Today, October 31st, is my birthday. A Halloween birth might explain my draw to the macabre and my journeys down the hallowed halls of horror cinema. I have watched horror cinema since I was a kid, around 10-11 years old. I have found it to be an exciting exploration of fear, religion, and the human condition. I have lost count long ago how many I’ve seen. From body horror to psychological terror, from Craven to Cronenberg, so many examples of stellar filmmaking have been gifted to us by the creative minds behind the curtain of our favorite films. There’s much to celebrate and today seems like the perfect day to do so. So, on this Halloween, it seems only appropriate to spend some time reflecting on the genre of cinema we love so much. So, consider this an ode, a love letter if you will, to horror cinema.
As ten or eleven-year-old boy, the first horror film I remember seeing was William Friedkin’s 1973 classic The Exorcist, which both drew me into this new cinematic world and shook me in ways few films can. Having been born in the late-80’s, I had some catching up to do on some of the most beloved horror films of all-time. Before long, I made countless trips to Hollywood Video to rent VHS copies of Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Hellraiser. The stories, the terror, the human condition – it all drew me in and I found a genre of cinema that immediately grabbed my attention. From there, my TV was full of scenes from Poltergeist, Candyman, Gremlins, Child’s Play, Children of the Corn, Alien, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. As a sort of lonely kid, if I wasn’t playing video games with my best friends or watching the latest PPV from WWF (now WWE), I was probably watching a horror film. As a kid who was somewhat of a loner and an only child, I spent a lot of time befriending cinema. When I suffered the traumatic effects of bullying, horror cinema let me face my fears and my emotions in a safe place where I wouldn’t feel judged. It seemed to understand me in ways other people couldn’t. As the teenage years came and went and adulthood was on the horizon, cinema took a back seat.
Fifteen years have passed since my first childhood introduction to horror cinema. At this point, I’m about to begin grad school where I end up studying theology and art. About halfway through my time there, several big life events help me reconnect to this old friend from my youth – cinema. In particular, films like The Babadook and Hereditary helped me in making sense of certain realities I was facing at the time. It was also during this time I began to write about film. In doing so, this deep love for cinema emerged, with horror cinema at its forefront, returning the joys of movie-watching from my youth. Pontypool, It Follows, Raw, The Witch, Get Out, Oculus – all films which would make my favorite horror films list – made their way across my screens, this time through the plethora of streaming services which didn’t exist when I was a kid. I missed the grainy aesthetic of VHS horror films – I’m a sucker for that hit of nostalgia – but I enjoyed how horror was even more accessible than it was when I was younger and how the genre, just like when I was a kid, was alive and well and creating modern classics. Lest I stay focused merely on the modern feast of horror cinema, the public library, Netflix DVD, and my numerous streaming services aided me in returning to the previous decades of horror cinema to catch all the classics I had let slip through the cracks of my viewing diet – films like Videodrome, The People Under the Stairs, Black Christmas, The Thing, The Evil Dead franchise, The Blair Witch Project, and Suspiria.
Over the next few years, film became a centerpiece in my life. I found myself leaning into my cinephile lifestyle, buying books on the history of horror films, on film techniques, and on religion and art. In fact, as I write this, I just recently picked up a copy of Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film. Now, as an adult with new paradigms and concepts to think about art, film became much more than entertainment. Film became almost sacramental, a way to encounter the Divine, to wrestle with stories of human dilemma and depravity, and to see how cinema could become a positive pedagogical artifact that helps form people into individuals who are more compassionate, humble, patient, understanding, and wise. In the religious contexts I grew up in, such an idea would be seen as preposterous, even blasphemous. And yet, I could not disagree more. Between I Saw The Devil, Ju-on, Eyes Without a Face, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, Village of the Damned, Tenebre, The Killing of the Sacred Deer, Magic, and many, many more, horror cinema gave me moments to pause and reflect on my own biases, prejudices, insecurities, and attitudes towards others and towards life more broadly.
On this Halloween Day, I can’t think of a better way to reflect on the day than to be reminded of all the ways horror cinema has a positive moral effect, a way to explore the intricacies of being human. For me tonight, after I enjoy dinner with the woman I love, we’ll curl up on the couch and enjoy a film neither of us has seen yet – Guillermo del Toro’s classic Spanish horror film The Devil’s Backbone.
I hope you can find time to enjoy a spooky film tonight, too.
From me and all of us at Grindhouse Theology,
Have a Happy Halloween