror: its ability to reveal and help us discern what is truly good and evil.
In the show, we meet the iconic Wednesday Addams, dressed all in black, morosely stating her love for guillotines and her revulsion to color. In the memorable opening scene, she drops bags of live piranhas into the swimming pool as an act of vengeance against bullies. She is distinctly unhuggable, has a loyal severed-hand sidekick, and plays with deadpan face that most somber of instruments: the cello.
But Wednesday’s dark disposition quickly fades from focus when actual atrocities begin to emerge at her school, Nevermore, and the surrounding town. Each episode reveals the show’s true villains and monsters: the violent racism of the Puritan Joseph Crackstone and the utter deceit of the trusted character who is later revealed as the Hyde.
I was watching Wednesday when I first read Flannery O’Connor’s The Habit of Being. In a letter to a friend, the Catholic writer protests the negative literary reviews of her famous collection of stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, saying, “When I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror” (emphasis added). That is, her readers balked at the gruesome murders and dark plots while missing the more perilous terrors of a Christianity that ran only skin-deep. It was far easier for them to point out O’Connor’s literary specks than to realize her stories were meant to reveal planks of sin in the eyes of cultural Christianity.
O’Connor’s influential “Southern Gothic” stories often uncovered the pharisaic sins of purported Christians. According to Jessica Hooten Wilson, among O’Connor’s favorite subjects are “people pretending to be who they’re not, and people using others for pawns even when they think it’s toward a positive end.” And Wednesday’s villain, the puritanical Crackstone, is just such a character—a product of the horror genre’s gothic past and its allusions to Christian symbols, culture, and ideas.
As with O’Connor, the unmasking of hypocrisy is a signature of Tim Burton, who directed Wednesday as well as movies like Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas. In Burton’s movies and shows, our cultural sense of good and evil is repeatedly turned on its head. The chipper teacher with the wide red smile is revealed as the villain, the mutilated man with scissors for hands is the one with the tenderest heart, and the Pumpkin King turns out to be a greater lover of humankind than Santa Claus.
As believers, we see how Burton’s movies reveal the cracks in the veneer of the seemingly nice and familiar, and to show how those we’ve dismissed as beyond salvation are ripe with redemptive possibility. In other words, as O’Connor’s and Burton’s works illustrate, dark media has a unique ability to unmask our hidden hypocrisy, whether it be in our culture, our churches—or in ourselves.
In his article for Image, Nick Ripatrazone quotes James Baldwin on his reflections for The Exorcist, which hit American cinema in 1973, saying that “in some measure I encountered the abyss of my own soul.” The prophet Jeremiah likewise mourns the human heart as being “deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (17:9). To glimpse “the abyss” of our own souls could be our saving grace.
And if recent studies accurately reflect the state of the church today, the mirror horror holds up before us is necessary. In 2022, IPSOS and the Episcopal Church’s Jesus in America study discovered that non-Christians largely see Christians as hypocritical (50%), judgmental (49%), and self-righteous (46%). There’s a reason why Jesus addressed religious hypocrisy—neglecting to practice what one preaches—by instructing people to take the planks out of their eyes before pointing out the specks in others’.
The Pharisees were the most respected religious leaders in society, but Jesus called out their hypocrisy, hardheartedness, and self-righteousness. He told stories and issued challenges that left his audience confused and uncomfortable and he hung out with the kinds of sinners the Pharisees most judged and disliked. Like O’Connor and Burton, Jesus recognized that the most insidious evils are sometimes not the most obvious, like the dirty insides of an outwardly clean cup—and that the clean white home may really be a tomb with whitewashed walls (Matt. 23:27).
In Romans 1, Paul dishes on the dirt inside that cup: envy, strife, deceit, and maliciousness. He calls out gossips, slanderers, and haters; he calls out insolence, boastfulness, foolishness, and heartlessness, with a judgmental attitude as the penultimate vice. Paul’s list deals chiefly with sins that can mostly be hidden in the heart. In many horror movies and shows, these hidden sins manifest outwardly in characters—the maliciousness that lurked beneath is drawn to the surface on the screen.
Sometimes, these monsters and villains can lead us to reflect on the monstrous and villainous sins hiding in our own hearts. Or we can learn how society views us through the way these Christian characters are portrayed in media—and let it make us more aware of the impact our witness has on the world.
Darker works like Burton’s movies or O’Connor’s short stories have helped me see my hypocritical tendencies—how I can put on a smiling façade toward my neighbors and then turn around and speak badly of them, how I can be praying for my children one moment and then turn and shout angrily at them the next. By watching a character enact the hidden sins of my heart, I see the ways I need Jesus.
Lest the reader misunderstand me—guillotines, murders, and torture are not good or beautiful things in themselves. Indeed, much of the horror genre can take us deeper into evil and fear. We must not be naïve but wisely discern what is appropriate and what should be avoided. And just as Paul exhorted early believers regarding whether it was okay to eat food sacrificed to idols (Rom. 14:1–8), we must also be communally minded in our choices to consume scary media. Sometimes, it’s better avoided.
But the horror genre at its best, especially when it critiques Christianity, can help us dispel any illusions that believers are without sin. The apostle John warns us that “if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). When we encounter the true horrors in our midst, we’ll find Christ waiting there to convict us of the ways our lives have not matched our words. He may also lead us to lament our sins and the sins of our culture. Above all, he may use what is frightening and eerie—not just in the world or on the screen but in our very hearts—to send us fleeing into his arms.
Christian theologian Richard Mouw once commented that the grotesque gargoyles carved into the stone of some medieval churches are a reminder that “the power of the Evil One is still with us” (for, as C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters makes clear, the best tactics of our enemy are those that make us forget he is there). Sometimes “visible reminders of the Enemy’s presence” can help us in our spiritual struggles and deepen our faith.
Perhaps artifacts of the horror genre like Wednesday and O’Connor’s stories can serve as cultural gargoyles for our time, leading us to humble repentance and sincere faith. As the poet Jeanne Murray Walker writes,
“I embrace you, piece of absence / that reminds me what I will be, / all dark some day unless God / rescues me, oh speck / that might teach me yet to see.”
Maybe the specks on the screen and the planks in our eyes can, in the final measure, help us cling more genuinely to Jesus—becoming prophetic words that bring us back to the Cross.
Just like in Jesus’ day, Christians today can be easily distracted by all the “wrong horrors.” And while showing what is beautiful and good can often help us see the right horrors, sometimes we need the gruesome and the gory—like a gargoyle on the church roof—to make us aware of the evils in the mirror that are closer than they appear.
Sara Kyoungah White is a copy editor for Christianity Today.