The first horror film I ever watched was Chicken Run (2000). Those googly-eyed chickens with straight white teeth and heads shaped like human noses haunted my waking hours as a three-year-old. It took Finding Nemo (2003) to redeem animation as well as the moviegoing experience for me, but in that in-between time, my parents tell me that whenever they asked if I wanted to watch a movie, the exchange typically went like this:
My parents: Zachary, do you want to watch [insert film like Shrek or Treasure Planet]?
Me: No chicken.
My parents: There aren’t any chickens in this one, we promise!
Me: No chicken.
“No chicken.” That haunting refrain became my reply to any cinematic offering my parents presented. Yet as I’ve been exposed to films that would be more conventionally classified as “horror,” I often find myself asking: Why would people want to watch these films? Why purposefully experience something frightening?
In “Horror is a Smarter, More Diverse Genre Than You Think,” Sojourners columnist Abby Olcese writes: “The best horror films remind us that evil exists and that none of us are exempt from it. They ask us to question our feelings of complacency and security and engage with uncertainty.”
Likewise, columnist JR. Forasteros writes: “Horror by nature unsettles us … [it] insists the monster is under the bed, that the call is coming from inside the house. Horror disrupts our safe spaces, unsettles our calm and quiet.” Indeed, we should not run away from being frightened. What scares and horrifies us reveals what we value and love; the things that unsettle us can point to the ways where God might be calling us to pursue justice work.
I’ve watched the recent horror films below with one (sometimes both) eye(s) closed, but also with a posture of curiosity and hope: What might my disturbed feelings reveal? May watching these films lead to, as author Brandon Grafius writes, “an openness to what the experience of horror might be able to teach us.” May you experience this holy disruption.
Minor spoilers for the following films below
1. X (2022)
X focuses on a film crew who shoot a pornographic film on a rural Texas farm, only to face deadly consequences from its elderly owners. It offers some brutal musings on how shaming people for their sexual desires leads to trauma and hurt, but it also questions whether unbridled sexual freedom is imperative to a truly fulfilling life. What happens to those who never experience sex or are past a certain age of “desirability”? Amid the skin and blood, X articulates a hunger for a more holistic sexual ethic than evangelical purity culture or contemporary sexual norms.
2. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness earns points for being the first horror film from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but its exploration of the multiverse trope gives it staying power. As the titular sorcerer visits many alternate realities throughout the film, he sees what “could have been” if had he lived differently. In “How Multiverse Stories Invite Us to Envision Jesus’ Alternative Community,” JR. Forasteros writes that this concept of a multiverse echoes the biblical prophets who saw the world for what it could be, not just for what it was, a vision that “invited their people to an alternative life, one that refused to be enslaved to an empire.”
3. Men (2022)
Men follows Harper (Jessie Buckley) as she travels to a countryside village after her husband’s death. We soon realize the men in town (all played by Rory Kinnear) are “variations on the same face,” writes Brandon Grafius in “‘Men’ Shows Christianity’s Horrifying Legacy of Blaming Women,” an “elaborate system of doppëlgangers, all focused on blaming Harper for any number of sins.” Likewise, Abby Olcese writes that in both form and theme, the film creates a sense of dreadful foreboding, expressing “[for Harper there’s] no emotional refuge that can’t be weaponized against her. … It is … undeniably powerful to create a sense of fear and make the audience sit in ambiguity that resembles real life.”
4. Watcher (2022)
In Watcher, Julia (Maika Monroe) moves with her husband to Bucharest and begins to suspect that someone in the adjacent apartment complex is watching her. Despite going to the police and even confronting the man himself, no one believes her story. The real horror of this film, directed by Chloe Okuno, comes from a world where women must fight for their claims to be deemed valid or their stories true — a world not unlike ours, which Okuno seems keen to change. A film like this challenges the church to be, as Boz Tchividjian writes, “the safest places for victims who are suffering in silence …[where] victims who long for the day they feel safe enough and loved enough to step forward.”
5. Crimes of the Future (2022)
Crimes of the Future takes place in a world where humans are experiencing bodily transformation at an unprecedented rate. While some view these mutations as the next step in human evolution, the government violently refuses to acknowledge their humanity. One transformation is the ability to consume plastics — an imagining of biological adaptation in an increasingly plastic-filled future. For our own world, the film offers a prescient meditation: Whenever those in power gatekeep what it means to be human, it will always disenfranchise the poor. There’s no greater horror than a government that seeks to define personhood on its own prejudiced terms.
6. The Black Phone (2021)
Director Scott Derrickson gets back to his horror roots in The Black Phone, an adaptation of Joe Hill’s short story of the same name. After being abducted and locked in a basement, Finney (Mason Thames) uses a phone to communicate with ghosts. Finney’s sister and the ghosts of victims past work together unknowingly to free Finney. This, Joe George writes, offers a picture of the intersection of on-the-ground justice work and God’s unexplainable power: “The Black Phone reminds us viewers that, although God is capable of great miracles it’s often our hands and feet that serve as God’s presence.”
7. Nope (2022)
Director Jordan Peele’s third film focuses on a brother and sister duo who attempt to prove the existence of an alien creature that haunts their horse farm. Peele often uses Bible verses to illustrate a larger point and Nope is no different. The bleak Nahum 3:6 anchors the film’s spectacle and offers a prophetic warning against empire-like tendencies to control that which cannot be tamed. JR. Forasteros writes that “God is not unlike a UFO; despite the empire’s best efforts, God will not be captured or controlled. … God will bring down every empire, exposing their attempts to control, tame, and colonize for the filth they are.”
8. Bodies Bodies Bodies (2022)
You’d be hard-pressed to find any likeable characters amid the wealthy coterie of Gen Z frenemies in Bodies Bodies Bodies. After a party game turns deadly, the group’s bonds are tested as they begin to accuse each other of being the murderer. More satire than slasher, the film shows how, for this social-media-inundated generation that expresses affection through likes, comments, and retweets, horror lies in never quite knowing what others really think of you. We often second guess our friendships and our standings with people when often in reality it’s fine — we’re just too self-centered (or are we?).
9. The Invitation (2022)
A twist on Dracula, Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, The Invitation follows struggling artist Evie’s (Nathalie Emmanuel) attempt to reconnect with her wealthy extended family in England. They reveal themselves to be vampires and forcefully attempt to turn her into one. Their reaction to Evie’s reticence is telling; they’re shocked that someone would deny themselves the status and power that comes with being a vampire. This is a compelling picture of what Willie James Jennings’ refers to as whiteness, a “way of being in the world that aspires to exhibit possession, mastery, and control of knowledge first, and of one’s self second, and if possible of one’s world.”
10. Barbarian (2022)
In Barbarian, Tess (Georgina Campbell) finds that a house she rents has been accidentally double-booked by someone else. This oddity is just the surface (quite literally) of the darkness that resides within the house. Barbarian joins the pantheon of movies that will make you never want to go down to the basement again and yet, the film’s “monster” is a clever manifestation of divine justice. Despite the secrets we may try to keep in the basement, justice will break free with a vengeance.