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Do Horror Films Serve a Spiritual Purpose?

by S. RufusMay 30, 2019
Columnists
Devil in 1219, modern horror movie in 2019

Illustration courtesy S. Rufus

Is the appeal of horror films deeper and more ancient than simply wanting to get scared?

A young man locks himself into the upstairs bedroom of a house where a party is raging on. He feels too drunk to leave. We watch him pass out, wake in sunlight, then—through the locked door—hear screams. Aghast, he opens it a crack to see zombies thronging a blood-slick staircase. Out the window, we see zombies shambling down Parisian boulevards. Our hero will spend the rest of this film trying to flee them. Having been tricked into viewing this by someone who simply said it was French, I wonder: Why?

Not just, Why are we watching this? But more significantly: Why would anyone?

I mean, horror films conjure horror. They imprint, maybe forever, images of carnage onto minds that might otherwise think of oceans, say. Or cake. Not evil, boat-dissolving acid-oceans or cyanide cake but chocolate sponge and the waters off Waikiki. 

I have always been anxious. Why would I watch anything designed to make it worse? And why would anyone want to induce the waking nightmares that we, the anxious ones, so hate?

Yet millions want exactly that. Fear is big business. Horror films comprise a billion-dollar industry—as do video games, which are virtual interactive horror films where players blast and bayonet their way through haunted forests, demon-peopled donut shops, and post-apocalyptic hells. 

The hugeness of horror-film fandom suggests that it fills some deeper-than-mere-entertainment, maybe spiritual, need.

But why? Are that many consumers so serene that serenity seems to them a sickness which only synthetic incursions of fear can cure? Are horror films their hurry-up-and-scare-me versions of the meditation, therapy, and other measures on which anxious types rely?

Surely not, given that most horror fans are age 15 through 25, a demographic whose suicide rate is high and rising.

Do some fans feel that these films depict the true states of their troubled minds? That these bloody immersions into soul-removal labs and alien invasions tweak—like cinematic versions of autocorrect—the smiling faces and blue skies of "real life" to reflect the clanging darkness of depression and the demonic persistence of intrusive thoughts?

Do these tormented souls feel more at home in Silent Hill or 10 Cloverfield Lane than they feel—well, at home?

The hugeness of horror-film fandom suggests that it fills some deeper-than-mere-entertainment, maybe spiritual, need.

Ancient religions—practiced during less anodyne times when daily chores put everyone at risk of being speared by strangers, drowned in creeks, lost in caves, or eaten by bears—included daring rites and scary tales spotlighting the stark contrasts yet ultra-thin veils dividing life from death. From fire-walking to oracular prophecies, these rites and tales warned the religious to be ever-cautious, ever-conscious, ever-reverent toward whatever entities might spare them, ever-generous in tithes and sacrifices, ever-grateful for another day.

Are horror films our modern version of those shocking wake-up-and-pray-for-protection tales? Is viewing them— together, at watch parties, or in theaters—our modern version of those sacred dances, processions, and other cortisol-releasing rites?

Like ceremonial skin-cuts and insect stings, do horror films initiate the young into awareness of the pain and loss that face us all? Are Halloween and Re-Animator rites of passage?

Like marathons and fasts, are horror films reminders of how frail human bodies can be—and what might happen if even one tiny fragment of our cherished reality goes awry?

Like fierce preaching, do horror films make us wonder what, chased by vampires, we would do? Bravely attempt to rescue everyone, or just our friends? Or simply run?

Like the Book of Job and the Hindu story of Manu, who survived the Great Deluge, are horror films legends celebrating our vicarious survival over devastating odds via the survivals of relatable, ordinary-boy-and-girl protagonists?

And is this—for those who love them—their true sacredness? Hot adrenaline-driven, glowing gratitude as one realizes: Flaming barbs are not cascading from the sky! My house contains no evil clowns and at this moment I am not being dismembered by a maniac!

The world is glorious and I have nothing to lament!


S. Rufus is the author — under the byline Anneli Rufus — of several books including Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself (Tarcher Penguin 2014) and continues on the path of addressing self-esteem.


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