Sunday, October 30, 2011

Spiritual Popcorn, Halloween Style

What can scary movies teach us?

Around Halloween, we often pull out our favorite scary movies (or those not-so-scary ones that still remind us of this dark and autumnal time of year).

We might think about familiar classics like the original Dracula and Frankenstein (both released in 1931) or silent movie icons like Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Or maybe we prefer the screamers of the 70s and 80s like Jaws (1975), Halloween (1978), Alien (1979), Friday the 13th (1980), The Shining (1980), or A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Even today, we might enjoy watching modern scare-fests like Silence of the Lambs (1991), The Blair Witch Project (1999), the Saw franchise (beginning with the first in 2004), and the most recent, the Paranormal Activity series (released in 2009, 2010, and 2011).

What drives these films (and their box office success stories) is that all of them center around the concept of fear. Filmmakers love to scare us - and audiences love to be scared. As distinct as The Mummy (1932), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and Hostel (2005) might be, they all come down to fear.

These movies tap into a primal notion that we are all afraid of something or someone. Whether it's as simple as a fear of heights or spiders - or larger things like terrorism, crime, or losing one's job, fear can paralyze us and control our actions.

Seeing these movies might help us put aside our real fears for a few hours and enjoy an imaginary fright on the silver screen (or watching other people run in terror might distract us from our own situation). Perhaps these films allow us to laugh at the silliness that fear can bring - giving us strength to laugh at our own bogeymen. Or just maybe we want to test our strength - and show ourselves that we can withstand any horror.

But aside from a little escapism, what do these Halloween favorites teach us spiritually? Here are a few things that we might glean from this harvest crop of films:

1) "Fear not, beloved, you are safe. Take courage and be strong" (Dan. 10:19). These are God's comforting and encouraging words to the prophet Daniel - who spent his life in the frightening company of lions and really strange visions. But they might also be words that inspire heroes like Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the Alien franchise (1979, 1986, 1992, 1997), Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton) in the Terminator movies (1984, 1991, etc.), or Fr. Damien (Jason Miller) in The Exorcist (1973).

With a firm hope in God and using the gifts God gave them, these heroes prove that fear has no control over them in their quest to save the day and come face to face with their monsters. Not to say that these characters weren't frightened, but they overcame that fear and received the courage they needed.

The same might be said of us. We are called to pray to God for the courage to face our worst fears, to use the gifts and resources that God has placed before us, and move forward with confidence. We know God's love is the absence of fear - and we are armed with that at all times. We are challenged to take a step into the darkness of night and, like our movie heroes, stand courageously and be assured of God's constant protection.

2) Another thing that our favorite Halloween movies teach us is to stand together. While films where the monster knocks off characters one by one can be fun to watch, it is even more impressive when all the characters come together in the face of danger and fear.

In Ghostbusters (1984), Independence Day (1996), and the Harry Potter franchise (2001, continuing through 2011), an outside threat is defeated when characters work together. "Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them," proclaims Jesus (Mt. 18:20) - and God gives great strength to those who sacrifice individual glory for mutual partnership in the journey towards victory.

In our age of polarization, now more than ever we are challenged to put aside our differences, reconcile with those who have hurt or wronged us, and love those outside our comfort zones - in order to truly be united against greater evil. Together we can often accomplish more than when we are on our own, but in order to get to that point, we must forgive, love, and show humility with one another.

Perhaps our favorite scary movies would have been a lot shorter if only the characters worked together from the beginning (instead of the creature dividing its victims and devouring them one by one); but that's the movies. In reality, coming together as one people is much more exciting to watch - and defeating our fears with mutual support is much easier than being stranded alone to face those demons.

3) In some, though not all, scary movies, the crowds misjudge the monster. In Frankenstein, and especially in its Mel Brooks' spoof Young Frankenstein (1974), we learn that the creature is not an empty horror in need of extinguishing - but rather a living, breathing person who is just afraid of fire (and has a short temper). Similarly, the Phantom under the Paris opera house is a lonely, rejected, disfigured man with incredible talent and a simple need to be loved.

In The Sixth Sense (1999), nine-year old Cole (Haley Joel Osment) is considered a "freak" by his classmates and family, but in all actually he is the heart of the movie, full of love and unconditional sympathy for those in pain. But so few people want to learn more about this misunderstood boy that he becomes a "ghost" himself - detached from a cold, dark world.

Sometimes the monsters aren't monsters after all. Once we get past the fear, we see something to pity or, more importantly, to love as another child of God. Perhaps the reason that Scripture tells us to avoid fear is because we're fearing the wrong things. The disciples were afraid of the Romans and the tax collectors, but as Jesus approached with love the Centurion and Zaccheus, he showed them that these men weren't the monsters they were made out to be.

We fear the unknown and who/what we don't understand. Are there people in our lives that we fear or avoid - who God might be calling us to love and embrace instead? As we learn in Night of the Living Dead (1968), even zombies are people too.

So who are the "misunderstood monsters" in our day and in our daily lives? Who are the misjudged "bogeymen" that we so easily shun, dismiss, ridicule, hate, or rally against - and should we reconsider our actions? For not all monsters in our favorite Halloween stories are actually monsters - and they have much to teach us about the way we judge and view one another. Let us pray that we might see them as God sees them before we end up like the mob with pitchforks, clubs, and torches.

Scary movies are all around us this time of year, but after we get a jolt on Halloween, let us pause on the Feasts of All Saints (November 1st) and All Souls (November 2nd) to look back at the spiritual lessons we can take from the horror, the silliness, and the truly frightening.

Consider this story, told in retrospect by the gospel writers, found in Scripture: "During the fourth watch of that stormy night, Jesus came to the disciples, walking on the water. When they saw him walking across the sea, they were terrified. 'It is a ghost,' they said, and cried out in fear. At once, Jesus spoke to them, "Take courage, it is I. Do not be afraid..." (Mt. 14:25-27)

Ghosts, storms, and terror... yet in the midst of all that, Jesus appears to comfort and save the frightened disciples. The same is true for us - for no matter how scary things get in our lives (from the little phobias that give us the chills, the spooky movies that we love to watch, or our fears related to work, home, health, money, and personal insecurities), we just need to know that God is there for us - to walk alongside us as we summon our gifts and courage, as we learn to forgive and love one another, and as we reach out to the misunderstood monsters. In all these, God is there, telling us every day: "Take courage... Do not be afraid."

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