Halloween: the holiday of horror

Theology of Horror

Christmas Horror

House of Horrors

As garish as your neighbor’s Christmas decorations might be, Halloween is still the holiday of horror. As this series of the horror genre continues, I felt it appropriately timed to speak of its own day.

Christians have rarely felt comfortable celebrating Halloween. There are loopholes, it seems, renaming Halloween a Fall Festival or Harvest Celebration. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong in the Trunk-or-Treat like names, it’s just that it doesn’t fool anyone. We know it’s Halloween and we know costumes and candy will be involved. Sometimes people are afraid of the historical roots of the holiday, celebrating ghosts and ghouls in the most pagan of ways. So there is a little bit of schizophrenic observance: we like it, we don’t like it. Even in my own home growing up, some years my mother felt it best to not celebrate Halloween, other years it was alright. And this struggle can be a very good thing for a Christian to think through. I’m not going to come down on saying, “Everyone should do this or everyone should do that.” That’s your job.

One thing Christians aren’t particularly known for, however, is thinking through ideas deeply and coming up with adept responses to our own culture’s questions. And I get that, it’s hard and it takes time. Actually, this quality of thoughtful living is hard to find in any kind of group.

So, as one navigating your way through life, here is one brief thought concerning Halloween and I hope it spurs on conversation. I believe Halloween is the only holiday we have that truly faces death. I think that’s a positive thing, especially in our context. In facing death, Halloween allows us to look it square in the eyes and laugh. Yes, on Halloween we get to laugh at death.

Now there are two ways to laugh at death. One is to remove ourselves from it. Death makes us uncomfortable (as it should), and we would rather be comfortable, so let’s pretend like it doesn’t exist. Death is not something that we encounter in our daily lives and we try to ignore its inevitability, even poke fun at it. We laugh at death sardonically, without respect. We tend towards the ironic and put our fear in air-quotes, as we knowingly roll our eyes. These are all tactics to keep us removed from our common fate. We will all die.

This remind me of Regina Spektor’s song, “Laughing With”:

No one laughs at God in a hospital
No one laughs at God in a war
No one’s laughing at God when they’re starving or freezing or so very poor…
But God can be funny
At a cocktail party when listening to a good God-themed joke…

(If you’re not familiar with her work, especially that song, you are definitely missing out.)

Baby Vader

Baby Vader laughs it up as he destroys whole planets.

The other way we can laugh at death is if we understand its limited hold on us. As a Christian I believe that death is not the absolute end. And though I respect the fact that we are all born into death, I can laugh authentically, without irony, because the sting of death has been removed. Something that should be ultimately scary, something that I should try and laugh sardonically at, now has no power over me. That deserves a good laugh. That’s how the woman in Proverbs 31 is able to laugh without fear of the future. That’s where I love seeing little children dressed up like monsters of horror. We are laughing at death and rightfully so! All the fears that these monsters embody have been overcome by the horror of God who became man and who was brutally murdered. The death of Christ brought the death of death.

So if you were just interested in thinking more about how we make sense of this world, or if you are a Christian thinking through Halloween, I hope this post is helpful. And this is just one thought, surely there are many more. Leave yours below!

Read other posts in the Theology of Horror series.

Werewolves: man becomes animal

Theology of Horror

The werewolf is a shape shifting monster controlled by the rhythms of nature. Once a full moon is out at night, the werewolf changes from his human form and into his wolf form. This is no docile wolf, either, it is normally hell bent on killing (particularly humans) not just for food, but for sport. Like all horror monsters, the werewolf has incredible power and stamina to overtake the strongest of humans.

Brotherhood of the Wolf

Brotherhood of the Wolf

I believe there’s a need for a good new werewolf film. The last one I remember enjoying was Brotherhood of the Wolf, and that was in 2001. Know of any other good, recent werewolf films? Throw a comment in the box below.

I believe there’s a need for a good werewolf film because I believe we’re at a cultural moment where this particular monster makes sense.

Werewolves show that there is in man an animalistic instinct. This instinct is destructive, and is all powerful when in full force. It controls completely. This instinct isn’t always making itself known, but from time to time, and on nature’s timetable, it rears its head. After shifting from the wolf back to a person, the werewolf has no memory of said werewolving, the only evidence of the night is the blood and torn clothes.

Because the werewolf has no control over this destructive force, he is not safe. He knows he’s not safe and those that he loves he must keep at a distance. It’s a real reason for a fear of intimacy.

The lure of this story is what I believe is timely. I see the romantic pull of the werewolf being a simultaneous fear and desired connection with nature. Since industrialization we can control what we do with time (or at least those over us can). We have electricity in our homes, powering what needs to work in order for us to wake up when we want, go to sleep when we want, do what we want on our timetable. With this freedom, however, comes a disconnect with the basic rhythms of nature: sunrise, sunset, seasons, etc.


Contrary to popular belief I am not one of these.

One anxiety of modernity has been man’s separation from nature. Just look at our current obsessions with food for another example: slow food, local food, organic food, explosion of food TV shows, chefs as rockstars, the list goes on. Maybe it’s because we have been separated from nature in our daily lives for so long that our lack of intimacy with it not only captives us, but makes us afraid. Nature has become the kind of crazy distant relative that we once had fond memories with, but now we’re not so sure because we’ve heard stories of him not always being nice. We don’t know what nature will always be up to, we can’t control him or be comforted that we’ll be safe in his presence.

The werewolf is a reversal of physical and social evolution. What makes a werewolf scary? Man becomes an animal. He is reduced to instinct. A safe world is one that is devoid of all instinct, one that is based on contemplation, conversation, and politeness. Throw someone completely controlled by instinct into that world, add a dash of bloodlust, and you got yourself one scary monster of horror.

As long as we’ve lived on this earth, man still has a problem reconciling himself to it. Not to romanticize the past, but maybe people understood this connection more naturally in older, more agrarian societies. Either way, Genesis explains this connection/disconnection very well. Man was created to work the earth, and God gave seasons as a gift to man, as a way to create order, demarcating time and allowing plans for the future (among other things). According to Genesis 1, man was created to have “dominion” over the animals, ruling in the same graceful, cultivating way that God rules (not in a way that abuses and destroys creation, but that’s a whole other blog post). Man messed up this good thing that was going on and some of the fallout was brokenness in mans’ work and in the ground itself. We were created for this world and now this world is cursed, and our work will always have frustration.

We are drawn to that which is cursed. The thing itself and what we make of it. But we were made for it. It’s this connection/disconnection that the werewolf plays on.
But nature is not meant to be a horror. Nature was originally meant to be good. We made it a horror, and it’s a miracle that anything other than horror can exist in our world now. As a Christian, I look forward to the day when nature will no longer be a horror, but will be perfected. I look forward to the day when humankind is connected to it in a way that was originally meant to be, in a way that we all long for. And I look forward to the day when I will not be a horror to myself and the world around me, because in the perfection of nature, God is also creating for Himself a people to enjoy this new creation.

These are just a few thoughts about werewolves, add some of yours below!

Read other posts in the Theology of Horror series.

Zombies: the inevitability of death

Theology of Horror

Try as we have in our years as developing humanity, we cannot cheat death. We may be healthier now than 100 years ago, have longer lives than 1000 years ago, even have a better quality of life than 2000 years ago, but one thing remains the same. We all die. In the Western world, we have so many diversions from death, Pascal himself would be beyond amusement. We like to construct our worlds in ways that deny death: what we do with our thoughts, time and money. Deny all we want, death is inevitable.

The zombie sub-genre of horror helps keep death in the forefront. Like our other monsters of vampires and slasher bad guys the zombie film is a psychoanalytical product of our nightmares. It forces us to reckon with the onslaught of death.

zombie walk

Proof of zombies’ popularity: zombie walks

What once was alive is now dead. But it’s an insatiable death, it wants more and it wants you. Like Miley, zombies can’t stop. They are, of all the horror monsters, the least rational, just pure appetite. They also seem to be amoral and have a solitary mission to create more of themselves.

Their slowness makes them avoidable to a point. They can be out-thought and out-maneuvered. Like death, they offer no new tactics, just an unstoppable force of anti-humanity. Simon Pegg, writer and star of Shaun of the Dead, wrote a great article on the argument for slow moving zombies for The Guardian and we won’t reproduce that here.

Other than death, the zombie film preys upon our fears of cannibalism, or of being a cannibalee, as well as the fear of mobs. Getting eaten alive by your family and friends does not sound like a fun way to spend a Sunday. And as a pessimist when it comes to groups of people gathered together, the fear of the mindless mob makes perfect sense to me.

But the zombie really is about the inevitable approach of death. We survive for a little while, the faster or more clever will survive longer, but in the end we all end up consumed.

Speaking of consumption, one can’t help but realize the parallels between our consumption of products and the zombie horde’s consumption of humans. How many people have seen a group of younger people blankly staring down at their phones and commented on our zombie cultural state? In fact, that’s one of the very points that Shaun of the Dead makes: we are already zombies of a sort, going to work but not alive. Quite literally we are “amusing ourselves to death.

This is true of most zombie films, or TV shows (can’t get away without mentioning The Walking Dead): are the survivors able to survive only by forsaking their humanity? Must they become lifeless and amoral like the monsters they are trying to fight off?

greg zombie

Yours truly, impersonating a hipster zombie (yes it was also a cultural comment).

This brings the knife edge closer to our experience today. Some say surviving in this world means throwing away parts of our humanity. Think of the cut-throat (even that metaphor!) business world. If throwing away pieces of your inner self is necessary, why bother surviving at all? And what is humanity anyway? If all we are are evolved animals from single celled organisms, then it makes sense for us to consume that which is weaker, then zombies aren’t monsters but are the heroes. They survive over and against living humans.

But in reality, nobody longs to become a zombie. Zombies “survive” because they’re dead. And yet many of us zombify ourselves for reasons that we tout as honorable. More money, more security, more this and that.

If the only way you can survive your life is to become a zombie, don’t bother, you’re already dead. Nothing in this world is worth giving up your humanity.

And unlike zombie films, those who are dead can come back to the land of the living. Nothing is worth giving up our humanity, but the problem is we’re a broken humanity. We’ll run to zombify ourselves whenever given the chance. Pascal, in talking about diversion, was talking about zombies years before Hollywood got a piece.

There is One who calls us out of our zombie state, and, miraculously, defies the genre and brings us to life. This is so disruptive that the entire narrative must change, the entire center of the plot must now be centered on this Person.

What do you think? What other things do zombies bring up in our world?

Read other posts in the Theology of Horror series.

Slasher Films and the Body

Theology of Horror

The slasher film is a popular genre that has gore as one of its core values. They are films like Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (one of my favorite titles), Friday the 13th, Scream, and even Psycho.

The Monster
The monster, as in other horror genres, is unstoppable. Though it is bent on killing, it somehow eludes death itself. Typically the monster isn’t very fast moving, it’s just overwhelming. And he’s always there. Somehow he got into your house and is creeping in the hallway behind you. You look in your rear-view mirror and see him sitting in the backseat. How did he get there?!

He typically uses ordinary weapons (chainsaw, machete, your basic thrashing hooks) that require close contact. He is often faceless and, like many other horror movies, the prey rarely escapes.

Halloween: the epitome of slasher

Halloween: the epitome of slasher

Audience as Voyeur
Many horror genres use the audience as voyeur technique, slasher films take the most advantage of it. The audience is put in the place of watching others. The camera is put in the place of the monster’s eyes—the view from the bushes, from inside the house—we are put into the monster’s shoes, though with a cool distance that allows us to be entertained with the excitement of the hunt, without risking ourselves.

Death and Sex
In slasher films, death is exhilarating. That’s actually what we pay to see: death played out in inventive ways for our enjoyment. Because we all fear that death = nothingness, these films give us the fantasy of a payoff. There may not be anything more after death, but at least the act itself was interesting.

Sex is not an uncommon piece of these films, often it’s a major plot point. The stereotyped genre: kids are having sex and they shouldn’t be, now they’re going to pay. It’s a play off folk tales that remind children of the good behavior they should aspire to. Adding the audience as voyeur, we get to enjoy the naughty behavior as well as live out the grisly consequences (more on slasher morality in a future post).

The Body
So what does the slasher film say about the physical body? The fantasy played out in slasher films is exhilaration in life and death. Sex is life, death is…well, death. So in the highest of highs and depths of depths, in the throes of the bedroom (or backseat or campground) to the lows of our ended existence, it is all very exhilarating. The slasher film views life as a roller coaster: always over the top, always stomach churning, always exciting.

What does this say about how we view the body? Slasher films get our physical existence right in that we are rooted in the physical world. But in the glorification of the physical, there is a horror that lurks near. If the body is all we have, the body becomes a piece of meat to experience these highs and lows. We, the voyeuristic audience, enjoy and anticipate innovative ways to chop up our corporeal selves.

Leatherface: a disfigured dismemberer

Leatherface: a disfigured dismemberer

Some films turn this inside out through camp, but the honest-to-God-unapologetic-slasher-film enjoys gore. As do we. We don’t want all of life to be thrilling, but we sure do enjoy a couple hours of excitement. Then we can relax, having lived out this drama in the comfort of a theatre seat and big tub of popcorn.

Maybe the biggest fear in slasher films is the boring or ordinary, or, rather, that we are boring or ordinary. Our protest to our prosaic lives is to live out these intense moments on the screen. We don’t do very much with our bodies, so seeing them squirm, writhe, run and fight for their lives is exciting. I don’t expect slasher films to be very popular in areas of the world where genocide or other real horrors are prevalent.

We aren’t the best in knowing exactly what our body is for, or how to properly risk it. Even Christians, people that should have the most robust views of the body, are often at a loss. Many evangelicals are afraid of the physical or bodily world so we, at best, don’t talk about it or, at worst, only say the body is bad (like many “purity” type messages). What does the Bible say about this?

Christianity teaches that our bodies are important and have an inherit dignity, no matter what we choose to do with them. Because we are made in a way that reflects the One who made us, our bodies are of infinite importance. We can make decisions that take us farther and farther away from their original intention, but we can never get so far as to not reflect the Creator. Conversely, we do have the possibility of living in such a way that uses our bodies for their original intent, and there are real benefits to this.

Even in the afterlife, Christianity teaches that we will have our bodies. The hope for a Christian isn’t a disembodied life of angelic song, it’s a life with a body. Forever. The proof of this is Christ Himself, who is now resurrected with a perfect body that He will have forever (and that many people saw in real life). And even in the ultimate horror of living forever sent away from our Creator, we still have bodies, though they will be in a constant state of decay.

The highs and lows of the slasher films work because we know our bodies are of much significance. When this significance is transgressed, we pay attention. And we should.

Read other posts in the Theology of Horror series.

Theology of Horror: The Vampire

Theology of Horror


Pop culture has created many different variations on the vampire story. Television (True Blood, Vampire Diaries, etc.), films (from Nosferatu to the Twilight series), and music (Smashing Pumpkins, Vampire Weekend)—these are just the tip of the vampire iceberg in our pop culture lives.

The vampire monster has been through many changes. From villain to anti-hero to hero, we’ve seen it all. Should we fear him, have compassion on him, wish for him to save you? Whatever your favorite flavor of the blood sucker, this post will be limited to Bram Stoker’s version in his novel, Dracula. Though not the first written vampire story, it has singularly had the most impact on the genre. Sorry, Stephenie Meyer (j/k, j/k, Twilight fans are welcome here, too).

Lego Drac

That is one crazed Lego.

Well, what has the vamp to do with Christianity? Quite a lot, actually. I was very surprised when I finally read Dracula in my twenties. To me, it was a <gasp> better Pilgrim’s Progress. It tells the story of what it means to fight for life in a world of unknown darkness.

The unknown darkness is Count Dracula from Transylvania. He is set as an anti-Christ, and that’s why he’s so scary. Let’s see how Stoker sets him in opposition to Jesus Christ.

The light is a big theme in this novel, and (no surprise here) it’s a big metaphor. Dracula lives in darkness, he’s weak or can die in the light. The darker the better. The metaphor that John uses for Jesus is “light of the world” (Jn 8:12, 9:5, 11:9). Darkness hides things, the light discovers them, darkness prevents life, light gives it.

Dracula is a shapeshifter. He can turn into other animals: bat, dog, wolf and doesn’t need to eat or drink anything except his victims’ blood. These aspects are a removal of humanity’s physicality. What’s more basic to all humans than to eat and drink and our human appearance? Jesus, though He’s God, came into a human form, and will always be that way. He eats, drinks, is physically human. And after His resurrection, He is a perfected form of humanity—something we all desire to be—and He still eats and drinks and is physically human.

Count Chocula

Count Chocula: scary good

Like Jesus, Count Drac can control nature. But as the anti-Christ figure, he controls nature toward chaos represented by fogs and storms. Jesus found Himself in a storm while on a boat in Matthew 4. He “rebuked” the wind, and he spoke that nature be still. Jesus controls nature toward order.

Dracula celebrates the anti-Eucharist. He steals vitality from others by drinking their blood, literally sucking their life away. Christ offers his own blood, that all may receive life. That’s what each Lord’s Supper is, an offering of life that we may receive it. Unlike Dracula who must hunt and kill for his followers, Christ was hunted and killed by the ones He came to save. In this act of divine submission, Christ shares His life with all who desire it.

Unlike Dracula who sleeps in his own coffin and every night, over and over must go back to his grave, Christ was in the grave and will never go back. Christ saw the grave once, then ended its power, not just for Himself (which He didn’t even need to do), but as a selfless sacrifice for many people (again, which He didn’t need to do).

Dracula’s actions create death for the living, Christ’s action brings life to the dying. The Count is painted as irredeemable, the only way to end the undead reign is to cut off his head and stab his heart. Separate the head from the heart. Jesus is the one who brings redemption, who recreates our heads and hearts and reconnects them so that we may flourish.

Maybe the real horror in Stoker’s Dracula is the idea of the irredeemable. There is no way to “heal” the Count except kill him. Was he a man once? If so, what is it like to have no other hope outside this world? And what does it mean for us, who live in a world with this kind of irredeemable horror present? These are the questions that plague us in our dark places. They propel us into work or our family or relational connections, trying to squeeze out any kind of meaning to be found in a world of horror that we don’t understand.

Dracula is scary because we believe it to be true. The horrors on the screen are the projected horrors in our hearts. We need a Van Helsing, someone who will save us from this horrible truth.

Read other posts in the Theology of Horror series.

A Theology of Horror: Intro

Theology of Horror

The horror genre has not been particularly embraced by the Christian church. I think that harms the genre and the church. Both have much to teach each other. Christians have had horror in their holy book for thousands of years. We know (or should know) a thing or two about it. The entertainment industry has used horror to give voice to the fears of today in ways the church has surely trailed behind. Why don’t the two play well together?

This next series of posts will be about a theology of horror. What can the church learn from horror and what can horror learn from the church? I’ll take each sub-genre specifically (zombie, vampire, occult, etc.) and see if and where the two meet.

Often when a Christian references a horror film it’s nothing more than, “don’t watch that!” There might be real legitimate reasons for this: certain people are more sensitive to things than others. And some films are incredibly violent, or violence for violence sake. Any art that is mere sensationalism is not art worth giving our time and money to.[1]

But there are plenty of illegitimate reasons for dissuading people to not see the next horror flic. It might be a refusal to be involved in our real world, ignoring real pain and darkness. It might come from not wanting to feel uncomfortable, as if Christianity’s end goal is about us feeling comfortable.

Our Lord died a gruesome, nasty, horror-filled death. We wear his execution instrument on our necks and put them on our cars as bumper stickers. The pages of our own holy book are riddled with violence, and the hope of our future contains a brutal holy war. Have we sanitized the stories of Christianity to make ourselves feel comfortable?

Horror, properly used, grabs us by our shoulders and shakes us back to life. In this next series of posts, I want to dive in to these topics, shake them, and see what good might fall out.

  1. There are definitely reasons a society creates and consumes sensationalism, but that’s for a different post.  ↩