Evil spirits. Mr. Hyde and Hannibal Lecter. Face-huggers and blood-suckers. Norman Bates and, yes, you guessed it—“heeeeeere’s Johnny” (Jack in The Shining). Many of classic characters from the world of horror films are present and accounted for in The Arts and Faith Top 25 Horror Movies, a list that is likely to prompt a variety of questions.
• Who’s responsible for this list?
• Why would a Christian community care about horror films?
• What do scary movies have in common with faith?
• Why in the world should I spend time watching movies as dark and disturbing as these?
Individuals in the ArtsandFaith.com community would offer a variety of answers. Allow me to share a few of my own.
Whose list is this?
It comes from the community at ArtsandFaith.com, a perpetual conversation that began in 1999. Participants at “A&F” are passionate about the art of filmmaking, and about the themes and questions that movies explore.
Among them you’ll find film critics, playwrights, professors, parents, pastors, novelists, graphic designers, even a filmmaker with two blockbusters on his résumé. And they don’t just talk to each other; their voices have been heard in publications like Paste, Salon, Sojourners, The National Catholic Register, Christianity Today, Books & Culture, and Image.
We already have the Arts and Faith Top 100 Movies list. Why this additional list focusing on horror?
The A&F community decided it would be a good idea to begin offering specialty lists that highlight the importance of certain themes and genres. This list of big-screen nightmares is just the beginning.
It may seem strange, but horror movies are important to this community for the way they can raise and address vital questions about human nature, addiction, spiritual forces, death, the afterlife, and the wages of sin.
If these subjects were not relevant to our lives, horror movies would not frighten us so much.
Can you explain why these 25 films are meaningful?
We spent weeks debating the merits of these films. Our various interpretations of each one could fill a series of books. (Be sure to read the summaries linked to each title.)
I’ll share some thoughts on #19: Alien, the science fiction classic directed by Ridley Scott.
When the crew of the spaceship Nostromo finds the ruins of a human settlement, they discover that monsters have slaughtered most of the inhabitants. But some are still alive, their bodies serving as nesting pods for the aliens’ offspring.
Yeah, it’s disgusting. The team, properly horrified, flees the scene.
When one of the predators shows up on the Nostromo, Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) gets suspicious. She confronts the ship’s science officer, Ash (Ian Holm), and he confesses a horrible conspiracy. He’s bringing one of the aliens back to earth so that a corporation can study its predatory powers. He’s to succeed even if it costs his shipmates their lives.
Ripley asks, “How do we kill it?”
Ash’s answer is chilling. “You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”
How could anyone call this vicious predator “perfect”?
Ash explains: “I admire its purity.... A survivor...unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”
In this way, Alien poses an important question: Should we accept or reject Ash’s worldview?
If there is no God, and we’re living in a big game called “Survival of the Fittest,” surely this resilient monster is an admirable evolutionary achievement. But what if “perfection” is about something more than physical strength and survival skills? Doesn’t that suggest there is something more going on in the cosmos?
We recoil from the alien. We recoil from Ash when he praises it. Just as our whole body responds in the presence of beauty, we are hard-wired to feel revulsion when we witness perversion. Such reactions reinforce our convictions about good and evil.
Don’t overlook the film’s revelations about Ash’s true nature. He is working with a cold, dead heart. He is merely an intellect. He is thus the perfect representative for a corporation driven solely by reason. There is no conscience burning within him. No wonder his name is Ash.
By discomforting us, Alien forces us to consider what we really believe. And its tagline may be its most perverse suggestion: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
We want to believe that such a claim is false.
Shouldn’t good Christians avoid depictions of such violence and depravity?
Think about it. What is the central image of Christian faith?
The cross. The blameless Son of God—a truly perfect organism—was nailed to that wooden plank and raised up, naked and bleeding, for the amusement of his scornful community.
What could be more horrific?
We cringe at the thought of our capacity for evil. And that discomfort is useful. It’s a distress call. We’re compelled to seek a cure for our disease, to seek the reconciliation of a dismembered world.
As a young Christian, I was often told to avoid dark and scary stories, and to shield myself from images of monsters and human cruelty. I was frequently instructed to obey Ephesians 5:11: “Have nothing to do with the unfruitful deeds of darkness.”
But I rebelled. I was fascinated with Apocalypse Now and The Thing. They made me insecure. They made me think about how we should respond to evil in the world. They challenged my faith.
Eventually, I noticed that there is more to Ephesians 5:11. It actually says, “Have nothing to do with the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them.”
A good doctor would tell you to avoid cancer. But he wouldn’t tell you to be ignorant about the nature of cancer. Nor would he warn you to avoid thinking about how to prevent it.
Like Virgil serving as Dante’s tour guide through hell, or Hamlet confronting his murderous uncle with a play about a murder, conscientious artists are sometimes moved to expose the ugly truth. This can be an act of social responsibility...even love.
So...you’re encouraging us to hurry out and catch the latest horror movie?
Of course not.
Many horror movies are lurid and gratuitous—even pornographic. They appeal to our baser appetites. In his preface to The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”
But horror movies can do more than just frighten us. They can ask us to move beyond terror into contemplation, where fear of separation from God becomes the beginning of wisdom. Filmmaker David Cronenberg says, “I think of horror films as art, as films of confrontation. Films that make you confront aspects of your own life that are difficult to face.”
We would do well to pay attention. A movie like Apocalypse Now can scare us with visions of human depravity. “The horror! The horror!” But our tendency to scream when we’re frightened is a good thing. It’s an expression of hope. We scream because we think somebody might be listening.
Even in space.