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Holy terror?

Taissa Farmiga as Sister Irene in ‘The Nun’ (Warner Bros. Pictures)

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Holy terror?

Filmmakers argue horror films can have a place in Christian life

Of all the film sets a reporter for a Christian magazine might expect to visit, one for horror would probably come in dead last. Spooks, spirits, and things that go bump in the night aren’t exactly synonymous with popular evangelical viewing. Yet the filmmakers behind a new film, The Nun, invited WORLD to check out their creepy Romanian abbey and chat with their cast and crew in both Bucharest and Mexico City.

Once upon a time, horrors, or, at least, depictions of the horrific, weren’t such an unusual preoccupation for the Christian imagination. Dante had his Inferno, Marlowe his Faustus, and Bosch the hell panel from his Garden of Earthly Delights, not to mention Shakespeare’s “weird sisters” terrifying Elizabethan audiences. More recently, reading Frank Peretti’s tales of the demonic was almost a rite of passage for pulp-minded believers of the 1980s. Since then, however, you’d be hard-pressed to name a major Christian film or book to deal with anything more frightening than atheist professors.

Some Christian artists think modern evangelicalism’s rejection of the hellish in our storytelling deprives us of the chance to reflect on serious aspects of our faith. Christian and horror novelist Mike Duran wrote a book on the subject and has argued in outlets like The Gospel Coalition for a fresh engagement with the genre.

With the caveat that Christians should be discerning of any entertainment we consume, Duran points out that what constitutes horror is quite diverse. The recent film A Quiet Place, which has strong pro-family and pro-life implications, is leagues away from the gory Saw franchise. “But both are labeled horror,” Duran said. He believes that while each of us is beholden to our own consciences as laid out in Romans 14, Christians should reconsider our modern notion of edifying viewing being the same as safe or inoffensive viewing. “Dante, Marlowe, van der Weyden, Arthur Machen, and Flannery O’Connor have been consigned to another era, anomalies from [our] distant past.”

The Nun screenwriter Gary Dauberman (who also co-wrote 2017’s monstrously successful It) champions The Nun and the Conjuring universe it comes out of as something more in line with what Duran describes as possibly acceptable horror—a story that takes paranormal evil seriously in which a priest and a young novitiate confront a demonic force in the form of a nun. Dauberman says he personally gravitates to scary supernatural stories like this because, “For me it’s like the belief in something beyond us. If evil exists, if these demonic forces exist, then so must the good forces.”

Duran says such attraction only makes sense, even for nonbelievers, because stories that draw on the existence of angels versus demons, heaven versus hell, appeal to our innate recognition of Biblical reality. This could account for why churches and clergy continue to loom large in what is arguably the industry’s most profitable genre even as our culture grows more secular.

In Bucharest The Nun cast and crew provide proof of Duran’s point. To the degree that any express religious belief it’s agnosticism or nonspecific New Ageism. Yet several people are amusingly eager to share that a priest blessed the set early in shooting. They describe how this comforted them, particularly after a few unexplained occurrences, like medicine cabinets falling off the walls and strange symbols appearing in cracks in the pavement. Director Corin Hardy only half laughs while admitting he “felt safer” after the ecclesiastical visit.  

The priest may have merely psychosomatically soothed some skittish nerves, but it’s interesting how many of the Hollywood skeptics were willing to extend their faith that far at least.

It remains to be seen whether The Nun lives up to Duran’s criteria for worthy horror. If nothing else, director Hardy, who originally studied to be an artist, may have inadvertently offered some wisdom to aspiring Christian storytellers in any genre: “I learned early on in painting that I always did better by beginning with the darkness and then bringing in the light. You can’t get a contrast with a constant day-lit scene.”

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  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Fri, 08/31/2018 11:32 pm

    Horror has a place in Christian life, if it draws attention to the Good.  I do not understand why anyone who loves the Good would want to watch obsessive human torment and hopelessness.  I know Christians who love watching gory horror flicks.  I also observe that these same Christians tend toward bleaker thinking.  If we become what we consume, then we must sparely consume horror.