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The Horror Bible


Steve A. Wiggins
Oxford University Press

The Bible shows up in some pretty strange places. Due to a convergence of factors, biblical scholars have recently begun considering the unusual pairing of the Bible and the horror genre. While this pairing may not actually be as bizarre as it may seem, it is a telling reflection of just how biblically aware an increasingly secular culture can be.

What are the converging factors here? One is the increased academic attention paid to genre fiction. Horror has often been relegated to the shadowy, lowbrow corner of entertainment. Along with science fiction, it has struggled to find mainstream respectability. As scholars of film began to analyze horror movies towards the end of the last century, and prior to that, literary scholars considered the gothic and its scary heirs, the depth of the genre started to become apparent. This material was deemed worthy of study not only because it contained social commentary, but because, in forcing its audiences to confront the darker aspects of the human psyche, it fulfilled a basic human need.

Another factor that plays into this convergence is contemporary society opening up to the possibility that the Good Book might not be quite as pristine as it once seemed. Long a central text of American culture, the Bible projected an aura of sanctity without ever necessarily needing to be opened. After Phyllis Trible published Texts of Terror in 1984, ignoring the conventions of horror in biblical texts became virtually impossible. The general public gradually became aware of the many questions left unanswered by close readings of the Bible. The aura of sanctity had to be breached before a popular genre like horror could be brought into conversation with Holy Writ.

Yet a third element had to fall into place: secular scholars of genre literature had to be willing to discuss religion. Pick up nearly any book on horror theory or history published in the last decade and you will likely find a discussion, at least in passing, of religion. One example is Darryl Jones's Sleeping with the Lights On (2018). There is an aptness here as researchers reach for Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy (1917) in order to grapple with what this mysterium tremendum et fascinans had to tell us about the compelling nature of horror. Douglas Cowan was one of the first to bring the horror film and religion into direct dialogue with his book Sacred Terror (2008), forcing open the gates to admit the Bible into the conversation.

When these factors converge in a society with high biblical awareness, but low biblical literacy, the circumstances are right to bring the Good Book and horror into the same room. Such a combination is more jarring than the Bible and science fiction, although sci-fi and horror are close kin. Horror has a reputation as exploitative and even dangerous, while science fiction is more commonly excused as speculative and allegorical. Horror forces us to look at parts of life we would rather not have to see. But so does the Bible.

In literary history, horror is generally traced back to the gothic novel of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As a genre, it grew out of Romanticism's reaction to materialism and industrialization. While some novels of the period explored the noble emotions of love and redemption, others focused on fear and terror. All of these moods are expressed in the Good Book as well, but selective readings tend to emphasize the former. The Romantic movement was well versed in scripture.

Over time, horror grew into its own genre, and when celluloid was invented at the turn of the twentieth century, some of the earliest films became the progenitors of what we recognize today as horror cinema. Thomas Edison, for example, produced a short film adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in 1910. While Shelley included some biblical allusions in her novel, the connection was made more explicit in the funeral scene in Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994), as Captain Robert Walton (Aidan Quinn) reads solemnly from Ecclesiastes while standing before Victor Frankenstein's pyre in the Arctic wasteland. Horror movies retain the biblical roots established in Romantic literature, sometimes quite literally.

Some scholars have raised the question of what a consideration of horror films has to do with biblical studies. To attempt an answer, we must go back to scripture's role as a canonical text. Although the Bible's aura had to be breached to begin the conversation, that aura has not been completely destroyed. The literary texts of any society represent that society's ideals. American society, in particular, is suffused with elements of the Bible. While monuments of the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns occasionally make the news, the majority of Americans cannot recite from memory precisely what those Ten Commandments are. (It should be noted that biblical scholars disagree on the numbering, from time to time, but it is doubtful that this academic ambiguity is behind public reticence to memorizing the dicta they contain.) This is a distinct function of the Bible: iconic books are performative, which is to say that they can perform a role without ever being read. In fact, they actually benefit from not being read, because when they are read, they are often misread. The Bible serves this role very well. A large, authoritative book, the contents of which are often unfamiliar, the Bible functions as a source of all kinds of conventional wisdom. Today, many people can quote Ezekiel 25:17, but because their source of this information is the Quentin Tarantino movie Pulp Fiction(1994), they quote incorrectly. Who is going to bother to look up Ezekiel 25:17? Who can even find the book of Ezekiel?

Students of the Bible often look to popular culture to identify examples of its relevance and truth. While references to the Bible in literature, film, television, and other media abound, many of those have little to do with the actual contents of Holy Writ. Take, for example, TV sleeper hit Sleepy Hollow, which ran on Fox from 2013 through 2017, and whose first season dealt extensively with biblical symbolism and themes. The headless horseman of the 1820 Washington Irving story on which the series was based refers to none other than Death, the fourth horseman of the apocalypse. The demonic antagonist is even given a biblical name: Moloch, one of the gods of the Canaanites. To figure out how to prevent the apocalypse, the duo of Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) and Abigail Mills (Nicole Beharie) have to decipher George Washington' Bible. Without the Good Book, the plot would fall apart. And it did: the second season dropped the biblical theme. Moloch was killed and the monster of the week required a new explanation. To the savvy, the series was already doomed by the end of season two. IMDb lists the genres of the program as Adventure, Drama, and Fantasy. Clearly, however, it aspired to supernatural television's standard genre of horror, utilizing many of the tropes found in horror films. But at the same time, it also made heavy use of the Bible.

As in Sleepy Hollow, horror as a genre tends to be characterized by monsters. Among the familiar conventions of horror is the theme of defeating the monster by learning and then taking advantage of its weakness. Some weaknesses are purely physical—a silver bullet to a werewolf, for example. Others, however, are metaphysical. For instance, vampires cannot abide crucifixes or consecrated communion hosts. As such, the Bible becomes one of the weapons in their arsenal. But the connection goes deeper than that: the weaponized Bible often serves as a stand-in for God. While social convention allows for making light of the Good Book, the Almighty is a different story. Horror cinema approached the Bible gently at first, referencing it more implicitly than explicitly in earlier horror films grappling with religion directly, such as Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973). The Omen (1976) finally brought the Bible both into the plot as well as the camera's eye. Eschalotogical fear ran high in the 1970sฺ the bestselling non-fiction book of the decade was Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth (1970). Horrific in its own right, the end of the world proved a fertile field for future horror films.

In the 1980s, horror movies evolved into many subgenres, the most notorious being the slasher. It could be argued that religion-based horror forms a subgenre of its own. As public tolerance for critique of the Bible has grown, so has the boldness of writers and directors in including producing films in and around the Holy Writ, taking new forms, always iconic: anti-bibles, false bibles, and living bibles can be seen to populate horror films today. At the same time, biblical scholars have come to realize the potential use of slashers in biblical exegesis. One of the first volumes to do this explicitly is Brandon Grafius's Reading Phinehas, Watching Slashers (2018).

Turning a wary eye ahead, it is likely that horror and the Bible will be seen together in public more and more. The sacred aura may have been breached by Texts of Terror, but it had already been scratched by the claws of Rosemary's Baby. Once the public caught on, there would be no stopping horror from meeting scripture.

References

  • Cowan, Douglas E. Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen. Baylor UP, 2008.
  • Grafius, Brandon R. Reading Phinehas, Watching Slashers: Horror Theory and Numbers 25. Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2018.
  • Jones, Darryl. Sleeping with the Lights On: The Unsettling Story of Horror. Oxford UP, 2018.
  • Lindsey, Hal. The Late, Great Planet Earth. Zondervan, 1970.
  • Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holya; An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational. Humphrey Milford/Oxford UP, 1923.
  • Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narrative. Fortress Press, 1984.
  • Watts, James W. Iconic Books and Texts. Equinox, 2015.
  • Wiggins, Steve A. Holy Horror: The Bible and Fear in Movies. McFarland Books, 2018.
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