Ghost Stories

Vintage reads

Everybody loves a well-told tale. Emphasis on well-told.

As we travel through the second half of October, and grotesque stories assail us on television, in theaters, and in bookstores, I will be the curmudgeon who says, “Most of what is thrown at us is garbage.” Hollywood goes for the gross-out and the gore, rarely setting up the audience for the whys and the hows of the horror to come. The best horror doesn’t need a drop of blood and leaves the listener pondering the mystery after the story has come to a close.

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Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one such story. Don’t you dare run out for the Disney video! If there’s a film that can a hold flickering candle to the literary triumph, I’m not aware of it. Irving, known as the Father of the American Short Story, wrote this ghostly tale early in his career and published it as part of an anthology entitled, The Sketch Book.

Imagine his audience. The story was made to be read aloud in front of the hearth. No televisions, radios, or video games provided entertainment. The family hungered for words as the reader spun a tale allowing them to sense every detail in their minds. They could hear the footstep that caused a dry leaf to crackle. They could smell ash from the campfire in the deep woods. They could see the rosy blush on the maiden’s cheek and taste a just-picked apple.

Our generation could learn from the folks of two hundred years ago. I invite you to read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow on a family night—it might take three or four family nights—but there are great cliffhangers where you can stop each evening. Keep a dictionary handy. I have an extensive vocabulary, but the early nineteenth century Dutch farmers in the Hudson River Valley outclass me. And be prepared for discussions on race. Irving writes with a matter-of-fact view of the culture of his time. African Americans were slaves or servants, rarely landowners, and even in the northern states, anyone of color was not considered equal to the white man. Please don’t judge the writer for authentically reflecting the times he lived in.

Once I read the story out loud, how I wished I had grown up in a snug farm house with no electricity! Irving provides beautiful descriptions of that part of New York in autumn, and his ironic asides brought chuckles and some outright laughter.

credit to nomiz25.deviantart.com

credit to nomiz25.deviantart.com

Several pages prepare you for the action of the Headless Horseman: Ichabod Crane’s personality and eccentricities, his thoughts and habits, the setting of farms and forests, and the rural culture. The author hints at the macabre, the ghost stories that originated and grew from Sleepy Hollow. If you like to dwell on the subtleties of horror, Irving gets you good and scared about the possibilities. Then, he arrives at the crux of the story: a woman. One always needs conflict in a good plot, right? And even centuries ago, unrequited love was not a new literary device.

Irving’s ghost story ends in perfection. Who really was the headless horseman? Brom Bones? After all, he married the woman in question. Or did the specter really exist? Not even Ichabod Crane could be sure. Only the headless horseman himself knows the answer.

 

 

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The Genre of Horror: Let’s Talk About It.

Scary Young Girls Face On Halloween Day

 

For many Christians, the idea that horror literature could be legitimate as an expression of faith and love sounds like heresy. After all, how can someone that claims to serve the God of peace and love purposely intend to terrify people? I mean, isn’t intentionally scaring people some kind of sin, or if it isn’t, shouldn’t it be?

Those questions are valid and move this discussion from mere literature into theology.  When you consider The King James Bible has 71 instances where there is a command to “Fear not.” The idea of frightening people seems antithetical to the basic tenants of the gospel.

Any student of Church History understands clergy have been scaring people into the Kingdom of God for centuries, does that make it right? No one’s figured that out yet. One of the most noted and famous sermons preached from our side of the 16th century is Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. That sermon is as much a horror story as any Stephen King novel. More important, the sermon underscores the one aspect of God that people seem to forget. Life apart from God is a life of misery and loss.

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Going to Hell is everyone’s right of choice and God doesn’t mind accommodating anyone’s desire to spend eternity out of his presence. For many of us believers the idea of being apart from God, now that we have tasted his love and generosity, is terrifying. Remember Christ’s words on the cross when the full judgement of the world’s sin came upon him, and his true parent turned his back to look away from the only Begotten of God?  Jesus said,  “My  God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That’s pure abandonment and fertile ground for the horror genre.

Horror is as much apart of the Bible as faith and blessing. Consider the beggar Lazarus wanting to warn his family about the judgement waiting for them and is told “no.”

Many people consider that horror is only about frightening people.  Who wouldn’t think that when looking at pictures of Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, or watching a long list of movies made for the sole purpose of shocking and terrifying audiences. What people don’t realize is that horror isn’t strictly about scaring people.

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Horror explores important topics like hubris, monsters, the unknown and our responses to things we don’t understand. This genre, when done well, allows us to explore our own darkness from the safety of our favorite chair. Some of my favorite horror stories such as  The Birthmark by Hawthorne, or Frankenstein by Shelly, or The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by Marlowe deal with the topics of unforgivable sin and hubris. These dark tales aren’t grossly gory, but they are entertaining and cautionary in nature.

Horror can also deal  with hope, redemption, acceptance and love. Don’t believe me? Read the stories I mentioned and decide for yourself. Of course not all horror is good or even entertaining. Some of it is genuinely awful, but that’s true of all the other genres too.

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There are those tender hearts out there that say,  “Fear is always bad.” To that response I’d  say fear as an emotion isn’t intrinsically a bad thing.

My family owned land and horses in Southeastern Washington State. It’s very arid and dry and home to rattle snakes, scorpions, millipedes, and a few other venomous creatures, Bringing the horses in from pasture could be an adventure as it sometimes brought me face to face with this innocuous little rattle from the tall grass or from beneath a sage brush. That little sound could make my heart stop, not to mention my feet.

I would turn around, and go back the way I came, why? Because I stood a good chance of getting bit by the thing making that sound.Was I afraid? Yes, but in a good way that kept me from harm.

Before we dismiss all instances of fear as ungodly. Let’s not forget that running away from temptation because we fear entanglement is completely encouraged. (1 Cor 6:18, 1 Cor 10:14, 1Timothy 6:11, 2 Timothy 2:22).

There are things that should genuinely should frighten us, like hardening our own hearts to compassion, kindness, and the leading of God’s Spirit. We should always fear injustice, bigotry, and genocide. The violence of Fergeson and Baltimore were far more horrifying than any zombie apocalypse, but very similar to those stories – except no one was eating brains.

Digital Illustration of a Dragon

The genre of horror serves a cautionary purpose, useful for discovering our own personal evils as well as exploring our own redemption, forgiveness, and pathos. I maintain that horror has as much place in Christian fiction as romance, fantasy, mystery, and any other genres you can mention – maybe even more so.

Click on the link below and be prepared for a pleasant surprise. It’s an award winning zombie short film that will surprise you and make you rethink the uses of horror.

Can you define the components of  horror as a genre? Do you think it’s appropriate for people who call themselves Christians to read it, write, or watch it? Why?