Let’s Bring Objective Morality Back to Horror

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.

sas-dub-1 objective morality
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.

Exorcise This

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.

sas-dub-3 Objective MoralityThe 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.sas-dub-2

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.

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10 Responses to Let’s Bring Objective Morality Back to Horror

  1. Brian Bixby says:

    I think I understand Mr. Dubrow’s point, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that, both historically/culturally and from an author’s perspective.

    Mr. Dubrow’s take on vampires is essentially of that literary myth as it crystallized in “Dracula.” Now I have “The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories” (1987) in front of me, which antedates the movie “Blade” by over a decade, and which includes stories going back to 1816. There are a surprisingly large number of vampires in it that don’t conform to the Dracula norm, and many that I suspect Mr. Dubrow would call “us vs. evil,” even stories written in the early 19th century, to say nothing of later dates. However popular it was in the days of Universal and Hammer, the Dracula-style vampire who is an abomination to God is not the only form the myth has taken since the advent of the Gothic horror story.

    This should not be surprising. Having an omnipotent and good God as the base for a universe’s metaphysics allows writers to tell certain kinds of stories well. An absolute good vs. evil story? “Dracula” is wonderful. So is “Salem’s Lot.” Mr. Dubrow is right on the money there.

    And yet there are other types of supernatural horror in which a Christian God is irrelevant or even an obstacle. Want to have Good fight on, knowing it might lose completely, that there is no ultimate backup? Impossible in a Christian universe, though quite possible in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. Want to construct a spiritual realm or afterlife not in agreement with Christianity (as commonly interpreted)? In such cases a writer simply can’t use the Christian view, even if they want to talk about good versus evil.

    Go back to one of those vampire stories in the Penguin anthology: “Luella Miller” (1903) by Mary Wilkins-Freeman. It’s about people who are parasites on others. And it’s horrible, with very little in the way of metaphysics of any kind to support it.

    Introducing Christianity explicitly into “Luella Miller” would make it a much different story. Better or worse? That I don’t know. It would be different and say different things. Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have rewritten “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” from a straight horror story to a moral allegory, which it is a splendid example of, and yet it’s commonly performed on stage and screen as a horror story with the allegory silent, to equally disturbing effect. Which interpretation you prefer probably speaks to how you view the universe and what you expect to get from horror stories.

    To sum up, I think the current dominance of what Mr. Dubrow calls “us vs. evil” in supernatural horror has important roots in the history of Gothic literature as well as reflecting the less religious coastal culture. I think it allows writers to tell more kinds of stories that more readers will enjoy. But that still leaves a place for the “good vs. evil” story, and the fact that some of them are classics indicates it IS a type of story that fills a perpetual need in readers.

    • Interesting points, Brian. I’m going to stay mostly silent simply bc I don’t read enough / watch enough vampire stuff to really have an opinion. I will say that I miss the traditional good versus evil in horror. I think Thats why I prefer the traditional horror possession like The Exorcist.

  2. Dave D says:

    Hi, Brian:

    All excellent points, and a great counterbalance to the piece. Thanks for providing so much food for thought.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      And that you for bringing up the subject and discussing it at length. Gave me food for thought, too! Have you ever read James Blish’s “A Case of Conscience” (1958)? It’s an interesting sci-fi story that could only be written from a Catholic perspective of good versus evil, but even as a non-Catholic, I find its integration of Christian morality and metaphysics with an encounter with another intelligent species to be both interesting and entertaining.

      • Dave D says:

        Hey, Brian:

        I haven’t, though I am a fan of science fiction. The premise is neat. I’ll get a copy from Amazon (pity it’s not available on Kindle) and check it out.

  3. Brian Bixby says:

    That should read “And THANK YOU,” not “And that you.” My apologies for sloppy proofreading before posting the comment.

  4. Very interesting article! I am a huge fan of the old school good v. evil horror. 🙂

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  6. Great piece David, interesting and well argued. Morality has always sat at the heart of all great horror fiction, it’s what ultimately makes a story satisfying and provides us with a salutary lesson. While certain secular films have taken God out of the equation, certain other movies, like ‘Anabelle’ have dumbed down the complexities that arise out his presence in a story. I agree that it’s time to restore a proper exploration of moral themes to horror.

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