Far from dreadful: finding God in the horror genre

October 20th, 2015

In an era with a seemingly endless parade of new shows in all manner of mediums, Showtime has managed to create something utterly unique and frighteningly intelligent with their Gothic horror original series Penny Dreadful. Created by John Logan, the series weaves together a wide variety of characters from classic Gothic literature (Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Picture of Dorian Grey amongst others) as they face the forces of darkness that threaten our world. Yes, it also has the prerequisite (and needless) sex and bloodshed that premium cable shows require. But it offers so much more.

There is nothing quite like Penny Dreadful on television. It is unapologetically intelligent in how it involves and explores literature, philosophy, ethics and the human condition. But what impresses me the most is what the show does theologically.

You see, the horror genre doesn't tend to do theology very well. The obvious and primary goal of the horror genre is to scare us for entertainment's sake. It's also probably safe to say the people who write these movies aren't deeply concerned with portraying accurate (or healthy) theology. Regardless of intent, I'd argue that many of the films that populate this genre are filled with absolutely frightening theology. 

In most horror films (at least those dealing with the supernatural or the occult) we find either a) no God or Divine Force of Light to oppose the Evil or b) a God or Divine Force so impotent and removed that it is, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant. Films like It Follows, Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, The Woman In Black or A Nightmare On Elm Street (to name only a few) present evil, demonic, supernatural forces at work with no equal (or close to equal) force of good to stand against them.

There is no God to face the Devil. There are no angels to stand before the demons. There is simply the evil. I get how that is helpful for the plot. Of course it's scarier when God doesn't exist to (or simply can't) save the day. When the hero or Divine Light can save us, it's not scary.

Let's choose one such example: the Sinister franchise. In these films, the villain is Bughuul, a demonic deity that consumes the souls of children after it makes them brutally murder their families. Yes, it's deeply messed up. How I survived watching both movies is still a mystery to me. What struck me as I watched these films was how futile the human effort to overcome this demonic force was. There was nothing remotely as strong or powerful as Bughuul. Ethan Hawke and his family were completely alone. Yes, Deputy So and So may be able to stall the monster. But it was still out there, still coming. Bughuul, and all the horror creatures like him, reign unchecked. That's terrifying. You know the darkness of evil is coming and it's only a matter of time until it wins, often in a grisly fashion.

You can see why I was never a fan of the genre. But in the past year I've reluctantly begun to explore it. Is it a bad idea to watch all these horror films? I don't know. I can't honestly say. But I do know I don't sleep as soundly as I once did. And I've started to wrestle with how these films may affect my unconscious mind. My whole life I've been a sound sleeper. Now the night after watching any of these movies, I'm plagued by vivid and horrifying nightmares.

Yet with Penny Dreadful we find a better and more complicated version of theology in its narrative. It's difficult to write about this show because I'd do it a great disservice if I spoil anything. Honestly, it's better to let the show tell its own tale. With that in mind, I'll speak in broad strokes. Penny Dreadful finds Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and Sembene (Danny Sapani) coming together to hunt the forces of darkness in Victorian Era London.

As you would expect, the show is full of demons, witches, monsters and the Devil. But what is far more unexpected is the very real presence of God. God, religious faith, sin, salvation, the human soul and the church are presented in a real, layered and complex manner.

Vanessa is one of the most faith-filled characters I've ever found on television, speaking often of the power and importance of God and her Catholic faith. Yet due to her perception of the sins of her past, she keeps God at a distance, sitting longingly outside the church. Ethan, haunted by his own sins, feels salvation is no longer within his reach. But he is ready and willing to call on God to save others. Both Vanessa and Ethan pray regularly and earnestly. Dr. Frankenstein, modeling the character and message/warning of the novel perfectly, sees no truth or point to God. This makes sense as he has hubristically taken what is God's alone (the power of life and death) for himself...with disastrous results.

More than any one character though, the whole series feels like a meditation on sin and redemption. We see the emptiness of pursuing that which is not God. We experience the longing for real relationships and the fundamental need to be loved to survive. Yes, they face the Devil in a very literal way, but it is the darkness of their own souls that they find most difficult to overcome. The story is so human, so relatable. Each episode is as stunning as it is honest.

There is so much that keeps us from God. That can be horrifying. But there is still God and with God comes hope. Season Two illustrates this powerfully as the characters are taken to their darkest, most isolated and hopeless points thus far. The weight of their sin is heavy. Their deeds come with a difficult price. With tears in her eyes, Vanessa tells Frankenstein's creature that, "I've lost the immortal part of myself you see. No, I've thrown it away." The creature tenderly reminds her, "No matter how far you have walked from God, He is still waiting ahead."  

I've fallen in love with Penny Dreadful. I've watched the first two seasons multiple times and I am eagerly awaiting the third. And do you know what? I never have nightmares after watching this show. For me, this show does horror right. It gives us human characters, deeply and emotionally connected to each other at the core of the story. We see a God who can (and will) save us if we are able to overcome our own sense of pride and/or guilt to seek God's redeeming hand. Penny Dreadful shows us that when we love and protect each other, we can triumph over darkness. It shows us that no matter how far we fall from God, God is always there willing and able to help. It shows us that in the light of Heaven, Hell has no power. And it reminds us why it's important to seek God's help...and what can happen to us if we don't.

I can sleep well with that in mind. I'm not a fan of the horror genre overall. I'm certainly not a fan of those terrifying nightmares. But I'm a fan of Penny Dreadful. I'm also a fan of how soundly I sleep after I've seen it. Maybe what we watch does affect us after all. If it does, I'd rather internalize a message of hope and the potential for salvation (even if it can be creepy and scary at times) than those truly scary and hopeless visions of a world without God there to save us.

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