How Horror Stories Grant Angelic Perspective

Nov 29, 2017

How could anyone be so stupid?

It is this question we invariably ask while reading horror stories or watching horror films. To the vexation of viewers, characters in horror films are in the habit of naively walking down dark hallways, getting lost in the woods after sundown, and picking up hitchhikers in the middle of nowhere. If the characters in a horror story are not uniformly stupid, their IQs nonetheless dip in clutch situations. We shout advice to them, marvel at their blindness, and when they get skewered, we have a hard time really feeling bad for them.    

You can scare a cat or startle a dog, but only human beings experience horror. Horror is the realization that entirely avoidable pain, shame, and suffering has— because of foolishness and sin— become suddenly unavoidable.  Horror is the realization that life need not be awful, but we have chosen it to be so. In horror, we ask, “How did I not see this coming?” When our secret sins are abruptly uncovered, we are horrified and astonished we could have traded friendship, trust, and love for so little physical pleasure. We berate ourselves, chide ourselves, and recoil as images of our own shame break upon our imaginations.  Horror stories involve artificially stupid human beings, thus granting the viewer or reader an angelic perspective of man. We invent loopholes for our sins, act against our better judgement, though we know everyone in the great cloud of witnesses is watching, shaking their heads. Those witnesses know we have no excuse, despite what we say. We heap up judgement for ourselves and the angels look on in dismay.

Every horror story drafts on the final horror, the rejection of God. In Christ’s prophesy of the final judgement and in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the damned complain of a lack of information. “We didn’t know,” say the wicked. “We did not know you needed clothing,” say the cursed, as though they would have been happy to provide clothing if they had just had a little more information. So, too, the parabolic rich man who goes to Hades (in Luke 16) subtly accuses God of withholding crucial information from him. The rich man wants Lazarus to go to his five brothers and “warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment,” as though he might have also avoided torment if he had only known more. But the judgement against the rich man suggests that everyone who is cursed knows enough, knows better.

So, too, the high junior with whiskey on his breath who gets pulled over might say, “How could I have been so stupid?” although the question is not rhetorical. He genuinely wants to know how he acted against obvious, ready common sense. “I knew this would end badly,” he says to himself, astonished he could act against what he knew. He is, perhaps, being given a great gift; a relatively painless foretaste of the disappointment of those marched away to Hell, kicking themselves at having chosen so poorly.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the editor of FilmFisher and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names. You can find him on Twitter @joshgibbs.