dark

Mormons and Horror: Light Within the Dark

Paper sponsored by the Association for Mormon Letters,

presented at Life, the Universe, and Everything writing convention

February 18, 2017

 

 

I am a horror writer.

I am a Mormon.

Whenever these two intersecting – and yes, they are intersecting – facets of my life are discovered, the response is invariably one of surprise, if not outright incredulity. Contrary to most people’s expectations, no one at church has every said, “A horror writer? Well, you are definitely going to Hell.” Indeed, the first person I tend to call when I want to watch a scary movie is  my stake president. That being said, even he was surprised when he first found out. Because it seems… what? Wrong?

And yet, as will be stated shortly, horror is perhaps the best-suited “genre” for Mormons; and Mormons are themselves the most horror-laden people… and neither in quite the way you would expect.

 

  1. Our Thoughts on Horror

 

First of all, we must discuss what people think of as horror, for that is a large part of the reason that horror is thought of as anathematic to the Mormon lifestyle. And we must then discuss why the public conception is largely wrong – i.e., what horror is versus what people think of it.

 

  1. A short history of communication

Throughout history, information has been conveyed in a wealth of ways. The first is physical. People do not tend to think of purely physical movement as communication, but it is actually the most-used. Albert Mehrabian came up with the famous rule that intrapersonal communication is comprised 7% of words, 38% of tone of voice, and 55% of body language.[1] On its face, this can be easily observed, but at an even deeper level it becomes not just obvious, but certain. I.e., it is hard to misunderstand a person’s intentions when he/she is hitting you over the head with a stick: you have done something that person does not appreciate.

Physical communication can also be seen in dance, wherein entire stories are told. In modern forms they are typically coupled with music as part of the storytelling medium, but the earliest forms of dance were performed alone.

After nonverbal, however, there came the oral: the picture of an ape-man grunting as he discovers how to use a tool in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most enduring in cinema. Underlooked, however, is the more important moment of evolution. The moment when the godlike Monolith appears to a bunch of creatures huddling in a cave, swatting one another in irritation as their only seen mode of communication; of thought. When it appears, they dance around the Monolith, they touch it, they dance back. And then, suddenly… they speak. The small punches and hits disappear, and all gather together to give the most primal, principle form of communication: they worship. They, in essence, speak together for the first time. The discovery of a tool is the evolutionary step most noticed in cinema studies, but the oral communication – the gathering together in communal grunts to each other and to something greater than themselves, is surely just as important a moment, unobserved in the movie before that time. Tools bring obvious evolution, but when the New Men gather and sing – community is born.

From this, then, was born writing – a natural confluence of tools and oral communication. From Sumer in ancient Mesopotamia around 3200 BC, and via the Olmecs or Zapotecs of Mesoamerica circa 900 BC spring the oldest-known “original” examples of writing – not just numbers, but fully-formed series of symbols conveying complex thoughts and information. The movement from tools to speech to writing should be a fairly obvious jump, given that the last one is a marriage of the first two. Speech focuses abstract thought, and that speech is then recorded in writing.

So now we have writing, and from this, written stories.

Almost.

 

  1. The arrival of stories

It is interesting to note that, though we have writing that dates back to 3200 BC, the first surviving work of “great literature” – The Epic of Gilgamesh (hereinafter “EOG”) – appeared over a thousand years later, circa 2100 BC. Again, it makes sense: a student does not jump from “I see Spot” straight to “Enlil made him terrifying guardian/Whose mouth is fire, whose roar the floodwater.”[2] A burgeoning civilization, tens of thousands of individuals struggling to work and live together for the first time, is even less inclined to make the leap.

That said, EOG, miraculously,[3] came to be. Humanity had enjoyed stories for its entire existence – Adam himself was told stories of Life Before, of Life to Be, and why Life was (the famous Mormon questions: “Where did we come from, why are we here, and where are we going?”). But EOG is the first great story to live that is not merely a recounting of what the Gods did, but of how we make sense of them.

And, appropriately, it is pure horror. A tale that centers around men and man-beasts who come to challenge one another in death and blood; of friendship found, only to be torn away by extraordinary pain followed by death; and above all of a king who is slated from the first to discover that he will die.

But in this death, he finds life. In this horror, he finds joy.

And this is the key.

 

  1. Books and booksellers

Long after Gilgamesh returned to Uruk, long after he discovered immortality was and ever would be beyond his grasp, written stories had passed from a thing of kings to a thing of commoners. Stories were bound in books. At first these books were still things of riches, beyond the dreaming of “normal” people. But eventually cheaper methods of paper production were found. The printing press was invented. Stories could not only be heard and seen, but read.

With the increased demand for books came an increased demand for something most of us fail to think of: booksellers. Mostly men, they opened small shops that catered to the needs and desires of their patrons. Though booksellers had existed in ancient Greece – it was, after all, quite fashionable to have a library if one could afford it – it was not until the 1800s that bookselling really took hold, primarily in Europe and the United States. Then came bookstores such as that of Kenyon College – the oldest continuously-operated bookstore in the United States, and third-oldest bookstore in the Americas – which was primarily to supply the Christ-seeking men of the college itself. Following shortly after, one could find neighborhood booksellers, catering to the men and women of the area, the people of their own communities.

In Stephen King’s horror novel Needful Things, a man comes to a small town. He operates the eponymous shop, a place of curios and antiques. It is only too late that he is recognized as what he is: a devil incarnate. Similarly, the bookstores came, cheap stories could be found…

… and with them, came horror.

 

  1. The booksellers’ prosperity, the root of our pain

As books became more popular, and booksellers more ubiquitous, a strange thing began to happen: the sellers no longer knew what they sold.

Early booksellers knew exactly where every book in their store could be found. A person came in and asked for a medical text. The proprietor took his customer to the third row, fourth shelf from the bottom, and… “Ah, here it is: Leidy’sAnatomy,’ in Lippincott’s Medical Works, is really quite excellent.”

“Do you have something frightening and strange, good sir?” “Ah, yes, there in the back is a new arrival: a book called Frankenstein: the Modern Prometheus.” Thanks are given, along with pence, and new book owners depart.

The pence do not.

The booksellers take them, invest them, and small bookstores are gradually supplanted by larger and larger ones – even chains of them. The bookseller cannot work alone, he must hire assistants. And, as is usually the case with assistants, they know less than he about the books.

“Excuse me, where may I find a book on the history of wars?” “Sir, this man wants a history of wars?”

And the bookseller, eventually tired of having to answer every single patron’s questions (why did he even hire an assistant?), now says, “I put up a sign on the fifth row. It says, ‘War.’ Our friend will no doubt find something there.”

“What, a book by Jane Austen? Try below the sign that says, ‘Romance.’”

“Oh, you wish a ghost story? Perhaps something by Poe?

“Try… horror.”

“Genre” was born, and with it that particular thing we call “horror.” But “horror” in the fashion that so many of us think is not a particular thing, it is nothing at all. It is a shelf. It is wherever Barnes & Noble have placed a particular book for purposes of finding it easily. It is whatever website label Amazon has given a book for purposes of selling it faster.

“Genre” is just a bastardized spelling of “sales.”

Many will no doubt point out that when they think of horror, they do not think of a bookshelf, they think of a story. A story with pain, violence, bloodshed.

To which I, the bookseller, respond, “So… Saving Private Ryan?”

“No, no. It’s got insanity. Men with knives and hatchets.”

“Ah, you mean like, Helter Skelter.”

“No. There need to be nude young people and illicit sex.”

Lady Chatterly’s Lover is in the ‘Romance’ section. Or perhaps ‘Erotica.’ Forgive my memory, there are just so many bookshelves – oops, I mean genres – now that it’s hard to keep up with them.”

This is an imagined exchange, but it highlights a very real set of facts. Namely:

 

1)     “Genre” is a forced fabrication.

2)     What most people think of as genre is in fact a list of “story elements.”

3)     The story elements most people think of as “horror” are found in other – mostly more acceptable – “genres.”

 

It is this last which is most interesting. Because horror was not always unseemly. There is no doubt that Shelley’s Frankenstein features almost every element of horror. So why do people think of it as literature? Not because it is so old (by today’s standards at least): even people who read it when it first came off the presses in 1820 (written anonymously by then twenty-year-old Shelley) did not say, “Bookseller, where can I find the horror book about the monster?” They asked for no horror, just for a rousingly good book that asked searching questions about the nature of man’s relationship to God.

Because there was no horror. There was only story.

Until there wasn’t.

 

  1. Why we believe horror is what it isn’t

If the “horror genre”[4] is really nothing but a space on a shelf, how is it that so many people know what horror is… and know the same things about it?

Because what they are thinking of is not horror. It is a horror poster.

As touched upon above, when people asked for Frankenstein, they did not ask for “that horror book.” They asked for Shelley’s Frankenstein. Books were all there were, and the only meaningful distinction between types of written fiction were whether they were told in poetry or prose.[5]

Books rose in popularity, and eventually supplanted plays as the most popular long-form storytelling media. That was, however, not to last. In the late 1800s, two inventions changed stories forever, and began the lie that we think of as “horror.”

 

  1. New media

Radio and television. By the early twentieth century, radio shows predominated. They changed elections of the highest offices, they provided news at a rate hitherto unimagined… and they told stories. Little Orphan Annie, The Lone Ranger, Inner Sanctum. Story after story enthralled, excited… horrified. Still, even this innovation paled in the face of what was to be the most life-changing invention of communication of all time (though the internet is poised to take over that spot): the motion picture camera.

With the motion picture camera, stories could at last truly be seen. Stage plays could be seen, true, but motion pictures allowed for a verisimilitude that could not be believed by most who first witnessed its final product. The world had, seemingly overnight, become a predominantly visual place.

The biggest booksellers – the publishers – saw a threat to their once-high position in media (by which it is meant they saw a loss of market share and corresponding loss of income). Books were books, no matter what – they were a collection of dark squiggles on light paper. But there were still places where they could accommodate the public’s desire to see things. Internal artwork became more prevalent, so people could see what their heroes looked like, or could witness a moment in the action. Even so, it is obvious that a dozen pictures – black-and-white, no less – tucked in the pages of a book will hardly create a media firestorm or a rise in sales.

That left the covers. And here we see where the idea of “what is horror” gained its first foothold. In a space of twenty or thirty years in the early 1900s (from around 1910 to 1930), covers went from predominantly black ink denoting the title, author, and publisher; to colorful artwork.

It should be no surprise, then, that people’s impressions of what a “kind” of book held were dominated by the largest publishers, who paid attention to one thing: what sold. If a book with romantic elements sold a million copies, the booksellers could take the cover element – an elegantly-dressed woman with a torn blouse, swept off her feet by a pirate with dashing looks and a muscled chest – and reproduce it over and over. Romance became a thing of rough, oversexualized men yanking beautiful, oversexualized women away from their boring lives and into adventure. Horror merited the same treatment, as booksellers inevitably discovered that a stark cover with “Frankenstein” etched across leather sold far less than a cover showing a hideous green face… and also covers showing a dark, oversexed man standing slightly behind a beautiful, oversexed woman with a ripped blouse laying on a bed.[6]

Still, even these methods would not gain every possible reader. Capitalism demands that money be made, and once the low-hanging fruit is taken (i.e., people attracted to oversexualized men and women), diversification must occur. Booksellers knew there were more people out there, waiting to be swayed and to part with their “pence.”

So what about showing the monster? Would that not gain readers attracted to that particular element, that desire of humans everywhere – the desire to be frightened? Or would that be going too far?

What about a melding of the two?

Now readers could find books that featured dark monsters framed in the light of an open door, hunched over and creeping toward women asleep on their beds. Suddenly, scary books had sex as a main element, regardless of whether the text actually delivered on the promises of the cover.

And movies, as they always do, made everything worse.

 

  1. Movies

By the 1950s, the covers of scary books featured sex and monsters galore. However, they were still tame by today’s standards: blood was hinted at but rarely shown; bosoms were evident, but shielded under carefully-placed swathes of fabric; and the monsters were, as often as not, shown by shadowed outline rather than by detailed rendering.

In the 1960s, two events in movies made everything change.

First of all, the Motion Picture Production Code (“MPPC”) was abandoned. This was the code through which Hollywood had self-censored for three decades. Before that, violence and sexual situations had been present – but the mores of the times still kept most films subtle as far as graphic violence or sexuality.[7] In the 1950s, however, the MPPC began its decline, sharpened when the United States Supreme Court, in the landmark case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, ruled that motion pictures fell squarely under First Amendment protections and that the New York State Board of Regents could not ban the short film “Il Miracolo” (“The Miracle”), which was part of an anthology film, and which featured the impregnation by a villainous man called “St. Joseph” of a disturbed peasant woman who believed herself to be the Virgin Mary.

The trend continued in the 1960s, as actors, producers, and directors clamored for more than the MPPC would permit. It was eventually abandoned in favor of the Motion Picture Association of America’s (“MPAA”) voluntary ratings code. Now, graphic violence and nudity could be shown with the mere appendage of an “R” rating. Even explicit sexual intercourse could be found, if a producer were willing to accept an “X.”

This was not the only change wrought in the 1960s. In 1962, as part of its anti-communist policies, the United States began a period of heavy military involvement in Vietnam. By 1963, there were over sixteen thousand U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. Nor were they the only newcomers: hundreds of journalists arrived, as well, providing coverage of the war at a level never before seen in history. Indeed, Vietnam was dubbed “the living room war,” with families gathered in their living rooms to watch video – often graphic, depicting violence and even on-screen death by various means. Never before had so many people been offered a window into the true horrors of war. Never before had the average person known so much of a faraway conflict.

And never before had media executives realized just how seductive the call of overt prurience could be. With the advent of the “living room” war came the realization that ratings could be bought with violence and sex. Pushed by the need for ever-greater profits, media organizations began pushing overtly violent and sexual advertisements and – almost as an afterthought in some cases – explicitly violent and sexual content.

This was fueled further by the “sexual awakening” of the 1960s. Bras – before then just another undergarment to be carefully covered and ignored – were now shown in public, sometimes the entire subject of news reports. “Free love” could be found on news and entertainment alike, not to mention its reality for many people’s day-to-day lives.

Violence. Sex. A perfect marriage – or perhaps a perfect storm.

The level of graphic content in movies surged, in no small part because people gradually became inured to what had previously pushed the envelope, and now demanded more and more. Sex sold in abundance, and violence did not push people away, it called them in.

Horror was not the leader in this, it was simply swept up in time’s current, along with everything else.

The 1970s and 1980s continued this trend, though “horror” movies and stories still carried something in common, a characteristic that all such stories carried from the beginning: they were morality plays. From The Epic of Gilgamesh to Beowulf to The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, scary stories invariably existed within the framework of a moral universe. Gilgamesh finds out he must die, then realizes that his flawed, short life is the best gift he could possibly receive. Beowulf realizes the harsh effects of envy and vengeance. Dr. Faustus realizes that repentance is powerful, but it must be exercised in God’s time.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was more of the same. Teens discovered that drinking, smoking weed, and having premarital sex was a sure recipe for disembowelment. Young girls found that strength in the face of nightmares could win out. Parents were taught that their children had value, and should be listened to (both relatively new cultural ideas). Scary movies were simply educational tales. Never take candy from a witch – or strangers. Do not be taken in by the sensuousness of foreigners (as in Dracula) – or by the forbidden pleasures offered by a classmate. Strength is not found by seeking to rise above the Gods – or by anything other than your own inner self.

In the 1990s, though, audiences became jaded and grew tired of the morality framework of previous “horror” movies. They turned to cynical, meta-views of their own lives, and their own horrors. It is no surprise that the most successful horror franchise of the 1990s was Scream, a slasher-style film whose true genius is not in finding a new way to punish sinners, but in its ability to point out the (perceived) silliness of the stories that had gone before. The killer Ghostface is almost an afterthought, providing fewer kills than opportunities for the characters to discuss how film intersects with life, what happens when people break rules, and whether any of those things really matter.

Morality turned to cynicism, and cynicism then morphed to nihilism. The new millennium saw the rise of a new kind of horror, and one that indelibly linked the genre to a new level of pain: torture porn, which, like Scream, provided the new decade’s most profitable horror franchise.

In 2004, the movie Saw was released. At its heart, it was actually a throwback to an older style of horror and was highly redemptive. Its antagonist, Jigsaw, kidnaps a number of men and women and offers them chances to escape various deathtraps. The outcome will be either death or a new appreciation for the life they have (shades of that first story, The Epic of Gilgamesh). However, the story received far less notice than the methods it employed to tell that story. The tortures devised were complex and ingenious. They were also bloody to the point of near-obscenity.[8] Among others, Jigsaw employed a trap that would rip the victim’s jaw completely apart, a scenario that required its victim to saw off one of his own feet to survive, and a man given the choice to either kidnap a woman and her young child or die of a slow-acting poison.

No one knew, noticed, or cared that much of the gritty, dark, bloody look of the story was more about budget limitations than intent.[9] It was, suddenly, for a large percentage of the movie-going audience, all about the kills.

Is it any wonder, then, that when most of us think “horror,” we think not of a reasoned definition, but of a movie poster representative of our time? Of a woman hanging upside down, implicitly nude and awaiting torture. Of dismembered fingers spelling out the number of the newest movie installment. Of pain-ridden women whose tortured bodies form the figure of a skull.

This, for most people, is “horror.” And this, for all people, is what horror is not.

But what is it?

 

  1. Our reality

 

The penultimate sentence of the last part is something of a deception. Though Saw had a definite moral center, and clear hope by the filmmakers for some pedagogical effect, its followers did not. Each succeeding movie in the series became more and more about what kind of cruel deathtrap could be composed. Ditto a step-child series: Eli Roth’s Hostel movies, which centered around places where the rich could pay to torture and kill victims – mostly hormonal college kids out for a last fling before real life set in – in any way they could devise. The characters in these movies matter little. The blood and the nudity matter a great deal.

The very reality of these movies proves that there are, indeed, “horror” stories which fit fully and exactly with most people’s conceptions of the genre. But they are not all. They are not even the most important. And that, finally, is where Mormons and their relationship with horror makes its entrance.

There are two kinds of horror. The first are those that, like the progeny of Saw, exist to shock and dismay their audiences. Essentially, these movies and books exist to kick their audiences into a psychic sewer. They do not merely describe the offal that passes below our notice every day of our lives, they take their audiences into the sewers themselves, kick them until they have no choice but to fall in… and then leave them there. For most Mormons – and a large percentage of the general populace – these movies serve no good purpose and are best ignored.

But what of the second kind? This is the type of horror that not only attracts some Mormons, but actually represents the most important aspects of this religion.

I was once asked an important question while walking between meetings at church. The man who asked was not being spiteful or making fun; he honestly wanted to know: “How can you write those things? Why do you want to cut people’s hearts out like you do?”

I knew that this brother member had never read any of my books or stories, or seen any of the films that I had written. He was asking not about what I wrote, but how I could write a story like Saw V or Hostel or The Human Centipede (all of which feature grotesque ad images).

My response was simple, and true: “I don’t cut out people’s hearts. That’s not my goal. What I want to do is rip their hearts out, take everything away, then throw the heart into the darkest crevasse I can find.”

The brother was agog. “Why would you do that?” he finally stammered.

“Because it’s only when you take everything away from someone, and throw their heart – their essence, their soul – into the deepest dark that you can show them what happens next. Only in the lowest places can we see that we are enough to climb out. That we don’t need a fancy car or a beautiful girlfriend or anything else to climb into the light. We just need the one thing given to us without interruption our caveat: our spirits. And if the dark is too thick, the pit too deep for us to climb out of, then so much the better. Because that is the moment when we receive Grace. The darkness falls away, and the hand of God reaches down to pluck us up from the place where we were lost.”[10]

The first kind of horror pushes us into the dark for the dark’s sake. The second kind pushes us into the dark so that we may see the light. And far from being anathema to Latter-day Saint (“LDS”) beliefs, this is a core LDS truth.

 

11 For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

12 Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God.

13 And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away. (2 Nephi 2:11-13; emphasis added.)

 

As a basic matter, LDS beliefs demand that good be paired with evil. Without evil, good cannot be seen – or at least, cannot be seen for what it is, and appreciated. Without the dark, light cannot exist. Without horror, there can be no redemption.

More than this, though, Mormons positively revel in horror. Not in going to the movies to see what new trap Jigsaw has created. Not in watching nude teens bounce until they are inevitably massacred in buckets of gore. Not in any of the “first” kind of horror.

But our entire faith is built upon Christ. And the chief cornerstone (1 Peter 2:6) is steeped in horror. In the darkest hours, followed by the light. In the second kind of horror.

To return to the brother who questioned how I could write such tawdry things. He asked about the blood, the sex. I reminded him of Zarahemna, who was not only scalped but actually saw his scalp affixed to a sword and waved about in the air – an image comparable to anything in the Saw series. I talked about the story in Judges 19:27-29:

 

27 And her lord rose up in the morning, and opened the doors of the house, and went out to go his way: and, behold, the woman his concubine was fallen down at the door of the house, and her hands were upon the threshold.

28 And he said unto her, Up, and let us be going. But none answered. Then the man took her up upon an ass, and the man rose up, and gat him unto his place.

29 ¶And when he was come into his house, he took a knife, and laid hold on his concubine, and divided her, together with her bones, into twelve pieces, and sent her into all the coasts of Israel.

 

Yes, he cut his lover into twelve pieces and mailed them all over the country.

“What about sex?” asked the brother.

I will not go into detail here, but suffice to say the scriptures are replete with sex, some of the tamest of which involves King David looking upon a nude woman as she bathes, and eventually having her husband killed so he can sleep with her.

Like horror, however, the best of Christianity is not defined by sex or by violence. Like the best of horror, the best of Christianity is defined by light followed by darkness, and darkness by light. At the end of our conversation, I leaned in close to this good brother, and whispered, “You know what the darkest horror story I’ve ever heard of is?” He looked interested, so I continued. “It’s awful. Truly horrific. A man does nothing but good, and instead of being treated well, he’s betrayed by a friend, has the skin literally torn in chunks off his back by a whip designed with just that purpose in mind, has three-inch-thorns plunged into his head, and then is nailed to a cross while people watch him suffer for hours.”

My friend blinked. A small smile curved his mouth. “I get it,” he said.

 

  1. Mormon horror, Satan’s horror

 

Horror is like anything else. It is a thing that can be used for good, or for ill. Sex can be perverted to pornography, service to a quest for power over others. Horror can be used to show the evil that looms everywhere, including within us, or it can be used to show that redemption is possible – even inevitable.

I frequently hold forth that horror is the most moral of all genres – or at least the most potentially moral. People who have never read a book by Stephen King or Dean Koontz will often judge them as sleazy or evil, while unaware that, unlike in your average scifi or fantasy, both men are not only concerned with the great questions of our religion (Where did we come from, why are we here, where will we go?), they are positively obsessed by them.

In The Stand, widely seen as King’s best single-volume work, two groups gather after a plague that nearly wipes out humanity.[11] They are explicitly evil and good, with the evil group gathering in Las Vegas (obvious thematic reasons why), and led by a character who appears in many of King’s books. Known as the Walkin’ Dude or the Man in Black in The Stand, he promises his people safety and security. They just have to bow to him and abdicate the power of all their decisions to him. And the effect (at least for a while) is that the people in Las Vegas are united and safe, and quickly moving back to the civilized world they recently lost.

Contrast that to the group of “good” people, who constantly bicker and fight amongst themselves. Defections to the “bads” are regular, and little work can get done because the people in the good group for some reason feel themselves free to disagree, to argue, to fight about every little thing. In sum, to choose for themselves.

They are also led by a Prophetess.

This is no error, and it is no unusual moment. In thrillers, mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy, people who profess to speak for God are either dubbed insane or malicious, or (in the case of fantasy) are mouthpieces for the gods of that universe, who rarely bear any resemblance to the gods worshiped by humanity today. In both cases, pedagogy is rare, and when it appears is often if not usually confined to the idea that Religious People Are Bad.

In horror, however, as in The Stand, prophets and prophetesses are not only real, they are the only path to salvation. The prophetess in King’s story leads the people to a promised land, where they will not be safe with no condition, but can become so if they make the right decisions. Her power rests not on physical force (she is an old, old woman), but in the fact that she is close to God, and the twin fact that those who listen will come closer to Him and His protection.

In the end of The Stand, King goes a step further as he all but testifies that God does live, and does watch out for us. The Walkin’ Dude’s people are set to kill all the righteous, and most of the good people’s leaders are set to be tortured and killed in view of all. What happens? The Walkin’ Dude conjures forth a ball of fire to destroy a dissenter, and in that moment “The Hand of God” (literally, that is what it is called in the text) takes the evil leader’s magic and turns it against him, setting off a nuclear warhead and destroying the wicked en masse.

The Hand of God. The good people have done their best, but it is not enough. Only intervention, saving Grace, can save them. In the words of a Book of Mormon prophet, King’s protagonists are saved “after all [they] can do” (2 Ne. 25:23). Again, this is a uniquely “Mormon” concept… unseen in most religions, that is, but prominent in works of horror.

In a similar vein, Dean Koontz’s novel The Taking features a second flood, set to destroy the earth. Only the righteous are saved, and these by the intervention of creatures that are explicitly shown to be angels.[12] In The Face, a soul is literally shown descending to Hell, only to be redeemed by an angel who takes that soul to Heaven instead. In The Darkest Evening of the Year, a dog is vested with God’s power and saves a child who suffers a mental disability (which renders her innocent and incapable of sin).

The list goes on.

 

  1. The “Horror” Part of Horror

It is true that horror exists with pain. The same could be said of life. Horror is often interwoven with sex as a motivating factor. But sex, we know, is part of a holy sacrament, and sexual interaction was part of Gods first commandment to Adam and Eve. Unlike many religions, Mormons do not shun sex, they embrace it, though they believe it is to be exercised within the boundaries the Lord has set, which we call “chastity” for short.

Pain can be used as an end, or it can become a way of recognizing joy. Sex can be used to grow closer to a spouse and to bring more of the Lord’s waiting souls to Earth, or it can be misused and perverted in fornication, pornography, and more. None of these facts make trials (the Mormon name for pain) or sex into evil things. They simply show the reality that Satan knows well how to pervert the good. In like manner, the fact that some horror misuses its power does not make the “genre” into a bad one.

Instead, horror can be seen as a uniquely “Mormon” experience. In redemptive horror, blood is not the principle subject, sex is not gratuitous. Both are there to set the stage for final reward and ultimate release.

This is not to say that “good” horror stories must end happily. In my novel Apparition, for instance, all the characters suffer painful – even deadly – fates. But what makes it (in my opinion) bearable, is that the pain exists within that all-important moral framework. For me the story was, first and foremost, about the effects of child abuse and parents who put themselves above their children. Such things do not end well – not for the parents, not for the children. So the story I told ended badly. But it ended badly with the aim of telling a greater story: that we can change. That we can be better. That our mistakes can be forgiven, and our souls redeemed.

 

  1. Conclusion

 

Redemption. The word has come up often in this paper, and that is because it must. For horror is all about redemption. Horror stories can be about evil for its own sake, but they should be – and so often are – simply retellings of the First Story. The story of a man who, before we were born, volunteered to save us. Who “is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:3). A man who literally bled from his pores (and what a horrifying scene that must have been!) as he suffered not just our sins, but our infirmities and pains of every kind (Matthew 8:17). Pain suffered by one man, who was literally tortured as he knelt alone in Gethsemane, followed by the torture of scourging, having a crown of thorns pressed into his flesh, and finally the long misery of crucifixion.

But this is not all. This is not what makes the Savior’s story True Horror. It is the redemption that does this. The moment where He descends from Heaven, and shows Himself to Mary. The body He still holds, and which shows we will all live again in the flesh. The fact that He will one day return, and finally destroy the pain that has gripped us all.

Horror is not about the pain. It is about the relief. It is not about the blood, but about the healing. Even if the healing leaves scars, those scars can then be used to prove the reality of the blessing, just as Christ used his scars to prove who he was and that his blessings were real.

Horror – good horror, real horror, true horror – always asks questions. Three, in fact:

Where do we come from?

Why are we here?

What comes next?

And horror, for that reason, is not only appropriate for Mormons, when properly executed it is a uniquely Mormon experience.

[1] Mehrabia, Albert, Silent Messages (1971), Wadsworth.

[2] Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet II.

[3] And, in a very “Mormon” fashion, this miracle is not the only one, nor do such miracles cease in ancient days.

[4] In a stunning exhibition of hypocrisy, in spite of all that has gone before I will refer to “genre” often moving forward. This refers not to the actual definition of the word that I have set forth, but to the “idea” that so many hold of what a genre – particularly horror – really is.

[5] Prose is actually a relatively new form of storytelling, which only slowly gained in popularity after the invention of moveable type.

[6] This is not a facetious example. See Lion’s Publishing 1957 edition of the book.

[7] Though there are notable exceptions, such as Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross, in which female nudity is highlighted; and others which contained profanity or fairly graphic violence.

[8] Obscenity in a legal sense. Obscenity as a general impression is an extremely plastic thing, but as a legal category there are specific steps taken to determine it. This is important since, as opposed to mere pornography, obscenity enjoys no First Amendment protections.

[9] See Scott Tobias, “Saw creators [sic] Leigh Whannell and James Wan,” The Onion A.V. Club, October 29, 2010 (recovered February 12, 2017 at http://www.avclub.com/article/isaw-icreators-leigh-whannell-and-james-wan-46975).

[10] This is actually not a “prettying up” of my response; I gave it verbally much as it is written here, because I had long thought about this and realized its veracity. If not, I could never have begun writing horror for a living.

[11] Itself a story with obvious scriptural parallels.

[12] Interestingly, most of those saved are children, and the reasoning tracks that in Moroni 8.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, MbC Must-read