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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Is "Christian Horror" Becoming a Trend?

by Mike Duran

So I’m minding my own business, listening to a conservative political talk show, when an advertisement for The Unseen and Field of Blood airs. Hey, what better place to feature T.L. Hines' and Eric Wilson's new thrillers than on primetime, mainstream, political talk radio? As if this election wasn't scary enough.

Frankly, it's good to see "Christian horror" making such inroads. Okay, so that's not the term we like to use. Just mentioning the word "horror" conjures images that are, at first blush, antithetical to everything "Christian". When gore-fests like Saw V, which opened this weekend, occupy such high-profile shelf space, it's understandable that writers of religious fiction would distance themselves from the term. Like it or not, the horror genre is usually equated with occult-laden splatter flicks aimed at indiscriminate teens or uncivilized adults. Whether or not that distinction is totally accurate, Christians tend to favor "thriller" or "supernatural suspense" as the term of choice and hedge at being labeled "horror writers."

So it was refreshing to hear one acquisitions editor from a Christian publishing house recently admit that the distinction between "horror" and "supernatural suspense" is purely semantical. As much as authors resist the label, popular Christian Fiction has its share of devils, demons, occultists, serial killers and varied creatures of the night. Frank Peretti's, This Present Darkness remains a landmark, one of the biggest selling religious fiction titles ever. The book is filled with descriptions of leathery, sulfur-breathing, black-taloned, drooling demons, battling majestic, handsome, angels. Melanie Wells' supernatural suspense trilogy sports a rather ethereal, anemic-looking antag with a penchant for haunting. And while Peter Terry may not be Pinhead, their aims are akin. Tosca Lee's Demon: A Memoir, is told from the angle of a angel, a very fallen one. The book has garnered so much buzz, it's led the folks at CBA Industry Blog to ask, Is Tosca Lee the Next William P. Young? So yes, Christian Fiction has its share of monsters and devils. Even Bigfoot shows up on occasion.

Though the line between Christian Fiction and the horror genre is tenuous, more and more Christian authors are skirting it. Some of that evidence includes:
  • Eric Wilson's Undead Trilogy -- The first installment released this month; its plot includes, of all things, vampires!
  • Sta Akra -- Sta Akra is Greek for "on the edge" -- A group of nine successful Christian authors like Tim Downs, T.L. Hines, Bob Liparulo, and Melanie Wells, pushing toward more "edgy" Christian Fiction.
  • Kathy Mackel's "Christian Chillers" -- It's a term she's coined to re-frame the "Christian horror" category.
  • Anne Rice's upcoming "Christian vampire" story -- As reported in Time magazine earlier this year, in an article entitled Lestat Lives, Ms. Rice says the story will be "redemptive" (in keeping with her recent conversion to Catholicism).
  • Coach's Midnight Diner -- Described as "A hardboiled anthology of horror, mystery, and paranormal fiction" with a Christian spin. The second issue is due out this December.
  • Fear and Trembling -- An e-zine sponsored by the folks at Double- Edged Publishing showcasing "horror and dark fiction" that "will not offend traditional Christian values."

Okay, so it's not earth-shattering, but things like this give me hope that the ocean liner that is Christian Fiction is slowly changing course (at least, broadening her horizons).

Maybe I'm in the minority, but when it comes to fiction I have little qualms about splicing the terms "Christian" and "horror." After all, some of the basic staples of Hollywood-ized horror (see: the Seven Deadlies, Lucifer, Hell and their associated torments), find their roots in Scripture. The Bible is replete with principalities and powers, wailing and gnashing of teeth, the slaughter of children, human sacrifice, souls in eternal anguish, decapitations, dismemberments, fire and brimstone and blood. Classics like Dante's Inferno contain some of the most macabre, disturbing images in Christian literature. And parts of the Book of the Revelations can only be described as pure nightmare.

Classic horror, though not always explicitly Christian, nevertheless uses the disturbing to explore the boundaries of existence and the human psyche. Yes, Frankenstein's monster is a bad-ass. But it's the questions about "human creation" that make the tale so unsettling. Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, are all morality plays of one sort or another. Their shock value serves only to prick our fallen sensibilities and illumine a greater good.

One of the main reasons we Christian authors distance ourselves from the horror genre is the disproportionate amount of crap found there. But there's a big difference between pointless splatter flicks like Saw, Hostel, and The Hills Have Eyes, and the supernatural and psychological terror of films like The Exorcist, The Sixth Sense, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Likewise, there's a decided dissimilarity between the "horror" of Dean Koontz, Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti, and the Texas Chainsaw Massacres of the world. Rather than shun the "horror" label, we should reclaim it. There's a big difference between exploring the terrors of a world gone wrong, where real evil stakes a territorial claim on human souls, and the grizzly, amoral exploitation that's pawned off as entertainment.

If any genre is ripe for the Christian imagination, it is "horror."

Whether or not we are trending toward something new in Christian Fiction has yet to be seen. But I would personally be excited about believers claiming -- or re-claiming -- a place in the discussion.

Your thoughts...

Tags: christian horror, christian fiction


  1. Mike, it's great to see you raise this issue. You make some great points. The real question, though, is whether buyers will, uh, buy into it.

    I'm not sure why my book is being advertised on conservative political radio (probably the one place I'd expect none of my audience to be), but I'm thankful for any exposure it can get. I would've preferred that it be featured on the front tables at Barnes and Noble with all the other "vampire" novels and such that are aimed at the Halloween market. Instead, it's stuck in the "inspirational" section in the far back corner.

    While trying to provide "safe" entertainment, the Christian market has allowed lines to be drawn between Christian fiction and mainstream fiction, thus marginalizing our influence in the world. I want my writing to be salt and light, but the constraints of this market tend to shoot down the chances of doing so.

  2. Eric, I believe it was a Thomas Nelson ad, and I'm guessing that the target was religious conservatives, rather than straight horror fiction aficionados. I absolutely concur about the marginalization that's happening. Perhaps that's reason itself to NOT label it Christian Horror. However, the marginalization issue seems to have more to do with marketing and spiritual content than it does actual horror elements. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Call me a pacifist, but I'm still bothered by overt violence in any genre. Sure, we must be true to the story, absolutely. And I write my share of difficult books with awful things happening to characters. I hope in crossing over to "Christian horror" we still reign in the violence as we ratchet up the suspense.

  4. Eric is far better able to comment on the marginalization of/by Christian fiction than I am, but the secular market is certainly guilty of it also. They have their own set of "rules" which restrict Christians who write from breaking into "their" markets because of the lack of graphic sex, violence, and language.

    And, Mike, I think your key word is "redemptive". When there are redemptive assertions included in novels, the boundaries expand.

    Mary, it kind of points to the interpretation of violence because in all honesty your first novel, while not graphic, points to one of the worst kinds of overt violence. Well done but overt violence nevertheless.

  5. Mary, that's why I attempted to distinguish between the Saw and Chainsaw Massacre type of horror and the Sixth Sense, Emily Rose type. One uses violence gratuitously, the other is more measured, executed within a moral framework, or integral to the story. Saving Private Ryan was one of the most gruesome films I've ever seen. But depicting the horrors of war was pivotal to showing the sacrifices of our soldiers. The Passion of the Christ was brutal. But the violence was factually true, and elevated our appreciation for Jesus' offering. Showing violence can be a big part of truth-telling. So should we scrub it from our works entirely? I'm not so sure...

    I also think there's a misconception that contemporary horror is 90 percent blood and guts. For the last four years I’ve read The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthology, edited by Kelly Link and Ellen Datlow. The majority of the horror in its pages is psychological, rather than visceral, and often very literary. There really is some powerful, thought-provoking horror being written. Dean Koontz, who is still found in the Horror section, is currently writing some of the most spiritually thought-provoking stuff on the market. He speaks from a Christian worldview and, yes, there is some mild gore and violence in his stories. But it does not dominate the tale. I think Koontz is a good example of what Christian Horror could look like.

    Thanks for your comments, Mary. Grace to you!

  6. Just to clarify, by marginalization I was referring to the way fiction by Christian authors often gets separated from the mainstream stuff.

    I know that some authors want to write books as a safe alternative for Christians. That's never been my intent. I feel called to reach those on the fringes of faith. It's hard to do, though, when my books keep getting shelved deep in the "inspirational" section. Stephenie Meyer, despite her Mormon beliefs, does not get her books shelved in the "Mormon fiction" section. And she's reaching a lot more readers because of it.

    Mike, I have no problem with the ad running on the conservative talk shows. I'm thrilled to have any radio presence. In my own experience, though, conservatives are not big fiction readers in general, and especially when it comes to edgier fiction. But hey, I'll take any exposure I can get.

  7. You must be speaking of southern conservatives, Eric. Out here on the left coast, we conservatives read all kinds of edgier fiction and write it, too.

  8. As always, great article, Mike.

    Nicole--You said, "but the secular market is certainly guilty of it also. They have their own set of "rules" which restrict Christians who write from breaking into "their" markets because of the lack of graphic sex, violence, and language."

    That is simply not true.

    As a matter of fact, I'm finding it far easier to write my stories for the secular market (and break into their publications) They are far more accepting of Christian themes than Christians. While there are slasher markets, that's not what we're talking about and Mike (in my opinion) made that clear.

    As a matter of fact, there's a conference (Mo*Con) held in Indianapolis every year in a church that focuses on horror and spirituality. It brings together all members of the horror community in a continuing discussion. I just got back from another conference in Ohio (Context 21) and panels included Christian themes in horror.

    I'm overwhelmed with gratitude that God opened doors in secular publishing and while, like Mike, I see the advances in CBA, I'm less than confident it will ever reach a level of freedom that I've experienced with the horror community, who have embraced me as one of their own despite my obvious devotion to Christ.

  9. Nicole, I'm an Oregonian, so I know exactly what you mean. On the other hand, the sales numbers show that edgy Christian fiction (at least that which is sold in Christian bookstores or the "inspirational" section) is not selling that well nationwide.

    I agree with Michelle. I think the place for writers such as myself may be outside CBA. I'm still hoping to see some walls come down, and I've been very thankful for Thomas Nelson's willingness to try something different (with my Jerusalem's Undead Trilogy), but the jury's still out.

  10. Nicole, a funny side note...In Oregon, I considered myself a conservative, but here in Tennessee I'm considered a liberal. I don't worry about the political lines and labels, but about my personal convictions.

  11. Great article!

    And great comments!

    I find I have nothing much to add. I would love to see Christian Horror step up a little more, so it's nice to see so many authors pushing that direction.

    Keep it up!

  12. Michelle, first of all I'm grateful you have found your niche for your excellent abilities as a writer. Secondly, I wasn't referring to "horror" in the "rules" reference. I was passing along what certain multi-published authors who used to write in the secular market have said about the requirements made to them by their publishers which is why they made the switch to Christian fiction.
    Devotion to Christ means you follow His lead, so go for it wherever it is.

    Eric, this is probably where the internet market does its best work. The availability of these books doesn't have a qualifier such as Christian or Inspirational--it's just getting the word out. Your newsletter presents your offerings and thoughts and those who desire the kind of work you do will pass it along to others who can buy the books easily online.

  13. Mike, I see you're stirring the waters, as usual. ;) Good to see such a thought provoking article.

  14. I grew up on Stephen King and I must say I like horror. I'm less a fan of suspense as I am horror or supernatural suspense or whatever you want to label it. As you mentioned Christianity offers both hopeful (salvation/Christ) and frightening (demons/damnation) in our doctrine, therefore I believe it is fair to explore both in our writings. Those not saved should be afraid. Those of us not living as we should, should be afraid. As with everything, there should be a balance of light and dark and in the end, darkness should not win, because in the end, it doesn't. That doesn't mean it never wins a battle though. Just not the war.

    So, I'm all for the genre of Christian horror, however, if it's not really "Christian", then why try to sell it within the CBA confines and have it shoved on a back bookshelf? Why not take it ABA?

    Great article, Mike. Excellent comments all.

  15. Mike, I think the fact that your article has sparked such a wonderful thread of comments and discussion shows that you picked a great topic and raised some terrific questions.

    Like Gina, I grew up reading Stephen King. More recently I've been reading Dean Koontz. One thing I find that both authors have in common is that their stories pit Good against Evil, Light against Darkness. To me, that conflict is what is needed in a good Christian Horror/Chiller/Supernatural Suspense tale.

    I'm still learning to write. I started my first work of fiction a couple years ago, then had to set it aside while I worked on a career change (bless Pewlett Hackard for laying me off after 18 years.) I'm just getting started again, and the topic you've all been discussing is the genre I want to write. But the more I've learned, the more I think perhaps I'm not cut out for CBA. I get the sense that the only folks that step into the Christian Fiction aisle are Christians. Which means that if I write for that audience, in addition to having to follow a lot of CBA rules, I'm really just preaching to the choire. But if I write for the secular market, I have a bit more freedom in my subject matter, but can still hold true to my Christian beliefs and values, write from a Christian worldview, and present it to an audience who might not otherwise hear what I have to say.

    Of course, I need to write it first. :)

  16. Woohoo, a Wayne siting. I guess the dark boys didn't kill you as I suspected. Please do write it Wayne. you're amazingly talented.

  17. Wayne, that is my dilemma too. I so love Christians and the Church, but Christian Fiction has become, at least in my estimate, far too narrow and insulated. The reality is that a talented Christian writer who writes horror probably has a way better chance of getting their stuff published in the secular market than the Christian market. Hopefully, as I mention in my article, those things are changing. But in the meantime, do we stand around and nag, rock the boat, and incessantly push the envelope? Or do we jet? Anyway, thanks for the comments!

  18. As oxymoronic as "Christian Horror" sounds, I think it does capture some sense of the tension between the two camps at work.

    I, myself, never specifically set out to get published in the CBA. Nor did I set out to get published in the ABA. I simply set out to get published. And I think anyone pre-published should have the same goal: write what you feel you need to write, and trust that it will find a home.

    I haven't felt horribly constrained by writing for the CBA, with the exception of excising language. And really, if I have to rely on a few f-bombs to get "realism" across in my writing, I'm doing something wrong. So I don't really miss it much at all; in fact, I think I'd have a hard time working it into my writing if I were suddenly with an ABA publisher.

    That said, I do feel there's a difference between ABA and CBA readers. And to be brutally honest, ABA readers are more sophisticated. I'm a little shocked when I see some reviews of my work on Christian book sites, with people decrying the lack of "Christian" content in a few of my works. I think, symbolically and metaphorically, the Christian content is rather obvious. Maybe a bit too obvious, as Publisher's Weekly said of their review of my second book, "The Dead Whisper On."

    I do find it troubling that a fair amount of CBA readers (at least in my experience) have a hard time seeing symbolism; we should, after all, be BETTER about seeing these kinds of things since many of Jesus's teachings were told in parables.

  19. Tony, I'm right there with you about the sophistication and symbolism. As believers, we've lost much of the beauty of art and metaphor, it seems. I, too, just wrote to get published. I had a few complaints about content editing with my previous publisher, but overall my main complaint is the issue that Wayne brought up: I want to reach nonbelievers, not just believers, and--ironically, don't you think?--that's very hard to do through the Christian market.

  20. Tony, you're right on target with the symbolism comment. I have a couple of people in the CBA that I trade stories with, and they catch the symbolism, but I consider them the exceptions because they're writers, too. The average reader doesn't seem to want to put forth the effort of trying to make connections.

    However, my experience with ABA readers has been opposite. It seems they're always searching for the deeper, hidden meaning.

    Maybe Christians have gotten lazy in their pursuit of excellence because they've stopped looking thinking they've done enough by accepting Christ? (Not to say there's more to salvation, but there's more to the Christian existence.)

  21. Re; Tony's suggestion that CBA readers are less "sophisticated" than ABA readers:

    I’m sure some could misinterpret this as suggested that CBA readers are simple-minded, naive, or uneducated. I don’t think that’s the case. Rather, it’s the natural result of how we’ve come to define Christian Fiction. By its very nature, Christian Fiction must have overt “Christian” elements — redemptive themes, salvation episodes, biblical quotations, references to God or a Supreme Deity, positive resolutions, etc. In other words, the more nuance and symbolism, the less “Christian” a novel becomes. So when Tony suggests CBA readers are “less sophisticated,” I think he’s referring to the expectation Christian readers have of their fiction. Because we are conditioned to expect the “obvious” Christian elements, we don’t look for the nuanced or symbolic.

    Thanks so much for the great comments, T.L. Rock on!

  22. Mike, you mention that we are "conditioned to expect the 'obvious' Christian elements."

    I do think this is actually a symptom of unintended ignorance. If we see this sort of conditioning in other political or religious elements, we deride it. Sadly, I think we as Christians have avoided the messiness of life by trying to put many things in tidy boxes or lists of seven things to help you be successful for God.

    My goals in writing include trying to push people to think for themselves, to dig deeper into their doubts and questions, so that they will come out on the other side in a closer walk with God.

  23. One of the main reasons we Christian authors distance ourselves from the horror genre is the disproportionate amount of crap found there.

    I disagree. Sturgeon's Law holds true across genres. There's a lot of crap in Christian romance, but no one feels the need to shy away from it. We distance ourselves from horror because our grandmothers disapprove. It's why Methodists can't be seen buying beer, "Pastor Encourages Marital Sex" is worth a headline, and my mother wasn't allowed to play cards. That's it.

  24. Hi, I'm the author of Twisted Christians. I published through CreateSpace, which is a division of TC is now available at Amazon and tons of other locations worldwide, but it's not popular. It is Christian horror, however, and it was very hard to write because I kept crossing lines that led me to places that I'd tried to avoid. I had no idea what I was walking into when I began this project in 2007. I wanted to write a book that would bring glory to God while appealing to Christians and nonbelievers alike. So far, I have heard nothing negative about it, which really surprises me. The feedback that I've received so far has come from Christians of various denominations as well as those who are nonbelievers. A lot of people are looking forward to the sequel. You can find out more about me and this book at:

    Thank you for creating this wonderful blogspace!
    Scott Meade


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