What if horror can convey religious knowledge and understanding? What if horror can make us more spiritually attuned?
Love it …. or loathe it. That seems to describe the complicated relationship to horror that exists in so many cultures today.
On the one hand, huge numbers of fans are drawn to horror in all its forms — books, movies, TV, art, gaming, Goth and more. On the other hand, horror has long been regarded as “low art” or “low culture” – mere entertainment at best, worthless or deviant at worst.
Even so, the horror genre has attracted writers for centuries, resulting in classics such as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s “Frankenstein” in 1818 and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” in 1897.
Still, even today’s master of horror, Stephen King, has only recently begun to be taken seriously by scholars and critics. His work was infamously described as “preposterous claptrap” in a 1977 review of his horror novel “The Shining.” Nevertheless, the book went on to become King’s first hardcover best seller and has since been adapted into a film, a TV miniseries and an opera.
What’s to account for the tremendous draw and popularity of horror? Is it just a superficial thrill? Or could there be a deeper curiosity at work that has interesting and evolving connections to our inner spiritual lives? Could it be that experiences that provoke terror and revolt also carry complex forms of religious exploration and knowledge? And might horror be where we explore basic spiritual concepts outside the doctrines or imaginations of religious institutions?
Such questions fascinate Jonathan Greenaway, Ph.D., a researcher in theology and horror at the University of Chester and author of “Theology, Horror, and Fiction,” published in 2021.
“Ghosts, haunting, ruined abbeys, nuns and priests, exorcisms and demons run rife through horror. There is a repeated emphasis on religious themes, tropes, motifs and ideas,” he says. “Horror isn’t just about the threat of physical suffering. It’s about the threat to the soul.”
Along with a handful of contemporary philosophers and psychologists, Greenaway subscribes to the idea that horror may help us confront our deepest anxieties. It’s part of the cognitive testbed we use to come to terms with the major conflicts we experience or imagine within our lives: us versus others, us versus nature, us versus ourselves and, more recently, us versus technologies.
Greenaway also takes this idea further, contending that, maybe horror is an art form that helps us intellectually reconcile troublesome aspects of religious faith: doubt, evil, seemingly uncontrollable urges, and our primal fear of death and the unimaginable beyond.
The academic world terms this kind of knowledge aesthetic cognitivism – gaining a deeper understanding through the experience of art. Most prior studies of aesthetic cognitivism have focused on how it relates to the so-called “high arts.” However, horror has yet to be put under this lens of scrutiny and studied in ways it might deserve.
Greenaway is now putting his academic insights to the test of here-and-now qualitative research. With funding from Templeton Religion Trust, he’s conducting the first empirical investigation into what the religious elements of horror mean to those who know it best: the admiring throng of its fan base.
The first stage of the project was a survey, open to anyone who engages with horror in any form. It consisted of open-ended questions posted on several online forums and discussion websites to gather information from a diverse array of horror’s fans. The survey was designed to elicit how respondents view horror, including if they think it has some degree of religious or spiritual content and, if so, how this is expressed to them and understood. The survey questions also explored respondents’ religious practices and beliefs, and whether they perceived or experienced any interaction between the realms of horror and religion in their lives.
The survey now closed, Greenaway is conducting focus groups and in-depth interviews to delve deeper. Focus group participants have been recruited from fan conventions, church groups, universities and other relevant organizations. To ensure cultural focus, all are in the United Kingdom and range in age from 18 to 45. Some focus groups consist of horror fans who identify as part of the Christian religion. Others comprise participants outside any religious tradition.
The final stage of the research involves in-depth interviews with people who report that their religious ideas were affected by some form of horror media.
As he explores the potentially reciprocal provocations of horror and religion, Greenaway hopes his project will result in a more empirical grounding for future research and help build a closer relationship between academic interests and pop-culture fascination.
By asking consumers of the genre directly about how horror might link to their own experiences of religious understanding, new insights may emerge that shine light on the darkest shadows of where it resides.
“The aim is to understand whether horror media contain a degree of religious or theological knowledge — and how that knowledge circulates through society and is understood by the fans themselves,” Greenaway explains. “This goes to the core of my research interests – that despite the secularity of capitalist modernity, we can find the theological and religious in the most surprising places.”