“There are moments when even to the sober eye of reason, the world of our sad humanity may assume the semblance of Hell. ” - Edgar Allan Poe.
The 1991 American horror film, Silence of the Lambs, reduces evil to psychology. We are introduced to a character who is horridly rational. His mind, clear from the emotions that cloud you and I, is at once perceptive and deadly. We don’t know why he does the things he does because his rationality is entirely different than ours. His morality is not based on truth. We know this because he is capable of things that we wouldn’t even think of doing.
Besides is milieu of horror flicks, America has a long tradition of Gothic storytelling. Yet not all of them are Freudian.Writers like Flannery O'Connor have created villains as evil as Dr. Lecter. And even earlier than O’Connor, the father of Horror, Edgar Allan Poe, also wrote such villains that make contemporary horror characters look two-dimensional.
At first glance, these stories can be hard to take in. Their fascination with the macabre can seem wrong to us. “Aren’t we supposed to be thinking about happy things?” we might think. And after all the most important things in life aren’t the evil things. As CS Lewis says, when we witness evil things we can think that the happy things of childhood are less real than the horrible(1).And yet no matter how happy our thoughts might be, there is one constant truth that we cannot escape from: all lives end in death.
Christians in particular have an association with death because of the manner in which we were lead to salvation. We were saved by our violence against the son of man. Perhaps these horrific displays are then just the outer manifestations of our inner demons --to be human is to have these deadly impulses.
“Our crucifixes exhibit the pain, but they veil, perhaps necessarily, the obscenity: but the death of the God-Man was both.” -Charles Williams
Yet there is more than that. Because what horror reveals, even if only despite itself, is the absence of what is good. By portraying the negative image of good we feel the need for peace and goodness.
These fallen characters serve as a warning to us, they show us our immediate need for grace, our need to be saved. The more evil the character, the more impossible the challenge, the greater we feel the need for grace, the need for those characters to be saved.
If you need convincing that there is room for horror within Christianity, look to the Divine Comedy by Dante. His work, unrivaled even to this day, shows how impossibly horrible our earthly sins are. The grotesqueness of the body horror which Dante shows us does not only serve to “scare us away from sin,” he shows us a truth hidden to us: that our souls may not always resemble our outward appearances, that our actions bring about their own consequences.
“Consider your origin. You were not formed to live like brutes but to follow virtue and knowledge.” -Dante
If we go back even further, to the times of Greek Tragedy, we see how it was that Greeks portrayed their catharsis. By witnessing the tragedies of others we might be cleansed from our own negative emotions. We witness our greatest fears come to life and somehow this gives us power over them.
“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” -Stephen King.
Great artists like Shakespeare were not strangers to this power of storytelling to inspire catharsis. His many plays deal with aspects of horror in an attempt to understand humanity. He understood the close tie between horror and humanity.
Here is where the modern danger to horror exists: if horror is disconnected from the divinely good, what does it become? When we reduce horror to merely the psychological, we cut off the last part of the story.
For Christians, the end of suffering is redemption, and suffering only tempers one, forming him or her into a new person capable of receiving greater grace. But for many non-Christians, horrors exist of themselves. They are flukes --they happen by chance to us at random. Whether we die young or old has to do with our diets and our family history. Without a sense of the divine, we lose track of the purpose of tragedy. It becomes something absurd.
“Have you no hope at all? And do you really live with the thought that when you die, you die, and nothing remains?" "Yes," I said.” -Camus, The Stranger.
This is where the kicker lies. Tragedy affects us deeply. And it is in facing tragedy that faith is either made or destroyed. What we believe, or what we know are things we take for granted in times of peace. But in times of war either between nations or in our own personal lives we turn towards some greater good, something to give our life purpose when we feel as though we have lost our own. We are given the choice to fold, to give up or to become stronger. We live in constant preparation of tragedy, so much so that we forget to live.
But armed with something we might call faith --that being the knowledge that in the end all manner of things will be well --we can face these absurdities and know that somehow in them there is something else revealed, some greater awareness of love that we were not aware of.
Making up stories about horrors are one thing, but in the face of great evils that are actually present in the world, we feel powerless. There is nothing we can do to affect the greater spheres of things. Even if you are a millionaire -billionaire your range of influence is only so great. We can’t stop the horrible indifference of evil.
Yet even in the face of true evils, love shows. We’ve all heard about the tragedy that happened in Paris recently. But what you may not have heard was about the mother who used her body as a shield to protect her five year old son. Elsa Delplace had no idea what was going to happen at the concert she went to in Paris. But when it came down to it, she laid down her life for her son.
Whatever impulses humanity may have to lead to horror, both in the movies and in real life, another impulse exists that is even greater than the impulse to violence. That impulse is our inherent impulse to love. And, as history shows us, it is often in the face of the greatest evils that love shows the most.
(1) C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity.