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Christianity and Horror? Can Those Two Coexist? Read Fear Not! (2023) by Josh Larsen

Fear Not! A Christian Appreciation of Horror Movies (2023) Josh Larsen

Cascade Books (part of the Reel Spirituality Monograph Series)

Paperback, 106 pages

ISBN 978-1-6667-3852-0

Includes foreword by Soong-Chan Rah (Robert Munger Professor of Evangelism, Fuller Theological Seminary), acknowledgments, bibliography, index of movie titles

Josh Larsen, co-host of the WBEZ/NPR podcast Filmspotting and editor of Think Christian, a digital magazine on faith and culture, has taken on a tall order: writing about horror movies and Christianity in a way that will attract rather than repel both groups. Horror fans may gravitate to the genre for many reasons, and from my frequent examination of new movie releases on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K, horror is alive and well. Yet a significant number of Christians want nothing to do with horror, sometimes citing a passage from Philippians that Larsen uses in his introduction:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things. (Phil. 4:8, NIV)

Is it even possible to find something noble, right, pure, lovely, excellent, or praiseworthy in films like The Shining (1980), Train to Busan (2016), The Witch (2015), Candyman (1992, 2021), Psycho (1960), Paranormal Activity (2007), and others? Larsen seems to think so, and so do I. After all, as Larsen points out, “Christianity speaks specifically to our fears,” and not only do these films speak to those fears, they frequently do so with messages of (or at least opportunities for) redemption.

Larsen understands that such an undertaking, especially in a genre so vast and voluminous, cannot realistically be contained in one volume. Yet the 66 films referenced stretch from 1931 (Dracula) to 2022 (X). Not bad for a book just over 100 pages.

Various periods of film history (especially in America under the Production Code) demanded restrictions on what could and couldn’t be shown. Aspects of violence, language, sexuality, sacrilege, and more that could only be hinted at during America’s early days of cinema are today commonplace. Larsen correctly points out that discernment is a personal matter (what offends you doesn’t necessarily offend me), yet we must be sensitive to sharing our thoughts, opinions, or the movies themselves with others who might find them uncomfortable or offensive.

Each chapter focuses on a particular subgenre of horror movies and their associated fears, such as “Zombies: Fear of Losing Our Individuality,” “Found Footage: Fear of the Dark,” “Psychological Horror: Fear of Our Anxieties,” and others. While each of the fears connected to these categories can be understood (and possibly experienced) by anyone, Larsen examines them all from a Christian worldview using the Bible as a source of illumination.

Case in point: In the chapter “Slashers: Fear of Being Alone,” Larsen makes a strong connection between power and helplessness in the 1984 Wes Craven film A Nightmare on Elm Street. Stalking Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) in the world of her dreams, Freddie Krueger (Robert Englund) takes advantage of the vulnerability of sleep to attack her, resulting in serious consequences in the waking world. Nancy asks her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp) to watch over her as she sleeps, but Glen can’t stay awake, leaving Krueger unopposed in his savage quest.

Readers familiar with the New Testament may make the connection to Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane, asking his friends and disciples Peter, James, and John to watch and pray, only to soon find them fast asleep (Mark 14:37-38). Nancy’s loneliness and vulnerability in the film remind Christians not only of Christ’s experiences in the garden, but also our own isolation and weakness without God.

Yet these films and their connections to Christianity are not instances of simple one-to-one correspondence we can easily tie up into neat packages. Like life (and the Christian life) itself, things aren’t so simple.

Larsen’s consideration of David Cronenberg’s 1986 film The Fly (as well as two of Cronenberg’s other films, Videodrome [1983] and Crash [1996]) delves into a complex yet approachable study of creation, original sin, man’s attempt at playing God, death and decay, and more. Although this section covers only a few pages, it provides plenty of food for thought.

Yet many explorations of films cry out for a deeper examination, especially those well-regarded cornerstone films of horror such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Readers get not only a glimpse of the young people’s isolation, loneliness, and outright fear, but also the isolation, loneliness, and fear that underlie the cannibalistic family itself. Their separation from society may lead Christians to compare this situation to a sinner’s existence apart from the grace and mercy of God, or even from a community of concerned, caring people.

This and other sections of Fear Not! made me wish the book had gone deeper, made more connections, asked more questions. Larsen is clear to point out that “this book is intended as an entry point for thinking theologically about horror films,” and I applaud it for that. Yet I wished the book was about 50 or so pages longer, not in order to include more films, but to provide more space to explore some of the concepts more fully. Yet, as Larsen says, it is a starting point for further discussion, which is what we’re all after. In fact, many of the books in the Reel Spirituality Monograph Series are designed to be introductions to various aspects of the intersection of theology and film.

This short book serves also serves as a potential bridge to several groups: Christians who enjoy horror, Christians who don’t, and both Christian and non-Christian horror fans who feel they are separated by an impenetrable barrier. They’re not. Everyone can engage in the conversation, and this book is a good starting point.

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