October’s a weird time for me. Growing up, we didn’t celebrate Halloween, though we never particularly demonized it either. At least, as a family. I’ve definitely been part of churches that really jumped on the Satanic origins of the holiday. And while I think there’s some validity to that, I’m of the opinion that, by and large, the modern-day Halloween is generally an innocent time of spooks and costumes. Not that there’s no troubling aspects to it, (you’re not gonna find me playing around with a Ouija board or going to a tarot reading,) I’m just a little over the resurgence of the Satanic Panic.
In fact, dare I say it, there’s a good reason for a Christian to be a fan of scares? Scandalous, I know.
I’m not a horror game fan, but I’m definitely into media that nails an unsettling and creepy atmosphere. One of my most recent obsessions is Glitch Productions’ The Amazing Digital Circus, which, as director Gooseworx puts it, is basically “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream with the aesthetic of an I Spy book.” A surefire way to unsettle an audience is to pair goofy, fun subjects with things that are just subtly off, and Digital Circus nails this, with its colorful and whimsical setting mixed with a fair amount of existential horror. But what really got me into this kind of content was Luigi’s Mansion.
Luigi’s Mansion was my first exposure to anything that wasn’t strictly colorful, fun, and happy. And yes, while it’s still a Mario game, Luigi’s Mansion hit on something that no other game since has really done for me: it managed to be spooky without being scary. It set an atmosphere of isolation and creepiness without outright horrifying its audience. At least…it wasn’t supposed to. I definitely was too scared to get past the first dark room for a couple years when I was 6. But for many people such as myself, it sparked a fascination with things that just…creep us out.
So what does all of this have to do with being a Christian? In fact, isn’t it easy to make the argument that Christians should avoid this type of content, a la Philippians 4:8? While it’s true that many horror games contain a fair amount of objectionable content like violence, strong language, and demonic elements, I think a key distinction is whether or not they glory in this kind of content. There’s a distinct difference between something like Silent Hill, which, despite its dark themes, is centered around the main characters overcoming their inner struggles, and Manhunt, which from what I can tell is rather proud of its horrific content.
A piece of media that isn’t afraid to delve into some of the darker realities of life without glorifying it is in a unique position to throw light and dark into a beautiful contrast. The light shines brighter after you’ve been in the darkness. Going back to Luigi’s Mansion, (hard left turn after Manhunt, I know,) the end of the game is, to this day, one of the most touching moments in the entire franchise. Luigi has spent the entire game alone in a dark, spooky mansion, having his wits nearly scared out of him. And once he finally rescues Mario, he breaks down laughing, tears streaming down his face. It’s more character we’ve ever gotten from any mainline game, and I think the overall dark tone of the game, contrasted with this bright and happy ending, ties it all together in a way that a lighter game simply would not be able to do.
To use another example, Remedy Entertainment’s Control uses its horror elements to tell a uniquely touching story. Jesse wants to protect her brother Dylan, and it’s clear she’ll go to any length to do that. But as she explores the FBC, she learns that there’s more to life than just looking out for you and yours. As she grows into her role as the Bureau’s new Director, she learns that there are tough decisions to make, but that it’s all worth it for the sake of looking out for others. Or, dare I say it, loving your neighbor.
Once again, this point would lose much of its impact if the game wasn’t as creepy and unsettling as it is. Jesse coming to this conclusion despite her surroundings hits really hard when, about halfway through the game, she tells herself, “I’m in an infinite building leading to different dimensions, and I never wanna leave. Even with all the horror, I’m happy. It feels sane. Or just the right kind of insane.” Somehow, in all of this, Jesse has found a purpose that stretches beyond herself and Dylan.
I’m never going to be a diehard horror fan, that’s just not my style. But I will always be an advocate for media not being afraid to lean away from difficult or even scary subjects if the ultimate goal is to let the light shine through. So much of “Christian” media today is sanitized to the point that it feels like we’re watching some kind of alternate universe. But Christ is the Man of Sorrows, “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:3, ESV). Jesus knows what it’s like to be in the depth of despair, and even to face evil head on in all its ugliness. If we’re never able to acknowledge the fact that sometimes, life is just plain scary, then we’re never in a position to allow Christ to overcome that evil and walk us through the valley of the shadow of death. While we are on this side of eternity, light will never shine as brightly as it does through the darkness, and when we come out of the dark into the light, we get a glimpse of that day when, finally, darkness will be eradicated once and for all.