By Sam Acosta
As believers, discernment in entertainment can be a daunting task, with the seemingly endless amounts of music, shows and movies to filter through and pick from. It’s an important task, however, as Phillipians 4:8 instructs us to be careful about what we dwell on and let into our minds.
Right off the bat, there are some fairly obvious rejects, such as the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series. Other properties are more controversial: some Christians refuse to watch “Harry Potter” due to its presentation of witchcraft. Nonetheless, these blacklists are typically very specific, aimed at particular franchises.
There is, however, an entire genre most Christians seem to reject regardless of the franchise: horror. This genre has found itself in a rather odd predicament within the Christian community, as it has gone largely unexplored. For many years, avoidance was a viable approach, as most of these movies were smaller, niche productions.
That isn’t the case today, as horror has become incredibly popular over the last few decades. In 2021, so far, horror has comprised nearly 18 percent of the movie market share, compared to 3 percent of the market share in 1995. Horror can no longer be ignored or pushed aside. Christians can no longer ignore the growing genre of horror; rather, they need to determine how to engage with it, whether to support or combat it.
To understand this issue better, I turned to an expert in the subject: Dr. Mark Eckel. Dr. Eckel is a man well versed in both literature and theology. He holds a Doctorate in Social Science from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a Master of Theology in Old Testament from Grace Theological Seminary, and a Master of Arts in English from IUPUI.
Before taking on his current position at IUPUI, he taught at Moody Bible Institute and Crossroad Bible College. He also is currently the president of The Comenius Institute, a Christian education program in Indianapolis. For years, he has studied the connection between the Christian faith and horror, writing frequently on the subject.
From the start, what Dr. Eckel had to say was rather surprising, as it contradicted nearly everything most young Christians grow up believing. “The horror genre is the closest movie genre to the Christian worldview” he explained. “Every horror movie…has a supernatural world to which we must give an account. Second, every horror movie identifies an evil that must be overcome.”
He went on to explain that horror movies can be amazing evangelistic tools. Atheists typically don’t believe in a supernatural world, yet they compose a majority of the horror fan base. Discussions about horror movies must almost always address issues like the origins of evil and the existence of the supernatural, issues a biblical worldview speaks to directly.
Dr. Eckel explains, “A Christian’s responsibility in evangelism is only to cast the seed, sometimes to water or fertilize the seed, but we are not in charge of bringing the seed to fruition. In our culture, with so much adversarial verbiage thrown about, it is best simply to ask questions.”
Dr. Eckel also noted how horror, especially gothic horror such as “Frankenstein,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” or “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” teach us about the depravity of man, that, in reality, we ourselves are monsters due to our sin nature. That is the very point of most of the classic horror stories.
The whole point of “Frankenstein” is that Dr. Frankenstein, not his created “monster,” is the truly evil one. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” demonstrates man’s capability for evil while “The Picture of Dorian Grey” shows us how we can become monsters even if we are only seeking our own happiness.
Christians who are wary of horror often point to verses like Ephesians 4:27: “give no opportunity to the devil.” The worry is that horror opens us up to evil and leads us astray. Yet Dr. Eckel argued that the reality of evil is something every believer must grapple with.
“My concern for the Christian is that you understand that this reality exists, and you can’t simply bypass it as if to say it doesn’t exist and it’s not important.,” said Dr. Eckel.
I asked him if we needed to be careful to keep a balance between the light and darkness in what we choose to watch. He corrected me almost immediately, telling me not to use the word “balance.” Rather, he argued, there is tension between light and darkness; as soon as you turn on a light, the dark immediately vanishes. Light always wins.
In the same way, God always conquers evil, and evil can never truly win. We know that because God tells us so in His Word. That idea makes horror even more of a potential evangelistic tool because the light of our worldview will only shine brighter in dark places, as Paul tells us in Phillipians 2:15.
Case in point, the Hayes brothers, the writers of the first two “Conjuring” movies and both followers of Jesus, said in an interview, “What we’ve tried to do is create films with redemption. They have happy endings. There’s no sex. There’s no violence. There’s no swearing. It’s rated R because it’s a very scary story that happened to real people. This movie is not about glorifying evil, but it’s about the triumph of good over evil”.
This philosophy of framing horror stories as desperate struggles between good and evil has become more prevalent in recent years. Personally, I avoided horror movies for years, but then I took Dr. Eckel’s course on Gothic Horror Literature in high school. His class pushed me to explore the genre more, and I have found some incredible films that tell not only amazing stories but also demonstrate valuable moral lessons and give nuanced commentary.
Films such as “Get Out,” “The First Purge” and “Upgrade” are films in this genre that surprised me with what they had to say about human nature, morality and society. As Christians, watching such films can help us not only understand the culture we are witnessing to but also better understand ourselves and our need for Christ.
Dr. Eckel recognizes that some horror filmmakers take it too far, condemning certain types of horror movies for being gratuitous. He pointed to the “Saw” films as examples of violence for violence’s sake. While he believes that violence can be an important part of telling a story or conveying a message, it becomes gratuitous without that distinct purpose.
In the end, Dr. Eckel recognizes that horror isn’t for everyone. His argument isn’t that everyone should become horror fans overnight but that Christians should recognize opportunities for evangelism, artistic expression and the furtherance of the Kingdom that horror films present.
And if there are Christians who are drawn to this genre, they should have the support of the Christian community rather than feeling pushed to the fringes. As Dr. Eckel put it, “Everybody’s got their opportunities that they have to invest in the lives of other people, and this is just one arena.”
Sam Acosta is a Junior Theatre Comprehensive Major and an A&E writer for Cedars. He likes spending his time watching movies, drinking Dr. Pepper and writing plays.