Grossing $117 million in its opening weekend, and $218.7 million in its first 10 days, the new horror movie It fast became the highest-grossing September release in Hollywood history.
The nightmare-to-paper thriller from Stephen King, about the child-hunting clown named Pennywise, was first an award-winning novel (1986), turned TV miniseries (1990), turned R-rated film phenomenon (2017).
But if a horrifying clown is good for the box office, it’s proving bad for the clowns-for-hire business. New York City clown John Nelson claims he lost six kid birthday gigs in the first week after It was released. In response he launched a pro-clown rally in his city to “raise enough awareness so when people think of clowns they won’t think of scary murderers.”
A group of clowns rising up in revolt brings a smile to my face like no clown has for many years (even if Nelson’s rally may have simply been a publicity stunt for the film, according to new reports).
Any clown with literary sense would know that since at least the time of Shakespeare, clowns have been called on stage, not to relieve tension but more often to jar the audience and to amplify the horrors of the storyline. The bard’s clowns didn’t draw blood, but their appearance often anticipated a tragic turn (Nason).
Why I Don’t Watch Horror
The wild success of horror movies in our culture, especially the most graphic and bloody ones, like It, mystify me. As a matter of settled principle, I don’t watch R-rated horror movies, and I have no intention of seeing It, nor do I encourage anyone else to. Violent games and films and shows feed in me a sinister curiosity for bloodshed and death. I’ve felt the lure.
And I see this conviction as part of the answer to the most beautiful question in the Bible: “Who has eyes that will behold the king in his beauty?” (Isaiah 33:17). Answer: He “who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking on evil” (Isaiah 33:15). The beauty of God is for those who do not feed their sensory curiosities with violence and wickedness. On this basis I believe entertainment-by-gore is forbidden in Scripture, even at the level of what gets communicated to my senses as entirely fictional media.
Why Others Do
But I’m also intrigued by It as a cultural phenomenon, enough to dialogue with a Christian who, as a matter of professional calling, has seen the film. Among other things, Brian Godawa is an award-winning Hollywood screenwriter (To End All Wars), a teacher on faith, worldviews, and storytelling (see this and this), and a popular author of biblical fiction (like this series).
What follows is a discussion between two Christians who disagree. Brian is pro-horror film, and has studied the genre for many years. I am anti-horror film, and have been so my entire adult life. My prayer is that our discussion will enlighten believers on both sides, and so serve the church, her wisdom, and her witness. I want to understand the popularity of the horror movie phenomenon, both outside the church and even within it, because frankly the phenomenon leaves me perplexed and unconvinced (even after this discussion).
Reinke: Brian, thanks for your time. As you know, It experienced the biggest opening weekend for any horror film to date, now on pace to become only the fourth R-rated movie to ever gross over $300 million in the United States. Theaters will again be full of moviegoers this weekend. More generally, 2017 has been a huge year for R-rated horror films, and audience appetite for It and other films is very high. Why is It so uncommonly successful? And what is behind the popularity of the genre right now?
Godawa: I think the success of It (and its predecessor, Stranger Things) lies in the universal archetype characters and their issues that most of us relate to: nerds, outcasts, rejects, fatty, skinny, “losers.” The kids are classic sympathetic heroes with strong moral growth, and we are hungry for such things since we are awash in an entertainment culture of anti-heroes and morally relative stories that ultimately do not satisfy someone who desires moral clarity.
Reinke: I want to talk about these kids more in a moment, but we cannot talk about It without first talking about clowns. Why are clowns a favorite antagonist in the horror genre?
Godawa: Horror is often based on irony and the unveiling of evil that appears to be good. Like real life. In real life, evil monsters — as in abusers, rapists, and killers — use the disguise of good in order to capture and hurt the innocent. So, using common images of safety to caution the innocent against naive trust is an excellent moral lesson.
John Wayne Gacy was a professional clown for a reason. This doesn’t mean all clowns should be considered evil images, any more than all cops should be considered dirty, just because there are lots of movies that portray dirty cops.
Although, personally, I’ve always considered clowns to be creepy.
Reinke: Likewise, yeah. So what, in your opinion, is the positive value of the horror genre?
Godawa: Well, horror as a genre is not simply about fear and violence for the sake of fear and violence. Yes, some movies do descend into that, but it is not the essence of the genre. Every genre has good examples and bad examples. Is the “biblical movie” genre always holy and good? No. Even biblical movies can be evil. Take Noah, or Exodus: Gods and Kings. Those movies are demonic twists of the Bible into its opposite. It’s called subversion.
So we must understand that no genre is intrinsically good or evil. They are used for the purpose of good or evil. Genres are not for everyone. Romance isn’t for everyone. Neither is horror. But they each have distinct purposes.
Reinke: You have not convinced me to see It, though a movie adaptation of the opening chapters of Job would be horrifying (Job 1:1–2:10). Not to mention the first Passover (Exodus 11:1–12:32). Or the ravaging Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1–20). Given the nature of Scripture, to get into the grit of this fallen world, what are the redeeming traits you see in the horror genre?
Godawa: The moral purpose of the horror genre is to expose what evil is, reinforce our need for courage to fight evil, and to have a healthy righteous fear instead of naive innocence when it comes to discernment in the world. Sounds like the Bible.
God uses the horror genre to solicit righteous fear of evil, and encourage repentance and righteous living. Beyond your examples, the books of Daniel and Revelation are epic horror fantasies of blood and gore using symbolic horror monsters as an analogy for real life. That’s what all horror does. It works as metaphor for something else, like social commentary (Underworld), spiritual truth (Jekyl and Hyde), or man’s hubris (Frankenstein).
God uses zombies and vampires as metaphors for spiritual evil in Scripture — I kid you not (see Micah 3:1–3; Ezekiel 39:18–19). God uses Frankenstein monsters as metaphors for political and social commentary (see Ezekiel 11:19; Revelation 13:1–2). One of God’s favorite horror metaphors is cannibalism as a literary symbol of spiritual apostasy (see Ezekiel 36:13–14; Psalm 27:2; Proverbs 30:14; Jeremiah 19:9; Zechariah 11:9).
This does not justify all horror stories ever told. Far from it. It simply establishes the genre, in broad terms, as one that God uses; therefore, it can be used with moral purpose.
Reinke: So back to It. You’ve seen it. What’s the overall thematic impact that you took from it?
Godawa: I have, and it contains many elements, common to the horror genre in general, that are quite in line with the Judeo-Christian worldview and values.
Reinke: Stop it.
Godawa: No, really. The movie is a coming of age story, which means that it is a metaphor for what makes us adults, or as one of the Jewish characters says, what it means to “become a man.” Godless secularism often tells stories that try to tell kids that growing up is having sex before marriage —
Reinke: As do a lot of horror films, right? Glorifying teen sex as part of the coming of age motif.
Godawa: Yes, that’s right, but not in this case. It not only denies that common lie, but preserves the sexual innocence of youth by showing how children should not be considered sexual at so young an age (a couple adult characters are shown to be evil for sexualizing children). Rather, its message is that maturity, growing up, is about facing your mortality, not about having sex, but learning that we die and that life is not one big fun summer of play.
The kids in the movie don’t want to grow up and tend to run from the bad things in their life, like bullies and abusive parents. One kid has a controlling mother, another an abusive father, most all of them are bullied, and the protagonist has a stuttering problem. They all win only by facing their fears, not by running from them. Another biblical maxim.
Children run in fear, adults — mature people — face their fears. This comes not only from facing the monster clown, but every kid in the movie has a difficulty that they run from in their lives. They must learn to face these fears in order to grow up.
There is no gospel of Jesus Christ here, but this notion of growing up is very much in line with the Bible. But this is where I would use the opportunity to discuss my belief with others that growing up also includes wrestling with the afterlife and the existence of God. Every good movie can be a doorway to the gospel.
Reinke: And as you alluded to earlier, it’s more than simply facing evils, though.
Godawa: Right. Most important of all, It teaches very explicitly that we should fight evil, which is another excellent moral element of the horror genre. And not just “take a stand,” but fight real evil to the death. The evil clown monster is an obvious metaphor for the fear that cripples our society’s courage. In today’s postmodern world of schools that provide “safe spaces” to encourage childishness, while denying real evil like radical Islam, that will hunt us all if we don’t undermine it, this is no mere tautology of a simple existence of good and evil.
This is one of the most profound moral messages that we need to reinforce through our stories. We have become a relativistic society of cowardice, so fighting evil with a willingness to protect the innocent is a truly profound Christian value. And part of that “fighting evil” moral in the movie is to be willing to sacrifice one’s self to protect the innocent.
Several key turning points in the film stress that the kids must be willing to risk their own safety to protect or save others. It illustrates how to stand up to bullies and fight back, not merely in self-defense, but on behalf of others. This willingness to self-sacrifice is not merely a strong component of moral maturity, but it gets at the heart of a Christian worldview.
Reinke: That’s an interesting take on horror films in general, confronting the relativism of evil. Of course, many horror films, like this one, are graphic bloodbaths. So too are many military films. Each of us has different thresholds for the visualized violence we can handle. Mine is quite low. But many of the best horror films released over the years have become noted for a simple ability to build tension, and remain relatively free of blood and gore. What is the best case to make for the usefulness of gore in making a moral point?
Godawa: I challenge Christians to read Ezekiel 16:1–58 and Ezekiel 23:1–49, for two examples, and tell me if they think God is not graphic in his artistic descriptions of violence and sexuality, but all of it used as creative metaphors for spiritual moral truths.
Reinke: You say that, beyond the gore, It has other issues viewers need to weigh, including issues of profanity and in portraying all the adults in a negative light. There’s a number of things to consider in this case. But for Christians drawn to movies and novels in this genre, what will an obsession here do to Christian joy?
Godawa: An unhealthy obsession with horror stories can certainly reveal a character flaw, as would an unhealthy obsession with romance, comedy, or just about any genre. Why? Because truth is multifaceted and includes all of these elements, but too much of a good thing can be harmful to our spiritual balance. Horror is not intrinsically bad, but it can be used for bad, just like biblical epics can be used for bad.
But at the same time, the Christian joy is a balanced joy of righteousness and healthy fear of evil (in addition to other things). Yes, we must rejoice at Noah’s righteousness — but it is in the context of a violent evil world where everyone but eight people are drowned to death. The joy of entering the Promised Land does not exist apart from the righteous violent and bloody slaughter of every man, woman, child, and animal of the cursed Canaanite clans. A necessary part of the joy of the resurrection of Jesus includes the evil betrayal by Judas and the unjust crucifixion of the Son of God, all monstrous evils as part of God’s plan of ultimate good.
Horror sets the stage for Christian joy. We should maintain a balance and not be so focused on happy talk and flowery religious sentiments that we remain as children in reference to a very real world of evil within which we are supposed to be agents of redemption. Wise as serpents, innocent as doves.
Reinke: Yes, there’s a sense in which an inability to process the graphic nature of Scripture leaves the faith in a perilous place — a true threat to our own faith and eternal joy. That’s a good point, Brian, thank you.
Horror films remind us of things true about the evil in a fallen world, and about facing up to real evils. While I have read more Stephen King than I would like to admit, I’ve never seen any of his films or television series. And I have no plan to change this conviction. It seems to me there’s a fundamental difference between reading about bloodshed in a book, at a distance, especially as an expression of God’s confrontation with sin, as opposed to seeing it presented on a screen, in the full sensorial plunge of a theater. There are a lot of other things to address, and I’m sure we have plenty more to disagree on here, too. But alas, we’re out of time. Perhaps in the future.