Pop Culture by Daniel Cabal May 11, 2020
Should Christians Watch Horror Movies?
How far does Christian liberty extend? Many Christians are reasonably concerned about the horror genre. They may wonder, “Why would my friend who wants to see this horror movie even want to feel scared?” or “Don’t horror movies blaspheme God?”
Other Christians enjoy horror movies but don’t discuss them with others, because they lack answers to questions like, “Is it sinful to enjoy a horror movie?”
In this article, I’ll establish a few reasons to view horror as “in-bounds” for Christians. But first let’s clear up misunderstandings about the genre.
Horror and Human Emotion
The horror genre contains lots of sub-genres, including monster movies, body horror films, slashers, mysteries, art movies, and more. Each sub-genre corresponds to different filmmakers’ attempts to elicit emotions besides fear. A person unfamiliar with horror may be surprised to learn that many movies in the genre emphasize disgust, arousal, and/or sadism rather than fear. A Christian should approach each emotion with a biblically informed outlook.
The Bible does not forbid feeling disgust. Disgust is an appropriate reaction to disgusting things. It is possible that inducing disgust in an audience by portraying harmful acts against human bodies crosses the line into disrespecting God’s creation, but believers should remember there is nothing inherently immoral with disgust itself. It’s an unpleasant emotion, so most people understandably shun it. But believers should show equal discernment when they encounter entertainment that encourages disgust for God’s message of salvation and sin, especially in areas where pop culture grinds against biblical principles. Feeling disgust at an image of grotesqueness may be more morally appropriate than laughing alongside those who lob quips at Jesus’ teachings, for example.
The next emotion associated with the horror genre—and one some movies strive to provoke—is arousal. Arousal in marriage is holy, beautiful, exciting, and beneficial, but outside marriage it is a dangerous temptation. Jesus spoke clearly (and violently) about the sinfulness of seeking arousal outside of marriage. In Matthew 5:28-29, He said, “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away” (NIV). Put bluntly, people who watch horror movies primarily for erotic thrills should repent.
Lastly, sadism is not an emotion per se but rather the experience of feeling pleasure at someone else’s physical pain. More than any other horror sub-genre, “slashers” are prone to promoting sadism. But the Bible encourages believers not to “rejoice when your enemies fall; don’t be happy when they stumble” (Proverbs 24:17, NLT). Clearly, enjoying the depiction of another person’s suffering should be avoided. And when sadism is present in genres besides horror (such as in action movies when the villain gets his comeuppance), we would do well to shun it there too!
Your motivation when watching a horror movie (or anything else) certainly matters. Watching a movie with the intention of enjoying vicarious sin is, at best, close to sin itself. But just as Christians can learn to recognize when a conversationalist is likely to steer a discussion towards sin, moviegoers can learn to discern which movies are appropriate for them without shunning movies altogether.
Besides scenes intending to evoke sadism, arousal, or disgust, what about when horror movies contain content that deals with death, grief, and fear? Many Christians may shun the horror genre, because they wish to avoid thinking about such harsh content. They are entirely within their freedom in Christ to do so. But Christians are not required to avoid a genre due to rough content. While children should be protected from ideas and images they are unable to process, adults have a far greater capacity to know themselves and what they can handle.
Thrills and God-Given Liberty
The best horror movies tell stories in such a way that the audience progresses from a sense of normalcy to discomfort to fear. Again, I am not necessarily trying to explain why people may wish to undergo this experience. Instead, I want to examine what the Bible says about liberty and fear.
The Bible was written almost two millennia before cinema existed, but it still offers us guidance on entertainment choices. The first question we could ask is whether the Bible prohibits feeling afraid. The Bible’s response is only in certain situations in which Christians are encouraged to face their fear.
The Bible contains numerous accounts of people who were thrown into frightening and overwhelming situations, and, in many cases, they were encouraged not to fear because God was (and is!) sovereign. But in other situations, the Bible makes no mention that it was wrong for people to be afraid, perhaps for the same reason it doesn’t mention that they needed to eat, sleep, or use the bathroom. Being afraid is a normal response to many situations.
The second question we should ask is if the Bible offers liberty in making choices. Yes, it explicitly affirms that Christians are liberated to enjoy life in God’s freedom. Utilizing wisdom in choosing a horror film to watch is then no different than selecting a knife for whittling or lighting a campfire to roast marshmallows—fire and knives are both dangerous when misused, but they are not inherently bad. Many inventions from rollercoasters to sports offer delightful thrills that need no further justification. A liberty that permits others to do only the things one prefers is not a robust liberty at all. The freedom Jesus offers is far stronger. Christians can watch horror movies without apology if they do so wisely.
Furthermore, Christians who are concerned about scares should realize that genres besides horror often contain elements of fear. To be clear, there are aspects of horror in many other movies that range from classic Disney films to The Wizard of Oz (1939). Arguing that any movie that makes people feel scared should be off-limits is effectively sweeping countless films off the table. Before banning a considerable number of movies from God’s spacious bounds of Christian liberty, one should present a substantially better argument than “I personally dislike it.”
Potential Reasons to Watch a Horror Film
You may concede that watching scary movies is not sinful, but you might still feel curious about non-sinful reasons to watch a horror movie. Here are three quick ones!
We know that sad stories offer catharsis, and spicy sauces offer a rush of intensity followed by pleasing relief. In the same way, a scary movie can make viewers experience extreme alertness and then a cooling respite as they return to normalcy. Because people rarely feel endangered by watching a film, exercising the little-used emotion of fear causes it to ache pleasantly.
Second, horror is unique in that it offers pleasures whether it succeeds in being scary or not. Jokes that aren’t funny are simply awkward. But it can feel empowering when a scary story is unable to frighten you.
The introduction to Philosophy of Horror (2010, edited by Thomas Fahy) offers a defense of horror’s societal value. Fahy shows that horror movies’ educational significance, quite apart from their ability to entertain, lies in their ability to remind us that we are not in control. Fahey does not connect this point to a Christian view of God, but believers need not ultimately be afraid of horror films or life, knowing that even though they are not in control, God in His love remains ultimately sovereign.