For me, a “horror film” is any movie that’s intentionally designed to trigger the “fight-or-flight” response in its viewers. There’s a few different ways this can be done, but all horror films are basically about chaos (i.e., that which is evil, unnecessary and wrong) intruding upon the everyday world of order (i.e., that which is good, reasonable and just). Sometimes the chaos intrudes from outside of humanity (e.g., aliens) and sometimes it sneaks up on us from within (e.g., serial killers). Sometimes the chaos is visited upon the innocent (i.e., tragedies, or when bad things happen to good people) and sometimes it falls upon the wicked (i.e., judgments, or when bad people get what they deserve). Either way, it all comes down to the very basic struggle between order and chaos, light and darkness, good and evil, right and wrong.
I agree with Big Steve King that the entire spectrum of horror methodology can be condensed into three basic categories, and I also think these three categories are best described in terms of what the viewer sees or doesn’t see. First there’s the splatter factor, which shows you way more than you’re comfortable seeing; it triggers the “fight-or-flight” reflex by making your stomach churn. A good example would be when a psycho dissects someone with a utility knife and you get to see their entrails splashing all over the killer’s shoes. Then there’s the shock factor, which shows you things that aren’t nearly so gross but that upset you in other ways (e.g., emotionally, morally, sexually, etc.). This is what happens when the werewolf pops out of nowhere and surprises you, making you jump right out of your skin. Finally, there’s the suspense factor, which shows you almost nothing at all; it emphasizes what you don’t see and forces you to fill in the blanks with your own imagination. A great example is when you have no idea what’s following that little boy home, but you know it’s something terrible. Most horror films use two or more of these categories whenever possible, but some are known for using one particular method more than the others.
An example of why The Thing might make you blow chunks
An example of a really good splatter movie would be John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), which concerns a team of scientists in Antarctica who are menaced by a shapeshifting alien. The film includes elements of shock and suspense as well, but it’s most well-known for the sequences in which its extraterrestrial antagonist devours, digests and transforms into its helpless prey. Globs of slime, blood and stinking pus are showered all over the walls as normal-looking men are physically disfigured into shapes that defy all rational categorization. These scenes are positively revolting, and they leave you feeling as if something’s crawling in your hair and up your legs. Yet they’re also beautiful in a perverse way, demonstrating a bizarre and demented sort of craftsmanship. Most of all, they serve to accentuate situations that are already shocking and terrifying enough by themselves. This has the additional effect of making the disgusting scenes even more horrifying than they would be if they were happening to unlikable characters in a meaningless plot.
One of the best shock films ever made is The Exorcist (1973), which is the tale of a little girl who’s possessed by an ancient Mesopotamian demon. While the film also includes a healthy amount of splatter and suspense, it depends mostly on shocking its audience like a psychotic jack-in-the-box. There’s one scene where the girl’s mother is walking into the girl’s bedroom. There’s no music playing, everything seems normal and quiet, and we’re not expecting anything out of the ordinary to happen. Then, just when the mother opens the bedroom door, a spooky demonic face appears and leers at us, and it’s accompanied by a unnerving musical cue (which is called a “stinger” in the business). We totally weren’t expecting to see that face, but its sudden appearance – as well as that sudden scary noise – makes us jump right out of our seats and scream. There are various other scenes – including the infamous “head turning 360 degrees” and “spider-walk down the staircase” sequences – that work in much the same way (and with much the same effect).
One of the more imaginative scenes from Cat People
Finally, one of the greatest suspense movies of all time is Val Lewton’s Cat People (1942), which contains absolutely no splatter at all (and only a few shocks). The movie’s all about this lady who worries that if she has sex with her husband, she’ll turn into a panther and eat him. So they aren’t having sex, which leads to a few marital difficulties (as you can probably guess). One of the best parts is when the wife decides to take it out on one of the husband’s female friends and follows her to a public swimming pool. The girl’s all alone, swimming and minding her own business, when she starts hearing scary cat noises and seeing gigantic shadows on the wall. The sequence is made all the more intense by the fact that there’s no music and you never actually see what’s really happening; it’s just screams, cat noises and crazy shadows. The things I see happening in my own imagination during this scene are far worse than anything they could have possibly captured on camera. Even after 70 years, Cat People still packs a mean punch.
Now some of you are probably wondering why a religious guy like me would enjoy horror movies so much (especially since so many other religious people tend to consider these movies “sick” at best and “satanic” at worst). First of all, I believe the horror story is the oldest kind of story known to man. Sure, love stories and adventure stories have been with us a very long time, but I think the one emotion our earliest ancestors were probably most familiar with was fear. Consider what John Goodman’s character says in Joe Dante’s Matinee (1993), which is not a horror film:
A zillion years ago, a guy’s living in a cave. He goes out one day, Bam! He gets chased by a mammoth. Now he’s scared to death, but he gets away. And when it’s all over with, he feels great […] So he goes home, back to the cave, the first thing he does, […] he does a drawing of the mammoth. And he thinks, “People are coming to see this. Let’s make it good. Let’s make the teeth real long, and the eyes real mean.” Boom! The first monster movie.
When you really think about it, fear has motivated us to do a lot of things. It motivated us to tell stories, to band together and live as societies, to hunt for food, to develop agriculture, to build towns and cities, and to establish laws. It even motivated us to put our faith in invisible beings, to practice rituals that would bring us good luck and ward off evil spirits, and to remember our dead and hope for a better life in the great hereafter. In short, fear is the mother of just about everything that’s included in human civilization, including religion. For this reason, horror is the one genre that lends itself most easily to religious expression and interpretation. Until fairly recently in history, it’s almost always concerned spiritual fears (and the human dependency on religion to cope with such fears). Even modern horror tales that deal with purely secular fears (e.g., psycho killers) are implicitly spiritual since they concern the nature of evil and sin.
Apophis, the oldest horror of all
There’s even an element of horror in religion itself. The idea of chaos intruding upon order is a recurring theme in every religious mythology. Every pantheon of Gods has battled, is battling or will battle some chaotic monstrosity that threatens to destroy us all. Marduk slew Tiamat and created the cosmos from her corpse; the Olympians defeated the Titans and buried them beneath the Earth; Ahura Mazda will destroy Ahriman and rehabilitate the damned; Yahweh will slay Leviathan and feed it to His saints at the end of time; Christ will defeat Satan and Antichrist and cast them into a lake of fire; the Aesir and Vanir will kill and be killed by the frost giants of old; and Seth-Typhon is and will always be defeating
Apophis. The way I see it, every horror story repeats one or more of these themes on some basic level. Even in a secular horror film like The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Buffalo Bill is really just another chaos monster like Tiamat or Ahriman; the fact that he’s a human being changes nothing. And Clarice Starling is the lone warrior of virtue who’s chosen by the Creators of order to bring him down. The characters and circumstances are different, but the story is essentially the same – and it’s the oldest story in the world.
At the same time, most faiths include some horrific notion of what would happen if people stopped practicing religion altogether; the Gods would abandon us, the dead would rise to torment the living, and the whole world would fall apart. Films like Godzilla (1954), The Birds (1963) and The Mist (2007) may not seem to have anything to do with religion on the surface, but they all depict stern cosmic judgments against humanity for its collective sins. And the number of films that depict judgments upon the living by the vengeful dead – such as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Poltergeist (1982) – is in the thousands. Religion provides the backdrop for these and countless other horror films. That being said, I’ll be using this website to review some of my personal favorites. Many of these movies have already been reviewed a bazillion times by countless professional and amateur critics, but I hope to contribute something new. I’ll be discussing some of the more spiritual implications of these films, as well as how I’ve personally incorporated these implications into my own spirituality. Please click on the link below to read my reviews.
My Horror Film Articles