Numinous Lost


Nocturne in Black and Gold, Whistler 1875

C.S. Lewis might remark that our culture’s fascination with horror films arises from the “numinous awe” that “is as old as humanity itself.”[1] In his book, The Problem of Pain, he wrote that “nothing is more certain than that man, from a very early period, began to believe that the universe was haunted by spirits.”[2] He distinguishes this kind of awe from mere fear, too: “When man passes from physical fear to dread and awe, he makes a sheer jump, and apprehends something which could never be given, as danger is, by the physical facts and logical deductions from them.”[3]

Lewis will go on to observe that religion brings together this ancient fear of the numinous with morality or our sense of right and wrong. One might argue that horror films do this, as well. For many moderns that struggle to believe in anything they cannot see with their own eyes, where they are even compelled to call into question the objectivity of what is good and true (“What is truth?”), horror films may serve a purpose of highlighting the connection between what is unseen and the moral order of our universe. Horror films can serve as a sort of metaphysical wake-up call.

The philosopher Philip Tallon writes that “horror as a genre is worth taking seriously (at least for a while) because of how well it can inform and enlighten our vision of the world by reminding us of our inner moral frailty and by forcing us to take seriously the moral reality of evil.”[4] The power of horror lies in its violation of the moral order that is written on our hearts (Romans 2:14). Through destabilizing that which we associate with security and goodness, it uses terror to awaken us to the reality of “moral, social, and aesthetic stability.”[5]

Tallon writes that “after the Enlightenment … the notion of any objective moral or natural order becomes much more suspect.”[6]  Yet we cannot shake the intuition that this order is indeed more than a useful fiction that enables us to survive as social creatures. Such an explanation will hardly bear the ontological weight of our moral experience. It is difficult to believe that something like the Holocaust is not objectively evil; that, evolutionarily speaking, it might become suddenly useful at some point along the mindless (and heartless) drift of populations and genes struggling against non-existence.

Horror film highlights evil so that goodness shines all the brighter. Horror wrestles with the mud of life, you could say, “rubbing our noses in the filthiest bits of the human soul.”[7] There is a fine line between wrestling and reveling, yes. But horror forces us to see that line. It forces us back into the recognition that despite the complexity, confusion, and cynicism of the rapidly changing and expanding modern world, the line between good and evil still remains. And that line runs right down the middle of our hearts, as Solzhenitsyn observed.

I think that many in our world today are searching for that line, wanting to be assured that it is indeed real – objectively real! Horror films perhaps provide that assurance for us by awakening that ancient numinous awe from its modern slumber and forcing the questions of good and evil out our comfortable abstractions.

For more on how a film (and book) like The Exorcist does this, read here:

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco:  HarperCollins, 2001), 8.

[2] Ibid., 6.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Philip Tallon, “Through a Mirror Darkly: Art-Horror As a Medium for Moral Reflection,” Accessed June 21, 2017.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Philip Tallon, Interview with John W. Morehead, “The Philosophy of Horror” Accessed June 21, 2017,

[7] Ibid.

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