Horror Fiction And Catholic Theology – A Rhetorical Synthesis, Part 2 (Gavin Hurley)

The following is the second of a two-part-series. The first can be read here.

What specifically sets horror apart from other genres such as fantasy and science fiction? The distinction can be distilled down to the genre’s affect of fear. As already established, horror is distinctive from other genres in that it fosters a feeling of fear in the audience. Some skeptics may think that fear, as an off-putting emotion, should be categorically avoided when discussing Catholic truths.

However, the affect of fear can serve a rhetorical role in Catholic discourse. As simply noted by F.X. Schouppe S.J., in his imprimatur text Dogma of Hell, sometimes the love of God can motivate people toward a more pious attitude; while other times, fear of damnation can motivate people toward a more pious attitude. In fact, Schouppe points out that even the benevolent Jesus made people afraid to warn others against the dangers of damnation.[1] Fear can offer an appropriate emotional response to eternal damnation.

Consequently, if horror fiction evokes fear in response to the Catholic reality of eternal damnation, then the response can be warranted because it can motivate a sinner to change their behavior and embrace a more pious, penitent life. As maintained by Thomas Aquinas in Part I-II, Question 24, Article 3 of the Summa Theologiae: if moderated by reason, passions can foster the moral life;[2] therefore, fear, as a type of passion, can be tempered to motivate individuals toward goodness.

Besides acting as a rhetorical motivator, how can fear be philosophically reconciled within Catholic piety? Using Aristotle as a touchstone, Thomas Aquinas explains that fear is a “special passion of the soul” specifically because fear is based on an external object. Like the special passion of hope which looks toward “a future good, difficult but possible to attain,” fear looks toward “a future evil, difficult and irresistible.”[3]

Consequently, fear has to be directed toward an external object or condition. According to Aquinas, one cannot fear oneself.[4] Additionally, Aquinas explains that people become afraid only if there is a chance they can actually escape the imagined future of corruption or pain. If the future is fully certain, then one does not need to be afraid.[5] Subsequently, fear, within moderation, can help an individual “take council and work with greater attention” so that they can evade corruption and pain.[6] Aquinas states, fear only “hinders action” if it interferes with the functioning of one’s ability to clearly reason.[7]

Twentieth-century German Catholic theologian Josef Pieper explains how fear can actually strengthen the health of one’s soul. Gesturing to natural law, Pieper notes that the “correspondence to reality is the principle of both health and goodness.”[8] He further explains that since fear is a natural part of reality, then it can help facilitate health and goodness. He also mentions that in modern culture, we often try to reassure ourselves to the point of attempting to eliminate fear completely from our lives.[9] Pieper clarifies that fear can play an important guiding role in our lives. After all, he states, “nothing is so fearful that the strong cannot bear and endure it with dignity.”[10]

As noted by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics and restated by Pieper: courage, as a cardinal virtue, is not the same as fearlessness, nor can courage be defined as being too overwhelmed by fear—as that will lead to cowardice. Rather, courage requires a moderate amount of natural fear. Pieper asserts that the “Christian rule of life will never teach that we should not or must not be afraid of the fear-inducing.”[11] He states that Catholic theology supports this claim.

Specifically, he explains that courage keeps human beings loving their lives in such ways as to not give up living. Similarly, a Catholic’s fear of God can be seen as the fear of losing eternal life. He claims that this is the “foundation of all Christian courage.”[12] Therefore, according to Pieper, fear is required to be courageous, and courage keeps Catholics living ethically and healthily in correspondence with God and the eternal law. Ultimately, Catholic Horror fiction can provide an imaginative venue to experience fear and thusly ponder what is means to be courageous in one’s Earthly life and one’s spiritual life. Fear serves a role within Roman Catholicism and therefore it can be purposed to help Catholic and non-Catholic readers and viewers of fear-evoking art become more courageous in their daily lives or in spiritual matters.

Shock Appeal

Some critics may view horror fiction as too shocking for Catholic audiences. According to these counterarguments, the abrasive quality of horror fiction seems to disrupt the peaceful harmony of a well-ordered soul. However, these critics may forget that Christianity has repeatedly used exaggeration and shock-appeal as acceptable rhetorical devices. This approach can be seen in the Gospels. Jesus did not shy away from calling himself the “Son of God” when speaking to skeptics. He shocked the disbelievers and offended devout Jews with these statements.

As a result, Jesus shocked audiences into listening to Him. In addition, some parables like the “Parable of the Marriage Feast” found in the Gospel of Matthew (22:1-14) use violent imagery to shock the audiences into understanding the primary message. In the parable, a king sends his armies to go kill and burn the cities of those people who did not accept his invitation to the marriage feast of his son. When the king finally gathered guests for his wedding feast, one particular man was not dressed appropriately for the feast. The king bound up the man, sent him into the “exterior darkness” where there was “weeping and grinding of teeth.”

The shocking content and aggressive tone of Jesus’s parable serves a rhetorical function. In the context of the parable, the king’s use of death and violence figuratively emphasize severity of dismissing an “invitation” to share in the divine life of God.[13] In more contemporary literature, the successful 20th century American Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor also used shocking plot points and characters in her fiction to escort her audiences toward an understand about salvation and grace. As a writer of dark fiction, she often illustrates violence to communicate Catholic themes.[14] For example, in her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the grandmother’s final epiphany is communicated from the barrel of a convict’s gun. He shoots her three times, symbolizing the grandmother’s need for God’s grace, something outside of herself.

In addition, O’Connor spotlights grotesque characters throughout her stories, such as the mother with the face like a “cabbage” in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or Hulga/Joy with the missing leg in “Good Country People.” In choosing grotesque characters, O’Connor highlights characters’ ignorance or misinterpretation of sin or the spiritual world.[15]

Ultimately, O’Connor wrote explicitly about her rhetorical use of shock in her fiction. In 1969, she claimed, “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”[16] With this quotation, she summarizes how and why horror—a genre that uses violence and the grotesque—can work as a rhetoric vis-à-vis resistant audiences. Shock startles audiences, specifically resistant secular audiences, into listening or reading about religious themes. 

As an imaginative genre where shock is expected as a genre convention, horror fiction provides an appropriate rhetorical vehicle for artists to awaken audiences into understanding Catholic reality. The shock holds rhetorical value: it helps jolt audiences into understand the faith and, by extension, grow in grace. This approach differs from that of more extreme horror—such as grindhouse horror films and splatter-punk horror novels—that use shock appeal merely as an end, not as a means. Instead, shock appeal acts as the means to carry readers and viewers toward a specific Catholic perspective.

Spiritual Warfare

Another common objection concerns evil imagery and satanic characters. Skeptics can specifically accuse horror films as being too severe especially in respect to the explicit depiction of evil, demons, and the Devil. Often, they appeal to the Catechism of the Catholic Church in such counter-argumentation. Specifically, they refer to Article 1868 about the “proliferation of sin”: “we have a responsibility of the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them […] by participating directly and voluntarily in them.”[17]

Therefore, skeptics posit that Catholics should avoid the risk of participating in obscene horror, especially extreme violent “torture-porn” horror (such as Hostel and the Saw film franchises) where the text itself draws viewers into sin, normalizing promiscuous sex, violence, and exposure to evil. Certainly, it makes sense for Catholics to avoid this type of hyper-gratuitous horror fiction. However, unlike this type of gratuitous horror, Catholic horror media can resist violence as an end itself and recognize violence as a by-product of spiritual warfare; these narratives can portray violence as terrifyingly evil and thusly should be avoided. In short, not all violent horror narratives or horror narratives that portray evil are categorically inconsistent with the Catholic mission. Many of popular horror narratives are indeed inconsistent with the Catholic mission—but the inconsistency unfolds from the intent of the artist and the text itself, not from the separate narrative ingredients.

Since the Second Vatican Council, Catholics sometimes gloss over the existence of diabolic activity. Contemporary Catholics can resist what they consider “unenlightened” discussions about Hell, the devil, or demons. However, 21st century Catholic clergy, cardinals, and popes remain steadfast in their discussions about Hell, demons, and the devil and argue that they still act as crucial Roman Catholic dogma. For example, in his 2015 book, God or Nothing, Cardinal Robert Sarah emphasizes the referential dimension of spiritual warfare in Catholicism and curtly proclaims, “Hell is a reality, not an idea.”[18] Cardinal Sarah lauds Pope Francis’s repeated discussion of the devil, especially Pope Francis’s homily of his first Mass as Pope, where the pontiff took a hardline stance proclaiming, “Anyone who does not pray to the Lord, prays to the devil.”[19] Both Cardinal Sarah and Pope Francis assert claims about hell as part of the Catholic spiritual reality.

Horror narratives that involve demonic possession and spiritual warfare invigorate a similar type of spiritual discourse. By forwarding referential claims about spiritual warfare, these horror narratives can offer similar powerful evangelical rhetorics. For example, Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order and a 16th century Catholic saint, became inspired to more fully practice Catholicism when he embraced a spiritual warfare angle.

When bedridden between the years 1521 to 1522, Ignatius read a 1511 edition of Flos Sanctorum (a Spanish translation of The Golden Legend, a popular book on the lives of the saints),which included a prologue by Cistercian Gualberto Fabricio Vagad. In this prologue, Vagad describes the saints as “knights for God” who served the “ever victorious banner” of the “eternal prince, Jesus Christ.”[20] Since Ignatius had worked as a soldier and enjoyed chivalric literature, Vagad’s militaristic rhetoric resonated with Ignatius.[21] Ultimately, it helped propel Ignatius into a more devout Catholic life and inspired him to found the influential Society of Jesus.

Representations of spiritual warfare can strengthen a reader or viewer’s existing faith. As 16th century Catholic mystic and saint Teresa of Avila advises: “Every time we make the demons the object of our contempt, they lose their strength and the soul acquires a greater superiority over them.”[22] By witnessing simulated instances of spiritual warfare in a horror book or film, the audience can cultivate this pious contempt for evil and thusly inwardly grow toward holiness. For example, the 20th century Catholic mystic and saint Padre Pio notably used this approach when he grappled with diabolic apparitions.

According to sources, demonic forces would throw Padre Pio from his bed, upend the furniture of his bedroom, and appear as deceitful illusions.[23] However, after he became more accustomed to the attacks, Padre Pio felt a deep sense of spiritual joy while he combated the evil spirits.[24] Because he was being tested, he became closer to God. Similarly, faithful audiences can use Catholic horror, specifically horror about spiritual warfare, as a means to inspire and strengthen their faith in a Higher Power against temptations of sin.

Conclusion

Overall, the genre characteristics of Catholic horror can demonstrate that religious discourse may not need to overly censor the genre to accommodate religious ideas. Rather, the individual creator or participant merely needs to understand how the genre’s traits can be deliberately used to maximize the rhetoric of the message. Genre traits can act as opportunities rather than obstacles. Often, critics of the horror genre mistake the genre as the message itself, rather than recognizing that the genre can serve the message.

For instance, a violent horror film need not be advocating violence itself; the film could be demonstrating the undesirable ills of violence. Simply, it depends on how the genre element is being rhetorically implemented in the context of the fiction. To read a horror text assuming an author’s ill-will can be over-simplistic. Rather, in effective religious horror, these genre traits can serve to the philosophical and theological ideology of the particular religion within the horror narrative itself.

In short, it seems that Catholicism does not need categorically censor such genre conventions. In An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 19th century Catholic thinker John Henry Newman discusses the development of ideas in respect to the nature of truth, stating, “The stronger and more living is an idea, that is, the more powerful hold it exercises on the minds of men, the more able is it to dispense with safeguards, and trust to itself against the danger of corruption.”[25] Strong systems of ideas can adapt to a culture and environment and maintain resilience without erecting firewalls that inhibit creativity.

This strength can preserve religious truth within horror fiction. In other words, the genre cannot pervert the truth if the truth drives the genre. Catholics can have confidence in the resilience and vitality of Catholic ideas. As long as the horror genre rhetorically instructs the truth, rather than misrepresent Catholic ideas for mere entertainment, the artist will not be contributing to the “culture of death.” Instead, the artist can offer a valuable communicative asset as they seek to expand the understanding of the Catholic faith in the empowering spirit of the Second Vatican Council. As a result, Catholic horror fiction seems to open a rhetoric that inclusively communicates Catholic theology to a range of religious and nonreligious audiences.

Gavin F. Hurley is an Assistant Professor of English at The University of Providence (Great Falls, MT) where he teaches writing and rhetoric. He has published articles on the rhetoric, religion, and/or horror fiction in numerous journals—including Journal of Catholic Higher Education, Horror Studies, and the Journal of Communication and Religion—as well as within various essay collections.

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[1]. F. X. Schouppe, Hell: The Dogma of Hell (Charlotte, NC: Tan Books, 1991), xxi-xxiii.

[2]. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1948), I-II, q. 24, a. 3.

[3]. Ibid., I-II, q. 41, a. 2.

[4]. Ibid., I-II, q. 42, a. 3.

[5]. Ibid., I-II, q. 42, a. 2.

[6]. Ibid., I-II, q. 44, a. 4.

[7]. Ibid.

[8]. Josef Pieper, “Courage Does Not Exclude Fear” in Josef Pieper: An Anthology, trans. Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1989), 72.

[9]. Ibid., 68.

[10]. Ibid., 69.

[11]. Ibid., 70.

[12]. Ibid., 71.

[13]. Robert Barron, “The Parable of the Wedding” (Podcast), Oct. 15, 2017, https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/homily/the-parable-of-the-wedding-banquet/4513/.

[14]. Ibid.

[15]. Thelma J. Shinn, “Flannery O’Connor and the Violence of Grace,” Contemporary Literature 9, no. 1 (1968): 62.

[16]. Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1969), 34.

[17]. Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 1868.

[18]. Cardinal Robert Sarah and Nicolas Diat, God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2015), 220-224.

[19]. Ibid., 224.

[20]. George E. Ganss, “General Introduction,” in Ignatius of Loyola: Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1991), 16.

[21]. Ibid.

[22]. Paul Thigpen, Saints Who Battled Satan (Charlotte, NC: Tan Books, 2015), 219.

[23]. Ibid., 176-177.

[24]. Ibid., 176.

[25]. John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (London, UK: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903), 188.

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