This was a great article! Some highlights for Christians ……..
Douglas Cowan and Sacred Terror
Doug Cowan: Quite apart from film studies, which asks a very different set of questions, the three most obvious perspectives are dismissal, theological, and psychological. That is, there are those who simply dismiss cinema horror as having any redeeming or revelatory value at all. There is very little one can say about these people, other than to point out that they are simply wrong-if for no other reason than that horror is one of the most robust and resilient of cinema genres. That doesn’t mean that every horror movie is worthwhile; many are appallingly bad. But as Ado Kyrou once said, “I urge you to look at ‘bad’ films; they are sometimes sublime.” It means, more importantly, that millions of people consume horror cinema, and we have to wonder about the attraction, about the need that is either reflected or filled by those products, about the fear these films reveal.
TF: I noted in the first chapter of your book that you reference a Christian missiologist who makes the unfortunate statment that “other than pornography, horror is the film genre least amenable to religious sensibilities.” Why do you find this all too common attitude reflected in people who might represent conservative expressions of more traditional religions? Is it a fear of horror somehow tearing down religion, or a fear of cultural decline through horror’s popularity?
Doug Cowan: This is precisely the problem of theological normativity closing down the vision with which one might look at the world around them. In many ways, conservative Christians (though they are hardly alone in this) live their lives enmeshed in a web of fears. This is implicit, for example, in my first two books, on the Christian countercult and on conservative reform movements in mainline Christianity. Fear drives the need to confront deviance and enforce conformity. It strikes me as absurd to think otherwise. Religion in the late modern period needs no help from horror films to do itself a disservice in any number of ways. Religious support for the war in Iraq, for example, is more horrifying to me than any horror movie. I think, though, that horror films (like some song lyrics) become a cheap and easy lightning rod to express one’s outrage, when there are far bigger, far scarier problems we can be concerned about. George Bush, for example, and his current World Tour of Terror, global warming, the possibility of nuclear war (whether driven by nation states or terrorist organizations), did I mention George Bush? I recall a poll conducted by a British horror magazine many years ago that said something like 37% of men would rather be trapped on a desert island with Freddy Krueger than with Margaret Thatcher. That said, I think that horror films are significant cultural artifacts that express what we are afraid of, not some sort of mind-control program valorising the acts we often see included in them.
TF: Wrapping up our foundation before moving to your book, why do you find conservative evangelicals so opposed to horror, often equating it with evil and the occult?
Doug Cowan: I go back the same answer. In the context of human religious experience and expression, it’s a very narrow, very restricted theological vision-one to which they are entitled, since it is their version of the “unseen order,” but narrow nonetheless. (I can see a number of readers spooling up Matt 7:13, as we speak!) The problem, though, comes when conservative Christians arrogate to themselves the right to act as moral, ethical, and theological arbiters for the rest of us-based solely on their interpretation of that unseen order. Returning to my point about living enmeshed in a web of fears, conservative Christians are an excellent example of the basic theoretical principle informing the book: sociophobics. That is, the principle that what we fear, how we fear, and how we are expected to act in the face of fear are socially constructed concepts. Of course, there are physical sensations that we share in common; of course, there are psychological aspects to fear. The problem is that studies have been limited to these, by and large. I am trying to broaden the playing field, to understand the relationship between religion and fear in a very different way.
As Petronius said, “It is fear that first brought gods into the world”-an insight that was explored in depth both by Rudolf Otto and Sigmund Freud, but which has, unfortunately, been ignored of late….. In all kinds of ways, conservative Christians are taught to fear an amazing array for things, and have those fears reinforced in a striking variety of ways. Consider, for example, the Tennessee trial in the late 1980s, dubbed by the media “Scopes II.” That all started because a Tennessee housewife who spent a good portion of her time listening to fundamentalist Christian radio programming became terrified that “secular humanism”-that boogeyman of the New Age-had found its nefarious way into to the sanctuary of her daughter’s school.
Cinema horror is far too often simply dismissed, as though who both produce and consume it have no voices worth hearing in the discussions and debates about the unseen order. This is ridiculous, quite frankly. I think, though, that Christian theologians (at least) will learn most only when they learn to bracket any claim to normativity in their assessment of other religious traditions. That is, they need to stop arrogating to themselves the right to decide who is “properly religious” and who isn’t. Of course, there are theologians who do this admirably (Hans Kung comes to mind in this regard, and Matthew Fox), and I don’t mean to generalise across the spectrum of Christianity. But, in the evangelical/ fundamentalist streams, one is hard-pressed to find more than a handful who take the religious experiences of others seriously and on their own terms, that is, without some hidden proselytic agenda.