Many Christians object to the horror genre on religious grounds. Horror is incompatible with faith, hope, and love, they say. Why focus on hell, the devilish, and the unredeemed when the Bible tells us to think about the good, true, pure, and noble (Phil. 4:8)? In his essay An Apologetic of Horror , novelist and screenwriter Brian Godawa quotes from former Vision Forum president Doug Phillips,
“Horror is an example of a genre which was conceived in rebellion. It is based on a fascination with ungodly fear. It should not be imitated, propagated, or encouraged. It cannot be redeemed because it is presuppositionally at war with God.”
The view that the horror genre and religious sentiments are incompatible is an all too common one among evangelicals. What makes this perspective so fascinating is the historical roots of the horror genre. Horror, the macabre, and the grotesque were once quite compatible with Christian art. Take, for example, Hieronymus Bosch.
Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450 – 1516) was internationally celebrated as a painter of surrealistic religious visions that often dealt with sin and the torments of hell. Bosch was a member of the Catholic order Brotherhood of Our Lady for whom he painted several altarpieces. The most famous of Bosch’s works is The Garden of Earthly Delights, a triptych (three-paneled painting) that is considered by some one of the most terrifying paintings ever made. Listverse describes the painting this way,
The Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych showing, on the three panels respectively, the Garden of Eden and the creation of mankind, the Garden of Earthly Delight, and in the last panel the punishments for the sins which occur in that earthly garden. It is that final panel, and the imaginative torments in it, which have become associated with Bosch. A glance at the panel is enough to give a feeling of the horrors divine punishment hold…
All in all, Bosch’s work is some of the most horrific, yet beautiful work in the history of western art.
Part of the “imaginative torments” Bosch depicted in that painting were images of men having arrows rammed into their anuses, fish-headed monsters devouring people and defecating their remains into a pit filled with vomit, and demons inflicting a variety of exotic tortures.
At first glance, it is understandable to see Bosch’s horrific depictions as “presuppositionally at war with God.” Yet it was Bosch’s belief in “God’s power to deliver all people” which informed his horrific visions. In The Grotesque in Art and Literature James Luther Adams writes,
Bosch could depict the full range of the grotesque precisely because he believed implicitly in God’s power to overcome any evil, any horror, any monstrous condition; and likewise, he believed in God’s power to deliver all people into an ideal utopia. In this framework, the more imaginatively Bosch was able to represent the grotesque and the demonic, the greater enhanced was the glory of God. That’s the thinking behind the inclusion of such works by Bosch for use as altar pieces; and very likely herein lies the reason contemporary expression is ‘flat’ without ‘faith,’ artists are afraid to challenge the chaotic abyss. — pp. 47-48
Interestingly, Adams concludes that it was Bosch’s implicit belief in God’s power that freed him to “depict the full range of the grotesque.” For “without ‘faith’” contemporary expressions of the grotesque are “flat.” In this sense, the artist’s depictions were not simply a gratuitous display of morbidity “based on a fascination with ungodly fear.” Rather, the monstrous conditions he portrayed were simply that — monstrous, deformations, anomalous, and completely outside the “Garden” of God’s intended “Delights.” Knowing God’s power to deliver from these horrors, Bosch was free to color them as the hellish abominations they were.
Christian history is awash with artists and novelists who employed the horrific and grotesque in their works. Sadly, however, contemporary evangelicals have lost this rich tradition. Many religious artists do not appear free to “depict the full range of the grotesque.” Instead, horror fiction, films, and art are condemned by well-meaning Christians as “conceived in rebellion” and ultimately unredeemable. Leaving us with kitschy, feel-good, “painters of light” and works fearful of pulling back the veil on the truly horrific. Perhaps if we believed, like Hieronymus Bosch, “in God’s power to overcome any evil, any horror, any monstrous condition,” we too would be free to “depict the full range of the grotesque.” But until then, all our works are destined to fall “flat.”
* * *