Horror, Theology, and the Fragmented World

By Brandon R. Grafius

Every prophet in the Hebrew Bible has a call narrative, a story where God speaks to them directly and commissions them to be a prophet. Think of Moses at the burning bush, the young Samuel being woken by a voice in the middle of the night, or Jeremiah being touched on the lips. One of the most well-known is Isaiah, who is brought into God’s temple (Physically? In a dream-vision? We don’t quite know!), and sees the cherubim and seraphim swirling around an impossibly enormous throne. It’s a vision of overwhelming awe and majesty, and Isaiah’s first true introduction to YHWH. Prior to this episode, Isaiah had only seen visions of Israel’s future (1:1), or somehow “sees” the “word” of God (2:1). But in chapter, Isaiah enters into God’s throne room with fear and trembling.

There’s a short introductory note to this vision, so brief that it’s easy to miss. The passage begins, “In the year King Uzziah died…” Uzziah was one of the few kings in the history of Israel and Judah who receives a positive report. The book of Chronicles notes that he reigned for 52 years, a remarkably stable reign in such turbulent times (2 Chronicles 26:3). Yet the biblical text deems it important to link this king’s death with Isaiah’s commissioning as a prophet, and his encounter with God. It seems almost as if this break in the political reality of the world creates a crack through which God can pull Isaiah into the divine presence. But this isn’t the only narrative where something similar happens. Throughout the Bible, the divine is closest when the world is disrupted.

This is why I find horror to be the genre most conducive to theological thinking. If romantic comedy is about putting the world together, horror is the genre that’s most clearly about breaking it apart. Sometimes the world gets put back together by the end of the movie – and sometimes not. In a recent article in Sojourners, Zachary Lee refers to the “holy disruption of horror,” suggesting that “the things that unsettle us can point to the ways where God might be calling us to do justice work.” While I certainly agree with Lee’s point, I’d also suggest that horror casts an even wider net – horror allows us to think through our relationship to the world, and all of the meanings it might encompass. It asks us to take a new look at everything we think we know. And that includes both the human and the divine. You can certainly use popular culture of all kinds as a theological resource, as a way to explore how our culture understands the relationship between the divine and the world, how to think through the properly human questions that help us explore the depths of our experience. But because of its foundational disruptions, I’ve always found horror uniquely suited as a conversation partner. It’s a genre that has a single-minded focus on shattering the world.

This idea of the divine “breaking in” to the mundane world is threaded throughout Scripture. We see it in Exodus 2:23 – also right after a king dies – when the Israelites break apart the reality of their existence by crying out to God. And we see it clearly in the meals Jesus shares with his followers, including the stories of the loaves and fishes and the Last Supper, which become the model for communion. In each of these events, Jesus “takes” the food, “gives thanks,” and then “breaks” it, before finally sharing. It is only when something is broken that we can begin to think about it anew, with fresh perspective and a sense of wild creativity. And it’s only with this kind of spirit that we can begin to understand pieces of the divine.

Horror begins with this breaking: a killer wanders into the suburbs or the summer camp, disrupting what is supposed to be an orderly, safe space. A vacation turns into chaos, and the guardrails that have kept the family on the road prove insufficient to protect them from the world that lurks at the edge of their imagination. Horror is about the world breaking, in ways large and small. Once it’s broken, we’re left figuring out what to do with these fragments, wondering if they can be put back together, or if they even actually fit together in the first place.

But in that breaking, we have the opportunity to reflect on these pieces, and think deeply and critically about their organization. It’s the kind of reflection that doesn’t happen when the world is all in one piece. It only happens with broken, jagged fragments, so sharp that holding them is to risk bloodying your own hands. This is the world that horror presents to us. And it’s in these spaces – the spaces where the world has descended into a zombie-filled wasteland, or where the king has died and the comfortable politics of the everyday have given way to something else – that we can walk through the cracks, and catch some glimpses of the divine.

Brandon R. Grafius is associate professor of biblical studies and academic dean at Ecumenical Theological Seminary, Detroit. His most recent book is Lurking Under the Surface: Horror, Religion, and the Questions that Haunt Us, published by Broadleaf Books. Find him on Twitter @brgrafius.

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