By Mark Rodgers
“I divide evil two ways: there’s inside evil and there’s outside evil. Those kids, they’re the only ones who are still able to believe in monsters. You have to have faith and you have to believe that good is going to triumph over evil.” — Stephen King, commenting on his recent film It.
In the social commentary of the horror/thriller film Get Out, the evil of racism is not outside, but deeply inside. Rather than reinforce the obvious, the evil in Jordan Peele’s Get Out resides in a progressive body instead of a white supremacist’s, whose enthusiastic comments about the achievements of Olympian Jesse Owens and voting for Obama send early signals of what is to come.
It is certainly true that evil, such as racial prejudice, resides in all of us to differing degrees. Some of us call this original sin. But it is dangerous for us in our enlightened skepticism to dismiss entirely the possibility of an outside evil at play as well.
In Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, broad Biblical themes are drawn on to point to outside forces. As has been the case with his previous work, Aronofsky mixes religious metaphors with horror and, like Peele’s Get Out, social commentary:
“Lightning struck for me as a writer when I realized my initial intentions of creating this allegory in a very Luis Bunuel type of way, taking a piece of a world and confining it to a space and making it a conversation about society, lined up with a personal human story, and I figured out how to structure it with a biblical core, and was able to write so quickly.”
His theology is complex and, as was the case in Noah, so is his view of God the Father. In this instance, the evil Aronofsky is exposing is our thoughtless violation of God’s creation, but there is no question that the universe he paints has a spiritual dimension that is external to us.
Assuming and asserting the reality of the spiritual is one of the unique contributions of “supernatural thrillers”, a term T. S. Eliot coined when describing the writings of Charles Williams. In the same way that Tolkien infused the fantasy genre with his worldview, Williams, who was a fellow Inkling to Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, wrote with a conviction that the spiritual forces he was describing are real. With such titles as Descent to Hell and All Hallows Eve, Lewis noted that Williams was “writing that sort of book in which we begin by saying, let us suppose that this everyday world were at some one point invaded by the marvelous.”
Lewis himself explored similar terrain through The Screwtape Letters, in which a lead demon writes to his junior that when “humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and skeptics … I have great hopes to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, belief in us will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy.”
Scott Derrickson, the well regarded director of such films as Hellraiser, Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and Dr. Strange, is the go-to person to explore the nexus between theology, story and the supernatural.
“For me, [horror] is the perfect genre for a person of faith to work in. You can think about good and evil pretty openly. I always talk about it being the genre of non-denial. I like the fact that it’s a genre about confronting evil, confronting what’s frightening in the world. I like the mystery of the genre. It’s a genre that takes the mystery in the world very seriously. There are a lot of voices that are broadcasting that the world is explainable. Corporate America limits the world to consumerism. Science can limit it to the material world. Even religion limits it to a lot of theories that can explain everything. I think we need cinema to break that apart and remind us that we’re not in control, and we don’t understand as much as we think do.”
Derrickson is in good company. Look around you: four out of five Americans believe in God, three in four believe in angels and heaven, and two out of three believe in the devil and hell. In fact, about one in five believe that they have seen a ghost.
Some of us come to this realization kicking and screaming. Freud believed that belief was a pathology to be cured, but if there is a spiritual dimension to reality, what is the consequence of being blind to it? In a Rolling Stone interview, King said he chooses to believe in God “because it makes things better. You have a meditation point, a source of strength … I choose to believe that God exists, and therefore I can say, ‘God, I can’t do this by myself. Help me not to take a drink today. Help me not to take a drug today.’ And that works fine for me.”
Again referring to his film It, King added: “I’ve written books that deal directly with the idea that faith makes it possible to battle the monsters” — possibly alluding to monsters both inside and outside of us.
“Supernatural thrillers” remind us that there is more than the material, that evil is not just internal, that there is a battle unseen, and that we are not immune from it. Recognizing this reality, from my perspective, helps us cope with our realities.
As author G. K. Chesterton concluded: “Take away the supernatural, and what remains is the unnatural.”
In light of tragic world affairs that unfold around us on a daily basis, it is good to be reminded that although spiritual warfare is real, evil will not triumph. On the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses, let Luther’s words give comfort:
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us;
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
— from the hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God