I spent the last week at Glen West, the arts conference sponsored by Image journal and held annually at St. John’s College, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. While there, Jon Stock and I participated in the film seminar, led by Scott Derrickson.
Derrickson is a screenwriter and film director, best known for his direction of The Exorcism of Emily Rose. His next movie is Sinister, a creepy film that screened to acclaim at South by Southwest and will open in theaters in early October. As these credits suggest, Derrickson works primarily in the horror genre.
It was especially interesting to hear Derrickson discuss his own philosophy and theology behind horror. He spoke of “dark transcendence,” where sublimity and even divinity is revealed in darkness—without or to the exclusion of inbreaking light. The primary theological demonstration and occurrence of dark transcendence is Jesus on the cross, abandoned and made to taste the bitterness of sin.
The ordinary Christian’s own experience includes times when we know no light and walk through the valley of the shadow of death, yet even (or especially) there meet God, if only in his silence. Psalm 88 is a meditation on such experiences. The despairing Psalmist cries out, “I am counted among those who go down to the Pit [of Sheol]. . . . You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep.”
The Psalmist is bereft: “You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them.” He is moved to the forceful rhetorical query, “Do you work wonders for the dead?. . . Are your wonders known in the darkness . . . ?”
For Derrickson, the horror film can be an occasion for meeting wonders known in the darkness, and for reckoning with the reality of evil and its horrible consequences. And as an exercise of art (as distinguished from reality), the horror film gives us a place to confront our fears safely.
For that reason, Scott was appalled and deeply disturbed by the Aurora theater shootings. He realized that the movie theater is a kind of sanctuary, a dark place where we are supposed to be safe to imaginatively face our fears. So James Holmes’s murderous act, besides being horrible in itself, was a sort of profanation, a desecration.
One other note. Derrickson’s creative guiding light is Flannery O’Connor, that master of a fiction of freaks and darkness. If you want to ponder the meaning and potential of horror as a genre, Scott said, read O’Connor and substitute the word “horror” where she employs the term “grotesque.”
That’s an exercise I’ll be trying as I read and reread O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners, and think further on wonders known in the darkness.