During a Bible course in my sophomore year of college, my fellow classmates and I were encouraged by our professor to watch mother! by Darren Aronofsky — a horror movie. Because this was a Christian university, a good handful of students, including myself, were a bit shocked at this. Sure, the movie had biblical themes (albeit controversial ones) and felt culturally important at the time, but still, it felt weird. After the period ended, I walked back to my dorm wondering why it felt so strange to be recommended a horror movie in a Bible class.
Sometime that week, I watched it. Now, I’m not someone who is easily spooked by things on a screen — especially if that thing is even a little bit unrealistic. But this movie? This movie struck a different chord.
mother! (yes, I too hate this all-lowercase situation) is an allegorical tale of the rise of Christianity from the perspective of a personified mother earth, mother. Mother is the wife of Him, a renowned and beloved poet and the character we’re meant to interpret as God. As the film unfolds, people flock in droves to their home for a chance to meet Him, and Him welcomes it with open arms. He loves the attention he gets from his fans.
These crowds grow increasingly more violent and obsessive and unhinged until, in the final thirty minutes of pure chaos, a truly horrific event takes place that I will not denote in this article. Let’s just say, it haunted me for a while and still makes me queasy thinking about it.
mother! is a glance at Christianity through somebody else’s lens. It’s a worldview that says “God’s first love was the earth, but then Christians came along and He got distracted because He loved the attention of people too much.” It paints God as a narcissist. Is it a lens I’d like to use again? Absolutely not. Am I grateful for the opportunity to use that lens and learn from it? Oddly enough, yes.
This is me telling you that horror movies should matter to us as Christians. mother! has a foundation of sacrilegious themes and is on theological thin ice, but it’s because of those very things that we as Christians need to approach it and dissect it, not run from it.
Not every horror movie is mother!. Not every horror movie paves the way for a Christian to wrestle spiritually with it. But I would argue that nearly every horror movie has a spiritual consequence to it, whether the creators and viewers are aware of it or not.
So, why should Christians be paying attention to horror movies?
Horror movies admit the broken state of the world.
I bet I don’t have to tell you how messed up this place is. Go hop on Twitter for a second, turn to a news channel, or just talk with a friend who’s having a rough time. It’s not hard to find cracks in the globe; sometimes it feels so broken that I’m surprised we’re not literally shattered chunks floating aimlessly in space.
Although there is a general brokenness about the world, horror in the media often hones in on one specific fracture that keeps us from being whole. One of my all time favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone highlights the issue of conformity and beauty, asking the question “What if surgically deforming yourself was the new pretty?” A more recent example of topical horror is Get Out — a film that, uh, imaginatively reminds us of our proximity as a country to racial slavery, and the ripple effects that it has created.
Reading the Bible often gives me the same feeling I get while watching these movies and shows. Y’all, people are so messed up. Time and time again, we see the wrong choices made in the Bible, and we experience it ourselves daily. Time and time again, God gives us more chances to do the right thing; to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly while on this earth. Horror movies can bring to light commonplace injustice, cruelty, and hubris, packaged in a story so it has a memorable, parabolic effect on the viewer.
Fear is unifying.
One could say that all genres are good for is determining how you’d like to feel while watching a particular movie. Want to laugh? Comedy. Need to cry? Drama. Feel like having a song stuck in your head for months? Musical. However, I’d argue that horror has a certain edge to it that separates it from the others. The desire to feel fear is confusing because it’s a negative emotion… right?
Watching a horror movie can be a cathartic experience for some, there’s a sense of control that comes with being able to turn off the TV or leave the theater. When fear is fictional, we can harness it. It’s a way of saying “I’m in charge of you.” As Christians, it is vital to understand that humans are afraid of fear, so deeply afraid that we will do anything to feel like we can control this feeling.
Fear is also a collective sensation. It makes us get close to each other and seek asylum. I remember watching Monsters Inc. while babysitting some neighbor kids and telling them, “You can hold my hand if it gets scary, okay?” They took me up on that offer, because reaching out to one another when things get scary is an instinct. (Warning: my hand hurt a lot that night. Make sure to test the grip of the child in question before trying this at home.)
There are very few moments where I am keenly aware of being in community. One that comes to mind is when I saw It. The theater was jam-packed full of college students from the next town over — I had never met the person sitting on my right but you bet I had a full conversation with her when we both turned toward each other to recover from the jumpscare we just experienced. The audience participation while watching horror movies is unlike any other movie watching experience.
God cares about human fear.
The Bible is no stranger to the concept of fear. In fact, in the Christian Standard Bible translation the word “fear” appears 336 times, and the word “afraid” is in there 193 times. And this isn’t even covering fear-adjacent emotions like anxiety, stress, and worry.
God cares enough about what humans are afraid of to mention it in his book at least in 529 separate occasions. Some of these references are talking about a holy fear (which we might today call respect or reverence), but a lot of them are talking about instances in which God’s people were rightfully afraid. Whether they were going against an army or going against God, there was so much fear in their hearts that it was worth mentioning a whopping 529 times.
No, I’m not telling you to go watch Saw. I’m not suggesting you watch anything you feel would harm your heart. I’m sure plenty of us grew up with our mother’s voice chiming “Be careful little eyes what you see…” and I think that advice is as sound as Puget. We are told in scripture to guard our hearts, and I believe that extends to being careful about how we consume media of any kind.
What I’m telling you is this: we need to pay attention. Christians tend toward occasionally tsk-tsking the horror genre and then just completely ignoring it the rest of the time. Pardon my harsh words, but that is a petri dish for an especially dangerous breed of ignorance. I understand that horror is not an easily palatable genre for a lot of people, but at the very least we have a duty to know what the source of human fear is. Horror movies are, in my opinion, an excellent avenue toward figuring that out.
Also, as Christians, let’s not forget that we have the flashlights. We know that ultimately, our only fear should be a holy one aimed at God. If we are unable (or unwilling) to look scary things in the eye and dissect them piece by piece, who will be?
Like I said before, not every horror movie that gets released will be quite the spiritual launching pad that mother! is, but it’s up to us to observe the culture, spot the truth, call out the lies, and bring the light.
Emi graduated from Dordt University in 2020 with a bachelor’s in Digital Media Production. This degree helped her develop not only a deeper appreciation for filmmaking, but a broader love for the cultural exegesis of art as a whole. When she’s not overanalyzing movies, you can find her thrifting, adding to her plant collection, and doodling on her iPad. Emi serves as the media coordinator for a church in the Kansas City, MO metro area.