Friday, August 18, 2006

Snakes on a plane to hell

Many unbelievers, as well as sensitive members of the religious left, are easily roused to fits of indignation.

Among the preferred objects of their outrage are the pit of hell and the sterner measures of the Mosaic Law.

But I find it instructive to compare their quivering indignation with the sanguine taste of the pop culture.

Take the enduring genre of the horror flick. Every year there’s a slew of these. Indeed, one loses count. But here are just a few titles that come to mind:

The Amityville Horror
The Blair Witch Project
Final Destination
Friday the 13th
I Know What You Did Last Summer
Night of the Living Dead
Nightmare on Elm Street
The Omen
Rosemary’s Baby
Sean of the Dead
The Shining
The Silence of the Lambs
The Sixth Sense
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

There’s an insatiable appetite for this sort of thing. And I daresay that not a few people who are so disapproving of the Biblical hell have run through many buckets of hot-buttered popcorn as they revel in the safety of their virtual hell.

They enjoy watching people suffer and die. Suffer and die under the cruelest scenarios imaginable. They enjoy watching people writhe in torment. Indeed, they pay for the privilege.

Oh, but this is play-acting, you say. No one is really hurt. No one actually dies.

But this disclaimer only pushes the question back a step or two.

Is the emotion any different? Is the voyeuristic emotion any different whether it’s directed at a simulated chamber of horrors rather than at the real thing?

And isn’t the whole point of this disclaimer to excuse our enjoyment on the grounds that even though the feeling is just as real, the object evoking that feeling is make-believe?

It’s a way of making ourselves feel justified in indulging a certain impulse as long as no one is hurt. Harmless fun.

But it also makes you wonder if some of these same people wouldn’t get a kick out of the real thing if only they could get away with it.

After all, are we really all that different than the Romans who used to frequent the Coliseum to watch real people torn apart by wild animals or impaled in a staged duel to the death?

The only difference is that simulated horror is a socially acceptable outlet for the same set of emotions which, in a pre-Christian culture, were nurtured on the real thing.

Although comedy and horror are opposite genres, they have this in common: their appeal lies in the fact that we are watching these mishaps befall someone else.

Now, you may say that this sort of fare is a bit twisted. And, in many cases, I’d agree. But a guilty pleasure is still a genuine pleasure.

My immediate point is that you have a lot of unbelievers who pretend to be offended by various things in the Bible, and yet you’ll find them forking over gobs of money to feed the very feelings which they profess to deplore.

Or, to take a somewhat different example, consider comic book heroes like Batman, Spiderman, Superman, Hellboy, or the X-Men.

Now, a comic book hero is only as good as the comic book villain. And when this medium is transferred to film, some distinguished character actor, usually with a crisp foreign accent, is cast in the role of the bad guy.

And the audience is expecting to see the bad guy get his comeuppance at the end of the movie.

Or, to take one more example, I sometimes wonder how many unbelievers who disapprove of in-your-face believers also watch the pay-per-view channel to catch the latest smack down in the octagon. Were they disappointed when the match was called before Tito Ortiz could send Ken Shamrock to the hospital?

So is my point that many unbelievers are hypocrites?

Well, yes, but that’s not my ultimate point. For there’s more than one direction in which you can relieve a contradiction between what you say and what you do.

The deeper point is for unbelievers to come clean with their true emotions. Drop the pose. Get in touch with their inner warrior. Honestly compare their real feelings with their flights of feigned indignation, and admit to themselves that what they affect to disdain in Scripture they positively relish in another venue.

Is my purpose to sanctify the taste of the pop culture? No. Most horror films are degenerate.

But they also tap into a set of feelings that have a moral basis, even if it’s often misdirected.

To take one example out of many, what about those Nazis who absconded to South America with Jewish money, and eventually died of old age on a sandy beach—cupping a Tequila in one hand, and a mistress in the other.

Hardly seems fair.

Now, suppose we were to change the passenger manifest and put them on a snake-infested plane instead of an FBI informant?

That would be poetic justice.


  1. That has needed to be said for a long time. Thanks.

  2. I have thought about this issue before, and I disagree. I think that experiencing simulated violence in a horror movie is a fundamentally different emotion -- or reaction, or experience -- from watching actual violence. I think knowing that it's fake makes it different, somehow.

    I won't really attempt to justify this here (indeed, you didn't really justify this premise in your post). We can talk further, if you like.

  3. I agree with the first point. We must be careful here. Is watching simulated violence in a movie the same as watching simulated sex in a movie?

    If not, why? Surely the viewer knows that's fake too. In that case, why is soft-core porn so popular?

    You know, most children can't tell the difference between real violence on the News.

    Equally, watch 'North by Northwest', particularly the chase across Mt. Rushmore. At one point in that scene, Eva Marie Saint really DID hurt herself. See if you can tell when.