A Christian Defense of Dark Films

As a filmgoer whose personal tastes run toward the eccentric and the macabre (Guillermo del Toro and Darren Aronofsky are two of my favorite directors), I’ve seen plenty of films that fall into the “horror” or “dark thriller” category. It saddens me that this genre is often written off by persons of faith as crude and crassly exploitative, and I’ve written elsewhere about the fascinating theological implications that lie beneath its grim exterior.

Thus, inspired by Chris Casberg’s rousing recent piece, “A Christian Defense of Video Games,” and in keeping with the spirit of the All Hallows season, I aim to explain my appreciation for this genre within a Christian moral framework. I make three key observations about such films – their embrace of moral lines, their affirmation of human frailty, and their foundation in audience conscience – before noting briefly how recent stylistic tendencies cut against the historic moral potency of the genre. (And, naturally, I have a few viewing suggestions of my own).

The Genre Identifies and Embraces Moral Lines

I am certainly not the first to make this observation, but the horror/dark thriller genre unabashedly embraces the simple idea that “wrong actions lead to awful consequences.” The specific bad acts critiqued reflect the social values of the era in which such films were made: the genre has condemned practices as diverse as unrestrained sexual conduct (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th), workaholic behavior at the expense of family (Sinister), religious shysterism (The Last Exorcism), bullying (Carrie), occult experimentation (The Exorcist), defilement of cultural heritage via grave desecration (Poltergeist), and even manipulation of the health insurance system for private gain (Saw VI).

This cuts sharply against the “follow your dreams, no matter the cost” sentiment present across broad swathes of popular culture. For the vast majority of individuals, a hell-bent, bridge-burning pursuit of self-actualization doesn’t work out. Flaws and vices have a way of coming to light, and the genre (by brutally anthropomorphizing the consequences of bad acts) is largely built on this foundation.

When films in the genre fail to do this, and instead cast wholly innocent people into a situation in which they are victimized, the result is a degrading and dissatisfying experience (The Hills Have Eyes, Vacancy, Silent Hill). A compelling narrative hinges on a rational relationship between actions and effects: in the horror genre, this takes on a uniquely (and often overtly) moralistic character.

The Genre Affirms Human Fallibility and Non-Primacy

In many frightening films, the enemy figures against which protagonists are pitted are often either superhuman or supernatural. Indeed, many of these films are not merely theistic or moralistic, but provide an explicitly Christian juxtaposition of God versus evil (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Conjuring, The Exorcist, The Rite, The Devil Inside, Solomon Kane).

The message conveyed – that there are forces and circumstances from which your mortal wits and ingenuity cannot save you – is a sharp departure from the humanistic optimism of Star Trek and its ilk (the science fiction genre is particularly prone to a smirking brains-conquer-all attitude). Accordingly, the horror/dark thriller genre affirms a view of the human condition that more closely matches the traditional Christian understanding: humans are weak, fallible, and not actually the masters of their own ultimate fate.

The Genre is Traditionally Predicated on Moral Awareness

In such movies, the ways in which the audience is expected to react assume a general, internalized sense of morality. Thus, when terrifying things occur onscreen, they evoke a sense of this is the way things ought not be. When done effectively, this goes beyond a purely instinctual revulsion to bloodshed to inspire a uniquely human reaction: vicarious moral reasoning about how individuals ought to act and what they ought not do. The genre assumes its audience possesses a sufficiently sensitive conscience to experience strong visceral reactions in the presence of moral good and moral evil (consider the final nerve-shredding scene of Se7en, which derives its gut-level punch from what is not actually shown onscreen).

The Genre is Changing

There has been a trend in the horror/supernatural thriller genre toward a “found footage” style of cinematography (The Blair Witch Project, Quarantine, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, etc.). I suggest this unintentionally mirrors a larger cultural trend toward the subjectivization of narrative, in which the individual contours of one’s personal experience constitute the totality of the event.

This tendency contrasts sharply with a more classical approach to storytelling (including in the horror genre), in which the audience experiences events from the perspective of a semi-omniscient narrator. This classical approach hints that there is a reasoned purpose behind the occurrence of darkness and suffering – phenomena that occur within a larger storytelling context to consciously advance a larger plot. This subtle property of films produced in such a format is present whether or not any observations to such effect are made by the characters themselves.

In short, the classical approach effectively contextualizes its darkness, whereas the contemporary approach centers its darkness. Where this element is concerned, qualities of plot and script are irrelevant: this effect arises solely from the decision between fixed-camera and found-footage cinematographic styles.

Quibbles about the thematic implications of current film-making trends aside, the genre as a whole has much to recommend it. Undoubtedly, many simply prefer to avoid darker films as a matter of preference, and it certainly bears mention that the genre is glutted with plenty of cheap and grungy detritus.

That being said, the Bible is shot through with scenes of spectacularly grisly imagery in prophetic and artistic (i.e. not just historical) contexts:

“Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. ‘Tear it down,’ they cried, ‘tear it down to its foundations!’ Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” (Psalm 137:7-9)

“I have trodden the winepress alone; from the nations no one was with me. I trampled them in my anger and trod them down in my wrath; their blood spattered my garments, and I stained all my clothing.” (Isaiah 63:3)

“The second angel sounded his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea turned into blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.” (Revelation 8:8-9)

Such imagery, however, is deployed in the service of an overarching moral narrative: it serves an end beyond mere titillation. Effective “dark” films echo such purposiveness. They thrust the viewer into stark encounter with moral principles and offer a cautionary framework within which such morality makes sense.

A good horror film is, in some ways, the flipside of the “Facing the Giants” coin: instead of “do good, and God’s favor will follow,” the message is “do wrong, and suffering will follow.” But whereas the former hints at a works-driven morality (“If I’m a good person and pray enough, I will prosper!”), in the latter, salvation from evil often hinges on acts of unmerited grace (e.g., rescue by extrinsic agents, or even more explicitly, “the power of Christ compels you!”).

That, in my view, is always an undercurrent worthy of celebration.

John’s Suggestions for Halloween Viewing*:

* None of these films are exceedingly graphic, but they’re not exactly all-ages viewing. Discretion advised.


Image courtesy of Mike Maguire.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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