On “Christian Horror” and Atheist Dread

by Mike Duran · 37 comments

Perhaps the best argument for “Christian horror” is atheism. While both believing and unbelieving novelists acknowledge, and write about, the horrific — they share spacer distinctively different views as to its nature. And ultimately, those different worldviews are what makes their stories genuinely dreadful.

Of course, the debate about “Christian Horror” rages on. Is the label congruent with Christian values, sustainable, and ultimately productive? Those things are worth discussing. But something that hasn’t been discussed as much is the deeper, more compelling philosophical reasons why Christian authors should be at the forefront of the horror genre. That reason is “Atheist horror.”

Behind every work of fiction is a worldview that frames it. Yes, Christian fiction tends to wear its worldview on its sleeve. But what is often unacknowledged is how much contemporary horror writers incorporate an equally pronounced, diametrically opposed, worldview.

A prime example  is H.P. Lovecraft, often considered one of the masters of horror. Lovecraft was an atheist. His stories are full of cosmic dread and ancient terrors, a combination of monsters and modern philosophy. In one of the greatest essays on horror ever penned, Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft writes:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space. (emphasis mine)

In the early twentieth century, German theologian Rudolf Otto, in his book “The Idea of the Holy,” coined the term “numinous” to describe religious experience of the “wholly other,” the divine. Here’s Wikipedia on numinous:

According to Otto the numinous experience has two aspects: mysterium tremendum, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling; and mysterium fascinans, the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel. The numinous experience also has a personal quality to it, in that the person feels to be in communion with a Holy other.

Notice that while both men acknowledged an “awful mystery” at tspacer he core of the universe, Otto defined it in terms of Something, while Lovecraft defined it in terms of Nothing. Thus their “fear and trembling” was qualitatively different. While Otto is drawn to commune with the “Holy other,” Lovecraft is mortified by “the daemons of unplumbed space.” As Lovecraft saw it, it was a “suspension” of belief in the “fixed laws of Nature” that sheltered us spacer from “the assaults of chaos.” Science, once our only “safeguard” against madness, inevitably rouses “unexplainable dread.”

No wonder, the “deity” at the heart of Lovecraft’s fiction, Azathoth, is little more than cosmic protoplasm. In “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1931), the narrator describes this god as a “monstrous nuclear chaos beyond angled space.” The word “nuclear,” as used by Lovecraft here, refers to nucleus, rather than nuclear power, implying a monstrous chaos exists at the nucleus of the universe. Is it any wspacer onder that Azathoth is most commonly pictured as an amorphous mass of tentacles, bone, teeth, gristle… whatever? Writes Joseph Morales, “Lovecraft’s description of Azathoth makes use of our childhood image of a God in charge of all things, but then subverts that image by investing it with the most essential attribute of the mechanistic-materialistic worldview: a total lack of conscious purpose” (emphasis in original). In this sense, Lovecraft is remaining true to his non-religious roots.

For the atheist horrorist, nothing but a “monstrous chaos” without “conscious purpose” can exist, godlike, at the center of the universe. This is true terror.

In Atheism’s Mythographer, Jason Colavito writes:

The key to the abyss in Lovecraft’s world was Science itself. It was through science that the well-spring of horror arose, and this is what captivated the minds of those who read him. Lovecraft introduced a new brand of horror that dispenced with the supernatural as an opposition to the natural order.

In other words, for Lovecraft, horror was not antithetical to the “natural order” — the natural order was horrifying; horror was not irrational, but the byproduct of rationality. In the atheistic model, when we see our Universe for what it really is, we should be very, very afraid.

Needless to say, this is unlike the Christian worldview. While the Bible teaches that creation is fallen, Nature is hardly at the mercy of primal forces. At the center of the Universe is not a “monstrous chaos,” but a loving God with “conscious purpose,” intimately involved in the affairs of man, extending mercy and exacting judgment. In other words, Jesus is the anti-Azothoth.

Likewise, the “dread” invoked by the Christian writer is dissimilar to that of the atheist. Scripture warns, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). This “fear” is pivotal to “Christian horror.” Whereas the atheist author invokes the fear of the absence of God, the Christian invokes the fear of the presence of God. The “horror” is in His existence, not His non-existence. Of course, this “horror” is for those who deny Him, ignore His warnings, and refuse His mercy. Sadly, terror awaits those on the “wrong side” of the Universe.

Both “Christian horror” and “Atheist horror” seek to invoke dread in their readers. However, “Christian horror” is the result of the “numinous,” while “Atheist horror” is the result of “nothingness.” “Christian horror” is based on the God Who Is There, while “Atheist horror” is based on the God Who Isn’t. “Christian horror” provides a way of escape; “Atheist horror” cannot. Heck, in the atheist’s worldview, the heroine can escape the clutches of serial killers and zombie hordes. But she must succumb, inevitably, to the Great Void.

Perhaps there is no greater horror than that of an atheistic worldview. Forget blood, gore, and ghoulies. A world without meaning and purpose is the ultimate horror. A universe that arose by chance, exists without meaning, where lives plummet toward annihilation is the worst kind of horror. The child huddled in bed, fixated upon the dark closet, becomes the adult gaping into the void of what, he believes, is a godless universe. And unlike the Christian novelist, the atheist author has nothing but more “dark closets” to offer their readers.

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Tagged as: Horror fiction

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

spacer Donald S. Crankshaw August 15, 2010 at 5:39 PM

I wrote on this topic, though more briefly, a while ago, on my blog, at www.donaldscrankshaw.com/2010/06/what-is-christian-horror.html. It’s an interesting question, how Christian horror differs from atheistic horror. I certainly disagree with those who argue that Christian horror is an oxymoron.


spacer John W. Morehead August 15, 2010 at 5:46 PM

Interesting thoughts. Of course, many Protestant evangelicals, and not a few atheists, would argue that horror and Christianity together represent an oxymoron, a thesis which I challenge as I have argued on my blog TheoFantastique. I think you are spot on with the mention Rudolf Otto, a source often missed by those who critique the connection between religion and horror in general, and Christianity and horror in particular. Keep up the interesting posts in this regard.


spacer Mike Duran August 15, 2010 at 6:41 PM

John, thanks so much for visiting. I really enjoy your blog, and have subscribed on Bloglines. I’m beginning to believe that those who argue that “Christian” literature and the “horror” genre are incompatible can only do so by narrowing the definition of “Christian” literature. The way today’s religious fiction market is constituted, Christian horror IS virtually an oxymoron. Thanks again, John!


spacer David James August 15, 2010 at 7:09 PM

Wow! Mike, this is a really great post! I’m going to provide a link to it on my Facebook Wall. Outstanding showing of the difference between the two viewpoints! Good job! spacer


spacer Nicole August 15, 2010 at 7:53 PM

Well done, Mike.


spacer Donald S. Crankshaw August 15, 2010 at 8:00 PM

One thing I quibble with is the implication that there’s nothing scary about God for the believer. I’m not sure that the Bible supports that. It seems that meeting God is a frightening experience, whoever you are.


spacer Mike Duran August 16, 2010 at 5:31 AM

Perhaps I should be clearer, Donald. I’m not inferring that the Christian has nothing to fear when it comes to God. On the contrary, the Book of Hebrews was written in part to Christians who were tinkering with the Faith. It’s full of warnings. In fact, the verse previous to the one I quoted is, “The Lord will judge his people” (Heb. 10:30). So part of the fear invoked by the author has to do with the believer, or professing believer, encountering their God. Thanks for pointing that out.


spacer Matt CArdin August 16, 2010 at 5:13 AM

Lovecraft, Christianity, Otto, religion, theology, horror — what’s not to love about a post like this? Many thanks for an engaging read to start the day.

You wrote: “Needless to say, [Lovecraft's view of the natural order as inherently horrific] is unlike the Christian worldview. While the Bible teaches that creation is fallen, Nature is hardly at the mercy of primal forces. At the center of the Universe is not a ‘monstrous chaos,’ but a loving God with ‘conscious purpose,’ intimately involved in the affairs of man, extending mercy and exacting judgment. In other words, Jesus is the anti-Azothoth.”

Oh, my. I humbly submit that you might find an interesting counterpoint to your words in some things that I said to Lovecraft News Network earlier this year, which basically serve as a lengthy amplification of the point Donald makes above:



spacer Mike Duran August 16, 2010 at 7:36 PM

Matt, thanks so much for visiting. Your new book looks fascinating, as was your interview. I think we might diverge theologically, at points. At their root, fear of the numinous and the nothingness may seem the same. Indeed they do to the recipient! Ultimately, however, Christianity and atheism do frame very different types of horror. The horror of atheism is inescapable. The horror of Christianity isn’t. Yes, this doesn’t lighten the potential terrors of a Judeo-Christian universe. It just depends on whether one is coming or going. Again, thanks for commenting!


spacer Brezeal August 16, 2010 at 7:22 AM

Totally agree. The worst horror is what will happen if atheists are right about the way things are. If there is no god, then all earthly horrors are a wash.


spacer Jay August 16, 2010 at 9:56 AM

I heard the same barebones debate before, when Christian death metal bands first started to get noticed. There were people on the secular death metal side that thought it was oxymoronic and who wanted to keep the genre “evil”, and the reactionary and conservative side of the church that thought these dudes were really devils in…Satan’s clothing. Both extremes are wrong, as usual, because sounds coming out of speakers aren’t religious-specific…but I think a lot of parallels can be drawn between the debates.


spacer David James August 16, 2010 at 1:38 PM

I fully agree, just look at what happened to Saviour Machine in the early nineties. Not to mention since then too. A lot of other bands have had equal problems, mainly in America, with a greater acceptance in European and other overseas English speaking countries. I have been comparing the current “emergence” of Speculative Christian Fiction to the “emergence” of the harder music of the nineties for quite some time now too. One of the main reasons I started Beyond the Charts – www.beyondthecharts.com – Speculative fiction and hard music, both from Christian perspectives, I just saw the two as a perfect match! spacer


spacer Nikole Hahn August 16, 2010 at 11:46 AM


I’ve never been fond of Horror except for the occasional Edgar Allen Poe story or other classical ghost stories.


spacer RJB August 16, 2010 at 1:54 PM

I always thought horror was a perfect match for Christian fiction. Horror is primarily good vs evil. (Most of the time good is portrayed as the winner, although lately evil has been winning more and more, think The Ring , the Drudge and Paranormal Activity).

I think horror is far less ethically muddled than say your average drama, comedy or even action movie, which often show morals and ethics as having slipper boundaries.

In your good horror story, evil is bad and must be destroyed by good. I think that presents a wealth of opportunities for a creative Christian writer to explore.


spacer Mike Duran August 16, 2010 at 7:41 PM

“I think horror is far less ethically muddled than say your average drama, comedy or even action movie.” Excellent point, RJB. Even when “evil wins,” as in the films you referenced, we are aware that EVIL won, not good. This, in itself, is a small victory for Christians. As always, thanks for commenting!


spacer Matt Cardin August 17, 2010 at 8:11 AM

This is an excellent subtopic.

We should bear in mind that good vs. evil is just one of several possible themes to serve as the backbone or supervening trope in a given work of horror fiction or film. David Hartwell, for instance, provided a seminal taxonomy of horror types in the introduction to his era-defining 1987 horror anthology THE DARK DESCENT. From its beginnings to the 1980s, he said, horror fiction can basically be divided into three types or streams: 1) moral allegorical, 2) psychological metaphor, and 3) fantastic.

The first stream is what you’re referring to, RJB, when you see a good match for Christian fiction in the good-vs.-evil trope that characterizes a lot of horror fiction. Hartwell describes it thus:

“Stories that cluster at the first pole are characteristically supernatural fiction, most usually about the intrusion of evil into consensus reality . . . . These are the stories of children possessed by demons, of haunting by evil ghosts from the past . . . stories of bad places (where evil persists from past times), of witchcraft and Satanism. In our day they are often written by lapsed Christians, who have lost their firm belief in good but still have a discomforting belief in evil. Stories in this stream imply or state the Manichean universe that is so difficult to perceive in everyday life, wherein evil is so evident, horror so common that we are left with our sensitivities partly or fully deadened to it.

. . . . “And the moral allegory has its significant extra-literary appeal in itself to that large audience that desires the attribution of a moral calculus (usually teleological) deriving from ultimate and metaphysical forms of good and evil behind events in everyday reality.

. . . . “In speaking of stories and novels in this first stream, we are speaking of the most popular form of horror fiction today, the commercial bestseller lineage of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, and a majority of the works of Stephen King . . . . This stream is the center of category horror publishing.”

By contrast or distinction, “The second group of horror stories, stories of aberrant human psychology embodied metaphorically, may be either purely supernatural, such as Dracula, or purely psychological, such as Robert Bloch’s Psycho. What characterizes them as a group is the monster at the center, from the monster of Frankenstein, to Carmilla, to the chainsaw murderer — an overtly abnormal human or creature, from whose acts and on account of whose being the horror arises.”

Then there’s the third stream, stories of the fantastic, which, as Hartwell’s excellent discussion indicates, really does categorically elude identification with the other two: “Stories of the third stream have at their center ambiguity as to the nature of reality, and it is this very ambiguity that generates the horrific effects. Often this is an overtly supernatural (or certainly abnormal) occurrence, but we know of it only by allusion. Often, essential elements are left undescribed so that, for instance, we do not know whether there was really a ghost or not. But the difference is not merely supernatural versus psychological explanation: third stream stories lack any explanation that makes sense in everyday reality — we don’t know, and that doubt disturbs us, horrifies us. This is the fiction to which Sartre’s analysis alludes, the fantastic. At its extreme form, from Kafka to the present, it blends indistinguishably with magic realism, the surreal, the absurd, all the fictions that confront reality through paradoxical distance. It is the fiction of radical doubt.”

I submit that while Lovecraft — to return to one of the main figures in your discussion of Christianity and horror, Mike — definitely invoked some of category two with his various monsters and psychologically abnormal characters, he completely and absolutely avoided the first category, moral allegory, since its basic assumptions and attitudes had precisely no place in his outlook or sensibility. And he mainly, obviously, worked in the third category. So the deep disjunction that you note between what he was writing about and the classically and typically Christian worldview, which is almost all about category one, is really and definitely there. And/but what he and the other writers working in the vein of fantastic or weird horror have done is to find and convey something resembling, fundamentally, a true sense of Otto-esque numinosity in the very fact of their stories’ worldview-upending and -exploding conceptions. And of course Hartwell’s taxonomy allows us to speak concisely about what August Derleth did to Lovecraft’s mythos (as referenced by, for instance, Kevin Lucia in his interesting comment below) by saying that Derleth remade Lovecraft’s third category, fantastic-oriented mythos into a first category, moral allegorical one.

In my own case, I have explicitly and deliberately brought together in some of my stories the classical Christian emotional and theological emphasis on Hartwell’s first stream with the ontologically and epistemologically subversive thrust of the third stream, to convey to the reader a sense that the classic Christian theological antitheses of God and Satan, good and evil, etc., are myopic because they emerge from and are preceded by a more basic and primal reality that can be likened to the “chaos” of ancient mythological cosmogonies, which necessarily appears horrific in a quasi-Lovecraftian sense to the human sensibility. (See Brian McNaughton’s unpublished introduction to my first book, Divinations of the Deep, for a discussion of this issue: theteemingbrain.wordpress.com/2006/11/06/brian-mcnaughtons-lost-introduction-to-my-book/).

So I guess what I’m getting at root in this really windy comment is that while horror can definitely be found compatible with conventional Christianity in a Hartwellian first category, moral allegorical sense — the seminal modern example being, of course, the already-mentioned case of Blatty and The Exorcist, since Blatty wrote that novel with explicitly Christian theological intent — there really is a religious or spiritual attitude to be found in horror fiction that categorically eludes and/or subverts this connection — but that still has direct implications for Christianity through its interaction with the worldview of Christian readers, whom it confronts with uncomfortable moral and metaphysical speculations and implications.


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