by Karen Ullo
Horror stories are inherently metaphorical, externalizing inward truths, and as such they also function very readily as fables or parables. Mary Shelley hit us over the head with this fact in Frankenstein:
“I am by no means indifferent to the manner in which whatever moral tendencies exist in the sentiments of the characters shall affect the reader… [especially] the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection, and the excellence of universal virtue.” — Mary Shelley, Preface to Frankenstein
Then, just in case you missed that she told you she’s writing a parable:
“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be his world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” ― Frankenstein (Victor Frankenstein to Robert Walton)
And then, Shelley ups the ante:
“Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from, beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.” – Frankenstein (spoken by the monster)
Mary Shelley did everything but tattoo the words “spiritual metaphor” on the monster’s head. Yet many critics still insist on reading Frankenstein as anything and everything but a spiritual story. How could Mary Shelley, daughter of an outspoken atheist who ran away with a married man who was also an outspoken atheist, a woman who bore a child out of wedlock before her eventual marriage, who lived anything but a model Christian life, write a story rooted in Christian symbolism about a struggle of the soul against virtue? Surely, she couldn’t have really meant it?
Jesus himself answered that question: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick." (Mark 2:17)
“I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on,” says the monster. Frankenstein is a story of and for the sick of soul.
But even if all genuine horror stories grapple with the reality of sin, there does seem to be a general distinction between stories written by believers and those written by people who have fallen away from belief. Believers tend to infuse one crucial element that is often missing from stories told by unbelievers. That element is, simply, hope.
Victor Frankenstein and his monster end their story in a war of mutual destruction.
Quasimodo, the half-man, seeks and seems to find his wholeness in the Church, only to have his sanctuary destroyed by the betrayal of his father-priest, Claude Frollo.
Contrast such stories against A Christmas Carol. G. K. Chesterton wrote that “the tone of Dickens towards religion, though like that of most of his contemporaries, philosophically disturbed and rather historically ignorant, had an element that was very characteristic of himself. He had all the prejudices of his time. He had, for instance, that dislike of defined dogmas, which really means a preference for unexamined dogmas.” Dickens was, nevertheless, a Christian believer, who felt it necessary to write a simplified version of the Gospels for his children. From even this inexact sort of faith, we get the rejection of the Ghost of Christmas Future’s bleak prophecy and the salvation of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Then look at Dracula, written by a member of the Church of Ireland. Dracula is a bit of a theological mess, subject to charges of Manichaeism, and—as every good Catholic knows—Van Helsing would never have been granted a dispensation to use the consecrated Host as a putty for sealing vampiric tombs. But Dracula remains unabashedly a story not only about good defeating evil, but about loving the sinner in order to save him from his sin. As the final battle approaches, Mina Harker convinces the band of vampire hunters that they must not kill Dracula out of hate, but out of love.
“I know that you must fight–that you must destroy… but it is not a work of hate. That poor soul who has wrought all this misery is the saddest case of all. Just think what will be his joy when he too is destroyed in his worser part that his better part may have spiritual immortality.” – Dracula (Mina Harker to her friends)
Then, when the deed is accomplished:
“I shall be glad as long as I live that even in that moment of final dissolution there was in the face a look of peace, such as I never could have imagined might have rested there…. The sun was now right down upon the mountain-top, and the red gleams fell upon my face, so that it was bathed in rosy light. With one impulse the men sank on their knees, and a deep and earnest ‘Amen’ broke from all…” – Dracula (Mina Harker narrating the death of Dracula)
The death of Dracula is not merely the end of his reign of terror; it is his redemption.
This is the spiritual foundation of horror stories built for us by some of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century. However, this tradition was all but obliterated in the twentieth, when Good and Evil fell so far out of fashion in literary circles that horror—which is built upon the premise that these two words have solid, legitimate meaning—never stood a chance. Even believers shied away from horror, turned off by the slate of senseless bloodshed that stepped in to fill the abandoned literary niche. The Exorcist seems to have marked the genre’s last great spiritual hurrah, an entertaining book that secularists can enjoy because they have the luxury of believing that demons are fictional. However, despite the book’s flaws, Catholics must acknowledge that its underlying premise—the existence of a spiritual sickness that cannot be cured by medicine or psychology, whose only remedy is found in the Church—is the very real truth of our own lives.
If we have the courage to let them, horror stories can force us to face the most difficult truths of our human existence: that we are fallen, we are sinners, we are all plagued by demons real or metaphorical, and we, by ourselves, are powerless to chase them out. But Christians are specially positioned to know how and through Whom the battle against the monsters can be won. The truth of evil is accessible to all, inherent in our fallen nature; the truth of Jesus’ victory over sin and death belongs to Christians alone. Horror is a genre that incarnates sin; in the hands of a skillful Christian writer, it can also dramatize how sin is conquered by Incarnate Love. Horror is a genre custom-made to the be the playground of Christian storytellers, and it is long past time we set our squeamishness aside to embrace its spiritual possibilities. Jennifer the Damned represents my own humble entrée into reviving the genre, but I sincerely hope it will be only a footnote to the great twenty-first century blossoming of Catholic Christian horror.
Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned (Wiseblood Books) and Cinder Allia, as well as the managing editor of Dappled Things, a quarterly journal of Catholic art and literature. She holds an MFA in screenwriting from the University of Southern California. You can find her on the web at karenullo.com.