I suspect that one of the reasons so few Christians are deeply, passionately committed to the horror genre is that so regrettably few of us take Flannery O’Connor seriously. If you’re not familiar with Flannery O’Connor, suffice it to say that she is every Christian’s delightfully macabre aunt.
Like our real life off-kilter aunts, we only hear from her on special occasions. Our aunt Daphne shows up on Christmas Eve – or, perhaps more appropriately, Halloween – with a half drank bottle of the second-least-expensive wine at the grocery store and a delightful repertoire of quirky anecdotes about the third grade class she teaches at St. Maximus the Confessor Memorial Eastern Orthodox School for Gifted Young Saints. Flannery shows up in our High School LIT class, where we read Wise Blood, or A Good Man is Hard to Find, paired with some woefully undercooked encyclopedia article about her life.
And her tales are quirky and gruesome and no more appropriate for any occasion than the ones we got from Aunt Daphne at the dinner table.
To put it one way, O’Connor is famous for her dedication to expressing the ‘sacred’ through the ‘sordid’. Her stories are grim, often bloody, and subtextually rich. She has long been a favorite amongst unpretentious bookish types, religious and secular alike. Her short stories play out a bit like a Christian Tales From The Darkside episode. But their content is substantial – if you’re looking for a fiction book that’s spiritually nourishing and isn’t Gilead, it’s hard to think of a better candidate than Everything That Rises Must Converge.
I bring all of this up because you would think, given Flannery’s legacy of weaving gospel truth into stories that might easily have been adapted for the screen by Roger Corman and his grisly heyday, that we’d have made better use of the cinematic genre most immediately suited to doing the same. Naturally, I’m referring to horror.
Indian Bishop A.J. Appasamy once wrote that some elements of the triune God’s divine self-disclosure are nearly incomprehensible by those who are not steeped in the images and longings of the Indian world. The way that some of his devotees see it, Jesus ‘comes alongside’ them, in a way, explaining the truth behind their sacred traditions, as he did for the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
Appasamy’s book, Temple Bells, is an Indian sacred text Reader, designed for devotional use among Indian Christians. He draws attention to the ways in which the deepest longings of the Indian spirit are met in Jesus Christ. The gospel is the answer, in a sense, to the questions posed by the Indian consciousness.
It also sheds light on the manifold ways the New Testament interacts with other sacred texts. For one, it interacts with the Old Testament through quotations, allusions, and applications of its points in new contexts.
And, too, it interacts with non-canonical Jesus materials that predate the New Testament – ostensibly. Although we have no concrete evidence for the existence of, say, a “Q” source, a collection of the sayings of Jesus, it is not far-fetched to imagine that such a source existed and was drawn upon by the New Testament writers.
Moreover, the New Testament interacts with non-canonical, non-Christian texts – Jude interacts with the Assumption of Moses, a non-canonical Jewish text of uncertain origin, and also 1 Enoch, a popular pseudonymous Jewish work which, although deeply revered, was not envisioned as normative for faith and practice.
The New Testament itself is the best guideline for how to interact with non-Christian texts. They are often used for illumination – especially in a ‘local’ sense. That is, Paul uses Epictetus for illumination at the Aeropagus, Jude uses non-canonical Jewish texts for illumination, and so on.
The Upanishads, suggests Appasamy, although they are not comparable to the Old Testament, have served as a praeparatio evangelica for Indian Christians, and so can the Qur’an, subordinated to the canonical Christian texts, and so can Albert Camus’s The Stranger (Howard Mumma used precisely this text to share the gospel with Camus, which he recounts in the book Albert Camus and the Minister), and so can that new Darren Aronofsky movie, Mother! if we allow the scriptures to read them for us, unmasking the ways in which they set the stage for the gospel, posing questions to which Jesus is the answer, inviting us to long for things we didn’t know made a trail back to the Godhead
This does not, in any fashion, endorse wholesale the contents of any non-biblical source, but instead takes them captive and subjects them to the Bible’s scrutiny, making them a footstool for the Holy Spirit to teach us in ways unique to each source.
There has always been a rather short walk from the ‘grindhouse’ to the ‘art house’ – and from the ‘grindhouse’ to the ‘Church house’. There is, of course, a marked difference, an intraversible wall, even, that distinguishes the gospel community – where believers gather to build one another up in the faith, to confess their sins to one another, to push in to the gospel together, within the blessed confines of their shared redemption in Christ alone – from everything else.
That is, nothing in the world is a substitute for the church. There is absolutely no alternative to being connected at the bone to the gospel community. Flannery would be quick to point this much out.
Good horror cinema can be a praeparatio evangelica. Horror cinema is a permanent fixture in the Western consciousness. When we think of devils, we probably think of the ones who’ve haunted our TV screens. Not least because it’s probably our most theologically restless genre.
And it can be a wellspring by which the believer’s heart is refreshed – because, like everything else on God’s green earth, it is Christ’s footstool. Flannery might have agreed with that, too.
The whole of the human experience has been taken captive under the cross for God’s good purposes, so that nothing – absolutely nothing, falls outside of the authority of Jesus. And as such, good horror cinema is one tool by which the risen Christ can disciple us. It is not the church, and it is not the Bible, and it is not the Holy Spirit – there are no substitutes for these things – but it’s plenty useful in its way.