Writing Horror, Having Faith

I never thought I would write horror stories. This is something I’ve agonized over at times. One of the first pieces of long fiction that I managed to write to completion, was a story titled simply “Blue.” It was about a girl, a young woman, who is going to visit her grandfather on a hilltop. He lives just outside a small hilltop town, a village really. Everything there is beautiful to the point of being magical, pristine, nothing ever even gets dirty, the cars stay clean and nothing ever breaks. But, the people in the town seem to have a particular reverence for the old man, and no one ever goes the rest of the way up there to see him, except for Aggie. Well, turns out the grandfather is up there guarding an entrance to Hell. The grandfather is stoically, wisely, calmly, sagely, up there making sure nothing goes in or out of that passage, that it is undisturbed. He passes away, and Aggie ends up with the job, forgoing true love and all else, because she realizes, there’s no one else who can do it, and that’s what her grandfather was preparing her for. But the way I wrote the story, everything in it was beautiful, peaceful, wonderful. Where that story evolved from was from an “R” rated horror movie, “The Sentinel” (1977, based on the 1974 novel of the same name by Jeffery Konvitz), wherein a supermodel rents an apartment in Brownstone full of weird neighbors, and a priest, who resides on the top floor and is protecting something, “The Sentinel” is, in my opinion, a seriously disturbing film, somewhat grotesque, or perverse, depending on your perspective, so the story came from there, and from my having recently read, at the time, the book, “Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah” by Richard Bach, which is a wonderful (not horror) philosophical, spiritual, story of a journey of enlightenment, though not without an element of violence itself.ย  I thought, “I’m going to take this horror story ( The Sentinel) and make it nice, applying this new philosophy and perspective I’ve acquired, because doggone it, the world doesn’t have to be an ugly place. We can make it nice!” I still tend to think along those lines in some regard, in some areas. A decade ago I burned a large portion of my work and some of that was because much of the material was dark. Sometimes I scare the hell out of me. But when I wrote that story “Blue”, or re-wrote those ideas into a “nicer” package, I was eighteen and just at the beginning of working out my personage, as well as just beginning to consider the idea of writing longer fiction. Thereafter I would begin work on several novels, each of which seemed to resemble “The Stand” (Stephen King), in some way after however many pages. These stories, “The Sentinel”, “The Stand”, are horror stories, with elements of religion, of spirituality, good versus evil, but reading or watching horror, isn’t the same as writing it. I didn’t want to write horror because I didn’t want to contribute to any of the unpleasantness or ugliness or meanness in the world, because isn’t there enough of that? Well, that’s one perspective.

Since then I’ve grown up. I’ve seen some life. I’ve been through a thing or two. Yet I’ve continued to wrestle with this question, this issue, of writing darker fiction, of writing horror. For one thing, whenever I’d write something that was dark, be it a poem, a story, what have you, I’d often think to myself, “Where did that come from?” I’ve realized that writing is, in some regard, catharsis for me. Sometimes, I’m writing to rid myself of the poison. At some point I thought to myself, how do I reconcile writing some of this stuff with my faith, with being a Christian? I wasn’t sure what I thought of me about it. Now, I’m not going to get preachy here, my opinion, perspective, belief, is that faith is the most personal thing there is, it isn’t my job to tell you what kind of Christian to be (or to be one at all), nor is it your job to tell me what kind of Christian to be, such things are between the individual and God. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve enough on my plate worrying about my own-self and my own life, trying to keep my own house in order. I also happen to believe in religious freedom, if you want to worship statues of unicorns, that is your concern. (Your belief in unicorns as a reality doesn’t make me feel the least bit insecure in my faith.) I want you to have the freedom to do that, because that means I have the freedom to be a Christian. (If you don’t like the way I do things, feel free to mind your own business.) If I feel like I need some preaching, I know where to find it. Having established that, I’d write something dark, a horror story, and be uncertain how I felt about it myself, I’d fall into self-judgment about it. As a writer, with regard to my writing, the only thing I should be judging, to begin with, is whether or not I think something I’ve written is a good story, a good piece of writing. After that should be the consideration as to whether or not I want to publish whatever it is or not for whatever reasons, etc.ย  As a person, as a human, who believes in God, in Jesus, having written or horror story doesn’t change who I am as a person. So, I think there were issues of self-acceptance involved in that but also issues with regard to having been brought up in society that valued the stoicism of manners and putting a “good face” on everything, a society that wants you to smile, so it can feel better about itself. I’m not knocking that stoicism or good manners, I’m saying that in my case it caused something of a sense of repression about writing darker fiction and poetry. I am a writer, this is what I do, story telling is what I do.

The Bible is filled with horrific stories, stories of sin and sinners and redemption, parables, allegories, morality tales. Supernatural horror stories are rooted in Biblical context, ghosts/demons, witches, possession, prophecy, angels, and that this world is a fallen world. The Crucifixion of Jesus, is horrific. Jesus casts demons out of a man and into a herd of pigs. Jesus casts seven demons out of Mary Magdalene, and saves her from being stoned. The plagues in Exodus are horrific, God turns the Nile River, and all the water, to blood,ย to blood, when Pharaoh will not listen to Moses. If you’ve ever read The Revelation, there are horrors a plenty to be found in that book of the Bible. For a believer, that isn’t a world that is different from this one. People have a tendency to say “Bible Times” as if those things happened in some other world, or as if those times “ended.” As much of mainstream “popular” culture seems to have moved away from ideas of Christianity, (it really hasn’t, thirty three percent of the world population is Christian) the understanding of what these supernatural ideas are rooted in, is being “forgotten”, but that doesn’t make the truth of those origins less so.

Religious themes have been employed in many a horror story, books, films, movies, in popular music, throughout history, this we know. Society, culture, has gone through many stages with such. Horror in the 1970’s and through the 1980’s was largely built around and dependent on supernatural themes, or religious themes, even where it isn’t explicit, it is implied. In the film “Halloween” (1978) Michael Myers is referred to as “The evil” by Dr. Loomis, he, Myers, also gets up and runs off and keeps going after having been shot six times, implying that he is endowed with or possessed by, driven by, something supernatural, more powerful, than himself, than other normal human beings. Culturally, it was once understood that if you were talking about “evil” the emanation of that was ultimately from the devil. There was a reverence for things that are sacred, that are Holy, that are spiritual, not just as a matter of Christianity. There was a healthy respect for that which is not known to us, the unknown. We get, have gotten, the foundations of the supernatural horror genre, societally and culturally by osmosis even those who’ve never read any scripture, from the understanding of good and evil as given to us from scripture.

I had considered not writing this piece about having faith, and writing horror, because of much of what we see going on in the world. I then realized, everything that’s going on in the world, all the turmoil, is precisely the point, why it isn’t the time to shy away from living because the fact is, the world has always been this way. I’ve realized that story I wrote so long ago, about Aggie taking over guarding the gates of Hell, didn’t quite completely do all it needed to, and that was impart on the reader the real horror of why someone needs to be guarding that passage between worlds, guarding the entrance to Hell. There aren’t any perfect people. The world is filled with inequity, sin, horrors. We can’t fix problems we ignore. I’ve accepted that the bigger picture is far larger than anything any of us could ever conceive of or comprehend, in the infinitely humble space and time that we ultimately fill. What I think about in terms of that larger world picture when things seem not to make sense, is God’s tapestry. We see the underside, the tangled threads, the ugly mess, God sees the tapestry from above, and it is beautiful. We’re not equipped to fully comprehend that larger picture. That’s ego talking if we think we are. I was thinking about the Stephen King novel, “The Shining”, in which King draws on his own struggle with alcoholism in the creation of the character Jack Torrance. Now, I know that personal experience is often only the jumping off point when writing fiction, the premise is a one known to the author, and from there the fiction evolves, but “The Shining” is steeped in the morality struggles of a man battling addiction, and his own lesser self, and what that does not only to himself, but to those around him. Stories of this kind have the potential to help us understand our own struggles. One of the stories I wrote that I was afraid to write and then afraid to publish, is a story titled “Perfectly Balanced”, about a woman who has essentially become a serial killer because her boyfriend won’t stop cheating on her, but at the crux of it, she’s a hypocrite oblivious to the fact that she’s doing anything “really” wrong. She thinks she’s got the moral high-ground because these women should have known better than to sleep with her man, all the while she’s absolving him completely. I thought, is this coming from some super jealous, repressed, place in me? I realized, no, it was coming from how much I appreciate righteousness, and loathe blatant hypocrites and their inability to see themselves as such and so I created an exaggerated, if not somewhat exacting, portrait of a hypocrite so I could express my feeling about that, as well as my feeling that most of us are hypocrites about something, myself included, whether we realize it or not. I questioned myself for writing it because of the violence in the story, but it is precisely that violence that demonstrates the level of her denial about the killing. Sometimes we understand things as they are contrasted. But, my concern over it wasn’t worry over what anyone else would think, I was worried about what I thought of me. Was this a right or good thing to do or to write, morally, the act of writing it ? I don’t know that I have the answer to that, or that I ever will, other than that I try to be a decent human, but I know I am a writer. I’ve realized that for me, these aren’t things that I take lightly, and that that is just who I am. I tend to be that way about everything in life to some degree and I’ve heard that all my life, that I over-think things or am sometimes too serious. I feel a sense of reverence about life, it is precious, about things that are sacred, a sincere respect. I like me and that I look a little deeper into things. It took a while before I understood that I was writing darker fiction and poetry as an expression (not necessarily factual or literal, but fictional, poetical, metaphorical, etc.) of some of what I’ve seen, and experienced, in the world, that it is often catharsis, that many of the stories are valid as morality tales of some sort or another, and that ridding myself of “the poison” so often puts me back in touch with my joy. I also know, as a believer, that whatever I write or don’t write, God knows what is in my heart anyway, and there’s no escaping that. I no longer judge myself for writing horror, or anything else I write.

In writing this, I found a couple of articles that were helpful. I’ll share the links. I’m sure there are many more articles, and even many more opinions, on this subject, and that’s great. This was about my journey and my experience with the matter. Your mileage may vary.

TS

 

Six Tips for Christian Artists to Redeem Horror

What Does the Bible Say About Writing Fiction