catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 5 :: 2005.03.11 — 2005.03.24


Deep horror, deep hope

Part one of two

Read part two of this article.

Whenever I'm asked about what it's like to be a film critic, I have
to evaluate my audience. Do they really want to know? What a lot of
people want is to hear how great it is to watch movies for a living.
Others want me to rhapsodize about free stuff or meeting the stars. But
if the person in front of me is someone I feel I can be honest with
then I usually share a little bit about the downside of my profession.
Hours spent watching middling to bad movies, chasing deadlines, the
loneliness of transcribing, the insecurity of being a writer, the lack
of feedback and the constant awareness of the dumbing down and
commodifying of our culture?

These two sorts of conversations are the most common. But every once
in a while someone will shyly look into my heart to ask what sort of
film I like most and when I look that person in the eye I know they are
looking for kinship. They want to know if I like the same films they
like, if I'm moved, provoked, challenged by it. Most of all they want
to know if I am on the same path, following the same cultural light. If
he or she is a fan of horror film, then I can answer yes!

There's a larger article, book, series of encyclopedias waiting to
be written on the subject of Christianity and horror films made before
1950. One excellent one, Monsterfan 2000
was written by two friends of mine back in the early nineties. Their
basic idea that horror films made before 1950 emerged from a more
Christian understanding of morality isn't something I agree with
entirely, but their article is profoundly articulate about why people
like me collect horror based toys, posters and films of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Blob, BEM (Bug-Eyed Monsters), Robots, Ghosts, and other assorted bogies from TV, film and comics.

If there's a helpful analysis I can offer here, it's that the
authors attack something that, when all is said and done, most people
don't have a real problem with. It's not that they're attacking a straw
man; it's more like they are settling down a rowdy group of preteens
when down the street a full-scale lynching is taking place. In short,
most people have fond memories of some sort of monster culture growing
up. We understand that it is fun to be scared and that there's nothing
particularly wrong with a good cultural BOO. But pass someone's
personal limits and look out! As extreme as our culture seems in its
idolatry, so are the moral cops who claim to know what's good for
everybody—scary stuff indeed.

I'm opting to concentrate on films made after 1960 because, let's
face it, the subject matter is more challenging, but I also believe
that the very things that give the modern horror film its power are the
very things that speak most deeply out of the form and genre. Also,
with all due respect to lovers of the less threatening classic age, I'd
like to make the case that the horror genre has had many of its very
best films made in the last half of the genre's history.


To understand how the modern horror film uses its connection to the
medium of film itself, it helps to go back to the earliest days of
film. Russian writer and social critic Maxim Gorky, saw his first films
in 1896 and in this description perfectly captures the experience of
those first motion picture audiences:

Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows. If you only knew how
strange it is to be there. It is a world without sound, without color.
Everything there—the earth, the trees, the people, the water and
air—is dipped in monotonous grey. Grey rays of the sun across the grey
sky, grey eyes in grey faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen
grey. It is not life but its shadow, it is not motion but its soundless
specter. The extraordinary impression it creates is so unique and
complex that I doubt my ability to describe it with all its nuances.

[T]here suddenly appears on the screen a large grey picture, A
Street of Paris—shadows of a bad engraving. As you gaze at it, you see
carriages, buildings and people in various poses, all frozen into

You anticipate nothing new in this all too familiar scene, for you
have seen pictures of Paris streets more than once. But suddenly a
strange flicker passes through the screen and the picture stirs to
life. Carriages coming from somewhere in the perspective of the picture
are moving straight at you, into the darkness in which you sit;
somewhere from afar people appear and loom larger as they come closer
to you.

All this moves, teems with life and, upon approaching the edge of
the screen, vanishes somewhere beyond it…. It is terrifying to see,
but it is the movement of shadows, only of shadows. Curses and ghosts,
the evil spirits that have cast entire cities into eternal sleep, come
to mind and you feel as though Merlin's vicious trick is being enacted
before you. Of the film that ran next he said,

It speeds straight at you—watch out! It seems as though it will plunge
into the darkness in which you sit, turning you into a ripped sack full
of lacerated flesh. But this, too, is but a train of shadows.
Noiselessly, the locomotive disappears beyond the edge of the screen.
This mute, grey life finally begins to disturb and depress you. It
seems as though it carries a warning, fraught with a vague but sinister
meaning that makes your heart grow faint. You are forgetting where you
are. Strange imaginings invade your mind and your consciousness begins
to wane and grow dim.

This image of film as the portal through which
apparitions and hauntings pass, through which threatening and shadowy
portents pass, has a lot of resonance. Let's face it: there's something
innately creepy, or at least awe-some about film and video images.
Intimations of death and the afterlife not to mention the inner life
(which we all strive to keep hidden to some degree) come readily to
mind. And film's image permanence, which locks the actors inside a
frame of time, suggests ghostly visitation. We can conjure these people
up from anytime in their careers and they will always look young,
always look sexy, always seem so alive, and yet we know that Marilyn
Monroe and Rock Hudson are actually rotting in graves somewhere and
that whatever collects people's essence when they die is waiting to
collect us too. Recalling the opening title of the 1992 film Nosferatu one is struck by the similarity between the vampire and the screen he appears on. "Nosferatu!
Does not this word sound like the call of the death bird at midnight?
Take care you never utter it, lest life's pictures fade into pale
shadows, and ghostly dreams rise from your heart and feed on your


A cursory look at the horror films that have continued to find
critical and mass audience acceptance dating from the first sixty years
of the medium's infancy offers extraordinary evidence of the validity
and power of the horror form. Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Universal Horror Cycle, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Hammer Films of Terrence Fisher, Cat People, Night of the Demon:
these are just a few of the many undeniably great horror films that
make up what is commonly called the classic era. They are great
especially because of the way they exploit the medium, not just because
they tell compelling stories. They reinforce the reality of the
supernatural in a world obsessed with materialism. They leave the
thoughtful viewer unsettled, asking big questions, and with a sense of
urgency about finding answers. And of course in this sense there is
very little that distinguishes what makes a great classic horror film
from a great modern one. What was true of film then is true of film
now. And we are haunted by the same things, even if they take different


The truly challenging aspect of the modern horror film for
Christians and other groups are the things that differentiate films
made from after 1960 from those made earlier. Graphic violence,
increased sexuality and a picture of evil as an unstoppable force are
modern horror genre elements that leave many feeling forced to choose
not between God or Godzilla, but between faith and frisson. Can an
interest in films that incorporate these elements co-exist with and
even feed Christian faith? Certainly as Christians we are to refrain
from that which encourages us and our neighbors to sin (Romans 14:21 & 1 Corinthians 8:13).

Yet we're confronted with story after story in scripture itself that
involve all sorts of questionable behavior and imagery. And Christian
culture (across a wide landscape of expression and doctrine) has had
more than its share of gruesome and provocative imagery. Mel Gibson's
foray into R-rated Christian cinema is only the latest in a long line
of Christian-based works of its kind. Frank Peretti, the endless parade
of testimony books whose authors claim occult or Satanic powers, the
emergence of the Christian Goth and dark metal movements and the
profitable production of aThe Omega Code and the Left Behind
series: all these clearly stand in for culturally unacceptable thrills
and chills in much the same way "the harvest party" stands in for
Halloween. This is in no way a disparagement. While all of the above
works are not artistically equal, they have the intent of producing
similar effects. And so clearly we need a more sophisticated model than
simple abstinence. We are called to engage, to enjoy and use the arts
as a challenge, and edification (Colossians 3:16-17).

Believing there is an argument to be made for the Christian Horror
Film Fan, I would encourage the horror movie fan to identify exactly
what attracts him or her to the horror genre and why. Then, I would
encourage a sense of vision. How might God use your interest in this
cultural phenomenon?

In part two of this article I'll give an overview of several of my
favorite horror films and talk about what makes the such fruitful
viewing for those who don't mind a good scare.

Dave Canfield is a film critic, writer and co-founder of the
Cornerstone Festival Imaginarium Film Festival. Dave writes full-time
for several online publications including
Twitch Film and Static Multimedia and was an editor with Cornerstone Magazine
for ten years. A full time missionary journalist, he considers his
writing on horror film to be at the forefront of helping Christians be
salt and light in an increasingly scary world.

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