Christian Horror by Mike Duran – A Book Review

Christian horror
Christian Horror: On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre 
Mike Duran
2015
Blue Crescent Press

Christian horror is a difficult theme. It needs stating from the start who the author is because it gives weight to what he goes on to write. Mike Duran is a former Christian pastor and a professional author of horror literature, as well as an artist. This gives him an almost unique insight into the overlaps and tensions between these different worlds. It also means his book is well researched and written, with lots of honest reflection present when issues get tricky. 

This is a bravely written book with a modest goal. It is bravely written because out of all the literary genres with which Christians feel an innate discomfort, horror is probably near the top of the list, only surpassed by erotic fiction. This is so much the case that contemporary Christian authors who write in the horror genre (e.g., Frank Peretti) feel the need to call it something else (for example, ‘suspense’, ‘mystery’, or even ‘Christian science fiction’). And it has a modest goal of proving that horror is merely compatible with Christianity, not the stronger position – which I would argue – that horror is found in and founded upon the Christian scriptures.  

Religions Themes in Horror

Duran spends the first chapter looking at religious elements in the horror, of which there are many. These come in the form of “religious themes, symbols, rituals, persons and places.” He mainly achieves this by working his way through the big names in the Western literary cannon, such as Beowulf, Dante and Milton, through Frankenstein, Dracula and Victorian morality plays, to Stephen King and modern Hollywood. If were were to remove religion from horror, not much would remain, it seems. Duran argues that this isn’t merely due to a frequently overlapping supernatural worldview but because of “the historical hegemony of Christianity in Western culture”. 

Horror Themes in Religion

Next, Duran examines horror themes in religion, specifically, in the doctrines and stories of Christian religion. Duran points out that the sheer volume “of horror tropes that find their genesis in Holy Writ” is staggering. He tackles this topic in two ways. 

  1. Duran points out the horror elements in several key Christian doctrines – the holiness of God, the creation of an invisible/supernatural world, the fall, the end times, the resurrection, hell – and how authors have used in horror fiction. Most of all (and to my surprise) he examines the crucifixion and death of Christ as the preeminent example of horror in the Bible, with its tale of torture, shame, violence, anguish, suffering, and despair. 
  1. Helpfully, Duran gathers up those stories that contain horror elements, some of which we would certainly label as horror if found in secular sources. Included among these are the genocide of Noah’s Flood, the Angel of Death at the Passover, and the many gruesome deaths described in the biblical narrative (Goliath, Sisera, the slaughter of the innocents, John the Baptist, Herod Agrippa, Judas). 

Evangelical Culture and the Horror Genre

In Chapter 3 of the book, Duran argues that any contemporary Christian aversion to horror is a relatively recent phenomenon that has its origin in US Protestant Fundamentalism, with its insistence that all stories should be safe, family-friendly and clean. Duran contrasts this with Christian cultural endeavours through the ages, as he traces the historical roots of horror from grotesque and macabre art (Rogier van der Weyden, Hieronymus Bosch, Gustave Doré), to supernatural stories (George MacDonald, Arthur Machen, Charles Williams). I appreciated Duran’s analysis of the bigger names who often get overlooked in this regard, despite their evangelical pedigree, like Jonathan Edwards and C S Lewis. 

Duran understands the Fundamentalist aversion to horror fiction in two ways. One is the moral requirement by Fundamentalists that all creative products should contain no elements that are considered sinful in the real world. So, novels can’t contain smoking, adult language, sexual conduct outside marriage, drunkenness, and drug use. By this standard, they can exclude almost all horror tropes automatically. Then there’s the Fundamentalist cultural requirement of separation and withdrawal from ‘the world’ with a sharp sacred/secular division that cuts off any creative product that is not overtly Christian in a simple and obvious sense.  

Christian Horror – Towards an Apologetic

In my opinion, Chapter 4 is the heart of Duran’s book and his best contribution to the topic. In it, he attempts to offer the beginnings of an apologetic for the very concept of ‘Christian horror’ – “horror tales and art created by Christians that aligns with the biblical worldview” (59). It’s important to note that Duran’s position is not merely the opposite of horror’s Fundamentalist detractors. They say that the entire horror genre is morally reprehensible. Duran’s response is not that the entire horror genre is morally innocent or praiseworthy. To be considered as Christian horror, it must adhere to the following principles: 

  • Christian horror should aspire to do more than merely scare, unnerve or nauseate its readers (61) 
  • Christian horror, even though it contains elements designed to shock, does so within a wider redemptive context (62) 
  • Christian horror should not shy away from portraying the grim reality of evil, while never celebrating or glorifying it (63) 
  • Christian horror portrays evil to involve the concept of an ultimate and absolute good (69) 
  • Christian horror requires the portrayal of the devil as a real spiritual force that a hero must confront (70) 
  • We must frame Christian horror within a supernatural worldview rather than a materialistic or naturalistic one (71) 

Duran’s central thesis here is that it’s the moral context that makes a story (or other artistic creation) good or evil, not the details of its content. The Bible itself tells stories that contain decapitations, torture, madness, body mutilation and dismemberment, witchcraft, monsters, nightmares, demonic possessions and exorcisms, ghosts, plagues, genocides, cannibalism, infanticide, cultic rituals, the personification of death and hell, famines, diseases, disfiguration, flesh eating beasts, sexual violence, skeletons, séances, immolation, death by sawing, and devil worship. But the Bible places these stories in an overall moral context that not only clearly distinguishes between good and evil but insists in the triumph of good and the punishment of evil. We can graphically depict evil in all its horrific reality. But out stories must condemned it, and trace out its consequences as a terrible warning. 

Objections to Christian Horror

The ’Objections to Christian horror’ of any sort, even one that adheres to the principles outlined above, are many (Chapter 5). The gratuitous blood, blatant sadism and occult themes of many horror stories seem reason enough for many Christians to reject the entire genre and consider the concept of “Christian horror” an oxymoron. Duran summarises what he believes are the main objections into three areas (83). 

The Occult Objection

“Depictions of and references to Satanic and occult elements can be an outlet for the demonic.” 

Objection 1

Counterargument: This objection proves too much, as it applies to any genre. The notion that some genres are vice free is itself dangerous. Anything good can became a vehicle for something bad. The problem lies with our sinful natures, not a particular genre. The Bible itself contains stories about “occult practices, ghosts, demons, false gods, and violence”, proving that “some portrayals of occultism and evil are necessary” (84-5).

The Objection from Pollution

“Contemplating darkness and evil pollutes our minds and imagination, and violates the command to think pure thoughts.” 

Objection 2

Counterargument: Thinking about whatever is pure includes thinking about whatever is true and looking squarely at evil and its horrors. Observing and describing evil isn’t the same as wallowing in it or digesting it. If we are to avoid all stories with evil, then we’ll have to avoid many of the biblical stories too. And if we are to avoid all fearful stories, then we should avoid the fear of God too.

The Objection from Darkness

“With so much clear, inspirational, family-friendly, alternative fare available, there no need to consume dark, worldly, secular stuff.” 

Objection 3

Counterargument: The Bible itself doesn’t contain stories that are safe, clean or family-friendly. Much of the Bible is violent, lurid, profane, and yet at the same time profoundly moral. Avoiding the horror genre because it contains dark and disturbing material is in fact a form of superstition (what Duran calls “white magic” – 94) i.e. the belief that avoiding certain things gives you protective power against them. 

Brief Evaluation

There are a few things I particularly appreciated about this book. In several places, Duran pulls together lists of biblical stories that could fall under the horror genre (ps. 31-32, 90, 92). This was helpful for me to use as checklist for my own stories. Also, I was excited to read Duran’s interaction with Rodolf Otto (the Christian theologian who first sparked my interest in this issue) and HP Lovecraft (my favourite horror author). Finally, I feel that Duran was fair and careful in his evaluation of objectors to Christian horror, even conceding in a few places that their concerns are legitimate (p.88). 

It’s a short book, well written (as you would expect from a professional author) and well researched, with plenty of relevant citations for those who want to take their study further. When I say it’s not an academic book, I mean that as a compliment. Anyone interested in the topic could profit from it. And who might this include? 

  • Anyone interested in the Bible from a literary viewpoint, that is, who wants to understand the religions stories and narratives in terms of wider genres, themes and structures 
  • Christians struggling with the moral quandary of whether horror novels or films are a suitable form of entertainment for them, due to horror’s use of gore, sadism, occult themes and demons 
  • Christian apologists or academics who want to understand the relation between religion and a phenomenon that reaches from high to pop culture 

You can read more of Mike’s thoughts on horror and take a look at his artwork by visiting his website – https://www.mikeduran.com/

Very highly receommended

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