It’s hard to fit my writing into a genre. Some call it thriller, some call it mystery, others call it horror. Preternatural is the adjective my friend the brilliant Regina Hiney calls it, and I think that’s about as close as anyone has ever come to correctly describing the genre in which I write.
In my books, the line between spirit and reality is thin. God isn’t just with us; he is among us, present and working through others. My characters are Christian through and through, flawed and failing yes, but Christian nonetheless. They swear a lot, but they also forgive the unforgivable. Their love is often blindingly incomprehensible, even to themselves, but love transforms. They find themselves in terrible circumstances, but guided by the Beatitudes, the Commandments and the family life, they do the right thing. At the end of the day, the good guys win, although they may emerge battered and bruised.
Not so for most modern fiction whether it’s movies or books. Last night, my husband chose our Saturday night movie. Saturdays at the Grunert household are movie nights. Popcorn all around, a ginger tabby cat on the lap, and new movie in the Netflix queue make me happy. My husband and I both cherish older films yet enjoy exploring new, offbeat movies, too. We love foreign films, films exploring families and cultures, and a good old-fashioned horror movie. And children’s movies. Lots of children’s movies.
So last night Hubby had a Netflix movie called Sinister ready to roll at 8 pm. If you’ve never seen the movie before, let me give you a quick summary. A true-crime writer, desperate to rekindle his failing career and regain his fortune and fame with a best-selling book, moves his family into a new home. He claims that the move is because they can’t afford their luxurious former dwelling, but the viewer realizes quickly that the man has chosen a home in which a dreadful murder was committed. He hopes to write about the murder and thus moves his family into a home in which father, mother, and two children were hung from a tree in the yard. One child, a little girl, escaped and is missing.
The family moves in and as you can guess, all is not right in their world. Older son has night terrors. Younger daughter starts drawing pictures of the murdered family. Husband begins drinking heavily. Husband finds a box of old home movies in the attic and crushes a scorpion. (Yet he doesn’t question the presence of a scorpion in the attic of his Pennsylvania home. Ah, if only he did! Half of the mystery would have been solved.)
The home movies, we find, are more than home movies. Much more. Each movie is the gruesome filming of a murder. The viewer is “treated” (and I use that word sarcastically) to a close up of a horrific murder taking place. The terrified eyes of children, parents. Drownings. Throat slitting. Fire. Oh, you name it.
No matter how our protagonist tries to get rid of the movies, they return. He spies a strange figure in the movies, a creepy entity that looks like a cross between the Joker and a clown but with a sinister mien. He seeks help from law enforcement, not to turn over the movies but to find out where the murders took place. All the while, his family is cracking up before him.
He finally decides to flee the home after a series of frightening and inexplicable occurrences, only to find that by fleeing the home, he has given the entity in the movies the green light to steal the soul of his youngest daughter and slaughter his family. It turns out that the creepy Joker-esque entity is a Babylonian demon.
The movie ends with the demon winning, the family dead, and no hope for anyone.
Here is where I pause, dear reader, and ask: when did the good guys start losing?
I remember loving old horror movies because the good guys always won. The vampire might menace the virgin, but the hero whipped out a cross and the vampire fled the sight of God in terror. Demonic possession, as in the Exorcist, was a terrible, awful thing, but the power of Christ compels the demon to flee, and the heroic priest makes the ultimate sacrifice, giving his life for that of the child and dying in the attempt. The hero dies, but the child is saved.
Even in other horror movies where the protagonist is a ghost or ghosts the hero still wins in the older horror movies. Poltergeist is one of my all-time favorite horror movies with the horrible demon in the closet, the creepy living clown, and the boy-eating tree. Yet even in Poltergeist, the father manages to save his entire family, including saving little Carol Anne from the clutches of the demon in her closet.
In Jaws, the monster isn’t a demon but a shark. Here we once again see the hero winning after great sacrifice. Although Quint, the old sea captain dies, Chief Brody fires one shot that slays the beast and regains the town. He is the ultimate heroic quest prototype. Man against beast. Quint sacrifices his life so that Brody may win.
What happens today in modern fiction and movies in the same creeping nihilism that affects society as a whole. Let’s look at this movie, “Sinister,” as an example. A loving family, but without a hint of God at their heart. A father, trying to do the right thing, but in the end, he fails.
Yet it isn’t the lack of God that is so telling. It is the primacy of the ancient demon winning, without any hope of our hero triumphing over his adversary, that gives me insight into the modern psyche.
We used to rely on Christ and our Christian faith to triumph over evil. The cross triumphed over vampires, and the priest could exorcise the child in the power and name of Jesus Christ. Even triumphing over the beast was possible, albeit without Christian repurcussions. Our man Brody in Jaws isn’t overly religious, but like the protagonist in Sinister, is a devoted family man.
But is the protagonist in Sinister a devoted family man? Brody (Jaws) and his wife are a mature, loving couple. Brody does not take the assignment on Amity Island because it glorifies his wishes. He does to get his kids out of the city and to a quieter atmosphere.
The protagonist in Sinister, on the other hand, clearly lies to his wife to remove the family from their comfortable and safe home and thrust them directly into the lion’s den, so to speak. Even when faced with the unspeakable horror of the filmed murders, instead of trusting “Deputy So and So”, the young star-struck deputy who promises to help him research the murders, the protagonist chooses to fumble his way through himself. He ends up making things worse, and his lying, hiding and manipulating behavior come back to haunt him.
This is why I no longer dub my fiction “horror” fiction. Horror fiction today, be it movies or books, offers us no hope, no respite from the evil. The bad guys typically triumph after countess people die. In many movies such as Sinister, the suspense isn’t from knowing whether the good guy will win, but how long he’ll last against the evil opponent. There are a few exceptions, but the predominant trend is towards evil triumphing over good.
This is antithetical to the Christian outlook on life.
Society used to support this viewpoint. Movies reflected it. Today, however, movies take a much darker viewpoint, and one which is antithetical to my deeply held views. Dark never triumphs. It may seem to, but Jesus is risen. Anything else is fiction.
I’m not saying that fiction ought to be all light and beauty without darkness and horror. Without light we would not have darkness; without darkness, we would not appreciate the light.
The difference as I see it is that the modern fiction maker, whether he works in the realm of movies or books, has given up on God. God to the modern filmmaker does not exist, yet he trots out the old vanquished devils from the past, like Baal and the Babylonian demon in Sinister, who all hearken back to a murky Biblical past, as our horror villain. If God does not exist, then neither should Baal or Babylonian demons.
Yet the Babylonian demon, we are to assume, not only exists but remains triumphant although Mary’s fiat and Christ’s resurrection should have formally put a stamp and an end to that. Christians know the ending to the story, and it is good: Christ lives.
And so my fiction, and that of other Christian horror-mystery-thriller-preternatural authors, assumes a living Christ who cares for us passionately and will help us triumph over evil if we but believe and receive; our heroes may suffer terrible losses, but they triumph because good always triumphs over evil. In movies like Sinister, good cannot stand against evil.
Isn’t that the perfect summary of modern thinking?