This view of horror art as a defensive maneuver to fortify oneself against horrible ruminations via artistic sublimation is curiously contradicted by Brandon R. Grafius in Lurking Under the Surface: Horror, Religion, and the Questions That Haunt Us (2022). For Grafius, horror art’s value is not in its capacity to strategically obscure and so defend against the real; instead, horror art is valuable because, like a pharmacokinetic drug carrier, it injects the real into the unsuspecting mind. Commenting on the horror films that left an “indelible impression” on him, Grafius writes,
They’re the ones that reflect the world around us. The reflection may seem dark or perhaps even appear as a funhouse mirror image, but the end result is that it either helps us think more clearly about the world as it is, or it imagines other ways of being that might be possible.
In other words, the best horror, for Grafius, is the kind that functions as a cognitive prosthesis for illuminating and scrutinizing hidden but real horrors.
Perhaps the origin of this Ligotti and Grafius contradiction is vocational in nature. Grafius, unlike Ligotti, approaches horror as a critic rather than an artist, and is thus concerned with the analysis and meaning of horror rather than the psychological roots of its artistic production. A biblical studies scholar, Grafius frames horror media (and horror film specifically) as something similar to a corpus of sacred texts, a pop culture bible featuring the gospels of Romero, Carpenter, and Craven, and the Epistles of Peele and Eggers. For Grafius, the sacred text analogy is stressed and emphasized: reading the Bible — and watching horror films — does not inoculate us from horrible ruminations but strategically engenders them, and valuably so, for such ruminations provide opportunities for spiritual growth. Grafius writes in his introduction:
Lurking under the Surface explores this connection between faith and horror, showing how horror can be a valuable — even important — conversation partner for the spiritual questions that animate so many of us.
In this way, watching horror films comes through in Grafius’s book as a spiritual practice not unlike a Bible study. Watching horror films allows spiritual seekers to grapple with the mysteries of being.
Grafius’s argument — that consuming horror art can be understood as something akin to spiritual seeking — is not unique and has been made elsewhere in nuanced ways, such as in Victoria Nelson’s classic duology, The Secret Life of Puppets (2001) and Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural (2012), which take horror art seriously as contemporary attempts to revive a transcendent and Neoplatonic understanding of the world against a dominant, intellectually myopic materialism. But Grafius’s arguments become unique when, in the spirit of biblical interpretation, they attempt to articulate the concrete spiritual insights provided by specific horror films and television shows.
The structure of Grafius’s book mirrors these arguments. The 10 chapters begin with a “Prechapter Viewing Recommendations” list to identify the horror films to be discussed. The chapters then open with an analysis of scriptural passages and themes, and this is followed by application of the commentary to horror to illuminate how certain films can be situated within spiritual debates. For example, in the fifth chapter (titled “They’re Us …”), Grafius considers how the concern of the Epistle to the Romans with humanity’s fallen nature reverberates with the folk horror films The Hills Have Eyes and The Witch, specifically with their rendering of evil as originating from the claustrophobic psychodrama of the family.
Or consider the ninth chapter, “Is God Good?” where Grafius examines Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse in the context of the spiritual questions brought up by biblical depictions of God as vengeful, sadistic, and unbearable to look upon. Blurring commentary on The Lighthouse and the Bible, Grafius muses,
At times, I can believe that God loves me. But when life gets harder, I start to wonder if God’s paying attention or if there’s more truth to the biblical portraits of a darker God than I’d like to admit. Maybe we suffer because there is no God, or maybe God exists but is out to get us.
Another interesting example of this melding of biblical contemplation and horror movie analysis is the second chapter, “The Valley of Shadow.” Here, Grafius examines horror films that render characters who continue to hope despite their hopeless circumstances. Examining the desperate protagonists of works like A Quiet Place, The Thing, and The Walking Dead, Grafius deploys a reading of Psalm 23: “Yea, thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death […] I will fear no evil.” Using this passage to preface his remarks, he states of these horror films,
[Y]ou can still sense the shape of hope by the bleak absence of hope for the films’ characters. These movies take complete lack of hope and ask us to think about what shape hope might take in our lives.
In other words, horror movies, by rendering extreme hopelessness, teach us to hope.
Few would deny that some horror art allows us to wrestle with spiritual questions. Indeed, the value of Grafius’s book lies in concrete demonstrations of the potential for horror art to yield spiritual insights when purposely scrutinized. But Grafius’s conflation of reading sacred texts and watching horror movies risks downplaying these practices’ radically different contexts. Although some readers might admit to taking delight in reading sacred texts, they would, I suspect, be less likely to admit they go to them solely for entertainment. Conversely, some horror genre enthusiasts might admit that horror stimulates certain spiritual thoughts. And yet, the image of an audience attending screenings of Saw with the rapt attitude of Sunday sermon parishioners seems unlikely.
But Grafius’s idea of horror functioning as a backchannel quasireligious discourse is not so ridiculous when considering the longer history of gothic fiction. Gothic fiction, appearing in the form of a literary hoax perpetrated by Sir Horace Walpole, emerged as a uniquely Protestant reaction to the milieu-specific cultural prohibition against the supernatural in the 1760s, what Max Weber approximates with his evocative — though more suggestive than precise — concept of “disenchantment.”
The gothic fiction of Horace Walpole, refined and mastered by Ann Radcliffe in artful novels of the supernatural naturalized, allowed Protestant readers to promiscuously flirt with the supernatural from a safe vantage point, while simultaneously maintaining their faithfulness to Enlightenment principles of rationality, materialism, and a (mostly) disinterested creator. Such a reader could thus meditate on life after death, the nature of evil, and the sublime mysteries of geological and cosmic time, and they could do so in a socially acceptable manner. This is, in a simplified form, the essence of the argument that Victoria Nelson makes in The Secret Life of Puppets when she argues for the endurance of a Neoplatonic “sub-Zeitgeist” transmitted through certain Romantic and post-Romantic literary works that “revived the ancient paradox of spiritualized matter” — i.e., belief in the soul and the supernatural. For Nelson, as for Grafius, horror is not simply for entertainment; it also allows us to acknowledge and grapple with deep spiritual mysteries.
Or does it?
Grafius’s argument that horror allows us to confront spiritual mystery is at odds with Ligotti’s perspective as an artist whose ruminations have driven him to sublimate and create new horrors as a form of psychological defense and healing. When Ligotti adopts the perspective of a critic, like Grafius, and speculates about horror art’s appeal to that group of viewers, his unflattering commentary emphasizes the Radcliffean, bourgeois, and conservative aspects of horror’s history, the way it functions to inoculate the social ordinary from critique: horror, Ligotti muses, allows middle-class audiences to “maintain their sense of being idealized beings, integral and undivided.” He continues,
They […] distract themselves from any petrifying news about human beings by watching films in which all of the characters suffer an uncanny doom that could not possibly have relevance to real life.
Put another way, for the nonartist, horror renders a psychologically valuable form of schadenfreude: COVID-19, uterine cancer, and Russian nuclear weapons are material threats, but at least there are no Xenomorphs, Cenobites, or Body Snatchers to deal with in real life.
It is important to recall that, for Ligotti, artists do not merely display their fears neutrally but necessarily stylize and intensify them:
[T]his is what thinkers and artistic types do when they recycle the most demoralizing and unnerving aspects of life as works in which the worst fortunes of humanity are presented in a stylized and removed manner as entertainment.
In other words, aestheticizing horror is restorative to psychological equilibrium (or at least the medical equivalent of being stabilized after a life-threatening trauma). As a mental health practice, making horror art inoculates certain artists from the psychological injury caused by their horror-inducing ideations. So, the claustrophobic tales of Poe, the body horrors of David Cronenberg, the biomedical sadism of H. R. Giger: these oeuvres and others can be interpreted as the psychological survival mechanisms of artists struggling with dangerous worries. These works of art are meant to keep unbearable thoughts at bay, are charms, not unlike the garlic of the vampire myth or the anti-ghost bujeok talismans of Korean folklore. Creating horror art allows a certain type of artist to carry on despite the ambient noise of cosmic slaughter and the suffocating aroma of decay.
Grafius’s surprising, and often insightful, eclectic intellectual enterprise in Lurking Under the Surface brings into stark focus Ligotti’s understanding of unreal horror as being sublimated ruminations about real horror. For Grafius, the value of unreal horror is that it allows us to grapple with real horror. For Ligotti, the value of unreal horror is that it distracts us from real horror. This tension elicits a difficult question: does horror protect or does horror infect? The answer is that it does both, and its function varies from person to person, from artist to critic, from believer to atheist, from flesh puppet to immortal soul. What do we seek from horror? Grafius’s book provides one answer.
Jason Ray Carney teaches popular literature in the department of English at Christopher Newport University.