Every Sunday during October, Sci-Fi & Scary will be bringing you a fresh article from an indie horror author. They’ll be talking about everything from why they love horror, to their favorite parts, and everything in between. Our first guest post comes from David Dubrow. You can find more information about David at the end of this article.
Let’s Bring Objective Morality Back to Horror
by David Dubrow
Supernatural horror has turned away from its roots, replacing the traditional battle of Good vs. Evil with Us vs. Evil. In large part this is reflective of cultural trends; mainstream writers and movie makers tend to take their thematic cues from the less-religious metropolitan areas of the East and West Coasts, which drive culture more than flyover country. The replacement of an objective power of Good with expedience, the need to survive, has dulled the effectiveness of the genre of supernatural horror, reducing vampires to fanged superhumans and Hell-born demons to savage mutants.
For the purposes of this piece, the objective power of Good, simply defined, is God. Specifically, the God of the Bible. Regardless of your personal feelings about religion, the idea of God as the representation of objective morality has incredible power in Western fiction. Love Him, hate Him, or decide He doesn’t exist, God is a necessary check on evil, the standard against which monsters must be measured. He’s as vital an element of supernatural horror as the monster itself, because without Him, the monster’s evil is situational, even relative. God sets the rules of what should, and, more importantly, what should not be.
From Unholy to Sparkly
Thematically speaking, what is the difference between a vampire and a comic book super-villain without God’s judgment? To introduce the power of the Christian cross against a menacing vampire is to acknowledge that with the unholy there is a holy, and that holiness is granted by God. If the cross repels a vampire, it’s because Jesus Christ really is the Son of God, an idea discussed (and later thrown away) in F. Paul Wilson’s novel The Keep. The Hammer horror films of the 1960’s and 70’s depicted Dracula as being thwarted by crosses, as was Jerry Dandridge in Fright Night (note that in the latter case, just showing Dandridge a cross didn’t bother him; instead you had to believe in God to evoke God’s power). In From Dusk Till Dawn, the snakelike vampires were susceptible to holy water, and until he succumbed to a vampire bite, former pastor Jacob Fuller was an effective vampire slayer.
In Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot, the vampire hunters needed to go to confession to be cleansed enough to fight evil, and the vampire Barlow was only able to defeat Father Callahan by persuading him to cast aside his cross, the symbol of God. Later, after Callahan is made unclean by drinking Barlow’s blood, he is scorched by lightning when he attempts to enter his church: a clear indication of God’s displeasure. Unfortunately, King doesn’t do much else with this idea in his later Gunslinger novels, where Callahan becomes a dimensional traveler; instead, Callahan dies holding a magic turtle idol, a symbol of a less God-focused and more spiritual concept King calls the White.
Not surprisingly, it was a movie based on a comic book that pushed the idea of vampires being areligious super-villains into the mainstream: Blade. Garlic and silver harmed them, but to quote the titular protagonist, “crosses and holy water don’t do dick.” As fun and exciting as it was, Blade set the stage for the theme of vampires existing not as an affront to God (and hence in opposition the objective Good), but as superhumans existing just one link higher than humans on the food chain. Now there are sparkly Twilight vampires, the CW’s Originals/Vampire Diaries vampires, Underworld vampires, Supernatural’s vampires, The Strain vampires, etc: all irrelevant to the Good.
In horror involving demons, the idea of God as the Devil’s opposite is integral to the theme. On the Evil side you’ve got Satan, demons, and black magicians/witches. On Good’s team there’s God, angels, and priests. In both print and film formats The Exorcist is the ultimate demonic tale and continues to horrify even today; note that the demon possessing Regan could not be exorcized without the efforts of two Catholic priests: Merrin and Karras. Despite Merrin’s physical frailty and Karras’s wavering faith, these were men of God, and back then when you needed an exorcism only a priest could do the job.
The Omen’s Father Brennan was also a force for good, though in a more ethically complex fashion: he had the unenviable job of telling Robert Thorn that his son Damien was the Antichrist, and that the child must be slain with a holy dagger. In Omen 3: The Final Conflict, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ coincided with the death of Damien, finally killed by that holy dagger. Good triumphed over Evil in The Exorcist and Omen 3, and that Good was an explicit representation of God, with priests acting as His agents.
Recent depictions of priests in horror fiction typically portray them as powerless buffoons or predatory pedophiles, sometimes both. The popular horror film The Conjuring seemed like it was going to buck this trend, when the Warrens claimed that they needed a priest from the Vatican to exorcise the demon/witch/evil spirit haunting the Perrons, but backed away from it and just had non-priest Ed Warren throw the demon out at the end.
Just as priests are often described as useless or evil in today’s horror offerings, angels get very similar treatment. Gregory Widen’s The Prophecy was as instrumental to promulgating the theme of evil angels as Blade was to areligious vampires, though in The Prophecy there were some good angels.
Supernatural’s angels are indistinguishable from demons in ethics or behavior, for the most part, and while God was absentee in the earlier seasons, He takes a more active role in Season 11. The show does occasionally portray priests, but they’re irrelevant except when you need holy water. Which is odd, because if only a priest has the ability to infuse God’s blessing into a mundane object like a font of water, you’d think priests would make excellent Hunters. Despite the presence of angels, demons, God, the Darkness, and Lucifer, the show’s theme hews closely to Us vs. Evil, making it muddled, at best.
Lacking God’s presence and explicit expressions of religious faith, an angel isn’t thematically different from a pretty superhero or space alien. The further you take an angel away from the Bible, its source material, the less miraculous the angel becomes.
Human beings in real life don’t need God or religion to be good; they can be decent, moral people without those things, and often are. This piece is concerned with fiction, not the reader’s personal religious beliefs. In the horror genre the pendulum has swung away from tales of Good vs. Evil and is stuck on Us vs. Evil, which reflects a cultural shift that hasn’t improved storytelling or thematic clarity. There’s a part in (most of) us that aches for Good to triumph over Evil, or at least fight it, and the moral relativism, areligious anti-heroes, and misunderstood monsters of today’s supernatural horror don’t satisfy that.
Maybe it’s time to bring back the crucifix-fearing vampires, the decent priests, the power of God back to the supernatural horror genre. Go old school: you’ll find a larger audience than you think.
David Dubrow has published two novels, a novella, several short stories, and a non-fiction book on surviving a zombie apocalypse. He is hard at work on the third and last book in his Armageddon series. Find him online at http://davedauthor.com.
Most people are unprepared to face a basic survival situation, let alone a zombie uprising. What happens when all of the trappings of civilization are ruthlessly stripped away? The electricity stops running, and there’s no easy way to preserve food or get water from the tap. The law of the land becomes the Law of the Jungle. When you throw in the extra difficulty of defending against hordes of ravenous zombies, it will be a miracle if most survive overnight, let alone a month or a year. Life expectancy has just dropped to next winter . . . if you’re lucky.
That’s where this book comes in. What will see you through this horrible zombie apocalypse is not only the knowledge of how to survive but also the confidence such knowledge brings. After reading this book, you will learn:
• The different classifications of zombies, along with their strengths and weaknesses
• How to deal with the overall zombie-caused breakdown of society
• Zombie-fighting tactics and techniques
• How to find food, water, and shelter in a zombie-overrun world
• Skills for dealing with other physical dangers, such as rogue government agencies, zombie animals, and other humans who are competing for scarce resources
• How to prepare a zombie bug-out bag today: a kit that will get you through that critical first week of a zombie apocalypse
Legal issues prevent the author from revealing exactly what he knows about current and future undead-related events. But he will say that you need to read this book now and start preparing for the zombies invasion.