Monday, October 31, 2011

A Theological Viewing of Three Horror Films

October is my favorite month for an abundance of reasons, not least of which is because of Halloween and all of its glorious trappings (…haunted houses, hayrides, bonfires, candy, costumes, costumes, oh, and did I mention costumes?). Of course, there are always those humbug Christians who ruin most everything fun who will say that we shouldn’t celebrate Halloween. I won’t preach to those people right now, but what I do have to say to them for the moment is: really? Is your spiritual imagination that myopic?

I’m not sure, but I imagine that an argument most of those fraidy-cats would conjure up is something along the lines of the “pagan/godless” nature of the holiday being dangerous for us to participate in. Aside from all of my more shallow problems with these people needlessly skipping so much fun in life, I should also say that I find it odd—even dangerous—when people automatically assume that because something is scary or horrific, it has nothing to do with God.

Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky didn’t make this assumption. He talks about Moses’ assent of Mount Sinai as an analogy for the frightful experience of encountering God: first, Moses meets God in the burning bush, at which point he encountered God as light. Later, when he climbs Mount Sinai, Moses “enters the darkness, leaving behind him all that can be seen or known; there remains to him only the invisible and unknowable, but in this darkness is God. For God makes His dwelling there where our understanding and our concepts can gain no admittance.” (Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 35)

God is cloaked in darkness. This means that God dwells in places where our words and concepts fail us…which is, indeed, frightening. As one of my favorite HU Bible professors John Fortner is known to say, “God will eat your face off.” Not a particularly comforting image.

In this darkness is God.” Does this mean that God is in all darkness? In a sense, yes. It is nonsensical to affirm that God is the creator and sustainer of all, and yet is somehow absent in the horrific aspects of existence. Of course, this brings up all of the disturbing questions of theodicy that we confront: the why of the Holocaust, genocide, natural disasters, despair, cancer, all of it.

It’s generally best for us to maintain silence when we sit with those who are on the brink of these gulfs. “Mourn with those who mourn” is what Christ recommends. Of course, in our speechlessness in the face of such darkness, we can remember a key part of our story—that God is not indifferent to our suffering but rather enters into it as pointedly as the Son who is crucified, as the Father who suffers the loss of the Son. This knowledge doesn’t divinize suffering or make it easier; the point here is not to present an answer to the question of “why does a good God allow evil to occur?” Any human answer to that question is going to remain unsatisfactory.

It’s just a way of affirming that “in this darkness is God.” This means something (to me, at least).

However…there is another sense in which we will not find God in darkness—particularly in the darkness of evil. Evil is unique; it is what some theologians have called “the nihil,” nothingness: the absence of anything life-giving or purposeful. It is constituted by the presence of forces that work towards utter destruction, emptiness, nothingness. There is no saving the nihil; there is only redeeming us from it.

So, if we’re going to attend to God, we have to figure out where and how God dwells in darkness. This means that we have to learn how to identify evil too, especially as it works today, in and around us. There are a lot of different angles we could take on the discussion, but for now I want to look at a resource that goes largely untapped in our discussions: the art form of the horror film.  Admittedly, it’s hard to dig up a good horror film, which is a crying shame, because a good one is sooooo good. I think the abundance of bad horror films has something to do with the fact that humans are so uncomfortable with facing and presenting the nihil in its true subtlety, although we’re haunted by its presence so we fantasticize it in a multitude of ways. Looking at evil for what it is and how it invades our daily lives is uncomfortable, frightening work…but it is worthwhile.

For the following piece of this post, I asked my amateur-film-critic-brother Luke to write up an analysis of three of his favorite horror films, attending to how they subtly present evil as it infects us here and now. The following is not for the faint of heart (or faint of gumption to take interest in the way these films work). But if you can handle it, Luke is worth listening to (he has the DVD collection to prove it, I promise)…and one of these prophetic films is, I’d say, worth your watch tonight.

Luke writes:

Alien (Evil is empty)

Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien is a must-see for any film aficionado or thrill-seeking moviegoer. Alien attains a rare cinematic achievement in that it is considered a standard in not one, but two different genres: while hailed as a science fiction masterpiece, Alien is also considered a highly innovative horror film due to its framing within the expanse of outer space.  The film cleverly blends many age-old science fiction motifs with the tension and brooding atmosphere of a classic monster horror film.  Most notably, the timeless man-vs.-machine motif first set forth in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, further expounded upon in later sci-fi classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Terminator, underlies the horrors that the crew of the mining ship experiences throughout Alien
While at first glance the obvious villain is the elusive and rarely glimpsed alien, the vicious, coldly objective programming of robots and the indifferent mentality of the ship’s mainframe persona play equally important roles in the demise of the crew.  
Technology, an age-old antagonist, maintains an overbearing presence in the film, accentuated by the heavy use of metal-laden imagery.  Even the story of the film centers around a generation symbolically birthed and nourished by technology.  The crew is dependent upon the proper functioning of the their ship, dubbed the Nostromo, for their very survival while travelling through space.  They aptly refer to the Nostromo’s mainframe personality as “Mother”, further symbolizing their reliance on the machines around them.
Ironically, it is “Mother” and the Nostromo, the very technology that the crew depends upon for survival, that are ultimately responsible for the introduction of the monster aboard the ship and the subsequent demise of the crew.  The film’s protagonist, Ellen Ripley (brilliantly portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in one of cinema’s earliest feminist roles), is beset on all sides by nefarious mechanical plots, ranging from “Mother’s” dispassionate betrayal to the revelation of a robot secretly posing as a human.  Even the iconic alien closely resembles an elaborate conglomeration of sleek metal bulkheads, dark cords, and gracefully curved rods. 
What is it about this cold metal existence portrayed on this film that instills and speaks to disquiet deep in our souls?  Perhaps it is the alienation we as humans feel towards the seemingly amoral and empty technology that engulfs our society, further compounded by our faint realization of the extreme extent to which we rely upon such an inanimate force for our very existence. 
Ultimately, this alienation and detachment felt toward technology stems from a very basic fear that all share:  the fear of the inhuman.  This is the horror intrinsic in Alien and is perfectly captured by a simple dialogue held in reference to a distress signal that has interrupted the Nostromo’s weary trek home:

Dallas: It seems Mother has intercepted a transmission of unknown origin and got us up to check it out. 
Cane: SOS?
Dallas: Don’t know.
Ripley: Human?
Dallas: Unknown.

The primary attribute of evil remarked upon by Alien is that of emptiness.  This emptiness is not only portrayed by the overabundance of and eventual betrayal by technology in the film, but is also visualized by the empty void of space within which the film is set. Space is here the definition of emptiness: uninhabitable, cold, and lifeless. 
One particularly poignant scene which remarks upon the “nihil” that entraps the crew is the image of the bulky Nostromo, lifelessly drifting ahead while Ripley’s faint echoing calls for air traffic control support are swallowed by the vastness of the surrounding void. 
Additionally, the character of technology serves as an effective allegory for evil; there are no moral considerations to be had, no conscience to be pricked, no logic to appeal to within machines. Ash’s affectionate admiration for the creature is a concise commentary on the nature of evil at play in the film:  

Ripley: How do we kill it?
Ash:  You can’t.  You still don’t know what you’re dealing with, do you?  A perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.  I admire its purity.  A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.

Rosemary’s Baby (Evil is insidious)

While Polish director Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning horror film Rosemary’s Baby is a masterful and eerily convincing tale of the idyllic American Dream turned macabre nightmare, perhaps more disturbing was the misdirected and brutal murder of Polanski’s pregnant wife and unborn child by members of the Manson Family the following year in 1969.  This gruesome event bolstered the notion set forth in Rosemary’s Baby that the evil inherent within the world is indiscriminate and may come calling, regardless of its subject’s innocence. Much of the horror of Rosemary’s Baby is implied and is rarely direct, as is true in life.
The film paints a disturbing portrait of the paranoia and dread experienced by a young pregnant woman (Rosemary Wodehouse portrayed by Mia Farrow) who fears that her unborn child may be the coveted object of a plot contrived by her cultic neighbors.  Although Rosemary’s Baby deals with the subjects of witchcraft, curses, and satanic cults, the film is remarkably subtle in its handling of these classically sensationalized topics: there are no green pea-soup fountains spewed, scatological demon-children to be restrained, or murderous nannies to be seen. Rather, there is only an overwhelming sense of dread that slowly takes root.
The gnawing sense of paranoia is achieved by an assault of the sensations, ranging from the unsettling sounds of shattering glass in an underground laundry room and the pungent odor of tannis root, to a chalky undertaste of the chocolate mousse supplied by the intrusive neighbors, to Rosemary’s excruciating cramps that are almost nauseating to witness. Furthermore, the aftermath of evil is relayed by the discovery of an empty closet barricaded by a large dresser for no apparent purpose, or by a brief glimpse of a message scrawled onto a shred of paper stating, “I can no longer associate myself…” 
The evil shown in the film is smothering, enveloping all aspects of Rosemary’s life, reaching from her seemingly frail and overly friendly neighbors, to her highly acclaimed obstetrician, and even so far as her husband with his proverbial soul-swapping deal with the devil.  However, the real irony is that while Rosemary is concerned with the wickedness surrounding her, the greatest evil of all is slowly growing inside of her. Rosemary’s Baby ultimately portrays evil for what it is: pervasive, indiscriminate, and insidious.
It is for this reason that the scene where Rosemary catches a glimpse of herself instinctively devouring a raw piece of liver resonates so effectively with the viewers: when Rosemary witnesses the ghastly transformation she has undergone, she is revolted, much as we are when we perceive the horrific consequences of the sin we harbor within. Rosemary’s condition serves as a relevant allegory for the pervasive, indiscriminate, and insidious evil that we humans nurture: we rarely comprehend the toll that evil has taken on and in us until we are confronted with the horrific transformation we have undergone.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Evil is chaos)

It is unfortunate that when the title The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is mentioned these days, most people assume that the film being referenced is the blood-soaked, garish 2003 remake starring Jessica Biel.  This seems especially regrettable due to the fact that Tobe Hooper’s original 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not merely a classic, trend-setting horror film, but is, more importantly, a groundbreaking mastery of cinema with an intensity rarely achieved by any other film.  It is continually bewildering that this intensity is lost on so many modern viewers who casually claim that the 1974 film is “boring” or “not scary.”  My experience with this particular film is the essential antithesis of this blasé indifference…as the credits rolled after my first viewing of this film, I was left with the distinct burned-out feeling that I had just experienced my first panic attack.
If there has ever been an instance in which the use of the clichéd critique of “gut-wrenching” is warranted, it is in reference to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  What makes this film so unbearably intense?  There are a number of factors contributing to its masterfully agonizing quality, ranging from exceptional performances by Marilyn Burns, as the prototypical lone virginal survivor, and Gunnar Hansen as the crazed Leatherface, to the minimalistic home-video style of the film itself, conveying a certain nightmarish quality stemming from primitive violence and a deluge of nerve-wracking chaos. 
However, the true brilliance of this film (and any other truly great horror film) lies not in what is seen, but rather what is implied.  While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is initially perceived as extremely violent, there is actually very little gore and only a minimal amount of blood underscoring the violence.  Unlike its modern counterpart, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre uses this “dry violence” to further enhance the terror felt by its viewers, allowing their imagination to paint the gruesome effects of such carnage. 
The aspect of evil at play in this film is that of chaos, or rather the absence of order.  If hell is equated to the absence of God, it follows that such a godless dimension would be one of pure chaos, devoid of any semblance of reason or order.  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre deftly captures such a dimension, never offering an explanation for any of the calamities that befall the characters, which is why I question any viewer who can deny experiencing even the slightest pang of primeval horror on watching this film.  Even Leatherface himself is almost pitiable, grunting and squealing aloud as he hysterically searches his dilapidated house for another unannounced visitor.  This leaves viewers wondering if there is any rhyme or reason to Leatherface’s actions, or if he perhaps is no more than a frenzied animal, whose actions are as senseless as his thoughts.  Therein is evil personified: senseless, chaotic, relentless, and de-humanizing.