Michaelbrent Collings' introduction to the horror genre didn't start with an obsession with the occult or a fascination with gore. It started with a bully.
"The only thing I could do when a bully hammered me was to kill him off in a story," Collings said of how he became a horror writer.
These days, Collings is a best-selling author of scary stories. When he tells members of his LDS church that, he prepares for one of two possible responses.
"Some of them do this jump-start thing," Collings said. "But most people think it's fun and interesting."
Collings is one of many writers who walk the line between their faith and work that — at least to some — would appear to conflict with their spiritual beliefs. Yet Collings and experts who study literature and religion argue that religious stories and suspense share more qualities than many may think.
"If you look at the realities of horror, you're talking about demons and deeply evil things," Collings said. "It allows for some cool things to be explored. There's not a lot of other genres where you can do that."
Rise of a genre
Stories that inspire fear and "horror" as a genre are two very different things, Collings says.
"The most accurate definition of horror is whatever is on the horror shelf at Barnes and Noble," Collings said. "It's strictly a marketing technique. In the old days, they were just novels. Nobody ever said 'Did you get this new horror story?' when 'Frankenstein' was published."
By and large, Collings defines horror stories as sharing one aspect: Extreme fear. Fear is one place horror stories and religious stories intersect, he said.
Books Tell You Why blogger Kristin Masters wrote last year that stories of fear and the macabre were born out of the 13th-century Inquisition. The Catholic Church's investigations into heresy and witchcraft across Europe led to imprisonment and public executions that Masters says planted the seeds of horror literature in the theater and writing of the time.
"The resulting obsession with witchcraft would endure until the seventeenth century," Masters wrote.
Masters argues that often, horrific stories of violence and fear — from Shakespeare's bloody "Titus Andronicus" to Edgar Allan Poe's "Tell-tale Heart" to Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" — deal with moral dilemmas, sometimes in response to cultural shifts.
"The crowded cities had grown more impersonal, more violent, and suddenly one could no longer count on the goodness of others. It was an anxious time, a time when man's propensity for evil could not be ignored, and thus ripe for a work like 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ ” Masters wrote.
In the 20th century, Collings says, the genre earned a stigma for being unwholesome.
"There's good reason for that," Collings said. "In the 1950s, with magazines like True Detective, it changed into this pulpy idea about monsters chasing after women with their bodices ripped open."
In the 1960s, a more lenient movie ratings system was adopted and the Vietnam War brought more graphic violence into American life, Collings said. Horror movies followed suit, leading to films like "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" or "Dawn of the Dead," which began to influence books.
"That was the moment where it split off from gothic beauty of Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker," Collings said. "It caused the public vision of horror to be something very different. Most people’s views of horror are fed to them by movie posters, not books."
Darkness and light
Whatever the cultural circumstances, Christian blogger John Morehead say that when done right, stories of terror can lead readers to a moral catharsis also found on the pages of the Bible.
"There's a parallel between religious experience and horror," Morehead said. "In reality, religion embodies both the horrifying and the positive."
Morehead argues that the Bible itself is a kind of horror tale in that it contains endless tales of people traveling through hardship and darkness to get to the light of God. Think of Job, Noah or of course, Jesus.
And despite the genre's distraction with hopelessness in recent films like "Hostel" or "Saw," Morehead thinks many horror films and books still feature redemption that can ring true to Christians.
"Our number one horror monster right now is the zombie and I think it helps us process our fears about death and meaninglessness," Morehead said. "It's a sign of where we are."
The problem, Yale religion and literature professor David Mahan says, is that so much of the horror genre today — whether it be books or film — ignores the satisfying, cathartic qualities audiences need to feel vindicated. The key to what makes horror worthwhile to Christians, Mahan says, is if the story has some sort of moral compass, like a hero striving for good in the face of apocalypse.
"I think it is a worthwhile genre for Christians to explore, because it’s tapping into some deeply held interests if not need to appreciate that there is mystery in life and that it might lead to a confrontation with evil that changes us," Mahan said. "It can be illuminating to look at the dark side of things, but we must be careful we're not being too gratuitous."
Morehead and Collings both argue that in order to appreciate good, society must look closely at evil. Quality entertainment often does that, if audiences dare to look.
"You have to be able to open your mind and decide what's good and what's not, but horror can be a highly moral, religious genre. The story of Jesus had some horrible parts, but it was about the Atonement, not being nailed to the cross," Collings said. "You have to have balance or it doesn't tell the story of living in a fallen world."
You may also be interested in the following stories: