The esteemed philosopher (and atheist) Stephen Law just posted an article titled “Why I Can’t Enjoy Demonic Horror Films” and he tagged me on Twitter. I offered some comments in reply on Twitter, but I’m going to offer a more fulsome (and rather different) response here.
The article begins with Law recalling his pleasure at being frightened while watching The Omen: “It scared the crap out of me very enjoyably.” But alas, this pleasurable outlet has now been lost to him: “Can’t really it enjoy it now.”
The problem? As Law sees it, demonic horror films assume the Christian universe: “if hell, the anti-Christ, various demons, etc. exist, then so does God and heaven.” And the Christian universe assumes two points which usurp the pleasure of any demonic horror film (the descriptive terms for these two points are mine):
(1) Meticulous divine providential oversight: God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing every evil event or state of affairs that occurs, including adequate compensation for those who suffer unjustly. Consequently, when anything bad happens to a person in the demonic film, they either deserve it or will be adequately compensated for it.
(2) Good-to-evil Power Imbalance: There is never a doubt that God will win in the end: “The God vs Satan imbalance in power is like Mike Tyson vs the weediest wimp ever, multiplied by infinity.”
So the idea, apparently, is that these two points remove any basis for fear in demonic horror films. Is there anything we can say in reply? Something that might help restore Law’s pleasure in a good scare?
Yes, there is!
Scary Non-Supernatural Films
If Law is looking for an enjoyable scare, he could try some scary non-supernatural films such as A Quiet Place (scary aliens with super-duper hearing) or Halloween (the original or the sequel).
Scary Non-Christian-Themed Supernatural Films
Next, even if Law finds Christian-themed supernatural horror films to be not scary, there are many, many other scary supernatural films that do not appeal to a Christian theology. While there are countless examples one might suggest, let me note but a few: The Babadook, The Shining, The Sixth Sense, It, It Follows. To be sure, most of these films are inconsistent with naturalism (at least as commonly conceived) but they are consistent with many non-Christian worldviews.
Christian Themes and Worldview Underdetermination
Next, even when films appeal to Christian themes and iconography (e.g. The Exorcist, Requiem, The Conjuring, Rec), in many cases it is far from clear that they are endorsing the specific theology described in (1) and (2).
On this point, note that some Christian theologians deny (1) (See, for example, Greg Boyd’s warfare theodicy.) Other Christian theologians reject conventional definitions of divine omnipotence (for example, Christian process theologians.)
To sum up, many of these films are perfectly consistent with (1) and (2) being false even if these films illustrate demons possessing people and responding negatively to Christian religious implements like holy water and crucifixes.
Christian-Themed Supernatural Films and Jump Scares!
Even if the film is Christian-themed and endorses (1) and (2) and even if Law is correct that (1) and (2) should usurp our general fear in a narrative, that doesn’t change the fact that we are still subject to jump scares. The jump scare is a well-worn technique in horror films which induces fear by a quick shift in sound and/or image to induce a visceral fear response. In short, jump scares exploit a physiological acute stress response which functions independently of one’s worldview.
Reevaluating (1) and (2)
Finally, I deny Law’s assumption that (1) and (2) should provide a basis not to experience fear or trepidation.
Consider this analogy. You are diagnosed with cancer and as a result, your treatment of chemotherapy will yield great suffering for six weeks. At the same time, you are assured by the doctor that (i) you will only suffer to the degree that it is necessary to heal you from cancer and (ii) the doctor is confident that he can completely eradicate the cancer and bring about your full recovery. No doubt, (i) and (ii) would significantly ameliorate your fear and trepidation. Nonetheless, you would surely still be deeply apprehensive of the suffering that would accompany the treatment.
By the same token, even if a person accepts (1) and (2), they may still reasonably experience fear and trepidation as they encounter the difficulties of life’s circumstances. (Christians who accept (1) and (2) — as most likely do — can tell you this first-hand!)
Similarly, the person watching a horror film set within a worldview that assumes (1) and (2) may experience fear and trepidation. And for fans of horror films, that means that they can still experience the kind of good scare that Law fondly associates with his viewing of The Omen.
A Test Case
At the end of November, a new film titled The Possession of Hannah Grace is going to be released. The film is generating significant buzz, it has a supernatural theme and it appears to be set in a Christian universe. But even if it assumes (1) and (2) — and I suspect that is underdetermined within the narrative — I am guessing the average viewer will find more than enough to scare them in keeping with the points I made above.
In conclusion, on Twitter, I asked Law whether he would be interested in a private screening (just him alone) of The Possession of Hannah Grace in the middle of the night in an abandoned mental hospital.
Law didn’t reply to that question. But I’ll tell you right now that I ain’t interested in a private screening of this film alone in an abandoned mental hospital, and I accept both (1) and (2). And the reason I’m not interested is simple: the very idea gives me the heebie-jeebies.