Different Horror Subgenres in the Bible

Scare Birds

When I was a young man, trying to figure out what types of films and novels I liked the best, horror was not top of my list. At all. In fact, it was near the bottom. First was fantasy (mostly in written form), and then science fiction (mostly in the movies). The problem was, I didn’t realise there were different types of horror fiction, different subgenres within the main genre of horror. Because I didn’t like one or two of those most popular with Hollywood at the time, I incorrectly assumed that I didn’t like any of them. I thought my love of H P Lovecraft was just a weird, uncanny blip.

Now I have a different perspective that allows me to distinguish between them. There are horror subgenres that I liked all the time. I just didn’t think of them as horror. And perhaps you don’t either.

What I’ve done here is list most of the main horror subgenres. I’ve tried to describe each and provide some well-known examples from the worlds of literature and film. Finally, under each subgenre, I’ve listed stories in the Bible that fall under that kind of horror.

Slasher Horror

I grew up in the 1980s when slasher movies were very much the mainstream of horror. I didn’t like them then and I still don’t. Slashers are about blades and blood. Psycho killers – Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers – with a supernatural twist and lots of victims, none of whom die pleasantly. I didn’t like the lack of subtilty or an explanatory worldview. Weird, horrific stuff just happened. Slasher type events happen in the Bible too but unlike these films there’s a moral and metaphysical context for them.

  • Gruesome deaths by assassination – Ehud (Judges 3:21-22) and Jael (Judges 4:21; 5:26-27)
  • Mass bloodshed by self-harm and executions – Elijah versus the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:28, 40; 19:1) 
  • Decapitations and severed heads – John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus (Matthew 14:10-1; Mark 6:27-29) 
  • Victims sawn in two – Persecuted believers (Hebrews 11:37), the ancient Israelites to their enemies the Ammonites, (2 Samuel 12:31; 1 Chronicles 20:3) and unbelievers in the Day of Judgement (Matthew 24:51) 
  • Victims impaled on a pole – Haman by king Xerxes (Esther 7:10)
  • Bodyguards burned alive – Nebuchadnezzar as he threw Daniel’s three friends in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:22)

Body Horror

Body horror has a focus in body transformation, as well as bodily decay and collapse. It makes us turn away in disgust and shock. Examples are scientist Seth Brundle turning into a repulsive human-insect hybrid in The Fly, complete with vomit and maggots. Or the shapeshifting alien in The Thing, with a chest-mouth that eats the arm of victims. But there is no need for either a sci-fi or a supernatural aspect. Body horror can be the result of natural causes but taken to a grotesque extreme. There are plenty examples of these in the Bible.

  • Bodies cut up into parts and posted – A Levite cuts the body of his dead, raped mistress into twelve pieces and sends one to each tribe of Istael (Judges 19:29)
  • Horrific, zombie-like descriptions of the effects of plague on the human body – Rotting flesh, eyes melting in their sockets and tongues dropping out (Zachariah 14:12), wasting diseases, fevers and inflammation that cause blindness and depression (Leviticus 26:16; Deuteronomy 28:21, 59), and illnesses that make your bowels and intestines fall out (2 Chronicles 21:15, 18-19)
  • Deliberate, prolonged and multi-levelled torture – The crucifixion of Jesus is nothing less than this
  • Horrific deaths in which the body was damaged – The grotesque deaths of Judas (Matthew 27:5; Acts 1:18) and Herod (Acts 12:23) are prime examples

Nature Horror

Many say they don’t like horror but they do like grizzly films about nature. But these are horror too! Nature horror – sometimes also called natural horror – is about nature running amok, behaving in a chaotic or dangerous way. The Birds. Grizzly. Jaws. Piranha. The Swarm. Killer Bees. Anaconda. Alligator. Killer Crocodile. Tentacles. Arachnophobia. Eight Legged Freaks. The Earthquake. Volcano. Avalanche. Asteroid. Tidal Wave. Meteor. Hurricane. Cyclone. It’s not difficult to tell the main theme for each movie from the name alone. Some of the best known Bible stories contain this sort of horror.

  • Killer animals – Sea monsters (Jonah 1:17), bears (2 Kings 2:24), lions (Daniel 6:24), worms (Acts 12:23 – Isaiah 14:11; 66:24), and especially locusts (Joel 1:4; 2:25 – Deuteronomy 28:28; Amos 4:9; 7:1; Revelation 9:7-8) are biblical favourites
  • Earthquakes – The earth swallows up Korah and the rebels (Numbers 16:31-33; 26:10 – Psalm 106:17; Isaiah 5:14), with earthquakes as a sign of the end times and judgement (Matthew 24:7 – Isaiah 24:18-20; Revelation 16:18) 
  • Floods – The Great Flood (Genesis 7:21-23) as well as lesser floods (Job 20:28)
  • Storms – Storms are prominent in the nautical story of Jonah (Jonah 1:4-5) and the life of Christ (Matthew 8:23-24; John 6:18)

Supernatural Horror

These are horror stories with a central paranormal or religious element, without which it wouldn’t work. I would make a distinction between ghost stories and this type of horror story, however, because not all ghost movies are supposed to scare. As you might expect, there are a large number of these in the Bible, possibly more than any other of these horror subgenres. But some are more subtle and ambiguous than you might expect.

  • Séances – The Witch of Endor story (I Samuel 28:7:25). Mad king Saul goes to a sorceress to summon up the ghost of dead prophet Samuel.
  • Nightmares – Horrific dreams as experienced by Abraham (Genesis 15:12), Job’s friend Eliphaz (Job 4:12-16) and Pilot’s wife (Matthew 27:19)
  • Ghostly fingers – The writing on the wall story, in which Babylonian kings Belshazzar sees supernatural hand and dies the next day (Daniel 5:5-6).
  • Ghostly forms – There was the mysterious figure in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:25) and Jesus was mistaken for a ghost on at least two occasions (Mark 6:49-50 and Luke 24:37-39)
  • Ghostly sounds – There’s the sound of an invisible army marching on the treetops (1 Chronicles 14:15) or in the enemy’s camp (2 Kings 7:5-7), frightening windblow leaves (Leviticus 26:36), and the still small voice heard by Elijah (1 Kings 19:12)
  • Ghostly places – There are references to haunted houses (especially temples) and even entire haunted cities (Isaiah 13:19-21 & Revelation 18:2) in the Bible
  • Possessions and exorcisms – Countering demonic activity was a significant part of the work of both Christ (Mark 5:1-20; 9:14:29) and the apostles (Acts 19:13-20)
  • The Angel of death – A mysterious, destructive figure who appears in the Old Testament (Exodus 12:23; 2 Samuel 24:6;1 Chronicles 21:15) and is mentioned in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 10:10)

Cosmic Horror

This and the next are modern horror subgenres whose presence in the Bible might come as a surprise. Cosmic horror is a special type of horror that places an emphasis on the unknowable and incomprehensible, causing dread on a cosmic scale. It’s an amalgamation of horror with science fiction that is especially associated with the stories of HP Lovecraft. And it’s easily my favourite of all these horror subgenres. If you don’t know Lovecraft, think of Alien, Predator, and Event Horizon (three absolutely fantastic films).

  • Unearthly creatures – The angels of the Bible, when they appear in their own astral plane, are not cute cherubs with halos, but unimaginable, overwhelming beings whose form and actions don’t reflect our earthly patterns or geometry at all (Isaiah 6:2; Ezekiel 1:4-14; Revelation 4:8)
  • Other dimensions – There are locations that seem especially close to heaven (Genesis 28:17) and hell (Jonah 2; Numbers 16) on earth
  • Signs in the sky – In fulfilment of an ancient prophecy, the sun became dark and the moon turned red when Jesus was on the cross (Luke 23:44-45 – Joel 2:30-31) and it will happen again before his prophesied return (Luke 21:7, 25-28 – Isaiah 5:30; 13:10), with falling stars and poisonous meteorites from space (Revelation 6:13; 8:10)
  • Forbidden knowledge – People were killed for peeking into the ark of the covenant (1 Samuel 6:19), and threatened with death if they sneaked a look at God when he descended on Mount Sinai (Exodus19:21)
  • Hybrid humans – Heavenly beings bred with beautiful women (Genesis 6:4) and produced monstrous giants (Numbers 13:33; Deuteronomy 9:2), sometimes with grotesque physical deformities (2 Samuel 21:20; 1 Chronicles 20:6)
  • Huge sea monsters – The most famous of these is Leviathan (Job 41), a creature so terrible it came to stand for Pharaoh as the chief enemy of Israel (Isaiah 27:1; 51:9) and ultimately for Satan himself and his allies (Revelation 12:3; 13:1)
  • Blasted heaths – Different places and areas areas in the Bible get a special geographical curse from God. For example, Hazor will be a desolation forever, without inhabitants, haunted by wild dogs (Jeremiah 49:33). And Edom will be desolate, fit only for nocturnal animals and carrion (Isaiah 34:10-11), a ruined wasteland, impossible to rebuild (Malachi 1:3-4).

Psychological Horror

Of all these horror subgenres, psychological horror stories may seem the most modern, with their focus on mental or psychological states, mystery and suspense. They are usually void of supernatural elements, at least in an overt or clear-cut sense. And they are very close to the thriller or crime genres. Silence of the Lambs with its cannibal connection is an excellent example. And while there are plenty of cannibal stories and references in the Bible, perhaps a more relevant horror is the state of insanity, to which a few biblical characters were driven, as in Psycho and Apocalyse Now.

  • Balaam – This Old Testament false prophet and sorcerer described himself as under the influence of outside forces when he tried to curse Israel (Numbers 24:3-4) having previously had a conversation with his own donkey (22:28-30). The New Testament uses a Greek word to describe this incident that means Balaam was mad or ‘beside himself’ at the time (2 Peter 2:16).
  • Saul – The first king of Israel is a case study in paranoia, depression, homicidal tendencies and madness. He was troubled by an distressing and depressing spirit (1 Samuel 16:14) that made him act insane (18:10; 19:24) and try to murder David in numerous occasions out of jealousy. He finally committed suicide.
  • Nebuchadnezzar – The great god-king of ancient Babylon became insane due to hubris. His insanity made him act, eat and look like an animal for a time, and his mental condition drove him away from mankind and civilization (Daniel 4:33; 5:21).
  • Jesus – It’s interesting that one of the accusations made again Jesus was that he was insane. Both his religious enemies (John 10:20) and his own family (Mark 3:21) made this claim. However, the tables get turned as his enemies descend into madness (Luke 6:11) while Jesus busies himself healing everyone who came to him with mental disorders of different kinds (Matthew 4:24; 17:15).

Folk Horror

Folk horror stories tell of interactions with other religions, folklore, cults, and strange superstitions. The Wicker Man. Children of the Corn. The Blair Witch Project. The Bible contains this horror subgenre both Old and New Testaments, when God’s people come in contact with pagans and sometimes succumbed to their malign influences.

  • The Temple of Dagon – God punishes the Philistines and their god Dagon when they capture the Ark of the Covenant and place it in their temples as war booty (1 Samuel 5-6). The Philistines go to bizarre lengths before handing it back.
  • The Valley of Hinnon – This valley lies on the southwest of Jerusalem and contains a place called Tophet where pagan worship to Molech was conducted, included child sacrifice (a ritual referred to “causing your sons and daughters to pass through fire”). The name of this valley in Greek is called Gehenna, which is often translated in English as hell. The prophets Jeremiah in particular condemned it, calling it the Valley of Slaughter (7:30-32; 32:34-35).
  • The Shipmates of Jonah – There’s no one more superstitious than sailors. Once God throws a storm at them, these sailors immediate pray to their personal gods for deliverance (Jonah 1:5) and encourage the Hebrew Jonah to do the same. They cast lots to find out whose fault the storm is (1:7) and it indicates Jonah. Then they throw Jonah into the sea, asking for forgiveness (1:14), and making sacrifices and vows afterwards (1:16).
  • The Spirit of Python – Paul was in Philippi when a girl possessed by a spirit started to pester him (Acts 16:16). This spirit is called in the original Greek a ‘python spirit’, and the serpent was worshipped at Delphi. Her masters used this slave girl to make money by telling fortunes. The girl’s owners aren’t too happy when Paul heals her.

There are two other horror subgenres that deserve a mention: gothic horror and monster horror. But because the first is a little specialised and the second is a huge topic, I’m going to give them a separate blog post each.

Can you think of any others that I’ve left out?

Photo by Pelly Benassi on Unsplash

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