“Why do people watch movies that are scary?” was one question I posed to my mother as a little kid. I was sitting on a counter in the bathroom and had noticed a scary lion face swirling in the shapes of the woodgrain on the bathroom door. The lion on the door looked different than the stuffed lion puppet that I slept with at night. After a long pause, my mother replied that she herself didn’t understand why people would want to be scared.
So now, decades later I can answer the little boy sitting on the bathroom counter. While horror addresses terrible feelings, it also abstracts and gives distance to them. A scary thing that is a projection on a screen offers some distance to the scary stuff that you feel inside. See? It’s over there and I am over here, warm on my couch eating popcorn. In film, as in all of art, the joy is in being able to process life at a safe distance. Sometimes it is difficult to wrestle through emotions when you are too close to them. The problem with the emotions is that they exist in the same fishbowl that you swim in. Proximity is not always clarity.
At that time, my family lived in a two-bedroom house on the outskirts of a small town on a dirt road that led out into the gray-green hills dotted with sagebrush. The whole house was covered in 70s wood paneling. The faces in the wood grain were interesting in a way that other faces were not. I liked the monsters. They wore expressions that corresponded to emotions that I did not understand. The sneer or surprise would be clearly discernible now, but they were a puzzle to a little boy. In imagining the monsters, the monsters were practice for reading faces in real life. I became interested in reading other people because of the monsters in wood grain. I also became comfortable with images that might seem disturbing because those pictures were static. Like something swirling in frozen textured fog.
In grade school, I was taught to use light, fuzzy lines to get a sense of what a figure looked like in a sketch. The more hazy and undefined, the more excited my grade school art teacher would get. Looking back, I can see the images where I was less certain were also the images where I was learning the most about perspective and form. The uncertainty was permission to get things wrong which meant that the image was usually closer to being accurate. To create an image, you have to become comfortable with getting lots of things wrong until something looks right. The reason that the teacher was excited was that she could see what I could not, which is that I was learning how to arrange a figure in space. I didn’t know what I was doing other than hiding in the art room to avoid bullies. I was feeling out the form in the same way that my brain sought out faces in wood paneling.
When we were young my parents absent-mindedly let my little sister and me sit through Aliens. She had nightmares for weeks afterward. I was interested in why a movie could result in nightmares when everything that I was seeing on screen was artificial. An assembly of spray-painted rubbery shapes that created a gray slimy monster with acid for blood wasn’t real. I felt the tension for the characters but understood that the movie was a performance. In most monster movies the horror is about slipping down the food chain. At the center of all horror is the clear understanding of mortality. Where other films often lapse into the idea that life is complete when two people buy a house or fall in love, horror has the clarity that the actual end is the end of life. It is not that I do not believe that good things can happen after that end, but you always have to contend with life events in their natural order. If you are going to believe something, it has to be of some use in the context of a hospital bed or that terrible late-night call. The test for any faith should be its relevance in the face of loss or suffering. Everything else is nonsense that gets washed down the drain. The new house and the new car don’t mean all that much to a body in a grave.
The film Saint Maud is an ugly horror movie about a nun who is convinced that her call in life is to “save” a woman dying of cancer.* As the film progresses it becomes more and more clear that the director has framed events from the perspective of a mentally ill woman. We do not understand that the god she is speaking to is a cockroach on her ceiling until well into the film. She is not speaking to Jesus as her role might imply, but to a punishment-thirsty monster who has infiltrated and restructured her faith around varying forms of penance and self-harm. This god desires sacrifice, not mercy. Her vision of reality is only briefly broken in the dreadful final moments and is then jarringly snapped back into place with the glowing heaven and halos intact. An image of hope is offset by its comparison to the tortured reality.
The question at the heart of the horror movie seems to be about which character needs saving and from what it is that they need to be saved. The character who imagines herself as a saint is isolated to the point of self-destruction by her need to frame herself as the savior. Her focus is set upon a woman who is a successful dancer and who seems on some level to appreciate the company and the prayers of her companion. The people put in charge of the young nun either fail to notice or fail to care that she is suffering. The film is an inverted exorcist movie where the priest is possessed and nobody cares. The collapse of the character is due to the cumulative weight of isolation, but ultimately it is a deconstruction of religious envy and the bizarre desire to punish people whose lives we find offensive in a way that eventually can result in either violent action or the deification of a “savior” figure who will enact or demand that violence on our behalf.
Horror is often thought to just be a scary movie. But horror movies are not just about a physical offense. Horror is an idol-smashing factory. It takes our ideas of what works and strips them down for parts. However, just because something has the potential to offend, does not mean that there is nothing to learn. While the internet has allowed everyone to become a couch critic, criticism can also be a way of expressing sincere interest. Nobody makes a movie about sainthood because they do not care about faith as a subject. Horror can be a way to dismiss a subject, but it can also be an opportunity to understand how something works by tearing it apart. Any sincere effort to love your neighbor should account for all of the ways that the approach can be corrupted from the inside out.
In this vein, the film strips away how envy can corrupt faith and offers an analysis of a Christianity that is devoid of Christ even while employing all of its visuals and language. Its logic concludes that the only mode of operation is to murder those who are not yourself. An inversion of the command to love your neighbor. When you strip Christianity of the character of Christ; when you strip it of forgiveness, grace, mercy, and compassion for weakness, when you strip it of it’s perpetual effort to humanize enemies, the thing you are left with is a shell that can be filled in and defined by anything or anyone else. If you don’t know in whom or in what you believe that space will get colored in for you by outside players regardless of how far their beliefs stray from what you claim to value. If the idea of “saving” or “helping” others is not carried out with fear, trembling, and humility these ideas can result in the opposite of both.
I had a running joke with a church friend in high school where we would say. “See that Jesus statue? I’m going to break his arm off and beat you with it.” A teenage joke has become a modern reality. The reaction to that joke should not be, “Wait…are you serious?!” It’s not funny. It’s heartbreaking.
The way that I obsess over my faith does not make my life easier. In the past few years it has become progressively more difficult. From the outside, my obsessive refinement can appear like a mental illness. Neither love nor faith adheres to rational patterns of behavior which means that both have the capacity to be dangerous. There was a time where I wasn’t sure if I believed anything. I had been hurt and hated by the people who were supposed to love me and loved by the people I was trained to think of as evil. In the end, I came back to my faith because I can’t kick Jesus. He haunts me and frustrates me in a way that I cannot put down. I am not integrated or whole on my own. When I lost faith I tried to use relationships to remedy the gap, hurting people in the process, and in the end, it never worked. It is an impossible thing to ask other people to love you into wholeness. It hurt me when an ex-girlfriend recognized that desperation, that apologetic “please love me” expression, but it hurt because of its proximity to the truth. I need help with the larger questions and it is the kind of help that cannot be resolved in a bed or friendships. It is impossible to do life alone, but it is also impossible for one person to “fix” another. In many instances, love is about resigning from our need to fix another person.
I regret the harm that I have done with my faith and the way that it has paired with envy. When I was younger I subscribed to a model of Christianity that I will affectionately call the “Pay up bitch” model. In this tedious and common version of the faith, the god I crafted owed me a huge good person check at the earliest possible convenience and was running behind. Since God was running late I took the whole saving the entire world project onto my own shoulders. I lectured fellow art students about God in an English class. In this approach to the faith being “right” is like accumulating points in a video game and love isn’t part of that math.
One day a woman in the class who was struggling through her own faith challenged me, saying that people were obviously inconsistent in enacting the will of God. I surprised myself by agreeing with her and shutting my mouth. I shut my mouth because it had occurred to me that the way I was speaking to other people implied that I believed myself to be the perfect mouthpiece of God. It was an embarrassing moment of clarity. If you are going to talk about mercy the approach should be humble. If you want people to listen, you have to be willing to form relationships and trust. It is terribly difficult and inconvenient to do which is why I am always trying to skip past the only step that matters. Her frustrated criticism granted permission for other aspects of my faith to spring to life. I didn’t have to be right about everything all of the time. I didn’t have to save the entire universe single-handedly. I could just have honest arguments and be willing to be wrong, dust myself off, and start over again only to discover that I was wrong in a brand new embarrassing way. It seems like love can take hold more in our weakest points than in our postures of strength. If you are lucky being wrong can actually make your life better. It can relieve you of the impossible burden of performing a perfect person who doesn’t exist.
What I believe is a living thing. It is an ongoing sketch. Sometimes the thing has shape and form and it makes sense. I have been through places in my life where things felt more clear. At this point, little makes sense and I am trying to be okay with that. The sketch is confusing right now so not knowing is a part of my faith. The point of having faith at all is that it permits things to not make sense. It is not the comfort of heaven that is a balm for daily dread, but the permission for the holy mystery to feed doubt to my gnawing cynicism and reactionary rage. I need Jesus because sometimes the world isn’t a pile of burning shit full of evil people, sometimes the good is something that I am missing because of my need to know everything or perpetually be right about who is worse than I am. I am permitted to be uncertain and sincerely wrestle through things, I can scream angry prayers, I can pray that I only feel a great absence, and I can experience those windows of joy. A living relationship is dynamic and moving. It is dramatic but the alternative is some kind of formulaic performance where I try to fall in line and impress the right people so that I check the right boxes in the effort to appear like I believe a thing rather than living out the blood and sweat of it. Faith is a thing that works more like a sketch over the course of a lifetime. On my better days, it takes the solid haunting shape of a figure walking on water through the fog and I feel less afraid and more loved.
* I mention this film because it started the thought process that became this essay. The whole approach that I take in writing here is often about starting from the “wrong” place. My curiosity and analysis are not an endorsement for watching things that will make you miserable. Everyone doesn’t enjoy the same stuff and that’s fine.