Is the horror genre incompatible with the Christian faith? Many would say so. But a closer inspection of the arguments reveals flaws.
What are those arguments? Perhaps the most common is the one that centers around this verse:
Philippians 4:8 – “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”
The argument goes like this: Stories that involve ghosts, demons, gore, and occultism draw our minds away from the things we should be dwelling upon. The Christian who spends too much time contemplating evil will be corrupted by it. We are commanded to focus upon “good” things, which is why Christian fiction has no business flirting with “horror.”
At first glance, this argument sounds reasonable. There should be a qualitative difference between what Christians write and the mindless splatter and occultism that defines much of today’s horror. Furthermore, Christians who “dwell” upon what is untrue, dishonorable, and impure are indeed setting themselves up for problems. But does this verse actually say what the “Christian horror” objectors intend? Does Philippians 4:8 teach that believers should “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil”? I don’t think so. Let me offer two responses.
First, the Bible is perhaps the greatest refutation of the argument against “Christian horror.” Remember, Philippians 4:8 is but one verse amidst 66 books. Many of those books contain scenes of gore, torment, destruction, demons, plagues, catastrophe, divine judgment and eternal anguish. The reader who wants to “dwell” only on what is “pure” may want to avoid the Fall of Man (Gen. 3), Noah’s Flood (Gen. 7), the Slaughter of the Firstborn (Ex. 11), the Destruction of Sodom (Gen. 19), the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev. 20), and The Crucifixion of Christ (which involves one of the most brutal forms of execution ever devised). While the Bible’s message is one of redemption, that redemption unfolds amidst a dark world that is pummeled by evil beings and plummeting toward chaos and destruction.
Secondly, there’s a difference between what we observe and what we choose to focus on. We have all witnessed evil, ugly, disturbing things. We have seen atrocities and wept over the wreckage of human lives. This verse is not telling us to turn away from what is unlovely and impure, but to not focus on them. In fact, Christians are commanded to NOT turn away from evil, injustice, poverty, hate, bigotry, and pain. Refusing to look upon or acknowledge evil may in fact BE evil.
Yes, we are called to think pure thoughts and meditate on that which is good. However, that does not mean we should live in denial about the darkness all around us. Nor should we eschew the horrific simply because it is unsettling. In fact, it is this “unsettling” that may make our stories more efficacious. Prairie romances should have a place in the Christian catalog, but so should tales of woe. As long as there really is a place like Hell, then horror must inhabit part of the “Christian imagination.”
The famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa simply said, “The role of the artist is to not look away.”
Christian artists, perhaps more than any other, should abide this proverb. We should not “look away.” I don’t mean that we should delight in evil, be captivated by the macabre, or celebrate darkness (which is the most common charge against “dark” art), but that our perspective of the human condition should be unflinching and particularly acute. Feel-good story-telling may have its place. But artists — especially Christian artists — who only subscribe to a “feel-good” world have violated an essential artistic law… they have “looked away.”
Philippians 4:8 is not a prescription against writing “Christian horror.” It is an exhortation to focus our minds on the Truth. In this sense, turning our eyes away from darkness may be the most dishonorable, unhealthy, deceptive thing we can do.
Mike Duran is a freelance writer whose short stories, essays, and commentary have appeared in Relief Journal, Relevant Online, Novel Journey, Rue Morgue magazine, and other print and digital outlets. Duran is an ordained ministry and lives with his wife and four grown children in Southern California. You can learn more about him, his writing projects, creative interests, and confessions at his website.