It is often a necessarily cathartic and healing experience to articulate and confess one’s greatest fears in a public forum. In this spirit of full disclosure and the pursuit of personal mental health, allow me to track the origin and development of my own greatest fear.
It all began in 1988 or 1989 when I was about 12 years old. Probably unwisely, but with a sense of fascination, I began reading the works of Stephen King. It didn’t take much to get me hooked. My first foray into his novels was Misery—the story of an author held captive and tortured by a psychopathic super-fan. After entering high school, I continued reading King’s novels and short stories. Horror wasn’t all that I read, and I would not consider myself obsessive. (Well, maybe a little bit.) Nevertheless, King’s compelling storytelling and incomparable style made me an easy fan.There is something deeper that lingers in the human psyche—something more than the experience, or a twisted desire for evil—something that horror taps into and awakens.
In the early 90s, I devoured the novel It—a tome-like story about an ancient, child-eating creature who appeared as a clown named Pennywise and terrorized a small Maine town for short periods of time every three decades or so.
I loved it.
But it wasn’t until I made the mistake of watching the made-for-TV mini-series that I began to be plagued with a horrible case of coulrophobia, or the fear of clowns. To this day, I don’t do well around clowns, or anyone in a mask, for that matter. I enter full-on fight-or-flight response: my muscles tense, I spontaneously sweat, and my heart begins to race. I instinctively look for the nearest exit and if nothing is available, I prepare to fight. Thankfully, I have yet to assault a clown. But don’t test me.
Like most other fears, coulrophobia is irrational. It’s a guttural, unconscious response to an external stimulus that runs deeper than thinking and deeper than logic. For me, this fear was induced by horror: a horror story that initially attracted me but subsequently repelled me.
Scare Us… Please?
As I consider my own sordid history with horror, the question naturally arises about the appeal of the genre. And there is little doubt that horror is both appealing and popular. The horror film industry—with the help of Stephen King and several popular franchises (think Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street)—took on a new level of popularity during my childhood in the 1980s.
In 1999, The Blair Witch Project went viral (as much as it could in that day), setting several new precedents in horror, one of which was the low-budget, high-profit horror film. It cost about $60,000 to make the film, which subsequently grossed over $248 million worldwide, a return on investment of over 400,000%! Since Blair Witch, the attempt to tap the genre to make a quick profit has exploded, according to IMDb.com, which reports an increase of 490% in horror releases per year. The increase in releases in all genres during the same time period was 232%. The pace of increase in horror films made more than doubled the pace of new releases when all genres are considered.
People are paying to be thrilled, and it doesn’t cost a lot to thrill them. So if you want to make money in Hollywood, the best way to do it is by scaring people.
But why is the horror genre so appealing and, subsequently, so lucrative?
Perhaps the appeal of horror boils down to the experience. All storytellers seek to tap into the human experience, and filmmakers are no different. “After all, if there’s anything universal about the human condition, it’s fear,” observes cultural writer Walt Hickey: “A scream is the same in any language.”
Stephen King himself explains the popular craving for horror in a different way: “We’re all insane,” he writes, and horror “deliberately appeals to all that is worst in us.” King’s explanation—surprisingly—does not land far from the target that most conservative Christians instinctively paint on the genre. The “devil inside” (that is, humanity’s sin nature) is irrevocably attracted to The Devil Inside.
But perhaps there is something even deeper that lingers in the human psyche—something more than the experience, or a twisted desire for evil—something that horror taps into and awakens.
There’s a point in most scary movies when the viewer knows that the character shouldn’t do something: shouldn’t go into that particular room; shouldn’t trust that creepy clown; shouldn’t go skinny-dipping in the ocean at night. “Don’t do it!” we yell at the screen, while secretly confident—even hopeful—that they will do it (how else is the plot going to move forward?). And for some reason—aware of the danger and contrary to the viewer’s urgent pleadings, they do it anyway (usually with dire consequences and to the satisfaction of an eager audience).
What drew the character to the unknown? What motivated them to be so foolish? Most likely, it’s the same thing that draws any of us—seemingly sane individuals—to view and even enjoy the repulsive, the creepy, the weird, the uncanny, and the disturbing. Horror induces fear. That’s the point. But fear isn’t something that we’re normally drawn to. Fear normally causes repulsion—fight-or-flight. But based on the popularity of horror, there is something that seems to be a draw while simultaneously repelling. Horror thus has a bi-polar element—a cooperative dynamic of repulsion and attraction.
Allow me to make a distinction within the horror genre between “natural” horror (slasher films, rabid dogs, psychopaths who dress up like their murdered mothers) and “supernatural” horror (ghosts, zombies, monsters, witches, clowns). The natural horror story—while scary—usually has a perfectly natural explanation. Psychopathic murderers may induce an incredible amount of fear, disdain, and curiosity—but we can generally account for their behaviors with some sort of natural or psychological explanation.
On the other hand, supernatural horror stories inevitably contain elements of the inexplicable: mysteries beyond human understanding that both excite our curiosity—causing us to search for unattainable answers—and enamor us with the unknown.
The existential paradox of concurrent aversion and enamor—the unexplainable mystery so often lurking in the corner of horror’s crude imaginings—is nothing new to mankind. Religious phenomenologists have brought attention to these very things in human religious experience, and a helpful guide along these lines can be found in the German philosopher and theologian Rudolf Otto. In his classic (1917) work Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy), Otto presents an explanation of what he calls the Numinous: the non-rational element of the Holy, or the Divine.
Although any religious conception of Deity has rational elements that can be explained and understood with the mind through logic, definition, and analogy, there is also within the Divine what Otto calls a non-rational element. This is not to say that God is irrational, but that there is a category of religious reality and religious experience that transcends rational analysis. Otto coins the term Numinous—from the Latin numen, meaning divinity or divine power—to denote this non-rational element of the Divine.
The Numinous is an objective reality that defies explanation, as well as a “state of mind” (a Numinous experience refers to the non-rational human encounter with the Divine). The Numinous can only be experienced (not explained), and the experience of the Numinous can only be defined in terms of analogy. Otto writes:
“The numinous can only be suggested by means of the special way in which it is reflected in the mind in terms of feeling.… It cannot be expressed by means of anything else, just because it is so primary and elementary a datum in our physical life, and therefore only definable through itself.… This mental state is perfectly sui generis and irreducible to any other; and therefore, like every absolutely primary and elementary datum, while it admits of being discussed, it cannot be strictly defined.”
In attempting to give words to the indescribable, Otto coins the term mysterium tremendum. It is this description of the Numinous that provides an analogue to the experience that is both found and sought through Horror.
The adjective tremendum denotes several elements of the experience of the Numinous, the first of which is awe-fulness: that which produces awe—a drop-mouthed, head-bowing response of trembling or shuddering in the presence of the Divine.
Scripture is replete with this kind of response to the Numinous. Moses humbly and worshipfully responds when confronted with God’s glory (Exodus 3:5–6, 34:8); Isaiah pronounces a curse on himself when confronted with the presence of the Lord: “Woe is me! For I am lost!” (Isaiah 6:5); Ezekiel falls on his face upon seeing the glory of God (Ezekiel 1:28); Daniel “was frightened and fell on [his] face” multiple times (Daniel 8:17–18; 10:9, 10, 15); Peter falls before Jesus crying out, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8); and the apostle John, upon seeing the Risen Christ, “fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17).
In its most basic and crude form, there is an overpowering, daunting, majestic element to the Numinous that can be experienced as a kind of repulsion—even a tendency to overpower the subject into a sense of nothingness. Otto himself notes that the mysterium tremendum “first begins to stir in the feeling of ‘something uncanny’, ‘eerie’, or ‘weird’.… That this is so is shown by the potent attraction again and again exercised by the element of horror and ‘shudder’ in ghost stories, even among person of high all-around education.”
Mysterium refers to that which, by nature, cannot be explained but only experienced. It is “wholly other”—so unlike ourselves and the rest of human experience that it transcends categories, putting the Numinous in a category all to itself that “fills the mind with wonder and astonishment”:
“The divine is indeed the highest, strongest, best, loveliest and dearest that man can think of.… God is not merely the ground and superlative of all that can be thought; He is Himself a subject on his own account and in Himself.”
For Otto, “ghosts” and “ghost stories”—what can be likened to modern horror films—allure and entice precisely because of this element of the “wholly other.” They are outside of and foreign to a normal human experience of the world. This element of fascination completes in the Numinous experience a similar polarity to that induced by Horror: repulsion and attraction.
“These two qualities, the daunting and the fascinating, now combine in a strange harmony of contrasts, and the resultant dual character of the numinous consciousness, to which the entire religious development bears witness… is at once the strangest and most noteworthy phenomenon in the whole history of religion.”
Christian theology has long affirmed a doctrine of humanity that affirms the dignity of men and women as made in the image of God: the imago Dei. However theologians might define the imago—whether as rationality, relationship, or function—it would be appropriate to confer to humanity a non-rational element. This would be an element in the imago that cannot be explained or defined by any human wisdom or rationality precisely because it is a reflection of the image of God. As Gerhard Tersteegen wrote: “a god comprehended is no god.” Perhaps it would be right to venture the same assertion in regard to the imago: a human fully comprehended (by another human, that is) is no human.
It is this very imago Dei—the numinous element built into humanity—that is attracted to the Numinous that exists outside of itself. Likewise it is the creatureliness—a primary feature of man’s experience of the Numinous—that responds with awe, humility, and the feeling of being overwhelmed by that which is Wholly Other. This dual nature of humanity—created, yet indelibly marked by the Divine—is at root of the two poles of repulsion and attraction.
For Otto, the Numinous isn’t something to be avoided, but something that mankind naturally seeks out and longs for. In the depths of our humanity, we all long for communion with the Divine precisely because we are made for communion with the Divine. And it is this longing, this desire, this fulfillment of humanity’s created telos that—and here’s the point—draws so many people to pay someone to scare them. This is why we make Paranormal Activity a blockbuster. It’s why we binge watch Stranger Things. Horror provides an experience that mimics and arouses—even if crudely, naïvely, or in a shadowy way—deep human longings for the Divine.
The human soul was made to experience and commune with God, and in His felt absence will create for itself any number of ghosts, monsters, and fantastic beasts to which it can attach the very real categories of the mysterium tremendum.
Must Horror Be Evil?
Conservative Christians tend to look on the horror film industry with a level of righteous disgust and for the most part may be well within their rights to do so. Horror’s popularity—like that of pornography—can easily be chalked up to the wickedness of men’s hearts and blamed on a sinful draw towards that which is evil. And generally, the Numinous factor translates into the genre as evil.
But the deeper draw of horror is a fundamental human desire toward the subtle and implicit sense of the supernatural, not necessarily to evil, per se. Therefore, it should be possible to peel back the evil that we find in so much horror and identify what is so attracting—the supernatural and mysterious Wholly Other. It’s the Numinous that keeps drawing our attention to itself.
Pornography taps into the natural human desire for sex, which in itself is a God-created good. Sex does not have to be evil, but when it is monetized and sold, perverted and weaponized to make imago-bearing people into mere bodily objects and marketing tools, then it has truly been (to use C. S. Lewis’s term) bent. We might think of horror’s tendency to turn the Numinous into something evil in the same way—a naïve, crude, bent reflection of the Wholly Other.
Even within the horror genre, there does not appear to be any hard and fast formula that requires the Numinous element to be portrayed as evil. But because it is awe-full—daunting, uncanny, even frightening—the Numinous is often identified as evil. Nevertheless, in the best supernatural fiction—including horror—the sense of the Numinous is often attached to good. Just think of Aslan. And even in the wildly popular sci-fi/horror series Stranger Things. Although there is an evil, otherworldly monster (The Demogorgon) inhabiting a parallel universe (the Upside-Down), the truly supernatural (and, yes, eerie, weird, and dangerous) presence in the show is the character Eleven. And Eleven is, at core, good (and quite human, I would add).
It is helpful here to notice that horror need not be the sole artistic province of the Numinous. There are other genres and art forms in which the human longing for the Numinous is readily apparent. Its fingerprints show up in such places as Narnia, Middle Earth, and Hogwarts. Otto himself notes the prevalence of the Numinous in Gothic architecture, taking form in the use of darkness, silence, and emptiness:
“The darkness must be such as is enhanced and made all the more perceptible by contrast with some last vestige of brightness, which it is, as it were, on the point of extinguishing; hence the ‘mystical’ effect begins with semi-darkness.”
Sounds like the Upside-Down in Stranger Things, or Emily Brontë’s description of the moors surrounding Wuthering Heights.
“The semi-darkness that glimmers in vaulted halls, or beneath the branches of a lofty forest glade, strangely quickened and stirred by the mysterious play of half-lights, has always spoken eloquently to the soul, and the builders of temples, mosques and churches have made full use of it.”
Making the Mysterium Known
Disappointingly, much mainstream “Christian” entertainment seems to be largely focused on feel-good morality, averse to most things non-rational and mysterious. As a result, the Numinous is generally abandoned to the pagans. Perhaps the root of this lies in the Church’s broad sense of missing the Numinous experience for Herself. When music, the arts, and the stories that we tell are controlled by the safe expectations of the Christian consumer—rather than the dangerous reality of the Living God—not only do we miss the full range of true human experience, but we miss God Himself.
Furthermore, living in an age of distraction, so many Christians lack the quiet, meditative discipline—and the courage—to sit still in a room with nothing but the bare self and the potential of confrontation with God’s Numinous presence. Perhaps if more of us were to have this courage, we could speak and write and create (in the words of A. W. Tozer) not as scribes but as prophets—those who have been there and experienced Him for ourselves. As a result, our words, our lives, our art, and the stories that we tell would carry in them that element of the Numinous to which the imago Dei in everyone is so desperately and incessantly drawn.
So there is a place for Christian storytellers—artists, writers, novelists, musicians, directors, playwrights, filmmakers—to rightly diagnose the deep human desire to experience the Holy for what it is and seek to make the mysterium tremendum known in their art. For this is a mystery that speaks to the heart and desires of people created in the imago Dei. Thankfully, there are strong, courageous, and creative voices (for instance, N. D. Wilson and Andrew Peterson in their fiction) and artists (like Makoto Fujimura) who are leading the charge of tapping into and invoking a sense of the mysterium tremendum in very intriguing ways.
Paul wrote in Ephesians 3 about making the mystery of Christ known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. What a privilege the church has today—in the form of Her artists and creatives—to draw men and women past what attracts them in ghost stories and horror, to the purest and highest form of worship: speechless, trembling awe before the God who loves them most of all.