6 Horror Tropes from the Old Testament

Ghosts and spirits are part of the worldview of the Bible. In the New Testament, the disciples of Jesus thought he was a ghost when he walked on water (Mark 14:26) and when he appeared after his resurrection (Luke 24:39). Peter suffered a similar misidentification when he escaped from prison (Acts 12:15). But it is in the Old Testament that ghostly story tropes are most prominent.

I’m going to use that great wiki called TV Tropes to name and explain six big examples from the Old Testament. For other examples, see Is That Horror Trope in the Bible?

The Nightmare Sequence

There are plenty of people in the Bible who experience a nightmare sequence. The apocalyptic visions of Daniel is a prime examples. We might find their fantastic symbolism fascinating, but Daniel’s dreams left him disturbed and fearful. Jacob’s dream about the ladder reaching from earth to heaven filled him with fear and awe (Genesis 28:17).

Perhaps the most obvious example of a nightmare sequence is that told by Eliphaz. Here’s how he described it.

“This truth was given to me in secret, as though whispered in my ear. It came to me in a disturbing vision at night, when people are in a deep sleep. Fear gripped me, and my bones trembled. A spirit swept past my face, and my hair stood on end. The spirit stopped, but I couldn’t see its shape. There was a form before my eyes. In the silence I heard a voice..”

Job 4:12-16

For other examples of nightmares in the Old and New Testaments, see Nightmares of the Bible.

The Haunted House

There’s a terrific – and horrific – story in the Old Testament about the Ark of the Covenant that isn’t as well known as it deserves. Yes, this is the same ark as in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark. The ark was captured by the Philistines and left in the temple of their god Dagon. God then haunts the pagan temple, destroying the statue of Dagon and filling the land with cancerous tumours (1 Samuel 5-6).

There are several nice touches that add to the terror of this haunted house story. Most of the God vs Dagon action happens at night, leaving the details to our imaginations. The name ‘Dagon’ is mentioned by HP Lovecraft in some of his stories. The superstitious actions of the priests (5:5; 6:4-9) add to the sense of weirdness. Finally, once the ark is returned, the terror continues, as many Israelites are killed by peeking inside the ark (6:19), just like those Nazis in the film.

For other hauntings, see Are Haunted Houses in the Bible? and Are Haunted Cities in the Bible?

Demonic Possession

There were many demonic possessions at the time of Christ. He spend time and power not only healing illness but casting out devils. In the old Testament, there are fewer instances of this. One of these involves the first king of Israel, Saul. Saul started off well but quickly committed several sinful actions that led to his downfall. As this happened, we are told that the Spirit of God left him and an evil spirit “from the Lord” troubled him (1 Samuel 16:14). It sent him into a dark depression, a murderous rage, and to the brink of madness (18:10; 19:9). Saul died by suicide.

The Spooky Séance

There are many references to diviners, mediums and a necromancers in the Old Testament. Mostly, the references are to condemn them or mock them. The details of what they do isn’t described in detail. But we do have one instance of someone conducting a spooky séance. She is usually known as the Witch of Endor, although some prefer to call her a medium or sorceress. In the story, King Saul – in one of his last, mad acts – hires her to raise the ghost of the dead prophet Samuel for counsel before a battle. Nothing goes according to plan.

For more on this story, see my blog post The Witch of Endor.

The Portend of Doom

A portend of doom is a some sort of sign that something both momentous and calamitous is about to happen. It’s an evil omen. It’s the writing on the wall – literally. The tale of Writing on the Wall in Daniel chapter 5 is the origin of the phrase and an exemplar of the concept. A powerful pagan king disrespects holy objects pays the price with his life. To warn him of his approaching demise, an armless hand appears and writes a mystic message on the wall. The phenomenon strikes terror into his heart and bowls – as it would! Only Daniel can interpret the message…and what it says is filled with foreboding.

For more on this story, see my blog post The King Who Was (Literally) Scared Shitless.

Eldritch Abominations

It is vitally important that you get the notion of cute babies or handsome men out of your mind when you think of angels in the Bible. Often, when angels meet humans, they have to say, “Don’t be afraid” because they are so terrifying! But they aren’t just terrifying, they are also weird and unearthly. In the Old Testament visions of Ezekiel and Daniel, angels are described in ways that make little sense to the human brain. They have a monstrous and alien quality that makes them an Eldritch Abomination or, to be more specific, an Angelic Abomination.

For more on this topic, see my blog post Eldritch Angels.

Can you think of any other obvious tropes I’ve missed out?

Photo by Tim Wildsmith on Unsplash

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