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The Virtues of Horror

By Sam Keyes

When I first learned who Stephen King was, at some point in high school, the full weight of my evangelical cultural instincts kicked in. I was horrified to find a friend reading horror fiction. This was not the kind of thing that Christians read (unless of course it was Frank Peretti). Otherworldly evils, non-Christian good guys, monsters, graphic violence, and probably no shortage of other perversions — not exactly the kind of thing you want to fill your head with if you want to be part of the Lord’s army.

I ought to say at once that my instincts were, if a bit on the paranoid side, not far from where they ought to have been, especially for someone of my age. For any level of maturity, in fact, there are real questions about what is and is not appropriate reading (or viewing) material for those who wish to keep their hearts and minds clean from the corruptions of the world. This is a real struggle among my students now: they wish to “keep up” with the culture and influence it for good, but they also worry about the serious moral problems of watching graphic sex or violence and writing it off as inconsequential because it is “acting.” It is prudent, I should think, to err on the side of caution.

Books are, maybe, a little easier. One still faces the problem of coming face-to-face, in some sense, with moral turpitude, but without the added complications of 1) the visual, which, experience shows, affects our thoughts and feelings in different ways, and 2) the secondary problem of supporting the possible degradation of actors portraying immoral acts. This isn’t to say that reading (or listening) to books saves one from moral reflection, just that the thresholds and boundaries are proper to the medium.

But my purpose here is not to offer a theory of how to choose what to read or watch. This was all preface to the odd fact that I have, in recent years, become a pretty serious fan of Stephen King. It started with the Dark Tower series, which drew me in as more fantasy than horror. As fans will know, the story of the Tower touches all of King’s previous stories in various ways. And so I was led, unintentionally, to some of the other classic stories — first Salem’s Lot and then, more recently, It.

I listened to It on audio, and, especially in that format, I can hardly recommend it in a general way. It inhabits, in a way different from the dark fantasy of the Tower series, the genre Horror. It would certainly be inappropriate, in my judgment, for younger readers. There’s a lot of bad language, a lot of sexual stuff, a lot of disturbing violence. More than anything, there’s a kind of psychological horror that, for me at least, didn’t scare me so much as make me feel ill. Several times, listening in the car, I had to turn off the recording because it was just too much.

Why bother, then? Why venture into this world of psychological and spiritual risk? Because there is something beautiful and true even amidst the wickedness and horror. (And as I say this I’m reminded of Andrew Petiprin’s similar comments in two Covenant articles on Stranger Things — a show whose story and aesthetic shows some obvious influences from the story of childhood heroes in It.) Through it all, It is a story of the power of childish faith, the triumph of good over evil, and the mysterious goodness at work behind all things, even at the darkest possible moments.

Near the end of the novel, King writes, “Not all boats which sail away into darkness never find the sun again, or the hand of another child; if life teaches anything at all, it teaches that there are so many happy endings that the man who believes there is no God needs his rationality called into serious question.” King is not, as a quick search around the interwebs shows, a “religious” man. He has, from what I can tell, a basic belief in a God or a high power, and this belief has something to do with his history as a recovering alcoholic and the 12-step method. But this sense of the mysterious and supernatural possibilities of the world suffuses his writing. There is a deep mysticism at the heart of the Dark Tower books — the quest to find the heart of reality and the determination to see it for what it is despite all the hurt and pain along the way.

In a classical sense, It, along with so many other King stories, is a comedy: it has a happy ending. Yes, people die; yes, there’s deep, terrifying evil. But there’s an amazing thread of hope running through most of these stories. In this way, despite the horrors on the surface, a story like It emerges with, frankly, a much more wholesome and even, dare I say it, Christian description of reality than what we see in many lighter and more “clean” works of fiction. There are, King tells us over and over again, horrible things in life. There is wickedness and cruelty, both in normal people and in our worst nightmares. But, even in the worst stories we can imagine, children can defeat the monsters. And that is a wonderful thing to remember.

Sam Keyes serves as Professor of Theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California.


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