Are Horror Movies Bad? Well …

blog top 09-27

We’re obviously heading into October. And when you watch movies for a living, you soon discover that October is horror film season. And horror movies, obviously, come with a bunch of unique issues and problems. But are they just flat-out bad?

It’s a good question, and one that some of you might be asking. In fact, the other day, a Plugged In reader contacted me and asked if we’ve ever given a horror movie a good review.

The answer? It’s tricky.

First of all, the purpose of a horror movie is to scare you, right? That’s probably not the moviegoing experience we’d be likely to encourage. Better to walk out inspired to be a better person than be inspired to check the back seat of your car for serial killers, right?

In addition, most horror movies try to scare through some pretty problematic content and disturbing images. We know that those images can stick with you for a while—even a lifetime. (Some movies I saw as a kid are still with me all those years later, causing me a little unease during dark, quiet nights.) And then, of course, there’s the supernatural aspect that lots of Christians steer well clear of, movies with a demonic or ghostly hook that might encourage an unhealthy fascination with the occult.

So, yes, it can be difficult for Plugged In to say, “Yes, take the kiddies to Halloween 34: The Bride of Halloween!”

And yet.

I’ve dealt with depression for much of my life, and I’ve written in this very space about how movies are a strange, but often strangely encouraging, part of that journey.

Some movies, such the The Lord of the Rings films, can inspire people like me—and really, anyone going through tough stuff—to push through. But other films, movies that we’d never be able to give a Plugged In family stamp of approval to, have helped in their own weird ways, too.

When I describe what depression’s like to someone, I often compare it to the horror movie tropes I’ve seen. It can feel, at times, like cinematic-style possession—something that takes over your ability to think and act as you’d like, that turns you into something that you’re not. It can act as a matinee vampire, sucking away your ability to enjoy what you used to enjoy, to isolate you from those who love you. It can feel, at times, like a haunted house: Something other is stalking the hallways of your mind. And you never know when it might attack.

And of course this dynamic isn’t just isolated to issues of mental illness. Many a problem can find comparisons in fright flicks. Deadlines can feel like a shark circling in the water. Family issues can make my world shake like a cheap disaster pic. So in an unexpected way, horror movies give me language, and a frame of reference, that help me communicate more clearly what I feel.

And sometimes, those movies can even be a tool to process the real-life horrors I might be facing—to look at issues and problems in a different way.

Folks in the business of making horror movies often understand that dynamic—and honestly, they always have. Sure, some horror flicks are just an excuse to unleash a few jump scares and earn a few million bucks from unwitting teens. But many tap into fears we have, individually or collectively, and perhaps help us to grapple with them.

In the 1920s and 30s, science and technology were radically transforming the world. Some believed that science, not faith, held all the answers. Frankenstein, made in 1931, reminded us to not turn science into a god itself. Early movies built around Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula (including 1922’s Nosferatu) reminded us of realities—and evils—that science often underplayed and has no ability to combat. Godzilla was originally a cautionary tale against nuclear power and war (something that its creators in Japan had tragically some experience with). The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, made in 1956, is seen as a Cold War Metaphor—the “body snatchers” being stand-ins for the soul-sucking communist threat.

And the beat goes on. The Babadook is not only a really creepy, bothersome movie: It’s a purposeful take on mental illness. We’ve seen a lot of impactful movies about Alzheimer’s and dementia lately (one of which, The Father, earned Anthony Hopkins an Oscar). But for me, the most impactful was actually a little-seen horror movie called Relic. The Netflix series Black Mirror is just filled with problematic content. But if it wasn’t, its cautionary fables warning against technological excess would sound a lot like we at Plugged In might say.

And some horror stories can even inspire as they scare. A Quiet Place, which I’d classify as a horror flick, features enough strong elements in it to even earn a place on our “Best Movies for Adults” list back in 2019.

And some—dealing as they do most explicitly with good and evil, with light and darkness—remind us of a greater truth. They remind us that while terrors (real and imagined) do sometimes haunt us, there’s a God who can deal with such monsters. A God who, truth be told, already has.

Horror is a complicated genre, to be sure. Some people will never watch a horror movie, and they’ll never want to. Others will look at all the problems the genre comes with and steer well clear. Still others will think about their kids potentially waking up at 3 a.m. with nightmares and say, “No Hocus Pocus 2 for our family!”

And that’s all fine. Great, even.

Still, some viewers will see glimmers of positivity in this complex genre, recognizing that the dark, monster-filled nights it brings can sometimes lead to a brighter morning. Sometimes terror can remind us of the One who dispels all terror, and who tells us, in whispered Scripture, “Be not afraid.”

Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

11 Responses

  1. -Thank you for this insightful article. I’m a Christian who also believes that *some* horror movies can–as you say–teach some great moral lessons and even point us to, as you said, “the One who dispels all terror, and who tells us, in whispered Scripture, “Be not afraid.”” Very well said. Thanks again for bringing this out.

  2. -There is one horror movie that in my opinion was actually very sobering: Train to Busan. It wasn’t a typical zombie movie but a heart wrenching story about classicm in South Korea. At the end of the movie I wasn’t scared at all. But the actual story stay with me for days. Good movies know how to use genre as a vehicle to tell the truth versus as the endgame. That’s why Get Out and a Quiet Place worked. Even the Frank Peretti novel ” The Visitation” is a dip into horror. But the heart behind the horror was the pursuit of genuine faith.

  3. -Great article and I agree with everything you said. You should check out the Backrooms videos by Kane Pixels on YouTube. They fall roughly in the category of alternative horror and are exceptionally well-made and mostly free of problematic content, aside from a few profanities.

  4. -Finally! I really, really like this take – especially the note about horror films that actually inspire.

    Although there’s still a lot (and I mean a lot) of spiritual issues to wade through, I’ve been saying for years that “The Conjuring” and “Poltergeist” are two movies I personally see as being incredibly inspiring, despite being marketed as incredibly scary. People tend to overlook the more wholesome parts of both of those movies, instead focusing on the blood, the jump scares, the vicious ghouls, and the terrifying situations, whereas I was always struck by how much love was demonstrated in them – particularly in “Poltergeist.”

    I think a lot of what makes a good horror movie worth watching is what is being conveyed at the core of the movie – what is holding it together? What makes me care about what’s going on? “A Quiet Place” wouldn’t be nearly as good if it wasn’t about a loving family we grow to care about. Likewise, the best scene in “Poltergeist” is when the mom encounters her little girl’s spirit. There’s tender, all-consuming love at the heart of those movies, and although there’s a ton of spiritual issues to sort through in most supernatural horror films, I appreciate when good wins because evil does not have love. I’d even argue that there’s a subtle amount of love in “The Babadook” – the acknowledgement that mental illness and grief can interfere with love but that we don’t have to let our grief destroy it is incredibly powerful. There’s still scenes I personally will skip if I ever rewatch it though, which make me a little sad.

    Those are the horror movies I want to support, however – the ones where I shed a tear watching the family reunite, having grown closer through their trials and tribulations. I’d never recommend them to children of course, but by putting the characters through horrifying situations, the strength of a family is often brought out.

  5. -I hear what you’re saying here.
    But as Christians, SHOULD we allow our minds to be filled with unnecessary evil? Horror movies, as all movies do, stick with you for days, weeks, even years! Why not use the precious little time God has given us with wholesome books, movies, music and the occasional movie or TV program? But even more so- shouldn’t we fill our minds with The Bible MORE than anything else?

  6. -I dunno, consider “The Silence of the Lambs,” an expertly-crafted film that actually won an Oscar for Best Picture. Great performances from Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. Can we take any moral lessons from a film like this? I doubt it. But frankly I go to horror films not for moral lessons, but for safe thrills and emotional catharsis. And I’m one of the kindest persons you’d ever meet.

  7. -This is a very interesting take on the horror genre. I don’t watch horror movies featuring spiritual entities or serial killers because that’s not something I find appealing, but I the horror media I find worthwhile is fiction rooted in reality. To me, what is scary is human suffering and how our own mind can torment us. For instance, the game Doki Doki Literature club is no doubt sinister and gruesome, mostly because the emotional burdens and anguish the girls face is very realistic. Instead of being chased by monsters, they are plagued by their own inner “demons”. It’s tragic and gets under my skin because it reminds me of the mental health crisis affecting the youth of today. The feeling of disappointment when someone you trust betrays you, when the people you love abandon you, then questioning your own judgement because you don’t want to place your faith in the wrong person and be deceived again, I think that is truly horrifying. Afflicted by regrets and fully convinced that you’re a failure and a burden to everyone around you is terrifying. Is it a game that falls under the catagory of noteworthy, pure, upright things that Phillipians 4:8 talks about? Certainly not. However, it does remind me of the struggles that people in real life face with feeling unworthy, unloved, frustrated, dejected, and tired of fighting. It’s not something I would recommend playing over and over again, but it is somewhat insightful, though you could probably get those moral lessons from a better source. After all, there’s no point in feeling sorry for fictional characters, so if you should take anything away from you should thinking about the ways you can check up on real life people and how you can support them in their times of need.

    Side note: I think those themes are quite prevalent in Japanese media. In particular, some popular vocaloid (a synthesized “singing” software – not exclusive to Japan but the most popular character, Hatsune Miku, is Japanese) producers have some very dark songs, many with over a million views. I think they’re interesting and can be quite relatable at times, but it’s not good to dwell upon bad feelings or you’ll work yourself into a downward spiral. I like them mostly for their creativity and artistic merit, as well as their composition. They are very well done pieces musically.

  8. – Are you guys going to review the new Disney+ Marvel movie Werewolf By Night? Just wondering….

    1. -Hi, Andrew! Alas, no. It’s not exactly a movie … more of a “special.” Less than an hour long. So with so many other movies and TV shows to cover, we opted to take a pass on it for now. Thanks so much for the question.

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