Whether or not Christians should watch scary movies like "It" and "Mother!" is generating conversation about how film can be used to teach moral truths about evil, as these latest films push boundaries previously unexplored in cinema.
Mere Orthodoxy contributor Samuel James, who's also an editor with Crossway Books in Wheaton, Illinois, and a former staffer of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said Tuesday in an interview with The Christian Post that although he hasn't seen Darren Aronofsky's "Mother!" or the movie adaptation of horror writer Stephen King's novel "It," when it comes to viewing such films Christian moviegoers ought to remember a few things.
"I think Christians should be very careful with stories and films that depict the triumph of evil," James said, noting that such a theme is a key feature in many of those movies because the whole genre deals with powerful, spiritually dark forces.
He recalled an interview he once heard of Christian writer Frank Peretti, best known for the book This Present Darkness, where Peretti was asked to describe the difference between his books and the works of King. What distinguished his novels from King's, the author explained in this exchange, was that King's books only showcase supernatural evil. By contrast, his own books deliberately emphasize the larger spiritual framework and conflict, righteousness and godliness versus demonic wickedness.
Christians also cannot ignore the indisputably grisly accounts contained in the Bible, like how Lot offered his daughters to men who wanted to gang-rape his house guests in Genesis 19, James added.
"But the difference between Scripture and a film like 'Mother!' would be that Scripture doesn't revel in it. There's not a kind of aesthetic pleasure in it."
"It's extremely difficult to make a film that depicts gruesome acts of horror but in a morally responsible, non-exploitive way because the demands of the medium of film insist that you film something in a way that people are going to want to watch."
Given how the stories we tell often include gruesome things, he continued, an important question to ask when engaging movies is: "Are we thinking about them and watching them in a way that kind of glamorizes [brutality] and makes us feel almost as if we're enjoying the presentation, or is it a brutal act that is in a narrative arc of redemption?"
James noted on his blog Thursday why he gave up being a Christian movie critic, something he was reminded of upon reading Kyle Smith's review of "Mother!" in National Review last week. The film, which stars Jennifer Lawrence, is reportedly infused with interesting biblical analogies and elements but also shows in its final moments such things as women lighting themselves on fire, the snapping of a newborn baby's neck, and then the infant's flesh being eaten in cannibal fashion shortly thereafter.
Smith blasted the film, calling it "an exercise in torture porn" that "may be the vilest movie ever released by a major Hollywood studio." Viewing the last 30 minutes of "Mother!" he said, "is to understand what it must feel like to be a clump of broccoli in a Cuisinart."
"I don't want what Kyle describes in his review to become 'normal' for me," James wrote.
"I don't want to lose my gag reflex over films just because, having seen so many, my categories have all been defined down."
To get another perspective CP reached out to Paul Asay, who writes for both Patheos and reviews films for Plugged In, asking him if he thinks horror films are useful for Christians since they create revulsion, and such disgust is arguably a powerful tool for moral instruction. Asay recently reviewed "It," giving the movie one plug out of five.
"Horror is tricky," Asay replied in an email to CP. "I think for many Christians, horror films are an immediate non-starter, and I understand why. Paul exhorts us to focus on what is true and beautiful and worthy, and horror rarely gives us much of that."
"But at the same time, I believe that some horror films — and I emphasize some — can delve into issues and themes that are incredibly important to us Christians. They can stress that good and evil are quite real forces at work in our world. They ask us to consider life, death and what might lie beyond it."
Many of those questions are inherently spiritual, he continued, even if that spirituality is twisted; that might even stress that humanity's sole hope in combating evil is to pray to, trust in and lean on God.
"Truth is, I know of Christians who came to the faith because of a horror movie they saw," Asay said, referencing the work of The Exorcist author Peter Blatty who said he wrote his terrifying novel originally as "a sermon that no one could possibly sleep through."
So while the horror genre is "inherently problematic, often deeply so," he said, "I believe that, for some, a horror movie just might be a catalyst to consider faith, life and God in a new way."
Reports indicate that "It" is doing very well at the box office while audiences are revolting against "Mother!"
James said he thinks the difference in reception is due to people's long familiarity with King's novel whereas "Mother!" — based off of the reviews he has seen — "uses grotesque religious imagery, not just grotesque imagery."
"I certainly think Christian film critics are allowed to have a diversity of opinion," James said. "But I do think there is something wrong when a Christian film critic can watch grotesque religious imagery and come away saying nothing other than 'That was such a well-made movie.' I think there's something wrong with that."