Halloween Haunts: Good Questions: Shared Spaces of Horror and Religion by Brandon R. Grafius
I was too young to remember. But as the story’s been retold in family lore, it goes something like this:
My family used to go out for fast-food most Sundays after church; in hindsight, it was clearly a way for my parents to bribe my brother and me to get us into Sunday School each week. I was about four years-old, took a big bit off a fried chicken drumstick, then fixed my gaze on the piece in my hand. I squinted my eyes at it, looked up at my parents, and said, “Hey…doesn’t this hurt the chicken?”
My father took a deep breath. When he recounted the story to me later, he shared that his first thought was, “Oh please God no.” But instead of sharing with me how much he enjoyed eating meat, and how much of a pain in the ass it would be to have a vegetarian in the family, he calmly responded, “Yeah, it does. There are some people who don’t think it’s right to hurt the chicken, so they don’t eat any meat – instead, they eat a lot of vegetables to make sure they get what their bodies need to grow.”
I apparently responded with an almost disinterested, “Oh,” and proceeded to take another bite off the drumstick. While the answer might have left something to be desired, it’s one of the first truly good questions I asked in life.
I’ve always wanted to ask questions. And I’ve learned that I’m not alone in finding much more interest in the process of raising the questions, thinking through possible responses, and looking at all of the messiness these questions raise from every possible angle than in getting an answer. Answers usually disappoint. Actually, I might go as far as to say that if the answer doesn’t disappoint, then the question wasn’t very interesting in the first place. Answers bring us back into the world of fixed timetables, routines, and laws of physics. Questions are all about possibilities. I’d much rather live in those possibilities.
Many of the spaces we move through in our everyday lives are spaces that try to find answers. I spent a few years working in the corporate world (I’ve honest-to-God worked as both a secret shopper and a training coordinator for a call center that answered calls from potential customers responding to infomercials!), and these jobs were always about answers. I needed to find the number, I needed to quantify human behavior and jam it into a report, I needed to find a way that these kinds of processes could be evaluated and streamlined. It was always about answers. I’m sure many of you have your own experiences of spaces where the answers are privileged, and where questions are a sign of a deficiency, or some kind of deviance that needs to be stamped out as quickly as possible.
But I’ve always been drawn to spaces that encourage questions, and that are okay with living with those questions. Messy, unanswered, possibly paradoxical questions. The spaces that understand that the things that really matter are what can’t be forced into a number, or pressed into the pre-determined shape of an answer. The spaces I’m drawn to are spaces where questions are living, breathing partners that we live with, rather than problems to fix.
Horror is one of those spaces. Frequently, horror begins with “normal life” being disrupted by a monster or some other kind of evil; sometimes, the journey of the narrative is to get to that state of normalcy where the story began. But I’ve always found it more interesting when something happens along the way, to where the protagonists – and we, as readers or viewers – are left wondering what “normal life” really looks like, whether it truly existed in the first place, whether it’s possible to get back there, and whether we’d want to even if we could. In the most interesting horror, we’re left questioning all of the assumptions we make about our lives and our place in the world. And, perhaps, wondering if there are some possibilities we might be able to live into, rather than dismissing them as outside the boundaries of what’s acceptable.
Humans have asked these questions for millennia; you can chalk it up to how our brains have evolved, our nature as social creatures, a divine spark, or any number of reasons. But we’re drawn to these questions. And there are very few spaces in our world that encourages asking them.
For a long time, these big questions about the meaning of life were thought to be “religious questions,” since they were asked by our religious traditions and thought through in myth and doctrine. Scholar of religion and horror Douglas Cowan has taken to calling them “properly human questions”, since religious traditions really don’t have a monopoly on them. But the church, when it’s working right (and, of course, it so often isn’t!), is supposed to be a space where these questions can be asked, explored, and lived with.
In my own work, I’ve tried to explore this fascinating overlap – two seemingly dissimilar spaces, horror and religion, that both attempt to provide frameworks for thinking through these properly human questions. Both traditions provide ways we can ask these big questions, and spend time with others – past and present – who have explored them as well. When we notice that these sets of questions are largely the same, we can begin to unravel the complicated dialogue that these two traditions have been engaging in with each other, a dialogue that continues to get a little louder each day.
Scholar Victoria Nelson has argued that the increasing secularization of our culture has left these questions without a home – people are leaving the church, but still have a need to ask these questions – and popular culture has emerged to fill this gap. My only quibble with this thesis is that I don’t think this is anything new. Speculative fiction has been asking these questions all along, and encouraging us to ask them along with whatever we’re watching or reading. And before the rise of the gothic mode in the 18th century, these questions were being asked in myths and folktales, in songs and stories. Religion has long been one important venue for these questions, but it’s never been the only one.
My four-year old self had asked a great question. The answer could have been better, but that’s about what you should expect from a four-year old. I imagine the story has lived on in family lore precisely because of this incongruity: such a deep question, such an absurdly declarative answer. But, like all good questions, that answer has been one I’ve continued to turn over, revise, complicate, and be uncomfortable with in the years since. Good questions are the ones that lead you on that kind of a journey, and continue to stay with you as you’re walking. Sometimes they walk alongside you as a conversation partner, sometimes they’re behind you kicking at your heels and stepping on the soles of your shoes.
They’re questions we need to keep asking, even if our answers can never be anything more the tentative, preliminary, and incomplete. They’re the kind of questions that the traditions of horror and religion both continue to ask, each in their own way. And when we realize that the questions asked by religion and horror are all variations on the same question, the conversation becomes even richer.
Brandon R. Grafius is associate professor of Biblical Studies and academic dean at Ecumenical Theological Seminary, Detroit. He is an active member of HWA, as well as the Society of Biblical Literature. His most recent book is Lurking Under the Surface: Horror, Religion, and the Questions that Haunt Us, published by Broadleaf Books. More information can be found here: https://www.broadleafbooks.com/store/product/9781506481623/Lurking-Under-the-Surface. Follow him on Twitter @brgrafius.
 Douglas E. Cowan, The Forbidden Body: Sex, Horror, and the Religious Imagination (New York: New York University Press, 2022), 4-7.
 Victoria Nelson, The Secret Life of Puppets (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).10_20_LutS Cover