As children we can all remember that terrifying walk in the dark from the safety of our parent’s bedroom to the comfort of our bed. The hallway that used to be only a few feet long seemed to stretch for miles. The mad dash would begin, heart racing and blood pumping, until the leap onto the bed was landed and you were tucked into the covers — making sure no limb was hanging over the edge of the mattress, just on the off chance something, or someone, was hiding underneath.
While thoughts of a “boogie monster” are soon overcome, the fear associated with it can be a debilitating aspect many struggle with throughout their lives, shapeshifting to fit their age and culture. So why is there a whole genre of literature and film dedicated to it? Dr. Grant Horner, professor at The Master’s University, is currently teaching a class addressing that question. “Gothic: The Art of Fear” asks: what is fear, terror and horror, as represented in literary culture? Why did God instill those emotions into us? How does our culture represent them?
Dr. Horner, known for his cultural analysis and popular courses on Shakespeare, John Calvin, and John Milton, expressed, “I wondered why in the world people find pleasure in fear–something that is not, itself, pleasant? It’s like enjoying stubbing your toe or being so hungry that you are physically ill. I wanted to teach something different than I normally do [which is ultra-high intellectual content related to the Renaissance and classical humanism]. I wanted to do something that was still academically rigorous but more in terms of analysis of pop culture. While it is true that ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’ are literary classics, they are also huge pop culture icons. They present really interesting cultural questions–and all cultural questions are ultimately theological ones that go to the root of what it means to be fallen in a fallen world.”
The Gothic genre, though its settings often include ancient castles and crypts, is quite modern. It developed in the late 1700’s with Horace Walpole’s ‘Castle of Otranto’ and Anne Radcliffe’s ‘Mysteries of Udolpho’ and became increasingly popular in the Victorian Age (1831-1901), which produced classic works like Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’. As this genre continued into the modern world, its novels have begun to strike a different chord. Rather than a character embodying pure evil, characters find themselves haunted by the evil within. This is displayed in more current novels like Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ and Peter Straub’s ‘Ghost Story.’ Man produces works such as these because it is his way of dealing with two things: fear of the unknown and of death.
So where does the Christian fit into this? Horner explains, “Those who think Christians should be completely ignorant of the role of fear, and even the human fear of the supernatural are not paying attention to what the apostle Paul says in Hebrews 5:14.” Here Paul encourages each believer, through an understanding of Scripture, to ‘distinguish good from evil’. Horner continues, “Certainly, we must not give place to evil by foolishly soaking in pagan culture and beginning to imitate it, but at the same time we must not remain completely ignorant of how the devil, God, and our own natures function when it comes to fear–or anything else. There is a place in the middle, where, without offending your own conscience or those around you, you can learn and study culture from a critical-theological perspective.”
The Gothic genre is one that Christians don’t think about very much, some even insisting that you should have no interest in the idea of the supernatural because it may seem dangerous. However, God is supernatural and human beings are incarnate spiritual beings. To ignore the supernatural completely and be utterly ignorant is not wise. C.S. Lewis famously said people fall into two equally opposite errors about demons, one is to deny their existence all together and the other is to evince an unhealthy interest in them. He argues the “healthy way” is to be aware of what Scripture says–and believe it.
Ultimately Horner’s goal for this class is to create a more discerning person who is aware of cultural beliefs and how to critique them through a biblical lens. “I have the same goal with every class I teach, no matter the content. Content is merely the device I use to probe deeper issues.” He states his goal for his students is “that you love God more, you love Scripture more, you love the church more, you hate your sin more, and you understand how to appreciate and enjoy culture only in ways that don’t dishonor and displease God. I don’t want people coming out of my class and saying ‘oh man that novel was so awesome,’ without feeling even more so about Scripture.”