The Thrill of Horror and the Hopeful Mystery

Tis the season to talk about horror…

Not Surprising But Maybe Somewhat Surprising: Horror Is Popular Again!
2016 has seen the release of “The Conjuring 2”, along with a calculated (but highly rated) gamble by Fox in bringing The Exorcist to the small screen. Given that my favorite horror film, “The Conjuring” (2014), currently sits in second spot as the as the highest grossing genre film of all time (with the original release of the “The Exorcist” leading the pack at #1) this is probably not surprising.

What does surprise me is how many people seem to share in my love of a good horror film these days, perhaps because I’ve met a fair degree of cynicism in the past:

  • Horror By the Numbers
    Both Micheal Gingold and Charley Ridgely argue that not only is there a continuing upward trend in popularity, but it currently represents the only true competition to the dominant superhero blockbuster.

As Charley Ridgely goes on to show, when considering the domestic box office alone, horror films within the last few years have actually out-performed their superhero counterparts in terms of profitability. Unconventional films like The Witch, a slow burning, highbrow period piece, are managing to generate a surprising amount of conversation, while sleeper hits like Don’t Breathe and Lights Out continue to exceed expectations. However we look at it, people are searching for a good scare, and this is something that doesn’t seem to demand a big budget.


 So why are people seeming to share in my enjoyment of horror?

The Theory of Diversity
One theory, Gingold argues, is the sheer diversity of the genre itself. Ranging from the “found-footage” concepts of Paranormal/Cloverfield, to the “central villain” style of The Purge, this has allowed the genre to reach a fairly broad audience.

Also noted in Gingold’s assessment is the emergence of the certain amicability between a genre that has been notoriously looked down upon by critics in the past and the relatively positive (or open) critical response the last few years. This seems to be helping the humble horror film garner interest from cross-genre authors and directors and has been translating into solid numbers at the box office (as we speak, yet another horror film, Ouija, has opened to positive reviews and solid numbers).

Perhaps, though, as the writing team behind the Conjuring 2 (Carey and Chad Hayes) suggest, there is an even bigger picture worth considering.

A Special Interest In the Supernatural

“Demonic possession is having something of a cultural moment right now.” – Carey and Chad Hayes

“Demons are hot right now, at least in pop culture.” – Alison Gilmore (Winnipeg Free Press)

“Out with vampires, in with haunted houses: the ghost story is back.”

While the genre indeed remains diverse, Carey and Chad Hayes insist, in a recent interview, that it is a general interest in stories of the supernatural and spirituality that continues to drive it’s overall popularity.

Modern research seems to have something to say about this as well:

  • The Science of Horror
    To begin with, there appears to be a rather strong link between the modern experience of “controlled fear” (horror films, roller coasters) and the need to control an ancient tribal impulse to “flee” from danger.

As Newman points out, Freud

imgres-5actually speaks to this idea in his theory of “repression”, which has to do with the relationship between our conscious awareness and unconscious response.

What this essentially means is, when we watch a horror film we are actively suppressing (controlling) the need to flee or give up in the face of an on-screen threat. We do this by remaining consciously aware that the on-screen threat is not real, while at the same time allowing ourselves to experience a genuine sense of fear as an unconscious reaction. By controlling the experience in this way, we prevent the sensation of fear from turning towards prolonged anxiety. This is what makes viewing a horror film so rewarding, leaving us with the momentary ability to enjoy the thrill of a good scare.
To use a further example, if we are unable to trick our brains into feeling “unsafe” on a rollercoaster it will cease to be a thrill ride. Thus those in charge of designing a rollercoaster must provide a prototype that allows us to engage this part of our brain. At the same time, tricking our minds into feeling unsafe (in the moment) requires that we are able to recognize the coaster to be a safe and controlled environment. Otherwise, the fearful response ends up outside of our control.

Simply put, those who are unable to balance (or control) these competing forces are the ones who either will not get on a roller coaster (or watch the horror film) or remain too bored/cynical to consider it scary.
Transgressions of Reading: Narrative Engagement as Exile and Return by Robert D. Newman

  • The Science of Filmmaking
    The people at ( look at this same idea from the perspective of the filmmaking process itself. images-3They explain that inciting the emotion of fear in film is a combination of- Tension (establishing the presence of the monster, demon, ghost, villain on screen), Relevance (allowing room for a personal and emotional connection to this tension to develop), and Unrealism (keeping the audience from being pushed too far over the line between what is real and what is not).

Realism vs. Unrealism
Something interesting happens though when we move to consider stories of the supernatural in the horror genre. As the Hayes brothers go on to suggest, it actually appears to be an increased sense of what is “real” (conscious or true) that draws people into these stories:

Based on a True Story
There is clear evidence that the phrase “based on a true story” has the power to get people out to watch a certain film or read a certain book. Research seems to suggest a persisting belief that these stories can evoke certain emotions that wouldn’t otherwise come into play when watching a film.

In fact, showing pictures of the real-life characters (on which a story is based) at the end of a film is the product of a very real science that seems to be getting very real results. Recent studies have shown that including these pictures at the end of a film substantially increases the number of people who will stay in their seats after (and for) the closing credits. It is fascinating that getting viewers to stay in their seats also increases positive viewer response towards the film itself.

The articles below add an interesting sub-point to this discussion, pointing out that this persistent belief in the value of the “true story” actually devalues (unnecessarily) the power of the fictional story to evoke the same emotion. The evidence, after all, seems to point to the fact that even though our ability to resonate emotionally with fiction and non-fiction remains on equal ground, audiences still seem to gravitate towards material that carries that true to life claim, no matter how closely  . At a base level what this tells us is that audiences seem to crave stories that are able to break that fourth wall (between the viewer and the on-screen or on-page story), and many seem to find this in stories that hold even a passing connection to a true to life tale.

“The truth, though stranger than fiction, isn’t necessarily more interesting. Irrespective of whether they’re as disingenuous as found footage movies about possession, or as openly interested in the intersect between true crime and horror as Scott Derrickson’s films, the credulity of that ‘true story’ label still holds considerable currency with audiences.”
– Mark Harrison

Realism and the Supernatural
Which brings me back to people’s fascination with stories of the supernatural. The “true story” label that we find lobbied on to so many of these films in recent years plays a significant role in establishing this connection with audiences. In an odd way, when considering the nature of horror films, for as much as these films are intended to scare us, they even seem to foster a sense of comfort. This is because they tap into something that remains very real for many- the supernatural or spiritual experience (defined simply as an experience or belief “relating to, or being above or beyond what is natural; unexplainable by natural law or phenomena”), and even if a film is only loosely based on it’s source material (understanding that anything from Ed and Lorraine certainly come with a fair share of controversy), it is the subject matter itself that resonates more than anything else.

To this end, there is plenty of research available that documents the rising interest and openness to spirituality in general (see for one example). What the  horror film does, at least in terms of audience testimony, is affirm the idea and the experience of the spirit and offer an outlet from which one can share their experience with others as well.

“We think ghost stories chill us but actually they offer comfort. A universe with ghosts is a universe with an afterlife, which means the bed in the hospital ward or the view from the hospice window is not the end; we carry on, we’ll get to see the people we love once again. So while ghost stories scare the pants off you, they also defang mortality.”
– Mitchell, author of Slade House

The Place of Myth in Understanding The True Story

“Experts sometimes separate oral stories into two main groups: Märchen and Sagen, which are German terms. There are no exact English equivalents. Märchen, consisted of loosely translated “fairy tales” taking place in a kind of different “once-upon-a-time” world, pointing to nowhere-in-particular. They clearly indicate that they are not to be understood as true. People with rather flat characters, clearly defined incidents are the hallmarks of traditions in oral storytelling.

Sagen, on the other hand, are supposed to have actually happened. These “legends”, occurring at a particular time and place very often, draw much of their influence from this fact. Even with the intrusion of supernatural, it does so in an emotionally loaded manner. Ghost and lovers’ leap stories, UFO-stories and stories of supernatural beings fall under these oral storytelling traditions.”

(Sagen) Myths, or mythology, have played an important part in the art of storytelling throughout our human history. They help to inform and define our sense of community, connect us to history and tradition, and help us to explore questions of our origins and spiritual relevance (who we are and where we came from). I believe understanding the nature of the myth can aid us in navigating the idea of the “true story” in a more meaningful way.

In his article “Myths, Stories and Reality” Joel Dubouis does an excellent job of explaining the relationship between myth and storytelling, noting that it is a necessary practice (especially for those in the West) to distinguish between the distinct definitions of story telling methods such as myths, fairy tales and legends as we discover what kind of story is being told. For example, while fairy tales are interested in creating wholly fictional universes and characters, myths are grounded in a concern for real human history. They act as a bridge between the seen and the unseen world and help illuminate the pieces of our human story that can sometimes get lost within the ever evolving generational gaps. In this sense, myth can help us to see ourselves (and this world) more clearly than we otherwise would. While myths can certainly fall on different sides of the conversation between fictional and factual, the true power of the myth seems to lie in its ability to evoke a sense of mystery, the push to consider the unknown and to see beyond our limited perspective. The Oxford University Press helps remind us that, “Myth in a sense is the highest reality, and the thoughtless dismissal of myth as fiction or a lie is the most barren and misleading definition of all…Myth serves to interpret the whole of human experience…”

The Mystery and the Religion
As the Oxford University goes on to suggest, myth, as the passing down of stories and traditions from one generation to the next, has always been rife with religious figures, images, and symbols. Myths, of the religious sort, remain “sacred” and “timeless” because of the way they afford us a bridge between our experience of this world and the power of the mysterious or the unseen world. For example, I have had spiritual experiences in my own life that, while they remained anchored in a time and place that is very real, remain impossible to interpret on the grounds of rational thought alone. Sharing these experiences as a part of my mythology offers me a way of speaking to something that I otherwise would not be able to explain.

In a similar way, to offer another example, understanding the nature of these kinds of stories can help us make sense of the tension that exists between the truth of the historical Jesus and the emerging testimony of his self-declared divinity. As the stories of Christ emerge, we are offered a means of wrestling with this mystery in a way we otherwise wouldn’t be able to explain.

Religious figures and images continue to fuel the popular tropes of the horror movie genre- and for good reason. The tradition of religion and spirituality connects us to something bigger than ourselves and helps us make sense of the battle between good and evil that seems to persist inside ourselves and in our world (as a quick aside, Stephen Jones does a wonderful job of bringing these otherworldly images to life in “The Art of Horror: An Illustrated History”). imgres-7The popularity of the supernatural in horror films seems to prove our natural inclination to want (need) to wrestle with this sense of mystery, and for many they remain more than simply a momentary thrill or metaphorical symbol. They have something important to say about the nature of the unseen and the mysterious, and often have a way of shedding light on  whatever modern experience happens to be defining the fear of our time.

When we have trouble making sense of the stuff of life, horror films can give us a way of seeing beyond it by helping us to face the fear and the brokenness of our unanswered questions.

The Power In Facing Our Brokenness
According to author Terry Eagleton, it is also possible that many gravitate to horror because it uses the outward visuals to turn us further inward towards a more sincere form of self-examination. The horror story, after all, tends to feel more honest than the fairy tale ending.  These stories bring us closer to ourselves, not because they avoid goodness, but because they help us to understand our brokenness and our flaws by forcing them into our point of vision. As Peter Chattaway suggests in an interview with Christianity Today, “It’s about admitting that there is evil in the world, and recognizing that there is evil within us, and that we’re not in control, and that the things that we are afraid of must be confronted in order for us to relinquish that fear.”

As Alison Gilmore so elegantly argues, the true power of the demon on screen, imgres-6a primary religious symbol in horror films, is the way it exposes the figurative demons that are hiding within us all. This is true whether we are speaking of our perceived shortcomings and failures, our hidden struggles, fears of the unknown or our anxieties.

Thankfully, though, as these films pull these fears and uncertainties to the surface, they don’t leave us in this place. Perhaps the most alluring and wonderful part about this kind of horror story (the supernaturally or spiritually charged) is the way it helps us to confront the evil in order to see the good, something that fits with the redemptive nature of the religious narrative itself.
Storytelling: An Encyclopedia of Mythology and Folklore by Josepha Sherman

“I think the thing about ghost stories is that it’s a safe place to enact your darkest fears. Reading a ghost story gives you the permission to go to places we actively and rightly avoid in normal life. A good ghost story asks the reader to examine the horror within – but it’s in a safe and contained way.”
– Catriona Ward, author of Rawblood.

“Considering the storytelling context of myth draws attention to the dynamic process of telling, listening, and reflection that continually shapes and reshapes peoples beliefs about the unseen powers and forces at work in their daily lives.”
– Dubouis

Lovecraft and Stranger Things: Moving us From Fear to Hope
In a recent episode of “,” they reference the recent success of the Netflix show “Stranger Things” by contrasting it with the legacy of noted horror enthusiast H.B. Lovecraft. As a professed atheist, even Lovecraft was forced to acknowledge the limited capacity and ability of the human mind to wrestle with the horror movie experience.

“His stories dig farther than they should, and what they find (when they do) is something horrific and not immediately comprehendible”, thus allowing the experience of terror to have it’s way with the audience precisely because of the presence of the unknown and the sense of mystery that fuels the story forward.”

In other words, the best kind of horror story is one that doesn’t answer all of our questions or reveal all of the monster, but rather leaves it lingering in the shadows for our conscious minds and unconscious emotions to wrestle with.
But there remains another side to this discussion of Lovecraft, as the writers at “” go on to point out. For all of the ways his work in shaping the genre of horror helped to expose our hidden tendency towards fear, he fell consistently short of capturing the hopefulness that makes up the other side of this picture, certainly when it comes to the genre’s religious symbolism (which they argue is a part of what makes the horror story so compelling).

The Hayes brothers also talk about how they intentionally set out to tell stories with a happy ending for this very reason. Hope is important. Hope is necessary. Hope is what draws people to these kinds of stories over others.

It is the redemptive quality that we find in stories of the supernatural that allows us to wrestle with and face both the on-screen and our personal demons with confidence. It is the redemptive story that reminds us that however big our failures and our problems might loom, there is an unseen world (or the idea of the “upside down world” in Stranger Things) imgres-3that stands that much taller. This provides us with the hope that anything is possible, anything can be conquered.

“The success of horror as a popular art form is due in no small part to its ability both to attract and to repel — to captivate, entertain, and invite us, on the one hand, and to confront us with that which is forbidden, unknown, strange, and terrifying, on the other hand. Horror preys upon our vulnerabilities, superstitions, nightmares, and fears.., and we like it! Or at least many of us do. Explanations for why this is so often take two forms: the quasi-religious (“awe”) or the psychoanalytic (“repression”).3 But neither of these is fully sufficient in and of itself. When horror is at its best, it satisfies our curiosity about both the metaphysical and the psychological unknown while, at the same time, casting an unsettling light on the shadow elements both of the human condition and of the cosmos.”
– Bryan Stone
“There are redemptive qualities that, thematically, are very important to carry forward in these stories, which essentially work to tell us something honest about the battle between good and evil that wages inside of all of us on a daily basis.”
– The Hayes Brothers

Horror as The Unsettling Light
Bryan Stone, in an article titled “The Sanctification of Fear: The Images of the Religious in Horror Films”, written for the Journal of Religion and Film, describes the roots of the horror story as that “thin line that separates beauty from terror”. He goes on to say that

“by functioning both as a threat and a catharsis, horror brings us face to face with our fear of death, of the supernatural, of the unknown and irrational, of’ ‘the other” in general, or a loss of identity, of forces beyond our control.”

This process of findingmyselfat40 has been a consistent struggle of learning to unearth the stuff that has helped make me who I am today, and recent viewings of “The Conjuring 2” and “The Exorcist” network series have helped remind me of my own walk between beauty and terror as I have learned to face my fears and see God more clearly:

Growing A Fondness For the Otherworldly Story.
While Charlotte’s Web is one of the first books that I can remember reading (which I spoke about in a previous blog), it is actually my well-worn and tattered Children’s Bible (which I still own) that managed to captivate most of my attention. It still ignites a sense of excitement and anticipation every time I come across it collecting dust on my bookshelf.

My Picture Bible was the first book to immerse me in the world of otherworldly battles and supernaturally charged narratives full of gods and ghosts, demons and monsters. It captured my young imagination, leading me to read it from front to back many times over through the years.

True, the fact that my parents gave me $5 for every time I finished it might have been added motivation (and something they probably came to regret), but this book soon became a stepping-stone into the broader literary and cinematic universe of otherworldly stories. As a kid my library would quickly grow to embrace the likes of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, films like The Never Ending story, Tolkien’s The Hobbit and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, and the Biblical proportions of John White’s imaginative and fantastical world of supernatural forces.

I loved living in these stories. They helped to grow my perspective of the world into something magical and expansive, offering me hope as a young mind. At the same time, though, they also shed light on my ongoing struggle with fear.

Shedding An Unsettled Light On My Fears
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is one of my favorite horror films of all time. There is an especially affecting scene near the end where Emily speaks to her desire to share her struggle (with fear and darkness) so as to offer hope and light to the dark places in the souls of others. This scene was especially relevant to me because I am someone who has struggled with fear all my life- whether battling through chronic nightmares as a young child or facing a full-blown anxiety disorder in my adult years.
Emily’s story reminded me that no matter how big these fears were there is a world out there that stands that much taller. She taught me that there is wonder and magic in this world, even when we can’t see it, perhaps especially when we can’t see it. Her story helped to remind me that there is a real God who can help me face my fears at a time when I struggled to see God at all.

Exchanging Mysticism for Rationalism
It is interesting to consider that the one place that should have helped me to embrace this message of hope- The Church- eventually taught me to reject it

When I was 16 my parents moved us (me and my brother) from the only Church I had ever known to one that had a thriving youth group. It was here, as I believe they hoped I would, that I really began to understand the role of the Church in my own life.
For me, Church was a place where I could connect with the unseen world. It was a place where I could understand some of my deeper questions about who God was and who I was, and a place where I could share my love of the otherworldly story.

Unfortunately, this is not what it ended up being.

From my vantage point, the one place that had finally seemed able to offer me a sense of community and share in my passion for exploring the unseen world eventually spiraled into a rather long and complicated history of (what would become one of many) Church splits and religious dissolution that would follow me well into my adult years. No matter where I (or eventually we) moved, conflict within the Church walls seemed to follow.

I watched helplessly as this initial conflict eventually ripped apart my social circle, even turning families and friends against each other, in some cases creating lasting animosity that still remains today. This environment was far from magical and mystical, and eventually, it started to erode at the sense of mystery and awe that my faith used to hold.

From Mysticism to Rationalism
At this point I began a rather aggressive push towards rationalizing the supernatural out my life. My faith became less concerned with the mystery and more concerned with certainty, and with this went my ability to wonder and my optimism for the world around me. I entered the latter part of my 20’s confident on the outside but broken on the inside. I was far from the faith of my childhood.

If there was one constant at this point in my life it was the idea of change. Growing up has a way of changing you, including the way you view the world. One significant change for me at this time in my life was the loss of our family Christmas tradition (and those who know me will understand why this was a great loss… I am Mr. Christmas after all). Being the last one to remain under my parent’s roof, I remember the distant feeling of waking up on December 25th without my brothers there to share in the space around the tree. This moment taught me, perhaps more than any other, that the world I was facing was no longer the familiar place of my childhood memory. The loss of my dog, a true friend of 15 years, would eventually (finally) push me over the edge of this realization.

The older I got the more exposed I became to experiences (including family and friends) that challenged my old paradigms and beliefs. This would include rejection of the idea of faith and God altogether. Eventually, the childlike wonder that had carried me forward for all those years seemed to disappear altogether.

I had exchanged an ingrained sense of mysticism and romanticism for a cold, calculated humanism, and whatever remained of my faith followed suit.

My The Letter From God
“God, give me something. Anything. I am at the end of my rope and I don’t know what to do.”

It was at my lowest point, sitting in the middle of an empty house in the darkness of the night, that I forced this rather direct and exasperated conversation with God. Honestly, I was ready for my life to end.

Whenever I share this story, those who know me tend to respond with a sense of shock. I never revealed this struggle with anyone until many years later. I didn’t know who to share it with, to be honest. I had continued to put on a strong public front because it was required of me (especially in the walls of the Church), but on the inside it was clear that I was unraveling.

I went to bed that night and woke up to the grim silence of a cloudy, grayish morning. This morning remains rather vivid in my memory. I got on my bike and forced myself to carry on with my morning, but in the back of my mind, I continued to consider the possibility of not facing tomorrow. God’s silence seemed to meet with the silence of the day.

It was in this place that some unexpected words, delivered by someone essentially unknown to me, eventually broke the silence. I have come to call it my letter from God. It interrupted the darkness. It brought an unsettling light to that “thin line that separates beauty from terror”. It brought me back to the realization that this world is bigger than my perspective and gave me the ability to wonder again. It offered me hope that there was more to this world than I could see in front of me at the moment.

God was present in the darkness.

The most important part of this letter was the call to “remember”. Remember back to a time when the presence of the supernatural was active and real, a time in my childhood when I still had hope and a childlike wonder. This letter would go on to recount my conversation with God from the night before, but more importantly, it gave me a way forward out of the darkness. In a very real way, the premise for this findingmyselfat40 blog actually began when I started to put this act of remembering into practice over 10 years ago.

And here’s the thing. With every memory revisited came a story of faith that I had unintentionally left behind. And with every story of faith came an experience that I had managed to rationalize away. For me, this wasn’t about returning to the place of my childhood. Over the years I have learned to embrace the messiness and the mundane, even learning to find joy in the  brokenness of the Church. But it was about reclaiming some of what growing up had stolen from me along the way.

Discovering A Different Kind of Certainty
In the first episode of The Exorcist (which has thus far proved to be a smart, moody and creepy thriller) we are introduced to two central characters: a struggling pastor who is attempting to reconcile the tension that exists between his own battle between faith/reason while also living into his responsibility of caring for the faith journey of others; and a former priest whom we find scarred and beaten from his own past experience with the church and the devil (and the questions about God that this experience then evokes).

Most noted for me is the way the looming presence of the supernatural in stories such as these often gives way to the recognizable human struggle to understand the mysteries of God and this world.

I admit, I love a good scare. But the real reason why I continue to be drawn to the horror story, or any story that deals with the supernatural and the fantastical for that matter, is because it connects me to the bigger picture of my own story. They remind me of the fears that I continue to face, and the place of God’s great mystery in helping me see past them, even on my worst days.

I find the idea that there is more to this world than what I can see on the surface to be incredibly hopeful. It gives me confidence in knowing there is something on the other side of the darkness that seems to permeate much of my experience. They help immerse me in the grander story of good versus evil, something that helps fuel my childhood sense of adventure. They open my eyes to stories that I might not otherwise be willing to hear, and they protect me against a rampant rationalism by continually humbling my disposition. Ultimately they have helped me stay connected to a very real God.

I am a different person than I was yesterday. This is not something I should ever take for granted. As I continue to navigate a newfound appreciation of God’s supernatural presence in my own life, I have grown a greater confidence for seeing God in the mundanity of the everyday. I no longer feel the need to apologize for not having all of the answers, and I have grown to stop feeling guilty about sharing my own experiences of God’s provision.

I can’t pretend to know how God speaks, I can only recognize that I believe He spoke to me and continues to speak to me today.

A truly modern perspective sees reality as shaped and determined by what we can see. From this we inherit a necessary degree of cynicism over what is possible and what is not, and from within this we determine how we can move forward in the face of our circumstances.

Perhaps there is space in this modern notion to consider a “reality” that assumes the existence of god as one who dwells in the midst of what we can see. From this we are able to inherit a necessary hopefulness… a true definition of hopefulness, that can expect the impossible to be possible.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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