The War Between the Sexless
Mary Eberstadt (“What Does Woman Want?” October 2009) and the authors (Caitlyn Flanagan and Sandra Tsing Loh) whose articles she reviews seem to miss the entire purpose of sexual intercourse. Sexual intercourse is an outward expression of the exclusive love between spouses. It is a sign of their lifelong union. It is total surrender of self to the other and to the children it might produce. Instead of these purposes, Eberstadt et al. treat it simply as a self-gratifying act and treat marriage as a legal partnership. The word love does not appear even once in Eberstadt’s article, as if sexual intercourse has nothing to do with love. If Eberstadt’s is the popular attitude, no wonder sexless marriages exist. The next social study should determine if this attitude is found primarily in people who have had sexual intercourse outside of marriage and/or who are practicing contraception—two practices that deny the purpose of sexual intercourse, favoring selfishness over the perfect love that makes sacrifices in marriage a joy. If you have the attitudes reflected in the article, please do not transmit such values to your children. They deserve a happier life.
Frederick A. Costello
Oak Hill, Virginia
I read Mary Eberstadt’s “What Does Woman Want?” because I sensed something missing in her essay, and, indeed, something is. Nowhere does she mention the sexual promiscuity that became epidemic after the 1960s and has continued unabated. At a prestigious local college, students protested an increase in the price of oral contraceptives, the medicine dispensed most frequently by the dispensary. In Portland, Maine, some parents protested a year or so ago because the school board okayed the distribution of condoms in a middle school. Mix the premarital sexual experience embedded in the memories of middle-aged married couples with pornography, and I suspect sexual fantasies will provide a standard of sexual satisfaction difficult to meet.
Ronald J. Carroll
New Harbor, Maine
Mary Eberstadt made some valuable points regarding the narcissism of our current confessional mentality and about the libido-numbing influence of porn on our men. But I thought that her failure to mention the impact of the sterilization of sex, especially marital sex, was a serious oversight. The shift in our understanding of sex from a sacramental and life-changing encounter to the thing you do with your friends when you’re bored has made all of our relationships shallower and made each of us less capable of the profound gift of self on which marriage is founded. Sex that has been deprived of the capacity for the generation of new life is a hollow and self-serving exercise. It is the power to cooperate with the creator in his act of creation that gives sex so much of its power to bind and deepen our marriages. It is only when we can acknowledge and cooperate with this potential that we come face to face with the danger and beauty of the sexual act.
The sterilization of marriage leaves us focused on our own satisfaction, thereby robbing us of the capacity to forget ourselves in sexual union. C.S. Lewis reminds us that joy can be ours only when we forget to look for it and also forget our own desire for it. We can live that self-forgetful love in our sexual lives only to the degree that we are open both to the power inherent in the (unsterilized) sexual act and to the desires and needs of the other. Caitlin Flanagan, with her “I’m so put upon because I work and keep house, but marriage is better for the children” thinking, and Sandra Tsing Loh, with her “Don’t bother, you’ll only get burned” bitterness, have (not surprisingly) missed the point that unsterilized marriage is a great adventure, one that opens your horizons to love beyond self-satisfaction.
As a homeschooling mother of seven in a porn-free, Natural Family Planning–only (and only when absolutely necessary) marriage, I have lived some small measure of that satisfaction that comes in a marriage lived with all the danger and beauty it can hold. I wanted to shout out to Flanagan and Loh, “Come on in. The water’s fine!”
Thank you for the courage and thoughtfulness of your excellent magazine.
I read Mary Eberstadt’s essay with great interest because, while my marriage doesn’t suffer from (knock on wood, so to speak) a porn problem, it has been sorely tested by the more general problem she describes: the abandonment of traditional gender roles by the educated class and the ensuing confusions and strains when the baby arrives—that is, when the rubber hits the road. In our case, these stresses have been exacerbated by an economic crisis that has disproportionately put men out of work and made Mom the sole breadwinner. Below, I offer a brief Exhibit A of this phenomenon and the all-important lesson I am endeavoring to learn from it.
My husband was born in the 1960s to highly educated, secular parents; I was born in the 1970s to the same. Both sets of parents divorced when we were in our early teens. My husband and I met as youngish knowledge workers, equipped with laptops and degrees. We moved in together and eventually got married—as guilelessly, it now seems, as two lambs. If anyone had asked us what our respective “roles” were in the marriage, we would have stared at that person blankly. Surely, we thought, we will go on as before: both working, going to restaurants, and doing the New York Times Sunday crossword. Occasionally, someone will throw in a load of laundry or cook a meal. Why, we might even take a cooking class together!
Fast-forward five years. We now have two children in diapers. After going back to graduate school for two years when our first was a newborn, my husband can’t find a job in this economy. I’m supporting us with a high-paying corporate job that I’ve been hoping to leave for years. Instead of spending my days caring for my children and keeping the kind of home I’ve always wanted, I log countless hours in a sterile office environment where all relationships are transactional and superficial. I come home to find the kids in dirty clothes, the house disordered, and my husband preparing some elaborate meal because, to keep boredom and depression at bay, he has seized on cooking with the enthusiasm he once had for paid work. I give him money to buy groceries; he refers self-importantly to “his” kitchen. In our daily bickering over tasks and bills, I am petty and snappish, plagued by the sense that something has gone seriously awry.
Meanwhile, I have gravitated to a certain type of mommy-blog: one written by a stay-at-home mother, lovingly grateful to her provider-man, capably in charge of every detail of her children’s lives and home: the Angel in the House, as we might have sneered back in English 101. While the blogger and I remain quite different people, she seems to have grasped, early on, some essential fact about gender relations that no one ever told my husband or me. Those brave and brainy revolutionaries who raised us—parents, professors, Self magazine—never so much as hinted that someday we might want to act like men and women. Having dodged that retrograde fate, we had turned into neutered freaks, mired in resentments and domestic dysfunction. Our lucky kids!
Yet, as Shakespeare’s Portia says: “Happy in this, . . . she is not bred so dull but she can learn.” As we struggle on, juggling roles, I’m realizing that my main job is to be the spiritual and emotional center of our family: the Angel in the House even when not physically on the premises. I do this not by keeping the carpet vacuumed, the clothes ironed, and the baby on her nap schedule—although I’d prefer to do those things, too—but by radiating love, joy, and gratitude, particularly to my husband, who would give us everything if he could but who is limited right now to giving us countless uncomplaining diaper changes, lots of playtime in the backyard, and a delicious nightly menu of grilled meats.
The lousy economy can send me out the door to earn a living, the popular culture can befog what my duties are and to whom, but none of it—indeed, nothing—can unsex me if I don’t let it. As I struggle to learn the lessons of how to be a wife and mother, I am ever more grateful for my loving and forgiving husband.
San Francisco, California
In her article, Mary Eberstadt reveals a major reason for the decline of marriage. Other writers have described other causes: the lobbying for same-sex marriage, the feminists’ push for liberation from marriage duties, their legislative victories in getting states to adopt unilateral divorce, the culture’s glorification of single moms, and the financial incentives for illegitimacy and divorce that flow from the welfare, child support, and domestic violence bureaucracies. Thank you, Mary Eberstadt, for lifting the curtain on another hidden but extremely powerful assault on marriage.
St. Louis, Missouri
Mary Eberstadt replies:
My thanks to Phyllis Schlafly for her kind endorsement, which means all the more given her own public model of clarity and courage. Without her dedicated work over the years, it would be harder to speak plainly today about the issues discussed in my essay.
Thanks also to Frederick A. Costello, Ronald J. Carroll, and Cathy Durando for sharing their thoughts. Unfortunately, in chiding me for perceived oversights—specifically, about the effect of artificial contraception on contemporary relations between the sexes—they’ve confused my own perspective with those of the writers I was criticizing. An essay in First Things’ August/September 2008 issue, “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae,” that addresses their shared concern at some length (and pretty unambiguously at that) might be of interest to them.
Finally, thanks to the anonymous writer from San Francisco whose letter includes the wonderful line that “nothing can unsex me if I don’t let it.” That’s exactly the fighting spirit so sadly missing from so much of the stylish literature on men, women, and marriage today, as “What Does Woman Want?” sought to show.
Good Morning, Mr. Phelps
Edmund Phelps (“Economic Justice and the Spirit of Innovation,” October 2009) wrote with insight regarding the “morality of the marketplace.” Having spent the past seven years studying—with Abbie Griffin (University of Utah) and Raymond Price (University of Illinois)—individuals responsible for breakthrough innovation in large, technology-based American companies, I have come to believe, further, that there is a morality of true innovation.
Consistent with Phelps’ argument, we observe that breakthrough innovators are discoverers: of the most important problems on which to focus, of solutions that serve customer and company alike, and of how to navigate interpersonal relationships in their firms. The most successful hold fast simultaneously to multiple technical domains as well as to customer, market, financial, and manufacturing insights while having the vision to see—again, to discover—the innovative concepts that connect the dots across this complex set of constraints. True innovators transcend both formal corporate innovation processes and mere random guessing. Interestingly, many of these rare individuals speak of a faithlike expectation that they will discover something good as they pursue fulfilling the needs of others.
Building on Phelps’ argument that the marketplace permits expression of “the better part of our human nature,” I suggest that the discovery mentioned by Phelps and described above is a discerning of, and submission to, an underlying reality. This view complements that of Phelps and holds that what is to be discovered is real, beyond, and greater than the innovator—and that it is good. It is this “restlessness of heart” directed toward discovering such reality, in contrast to innovation as human fabrication regardless of its express motivation, that I see as the morality of true innovation.
It is beautiful to hear these breakthrough innovators tell their stories of discovery and impact. While not mentioned by those innovators whom Griffin, Price, and I interviewed, at times one has the sense that they have, in a way, sought first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness—and that all these things have been added to them, as well.
Bruce A. Vojak
In his effort to connect morality and economics, Edmund Phelps essentially asks how we should judge the goodness of economic analyses and policies. With respect to the first, Phelps answers well: Economic analysis is good to the extent that it accurately predicts the real effects of economic policy. With respect to economic policies, however, his discussion is vague and circular because he attempts to answer the question without reference to any moral standard. His contribution seems out of place in a magazine dedicated to the idea that religion adds value to public discourse. For example, he writes, “to be moral is to foster the betterment of humankind.” But what does he mean by “betterment?” I am concerned that he might mean more “self-realization, self-discovery, and self-fulfillment.” Phelps argues that good economic policy must foster innovation because innovation is an essential aspect of our humanity. But innovation is not an inherent good, and it won’t do simply to temper the endorsement for innovation with a call for “judgment.” Judgment against what standard? Clichés are evidence of cloudy thought, and Phelps emits a stream of them in this concluding sentence: “Only when there is creativity and judgment will there be true innovations—new things that prove to work well, that have some staying power and make a mark.”
I submit this thesis as a foundation for future articles in First Things on the topic of economic morality: Economic policies are good for a society insofar as they harness all the means at our disposal, including innovation, to promote prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance while limiting the effects of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.
Edmund Phelps’ article focuses on how economic systems interact with the virtues of creativity and initiative, concluding that capitalism promotes these virtues much better than communism. This complements the discussion of how economic systems deal with the vices. Perhaps the two vices most significant to economics are sloth and greed. By design, communism negates the effects of greed through a mandatory distribution of resources and then relies heavily on extra-economic factors to prevent sloth from hindering production. Capitalism takes nearly the opposite approach, attempting to harness greed to counteract sloth and relying on extra-economic factors to constrain greed.
Perhaps all modern market systems have a corrosive effect on ethical standards, but I’ll take the one that promotes industriousness and creativity while yoking greed to sloth to temper them both over an alternative that does not systematically promote any virtue or suppress any vice. Or have I overlooked another whole aspect of this broader discussion?
I find myself nonplussed by Edmund Phelps’ article. But not only am I “nonplussed”; I also feel somewhat “minused,” if I may coin a phrase. (Pluses, minuses, coins—there is an economic thread here somewhere.)
Phelps seems to be saying that the human traits of innovation and inventiveness come about only in those people who foresee a great financial profit for themselves. That’s baloney.
As anyone knows who has ever had a good or novel idea, the great satisfaction comes from having the idea and then seeing that it actually works. The notion that one must profit financially from the idea is nonsense. Of course, that concept of profit has now been pushed by various capitalists for about two centuries, so some people—especially academic economists—believe it to be gospel. It isn’t.
Phelps gives away his bias in his very first sentence: “When the word morality comes up in connection with economics, income distribution and financial stability are usually the issues.” That’s not true at all. When the matter of morality is raised, it means just that—morality. Ordinary Christians like me (of the Catholic persuasion) take morality to mean honesty and fairness in financial dealings.
All the big-cheese economists are, or were, wrong. Milton Friedman famously said, “There is no morality in economics.” What he was touting, of course, was his personal philosophy, in which “the people” will try to maximize income in all their transactions. No doubt Friedman believed that, but he was not a Christian thinker. Then there was Ayn Rand, the putative economist, who pushed selfishness as a mantra. She also was not a believer (in anything other than herself). Or how about Alan Greenspan, an acolyte of the Selfish One? Greenspan controlled our economy for some years—more or less. To give the devil his due, when the whole shebang collapsed eighteen months or so ago, Greenspan did have the moxie to admit his theories may have been wrong. Yeah, maybe!
Friedrich von Hayek was wrong. (With a name like that, he had to be a hustler of the first water.) Adam Smith was wrong. (Invisible hand, my foot; what about the invisible arm that maliciously directed the invisible hand?) I once read a quotation attributed to that paragon of probity William Penn, old-time Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania. He said, “The poor are the arms and legs of the rich.” Ain’t that nice? The rich get richer and poor folks work themselves into an early grave, I suppose.
Capitalism is a mirage. So is state socialism. In the century just past, a whole host of great thinkers and writers (mostly Catholic, but not all of them) wrote on the proper way to live. They debunked “homo economicus.” Homo economicus is a figment of the imagination of various charlatans.
Among the great thinkers and writers were Arthur J. Penty, Hilaire Belloc, William Cobbett (who had no trouble taking apart industrialism and capitalism), G.K. Chesterton, Fr. Vincent McNabb, George O’Brien (of University College in Dublin), Dr. Amintore Fanfani (the Italian politician and truth teller), and a host of others. All espoused fairness and honesty in their dealings.
We don’t need computer models and professors with Nobel Prizes in economics to tell us folks how to be fair and honest. It comes about internally: that little guy known as our conscience.
Read the New Testament, my friends, and then try to guess how many modern capitalists are in heaven.
John Joseph Sweeney
Riverdale, New York
Reading Douglas Farrow’s interpretation of Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (“Charity & Unity,” October 2009), either he or the pope seems to be prompting Christians to aim their efforts toward the foolhardy task of encouraging the world to embrace an all-encompassing political authority so that the ends of God may come to fruition in the unity of all mankind.
According to Farrow, the pope insists, “Christians must aim at global governance” even though there could well be “a perverse end.” It cannot be that there may be a perverse end but, rather, that there will be a perverse end to this globalist effort.
We are told to embrace the coming globalism as God’s will even if it poses a very great possibility of becoming a worldwide disaster. At least we acted in faith. How does that saying go? Oh, yes: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” This encouragement to embrace a world authority is unfathomable. Quite simply, there is not a chance that any emerging world political authority will—in any way—embrace Christianity or any of its teachings. Such an authority will necessarily be chaotic and tyrannical because the populations of the world certainly will resist it as its laws and regulations became increasingly alien and obnoxious. Instead of ushering in heaven, we will get hell. But, apparently, this perverse end will be acceptable because we will have acted in faith that the unity of all mankind is God’s will.
Well, you can count me out. It seems to me that the unity of all mankind is a teleological event possible only with the Second Coming of Christ and not a political reality that we should be pursuing. I’ll leave the encouragement of agony, disorder, and misery to the unbelievers. If this is truly the pope’s intention, then my recent inclinations to re-embrace Catholicism will come to naught. I will remain in my local conservative congregation that instinctively knows better than to embrace such dangerous and foolhardy notions as world government. Undoubtedly, a few men of goodwill will object to any world government established along the principles outlined by the pope. But it is because people know the impossibility of any such project that they will resist. Sadly, all the pope has done is give moral credibility to the authoritarian bureaucrats at the UN and their kind.
Eric A. Voellm
Coxsackie, New York
I thoroughly enjoyed Douglas Farrow’s engagement of Benedict XVI’s most recent encyclical. I have to say, after reading George Weigel’s surprisingly off-the-mark review shortly after the encyclical was released, I was eager to see someone in the realm of Catholic intellectuals do the encyclical (and Benedict) justice by seriously engaging it in its entirety. Great was my delight to see Farrow’s serious and scholarly engagement of the entirety of the encyclical when I cracked my latest copy of First Things.
It was easy to recognize, in the words of this latest exhortation to more faithfully follow the gospel in the economic and global-political realm, the voice of our dear shepherd—to see the sharp intellectual and moral challenge of his mind, coupled with the loving understanding of his heart, so passionate to bring Christ to the world and the world to Christ. Although there are parts of the encyclical that are difficult to understand from our modern American perspective (and I say that with the greatest affection), I believe the encyclical speaks as a voice crying in the wilderness, holding out the truth to those who have the power to incarnate it in the world through their policies and actions. The human person and his spiritual and human development are paramount, and we must be open to new and creative ways of safeguarding and promoting this sacred development. I hope Farrow’s article sparks more serious engagement of Benedict’s ideas that may yet lead to the positive change the world yearns to see.
Greenville, South Carolina
Douglas Farrow replies:
The conservative instincts of Eric Voellm’s local congregation may lead it and him to be wary of the notion of world government in the present age. I myself am wary—not merely out of conservative instincts, I hope, but for good theological reasons at which I have at least hinted. But Voellm seems not to have grasped the point, which I will try to make for him again, thus: A perverse end is perverse because it twists and distorts a proper end; and what, after all, is the pope’s task if not to remind us of the proper end?
For Alycia Nielsen’s words of appreciation I am grateful, although I will point out that what I have said does not fully address George Weigel’s charge that Caritas in Veritate “resembles a duck-billed platypus.” Indeed, when I allowed that the encyclical was far too ambitious and sprawling, I conceded that a mind as fine as Benedict’s had not designed it from top to bottom. I am no expert in Vatican politics, but I know better than to close my eyes to the fact that there are those who do not share the insight that Weigel attributes to John Paul II and to Benedict—the insight that Nielsen herself embraces—“that all social issues, including political and economic questions, are ultimately questions of the nature of the human person.” Thankfully, that insight, as Weigel allows, is made to stand out.
The Horror! The Horror!
David P. Goldman’s article (“Be Afraid—Be Very Afraid,” October 2009) about the current enthusiasm for Hollywood’s horror films raises thoughts about which I’ve had a long concern. Admittedly, my acquaintance with these films is mostly “by tide” simply because I don’t need their entertainment qualities.
But I believe these films meet a plain human need, and that is (phony though it may be) a few moments of transcendence. We’re transported out of this ordinary world into another realm, legally and without drugs. The Tolkien stories, Harry Potter, Narnia, and Spider Man move in the right direction, and Mel Gibson allowed us the experience heavy duty. On television, the popular Walton family series met a special kind of hunger for a family whose common life was lived with the graces of that transcendence.
Adolf Hitler and other such types may be the inspiration for horror films, but I believe there is something much more benign at work, too. Misquoting Chesterton again, I guess if creative artists can’t depict authentic transcendence, people will desperately swallow the phony kind.
The Rev. Roger W. Wootton
Rather than trying to attach the recent rise of the horror genre to September 11, 2001, your article ought to have looked at April 20, 1999, the day of the Columbine High School shooting. Our teens are terrorized, and the real possibility that they might be shot to death by a classmate while sitting in second-hour algebra is only the tip of the iceberg. High school has become a nonstop calendar of classes, heavy loads of homework, sports, drama club, choir, band, and endless practices. Teens are being eaten alive by the demands and tugged apart by the many activities. Rarely are these activities carried out in pursuit of what is true and beautiful. Instead, they become a constant competition to avoid falling short against a hundred measuring sticks as teens compete with each other for breathing space and attention.
Our society fails to present a coherent sense of what a good life should look like or how one arrives at a good life; and without a sense of purpose, the demands that fall on teens to “get into a good college” seem arbitrary and dehumanizing. Horror movies allow people to escape violence by vicariously inflicting it on others. Seeing another human being suffer is one way of escaping the pain, and a $9 movie ticket seems less evil than beating a classmate to death or cutting your arm until it bleeds.
Fr. Benjamin Sember
Green Bay, Wisconsin
David P. Goldman misses something in his analysis; had he considered it, I think his (certainly provocative) reading of American history may have turned out somewhat differently. He forgets that horror is not new. Nor did it begin with Dracula and Frankenstein and so on. It predates the invention of the moving picture; it predates writing, even in the non-Teutonic world. For as long as people have told stories, they have told scary stories. There was much in nature to inspire them, and life itself was scary.
Telling stories about scary things has always given man some sort of control over his native fears. The great Homer himself had terrifying creatures in the Odyssey—as gruesome as man could imagine. The Babylonian and Greek creation myths are full of horrible and powerful creatures. Nor is this dimension absent from the Bible: There is Job’s horrible Leviathan, Exodus’ irresistible Angel of Death, monstrous Goliath, bloodthirsty Jezebel, the dead rising up in the Gospel of Matthew (27:52–53), and the beasts and dragons of John’s Revelation. It is difficult to come up with criteria that make these instances of horror okay while excluding those presentations of more recent vintage. I was hoping Goldman would have brought the role of subliminal manipulation into the discussion.
As a theologian, I would say that the morality of enjoying horror should be considered in the context of the morality of enjoying anything. Saving Private Ryan and Braveheart were excellent films, in my opinion. They were also gruesome. I brought my fiancée to the former, and am glad she decided to marry me despite it. Is fear qualitatively different from jollity, from bravado, from the heart flutters induced by romance? And why is the fear of blood and death associated with zombies different from that associated with Nazis? Of course, obsession with anything other than God is immoral. This includes obsession with Darth Vader, the Borg, Klingons, Sauron, and zombies. It also includes obsession with Chesterton, Dante, Dostoevsky, and Aslan. St. Thomas Aquinas did not believe that all the emotions were on an absolutely equal moral footing (see Summa Theologica, 1a, 2ae, qq.22–48), but they were, for the most part, just emotions. It would be hard to say, based on his teaching, that subjecting oneself to fear of zombies is immoral while subjecting oneself to fear of Nazis, Grendel, and Iago is not.
I’m not sure that there is a “growing morbidity” in America’s imagination, as Goldman says, or that, if this is occurring, it is because America is watching too many horror movies. I do not exclude the possibility that this is so. I think it is more likely, however, that this is just a fad, and, like every fad, will lose and gain popularity over time. Goldman’s analysis of box-office proportions is simplistic. Although I am loath to defend Hollywood, it is nevertheless true that the movie phenomenon is still so new in our culture, still finding itself. That the place of the horror movie in Hollywood should fluctuate is neither here nor there. On the other hand, perhaps the increasingly significant position of the horror movie in Hollywood’s offerings is a part of the growth of paganism. But to say that it is a part of resurgent paganism does not prove that it is evil in and of itself: In terms of their origin, the play is pagan, the tragedy is pagan, the epic poem is pagan. Pagan is not necessarily the same thing as evil.
I think the current fascination with zombies is man reflecting on—whether consciously or unconsciously—how much he hates and fears his neighbor. Zombies are about the crisis of community, about our loss of trust in our neighbor—a trust governed by our previously unquestioned and naive liberal-democratic anthropology. Is realizing that one hates one’s neighbor a bad thing? No, it is a good thing. It is to make a beginning in the truth.
Overall, I think Goldman is correct that there is a link between the horror genre and paganism. The link is especially evident in the fact that the heroes of these movies are generally cowards. They are not instantiations of Christian heroism, the kind of heroism that can stand up to a Diocletian or an Adolf Hitler, but of the spineless Stranger of Camus. These antiheroes are intended to be accurate reflections of human nature—and maybe they are accurate. It could be argued that movies should not teach that such cowardliness is okay or normal. Yet art can, or maybe even ought only to, reflect reality; I accept that. I do not watch movies to learn what I should do in case of a zombie uprising. I pay my ticket price, in part, to enjoy the smug feeling of superiority I get in condemning the heroes’ cowardliness, a cowardliness you would never see me guilty of in a similar circumstance—which is what I tell my buddies as we leave the theater. Of course, pagan does not mean amoral. It is clear, however, that if the audience were more Christian, it would insist that a clearer line be drawn between good and bad behavior; and Christians, although not pagans, possess a sophisticated enough vocabulary to navigate this fundamental distinction.
David Goldman tries to explain the growth in the American horror-film genre while making the assumption that horror is bad in and of itself, with which I disagree. There can be artistic beauty in any art form considered horror. Is it un-Christian to enjoy the Eduard Munch painting The Scream, or to enjoy a Steven King novel or a movie such as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining?
Horror even exists in apocalyptic literature from Sacred Scripture, most notably the Book of Revelation (“a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns,” for instance). These horrific images are ultimately conquered by the power of God, which reminds us of the goodness of God.
Horror can aid us in the task of contemplating the glory of the Kingdom of God. Many theologians imagine what the Kingdom of God might look like or include; what if we take the opposite approach and imagine what the worst possible reality would look like? The answer is horror. We live in a world with God, and horror films can remind us of this. There are evils in this world, but their presence doesn’t mean that God is completely absent. We believe in God despite the fact that we live in a world where the poor are ignored, wars occur, murderers are murdered, and the unborn are sacrificed. We can be reminded by horror that we, as a people, are closer to, rather than further from, the Kingdom of God. Fundamentalists may want us to believe otherwise, but the gospel proclaims, “The Kingdom of God is here.” As Christians watching horror, we are reminded through our belief in “Our Father” that, in the real world, God is present in our lives to “deliver us from evil.”
Consider the demographics for a moment. The market factors all favor the production of expanded numbers of horror films: They are the perfect vehicles for entertaining the teenage and twenty-something market. All the statistics about attendees indicate that horror films are still solid date movies—and, in an American society where an ever-increasing percentage of young men and women are staying unmarried longer and having children later, the appeal of thrills that entertain without forcing one to think too hard is expanded to a larger market.
Horror films are ideal fodder for an increasingly bottom line–focused Hollywood: The films are populated with cheap, minor-league acting talent, they are extremely inexpensive to produce and film, and they offer the consumer something that is both reliable and comforting. Previews and trailers for dramas can be complicated and confusing if you don’t know the source material. But all varieties of horror flick are easily identifiable at this point, whether they’re spooky, low-budget films (numerous); viscera-stained slasher movies (more numerous); quick-cut zombie flicks (even more numerous); macabre sci-fi, floating-in-space efforts (somewhat less numerous than they should be); sexualized vampiric tales (I trip over one of these whenever I get the newspaper); films of the more critically favored retro-mashup variety (Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Death Proof plus Planet Terror feature Grindhouse); or foreign entries of the psychological horror variety (the works of Dario Argento, of course; Alexandre Aja’s films, which have their defenders; and Juan Antonio Bayona’s El Orfanato, which only someone who truly dislikes cinema can dismiss). Sam Raimi’s simply superb Drag Me to Hell stands as a good measure of the value of the modern horror film: Its instantly recognizable archetypes, young cast, dark humor, and ingenious promotions translated to a return of over $80 million at the box office on a $30 million budget.
The rules of all these films are so solidly defined as to how certain characters behave and what the nature of their inevitable demise will be (or, if you are lucky enough to be the Survivor Girl, what the nature of your survival will be), that there is now a cottage industry of horror films that subvert type by playing against expectations or explaining those expectations vocally as they’re depicted on-screen.
Groups of young friends who go to see some of the more death-focused horror films in vogue of late will routinely take bets on which stock character will face a grisly end soonest, as when viewing the Final Destination series—a film series that is, essentially, the apex of the set-piece disaster horror movie as orchestrated by MacGyver. Films such as the manic Zombieland are expected to frighten but leave you laughing.
The horror genre in all its forms gives audiences an experience that is shocking yet conventional, tense yet forgettable, and with characters and stories that are interchangeable and instantly recognizable even if the viewers have never seen any of a director’s other work. The genre also allows producers to invest less time in creating new stories and instead focus on retelling the same story over and over, with younger, cheaper, and more aesthetically appealing casts and the occasional newly invented set piece. While Goldman may think this all says something about the viewers’ spirituality or post–September 11 nervousness about the world, I think it says very little indeed. People sometimes like to spend a few hours in a dark place, but nearly all of them head back into the light at the end and feel better for it. There are reliable data here: Entertainment trends, markets, budgets, and demographics are all measurable, but Goldman’s personal conjecture about motivations is just that.
There is nothing new under the sun, particularly catharsis. The same motivations that led teenage boys to take their girlfriends to see The Omen in 1976 were there for the remake in 2006. It’s hard to consider fears about the world as the motivation for the rise in the horror genre when—from Mary Shelley’s The Last Man to Max Brooks’ World War Z, and from Richard Jefferies’ After London to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—post-apocalyptic subject matter is hardly a creation or expression confined to this century. Stories of terrifying beasts and ghouls who come to devour and slaughter are as old as language, or at least as Bishop Olaus Magnus. The fact that the Twilight DVD sold three million copies on its first day of release says less about September 11 driving people to think about bloodsucking vampires than it does about teenage girls liking romance stories retold with fangs and leather. Interview with a Vampire was a bestseller in 1976; the film was released and made buckets at the box office in 1994. In truth, the factors that motivated the successes of these horror-subgenre entries into the marketplace could be applied to another dominant form of visual entertainment focused on suspense, moodiness, thinly veiled sexual references, and the darkest side of human nature; I’m speaking, of course, of the soap opera.
David P. Goldman replies:
Fr. Benjamin Sember surely is right to emphasize how fearfully the Columbine massacre affected young people, but we are talking about different things. In speaking of horror films, I referred specifically to supernatural thrillers, drawing a bright line between the depiction of human evil and supernatural evil. The Columbine shooters ultimately are comprehensible in human terms. By construction, though, supernatural monsters are beyond human experience. Dostoevsky portrays human beings who act monstrously but nevertheless are all too human. Vampires and werewolves are not. It is when evil surpasses comprehension that we conjure up nonhuman adversaries with superhuman powers and limitless appetites for destruction. We do so far more frequently than ever we used to, and we spend a far greater percentage of our recreational time and budget doing so. Although there is nothing new under the sun, as
Ben Domenech avers, our growing preference for darkness begs for an explanation.
Colin Kerr is, of course, correct to note that the Babylonian and Greek creation myths teem with monsters; when the film versions of Hesiod’s Theogony or the Babylonian Enuma Elish appear, I promise to give them due attention. Meanwhile, we shall have to make do with the Teutonic and Slavic creatures that Hollywood offers us. Kerr’s reference to the mention of Leviathan in the Book of Job points to the deeper issue at which I hinted. In biblical terms, we may define horror as the presentiment that the forces of chaos have escaped their appointed bounds and a good God no longer exercises mastery. Fear and awe of God differ radically from horror: We fear God’s punishment and stand in awe of his presence, but we are horrified when we no longer believe that God will do justice.
In this context, Kerr might also have mentioned Psalm 82:
O God, my king from of old,
Who brings deliverance throughout the land;
It was You who drove back the sea with Your might,
Who smashed the heads of the monsters in the water;
It was You who crushed the heads of Leviathan,
Who left him as food for the denizens of the desert.
As Jon Levenson observes in Creation and the Persistence of Evil, these are unmistakable references to a Canaanite myth discovered in the excavation of Ugarith (fourteenth century b.c.e.). “Each of these words occurs in some form in the passage just quoted. Without the Ugaritic literature, these allusions would remain tantalizing obscurities.”
In Levenson’s reading, creation ex nihilo, in the sense of an instantaneous change from nothing to something, fails to capture the theological implication of the biblical creation story:
Two and a half millennia of Western theology have made it easy to forget that throughout the ancient Near Eastern world, including Israel, the point of creation is not the production of matter out of nothing but rather the emergence of a stable community in a benevolent and life-sustaining order. The defeat by YHWH of the forces that have interrupted that order is intrinsically an act of creation. The fact that order is being restored rather than instituted was not a difference of great consequence in ancient Hebrew culture. To call upon the arm of YHWH to awake as in “days of old” is to acknowledge that these adversarial forces were not annihilated in perpetuity in primordial times. Rising anew, they have escaped their appointed bounds and thus flung a challenge at their divine vanquisher.
By the same token, there is a radical difference between the apocalyptic literature cited by Robert Kinkela and the corresponding subgenre of horror films. In the former, God manifests himself in the world, and his mastery over the fearful apparitions never is in doubt. But God remains inexplicably absent while hell rampages in The Omen or Rosemary’s Baby.
We make ourselves vulnerable to horror when we envision an abstract God of order rather than a personal God of love and justice. The postbiblical concept of creation ex nihilo can reduce to justifying the created world (as did Leibniz in Theodicy) as the best of all possible ones. If this is the best of all possible worlds, though, what need is there for the Eschaton? More pertinently, Voltaire’s riposte to Theodicy in Candide—why would the Lisbon earthquake occur in this best of all possible worlds—has no good answer. Everyone reads Candide today, and no one reads Theodicy, so Voltaire emerges as the winner by knockout of the bout. As I observed, Hitler and Stalin said, in effect, “Why wait for an earthquake?” and used political means to inflict even greater horrors. Now that religion has been forced to the margins of European culture, it is hard to argue that they did not succeed.
Biblical faith has no need of theodicy. (YHWH explicitly condemns the theodical arguments of Job’s friends in Job 42:7.) Jeremiah’s famous accusation (Jer. 12:1–3) against YHWH is neither a philosophical judgment of God, nor a cry of horrified despair, but rather an indignant demand that God rise up and destroy the wicked:
You will be in the right, O Lord, if I make claim against You,
Yet I shall present charges against you:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper? . . .
Drive them out like sheep to the slaughter,
Prepare them for the day of slaying!
As Levenson comments:
The answer—and please note that there is an answer here—is nothing like those rationalizations proposed by the philosophers: “Drive them out like sheep to the slaughter.” The answer to the question of suffering of the innocent is a renewal of activity on the part of the God of Justice. In light of the answer, it becomes clear that the question is not an intellectual exercise but rather a taunt intended to goad the Just God into action.
Jeremiah recounts dreadful events, but he is outraged rather than horrified. That is the decisive difference. The faith of the West too easily devolves into philosophical rationalization about divine Justice, rather than faith in the covenantal relationship with a just and loving God. We then become vulnerable to “a neo-pagan foe that wielded horror as an instrument of policy,” as I wrote. It is not the sleep of reason but the absence of faith that produces monsters. God’s creation metaphorically banished the monsters from the world in the biblical creation story. If we cease to believe that God will rise up as of old and fight our fight, then we will reify the world’s evil in the guise of fictional monsters. That, I submit, is the secret of our morbid fascination with the horror genre.