Is there such a thing as Christian horror?

I just finished reading the 2nd Edition of Coach’s Midnight Diner, an anthology of “hardboiled horror, crime, and paranormal fiction with a Christian slant”.

I was mostly reading it because my boyfriend has a story in the anthology. But I’d heard of this anthology before. I remembered being impressed by their submission guidelines. Most Christian magazines and anthologies are way less forgiving of profanity, sex and violence in the stories they publish than, say, the authors of the Bible (to pick a completely random example). So I was heartened to read that it wasn’t really an issue for them; I think the guidelines said something along the lines of “God’s not a pussy, and neither are we.”

They’ve, um, changed it since to something less crude. (“This is not Guidposts or your Sunday School quarterly.”) But I still approve. The first anthology they put out was subtitled “The Jesus vs. Cthulhu Edition”, further evidence that the editors have a sense of humor.

The one I read was “The Back From the Dead Edition.” Some of my favorite stories: “Flowers for Shelly”, by Greg Mitchell, was possibly the most memorable story in the anthology, with the best description I’ve ever read of a first person narrator who turns into a mindless zombie during the zombie apocalypse. Jerry Gordon’s “9th Ward” was also memorably creepy, very short, but with a twist ending that I didn’t see coming. I’d be amiss not to mention Donald’s story (for which he used the byline D.S. Crankshaw), “The Office of Second Chances.” I don’t claim to be offering an objective opinion here, but it was one of my favorite stories in the anthology; it’s probably the most humorous story, with its send-ups of action/thriller cliches and Lovecraftian horrors from beyond time. I also liked Maggie Stiefvater’s “The Denial” (about a demon who falls in love with a human woman, and finds some kind of redemption), Daniel G. Keohane’s “Box” (about a victim of child trafficking) and “Small Accidents of God”, by Virginia Hernandez (a teenage girl is unnerved by the menacing shadows she can see hovering around other people, and hopes that “getting the Spirit” will make them go away).

One thing that the anthology got me thinking about is whether there can even be such a thing as Christian horror. I’m not talking about the window dressing of horror, the zombies and demons and serial killers and such. What I mean is that many critics seem to be arguing that one of the essential features of horror fiction is, at its core, a sense that everything is meaningless. That there’s no underlying purpose to our lives, or to life in general; or if there is, then the mind behind that purpose (if there is such a mind) does not wish us well. Most Christians would agree, I think, that this worldview is antithetical to the essential doctrines of Christianity.

I realize that Coach’s Midnight Diner doesn’t limit itself to horror fiction. But having read the anthology didn’t do much to convince me that there is such a thing as Christian horror. Most of the best stories were neither horror, nor particularly Christian (I don’t mean that they were anti-Christian, just that Christianity wasn’t relevant to the story). Some were one, but not the other. Even stories with horrific or frightening elements often ended on too much of a redemptive note to seem true to the grim and hopeless horror aesthetic.

I think one of the reasons I especially liked “Flowers for Shelly”, though, is that it did a better job than any of the other stories at walking the line between Christian faith (the first person narrator who turns into a zombie is a devout Christian, and of course there’s the question of how God could allow a zombie apocalypse to happen to good people), and grim hopelessness (perhaps there’s a purpose, but the zombified protagonist isn’t going to find out what it is). It’s also a bleakly funny story.

Of course, on the other hand, the Bible itself can be pretty horrific, and not just in window trappings (“I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit,” as the author of Ecclesiastes tells us). I’d argue that if you read the entire book, the horrific bits are just local minima (to use a scientific analogy); overall, there’s a purpose. Not necessarily for individual lives, though. People die without ever seeing the redemption that they’d hoped for.

So I guess I don’t have an answer to my own question. One thing I do know, though; every so often while I’m typing up a blog post, it auto-saves and tells me how many words I’ve written so far; and for an awfully long time while I was writing this post, the word count was 666.

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10 Responses to Is there such a thing as Christian horror?

  1. Donald says:

    The problem I have with the argument that horror’s premise is that life is hopeless is that it’s just not true for most horror fiction. The most popular horror writers today, such as Dean Koontz and Stephen King, do not teach a hopeless universe (read, for example, King’s Dark Tower series). It’s not true of classics such as Frankenstein or Dracula. So if the definition of horror is so narrow to exclude the classics and the popular novels, what’s left in what’s defined as “real horror”? Lovecraft and a few others, and I’m not willing to define horror Lovecraftian horror.

  2. Kristin says:

    I suppose that “real horror” is defined by the sort of fiction that the critics defining it prefer to read.

    I’m probably overstating the “life is hopeless” premise as a necessary oversimplification to avoid attempting to paraphrase pages and pages of critical analysis in Locus Magazine. If the critical thesis were simply that horror fiction is about a meaningless universe that is not what it originally appeared to be (and in a very bad way), it wouldn’t take pages and pages for the critics to attempt to define the genre every few years.

    In the May issue of Locus, as part of a round-table discussion on Poe, author Peter Straub claims that all supernatural horror writing is “about sadness … grief and loss”, and then later on adds that it’s also about dread. Which is maybe a more well-rounded definition than I tried to give earlier. Though possibly more vague.

    Given that broader definition, can you have a Christian horror fiction characterized by existential dread? Or are they incompatible, except on a very superficial level (you could have the window-dressing of both horror and Christianity without probing too deeply into either)? I’m not asking because I think I know the answer, but because I don’t.

    How would you define horror? It seems unsatisfying to me to define it simply as fiction in which scary and creepy things happen.

    And is Frankenstein really horror, or is it more science fiction? (though I guess they’re not mutually exclusive; and I haven’t read Frankenstein, so I don’t have an opinion either way)

  3. Kristin says:

    The Locus round-table discussion on Poe is actually available online here:

    Also, Donald has a more detailed (and quite interesting) response to my post at his own blog:

  4. Donald says:

    Well, Frankenstein is more in the Romantic tradition than anything else. So is Dracula, really, but you can still call them Romantic horror novels (by which I do NOT mean romance horror novels). Admittedly, I found them to be pretty boring horror novels.

    I’ll stick by the definition I posted on my blog, but I will add this: if what you believe in is a meaningless universe, so much so that it is essential to your identity, then there is little that’s scarier than a universe with meaning. If you believe in an impersonal, uncaring universe where you are an unnoticeable speck, then a universe that cares intensely about you is terrifying. A universe–a *God*–that wants something from you is the stuff of nightmares.

    As for whether you can have dread in a story with a strong Christian worldview, well, I was thinking about addressing that on my blog eventually. Look for a post on “What is Christian horror?”, or maybe, “How to scare Christians.”

  5. Kristin says:

    But are “Christian horror” and “How to scare Christians” the same thing? Perhaps what you find most frightening depends on what you start off thinking that you know about the world.

    I’m not sure whether I agree with your point above that, if a meaningless universe is essential to your identity, then a universe that cares about you is terrifying. It’s something that we take for granted, in the evangelical church, as one explanation for why some people reject Christianity, often quite viciously. Mostly because C.S. Lewis said it was true of him before he became a Christian, I think. “Oh, well, that person is negative about Christianity because they’re afraid of the claims that a loving God might have on their soul.”

    I think that might be part of the truth, for some people. But I think there are many other reasons why people reject the Christian faith–apparent inconsistency with empirical fact, inability to reconcile the existence of a loving God with the existence of evil, following a different spiritual path that they find perfectly satisfying, etc. I think if you’re an atheist for reason one or reason two, the idea that the universe has meaning and cares about you is probably not actually that scary. Because you might not be able to suspend disbelief enough to be affected by the notion.

    I actually think that the notion of a loving God who wants something from us (and has the right to demand it) is scarier for those of us who are already Christians. Because we believe it’s true, and yet we know that we don’t actually submit to the will of God most of the time. Or want to, much.

    I found 1984 much scarier than The Handmaid’s Tale, because I could believe in the premises underlying Orwell’s novel much more readily than I could believe that American fundamentalism could go wrong in the particular way outlined in Atwood’s novel (I’m not saying I don’t think it could go wrong in other ways, just that I found Margaret Atwood’s vision particularly implausible).

    Though I was younger when I read 1984. I’m not sure how I’d respond to the two books if I read them now, side-by-side.

    Maybe the book of Job is horror, in some sense, upon a close reading. The way that, in the end, God says to Job, “You don’t get an answer to your questions about why terrible things happen to good people, and you don’t even have the right to ask.”

  6. Donald says:

    I think you’re misunderstanding me. I said that “if a meaningless universe is essential to your identity,” then meaning is scary. I don’t think this applies to all atheists. Many of them do believe that there is meaning in the universe. Others at least want there to be. In neither case is it essential to their identity that the universe not have meaning.

    I don’t think most horror writers would fit that definition. If they did, they wouldn’t find a meaningless universe scary in the first place.

  7. Kristin says:

    I guess I’m not sure I know anyone who finds that a meaningless universe is essential to their identity. That particular character seems like a straw man invented by Christian apologists.

  8. Heide says:

    Do you two actually talk or just reply to each others blog? Just asking.

  9. Donald says:

    Heh. Curiously, we haven’t talked about this in person. We talk about other things when we’re together.

    As for a strawman, I’ve known a few who were like that, or at least claimed to be. MIT is a good place to meet people with extreme philosophical outlooks. It is something of an extreme, but it is hardly necessary for it to be this extreme for God to be a scary concept.

  10. The Gill-Man says:

    I would completely disagree with the idea that all horror is about the meaningless nature of the universe. I’ve long felt that horror and Christianity are incredibly compatible, for the simple reason that all of the best horror stories are morality tales. If you think about it, the earliest stories were, most likely, told to frighten children into behaving. Throughout the history of horror, the most highly regarded are those that involved man unleashing unspeakable horror due to his own sinful actions, or of good people standing up to fight a horror that has come upon them uninvited.

    While HP Lovecraft certainly wrote existential horror, I don’t think his work is representative of all horror. He was writing from his own perspective, and putting forth his own atheistic philosophies. Now, I love me some Cthulu stories, but I don’t think that all horror begins and ends with Lovecraft. Take a look at the classic EC comics, the majority of the writings of Stephen King or Dean Koontz, or at the best horror themed episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. In all of these cases, a strong moral theme is presented. Usually, it is in the form of man’s sinful nature leading to horror. Whether or not the protagonists are successful in overcoming said horror is usually highly dependant on whether or not they make the right choices.

    The two novels that were mentioned above, Frankenstein and Dracula, are PERFECT examples of horror reflecting a Christian viewpoint. In the case of Frankenstein, you have a horror unleashed when man tries to play the role of God. Dr. Frankenstein’s creation is a perverse mockery of the concept of resurrection, and the bloodshed that is a result makes it clear that man should not go too far in trying to mimic his creator.

    Dracula is, in many ways, a clear-cut example of Christian ethos in a horror novel. Dracula himself can be seen as a metaphor for Satan, prowling about looking for victims to tempt and turn to his own evil minions. While many modern films have tried to make Stoker’s villian into a romantic anti-hero, the way he was depicted in the novel is anything but. The Dracula of Stoker’s book is a horrifying, purely evil force that is looking to devour the very life of his victims, damning their souls in the process. Throughout the novel, the heroes use various “modern” tools to help them, but it is ultimately Van Helsing’s use of religious iconography, such as crosses, holy water and communion wafers, that repels the Count.

    In short, I think there DEFINITELY is such a thing as Christian horror, and I think that the best of horror has its roots in Christian based morality tales. The two concepts aren’t mutually exclusive at all.

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