The crisp, cool autumn air has blown in, bringing with it my favorite holiday: Spooky season. It’s always been hard to be a Halloween-lover — to be one of the proud few who prefers our pumpkins carved to spiced. And it only seems more challenging these days, as the shadow of Christmas decorations reaches further and further, swallowing up more of the calendar each year.
Us Jesus-loving spooks and specters have it even harder — we have since childhood. As kids, we had to explain our penchant for poltergeists to well-meaning Sunday School teachers who were concerned by our persistent bat drawings and tendency to answer questions in our best Dracula voice: “Ve are saved by 'is BLOOOOOOD!”
I wish I'd had biblical scholar and theologian Brandon Grafius’s new book Lurking Under the Surface: Horror, Religion, and the Questions that Haunt Us back then. Grafius already has quite a corpus of academic works exploring horror and religion, texts that dig at the cultural anxieties and fears buried in the scary stories we tell ourselves. Lurking Under the Surface is a popular-level text, so I can give it to those well-meaning folks who love me but don't understand my fascination with the frightening.
As he writes in the introduction, horror and religion are much closer friends than we might initially expect: “Horror movies and television shows … have always helped us to process our fears and anxieties … [H]orror is a window into the culture. The same is true of religion. People’s hopes and fears are often expressed in their religion and written down in their sacred books.” Walking a short path from the earliest evangelicals to latter day Hell Houses (church-run haunted houses whose purpose is conversion by literally scaring the hell out of us), Grafius observes that it’s as if “Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ has been brought to life as a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.” Worse, perhaps, is when “pastors preach hatred against Jews, atheists, people of other ethnic groups, the LGBTQ community, or any other marginalized group.” In these cases, Grafius warns, “the monster isn’t on the periphery but in the pulpit.”
What follows is one part memoir, two parts theology, and two parts horror stories, with a little eye of newt and wing of bat thrown in for good measure. Grafius takes us on a horror-cinema journey from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) through Gore Verbinski's The Ring (2002) to Jordan Peele’s Us (2019), touching on everything in-between from slasher classics to blockbusters to hidden indie gems. He organizes each chapter around a particular anxiety expressed in these terrifying tales, drawing connections that, like the best twist endings, are surprising when you stumble upon them but in retrospect seem so obvious as to be predestined.
Take, for instance, a late chapter where Grafius explores the religious impulse toward fairness. He reviews Tales from the Crypt, a horror comic that was later adapted into a television anthology. Each episode is introduced with ghoulish puns by an undead corpse called simply “the Crypt Keeper.” And though spectacularly gory (most often with practical visual effects for maximum gooeyness), Tales from the Crypt presents a “worldview that was actually quite conservative” in terms of good and evil. The stories were morality plays drenched in corn syrup (the go-to budget fake blood) — the wicked are punished and the good rewarded.
Grafius then traces this same sort of theology through the Bible, from the Deuteronomists to the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible. He also meditates on how the canon critiques itself — something the Crypt Keeper hasn’t done yet. Grafius traces how deeds-consequence theology has given rise to the prosperity gospel, which claims that wealth is a sign of divine favor. Replace the gold toilets with a gold coffin and it might be hard to tell the difference between the Crypt Keeper and a prosperity preacher.
Prosperity preachers aren’t the only ones who prefer to remain on the bright side of faith. There’s a kind of willful ignorance horror-averse Christians demand, because the truth is we don’t want to sit with the shadows or go down into the basement. We want to sweep all the ugly parts of life back under the bed where they might go bump in the night but won't trouble us in the light of day. Grafius knows, though, that such an attitude denies the truth both of our lived reality and of the scriptures. He doesn’t use scripture as a panacea to our discomfort with decay. Rather, he shows us how horror and faith are having the same conversation, speaking to the same fears and anxieties. He shows us the fruit that ripens when we learn to let them speak to each other.
In Under the Surface, Grafius teaches us how to welcome horror as a constant companion in a world plagued by real evil. It’s a welcome introduction to horror for the uninitiated, one that doesn’t demand your firstborn child! And for those who have been ready for Halloween since New Year’s, it’s a reminder that grace shows up in even the least likely places, which might be why we love horror so much to begin with.