Theology & Spirituality

Horror Cinema and the Natural Law

Under the conditions of modernity, it’s not easy to make “natural law” arguments sound terribly persuasive. Much ink was spilled in this area during the run-up to Obergefell v. Hodges, nowhere more eloquently than in the book penned by Robert George, Sherif Girgis, and Ryan Anderson, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. Such arguments, however, largely fell on deaf ears.

Yet the eclipse of natural law arguments in the public square doesn’t invalidate the essential proposition of natural law theory: that there’s a fundamental harmony between the world as we experience it and the ways in which we ought to live. This consonance is what allows us to speak objectively about whether or not a given act is conducive to human flourishing.

On some intuitive level, we all know this. For instance, we understand that murder is wrong because we understand that life—participation in Being—is intrinsically valuable in a way that transcends cultural context. (To be sure, utilitarians and Kantians might take umbrage with this claim. I refer them to Alasdair MacIntyre’s outstanding Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, which situates and defends a far more developed argument than the one I’m sketching here.)

This is all a secular way of saying that the order and design in the world—both physical and moral—is a reflection of its Creator’s character. And I suspect that this inescapable theological implication explains why modern audiences hesitate to give much credence to arguments from natural law. As a result, such arguments are no longer terribly persuasive in contemporary political life.

But that particular domain notwithstanding, I’ve found that the ethos of natural law still lingers in some unexpected places.

I’ve written before about the essential moral framework that underpins most good horror films—and “natural law” is a key component of that framework. Consider how this sensibility undergirds some of the most memorably dark movies ever produced: The Exorcist haunts us because it subverts the natural order of childhood: its demonic antagonist spews heinous blasphemies and lascivious propositions from an innocent girl’s mouth. Rosemary’s Baby chills because it transforms the most natural thing in the world—pregnancy and childbirth—into a vessel for satanic invasion of the world. The Babadook and The Conjuring pit mothers against their children, fraying the elemental parent-child bond upon which familial relationships depend. And The Silence of the Lambs churns the stomach by delving into one of the oldest taboos: the consumption of human flesh.

Crucially, these movies do not merely depict unconventional behavior. They depict deviant behavior, conduct that transgresses the most foundational norms of right and wrong.

There’s something going on here that transcends mere shock value, or the encounter with something upsettingly unfamiliar. For the most part, our responses to these films aren’t simply exercises in cultural conditioning, for the simple reason that socially stigmatized behavior is not the stuff of horror. Rather, it’s the stuff of “cringe comedy” (like The Office). Michael Scott’s stomach-knotting actions don’t repel and upset us so much as scandalize us. We respond viscerally to both, but not in the same way.

By contrast, good horror films remind us of what is good and true and beautiful—in an absolute sense—by the obvious dreadfulness that results when that goodness is subverted. In the instant of encounter with the profane, we are forced to acknowledge that our apprehension of right and wrong extends beyond mere personal preference (or, as MacIntyre would say, the capital-M “Morality” of our age).

It’s the lack of this natural-law sensibility that makes this year’s critically acclaimed Hereditary—the story of a family suffering demonic attacks after the tragic death of their daughter—such an unsatisfying experience.

In an article for First Things, writer Justin Lee explains how the film unsettles viewers by forcing its secularized protagonists to confront real spiritual evil without any recourse to “countermeasures.” There are no priests or exorcists here, no holy water or crucifixes with which to repel the ancient Enemy. There is only the alienated self, which inevitably becomes a conduit through which darkness enters.

But in tracing this implication, I’ve gone well beyond the film’s actual content: Hereditary in no way interrogates the pitfalls associated with the isolated life. In fact, it offers no vision of human flourishing against which its nightmarish developments can be contrasted. Its protagonists are deeply selfish and miserable from the start, and there’s little to no connection between its characters’ actions and their grisly fates.

Accordingly, I’d take Lee’s argument in a quite different direction: Hereditary fails as a film because it abandons the very moral order that makes “horror” intelligible. Acts of morbid, undeserved violence befall Hereditary’s characters, but there’s no obvious goodness in these characters to be violated. Nor is there even a sense of cosmic balance-righting, where Bad People suffer for their sins at the hands of a faceless destroyer (there’s at least one senior thesis waiting to be written about how slasher flicks are the modern-day equivalent of medieval mystery plays).

And if critiquing the “alienated self” is the goal, there are better ways to do it. Consider, for example, last year’s Jigsaw.

As Jigsaw opens, five individuals find themselves in a locked farm compound littered with booby traps. An audiotape reveals that one among them—someone who killed an innocent woman while robbing them—has been secretly poisoned. The tape urges the killer to “confess their sin” before it’s too late. Lying on a nearby table are three syringes: one containing saline, one containing hydrochloric acid, and the last containing the antidote for the poison. The antidote is labeled “$3.58”—the sum of money that was stolen, a fact only the killer could know. Thus, to seize the antidote is to instantly admit culpability.

In a radical departure from the expected template, here no one actually has to die or suffer severe injury in order to survive. The film’s subsequent challenges all follow a similar pattern: in order to make it out largely unscathed, the protagonists need only admit their sin to themselves and one another. While obviously most of the film’s characters die in creatively graphic ways, their deaths are direct results of their own choices—choices that, within the film itself, they have the opportunity not to make.

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis theorized that “[t]here are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.” Popular images of hell often depict a fiery landscape of damnation, a wasteland littered with lost souls howling in repentant agony. Absent from this portrait is the possibility that the choice to isolate oneself from God might be a continuing act or habit of the will, a persistent refusal to surrender one’s ego.

And this is precisely the insight that drives Jigsaw’s narrative. These characters suffer as a direct result of not merely the choices they’ve made up to that point, but the choices they continue to make because of who they are. Their arrogance and self-delusion is the critical factor in the suffering they undergo. Every trial offers a generally painless “way out”—if they will only confess and come to terms with their own misdeeds. Actual “horror” elements are mostly a matter of superficial aesthetics: if you stripped out the blood but left the story structure intact, Jigsaw could be a PG-rated family film about the dangers of temptation and pride.

That film depicts a world in which evil humans get exactly what they deserve because they choose it. It succeeds as a story because the natural principles of justice and atonement underlie the events onscreen: its characters are no hapless victims of a cosmic decree of reprobation, but rational actors who over and over forsake the mercy that’s constantly at hand. The possibility of reconciliation is ever present—if they will abandon their pride enough to receive it. Suffering comes in clinging to that pride.

In short, Jigsaw both inspires reflection and manages to communicate something beyond a transitory sense of despair. Hereditary does neither.

This has been a fairly harsh critique. So in the interests of fairness, I’ll give Hereditary this much: it pushes its premise about as far as horror can go without straying into any pesky moral implications. And I suppose that is an accomplishment, of a sort.

But I tend to think it’s a rather ignominious one.

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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