College of Arts & Letters graduate and biblical scholar Brandon Grafius loves a good horror movie and, at the same time, has long been interested in the study of religion. For his recently released book, Lurking Under the Surface: Horror, Religion, and the Questions That Haunt Us, he continues his career-long investigation into the intersection of horror and religion, two distinct subjects that have more in common than you might imagine.
While reading The Book of Numbers for one of his doctoral classes at Chicago Theological Seminary, Grafius first noticed a connection between horror and religion. In one of the stories of this book, as the Israelites wander through the desert on their way to the promised land, they become involved with women from another tribe. When an Israelite man takes a Midianite woman as his bride and brings her into his tent, a priest skewers them both with a spear.
“When I read this, I had an instant flash of recognition – that same death scene happens in Friday the 13th Part 2,” Grafius said. “It caused me to think about all kinds of connections between those two stories, how both of them are afraid of women’s sexuality and the loss of control over their communities, and both of them imagine violence as a way to reassert this control.”
This led Grafius to search for more connections between horror movies and religion.
“There’s a lot of horror in our religious traditions, from stories in the Bible to the sermons of Jonathan Edwards,” Grafius said, “and using the tools of horror analysis can help us unpack some of how that horror’s working, why it might be there, and what effect it can have on audiences.”
“There’s a lot of horror in our religious traditions, from stories in the Bible to the sermons of Jonathan Edwards, and using the tools of horror analysis can help us unpack some of how that horror’s working, why it might be there, and what effect it can have on audiences.”
Horror, Grafius found, frequently employs religious frameworks. It also shares concerns with religion, such as fear of death, the unknown, or knowing too much.
“I’ve spent a long time thinking through how our ideas of God are tied so closely with horror – a theme that the recent Netflix series Midnight Mass explored so brilliantly,” Grafius said. “While many of us who are religious like to think of God as love, every religious tradition I’m aware of understands the divine to have an aspect of them that terrorizes us.”
Michigan State University’s Department of Religious Studies hosted Grafius on Oct. 26 for a lecture, titled Haunting Religion: Using Horror and Faith to Make Meaning, where he explored how religion and the horror genre demonstrate connections both obvious and unexpected and how horror can serve as both critique of religious traditions and a means of taking them seriously.
Long and Winding Career Path
Grafius’ career, which he describes as a “long and winding path,” began at Michigan State University where he earned a B.A. in English and also studied Latin, which laid the groundwork for later studies in Hebrew and Greek.
“While much of my coursework was focused on poetry, those writing skills are transferable,” Grafius said. “If you know how to work with images, how to focus on the structure of what you’re writing, and how to clarify the specifics of what you’re trying to convey, then you’ve got some tremendous building blocks to work with in whatever kind of writing you want to do.”
After graduating from MSU, Grafius went on to earn an M.A. in English from the University of California-Davis and later followed a different path to earn a Master of Divinity from the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit and a Ph.D. from the Chicago Theological Seminary.
He now works as an Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit and recently was named Academic Dean.
Lurking Under the Surface
One goal Grafius’ had for his new book, Lurking Under the Surface: Horror, Religion, and the Questions That Haunt Us, was to write a more personal narrative.
“One of my previous academic books, Reading the Bible with Horror, had an introduction that was a little more personal in terms of my own experiences with horror movies and what drew me to the genre,” he said. “I started to wonder what would happen if I wrote an entire book in that mode. I was fortunate to find some people who could see what I was trying to do, and who had faith that there was a market for this blend of academic and personal writing, and a market for this somewhat odd combination of topics.”
The book also aims to teach while offering readers a way to reflect on their lives.
“I’ve written lots of scholarly work before, but my previous books haven’t really shown the kinds of stories I can tell,” Grafius said. “This book is all about the stories. So while I hope readers will learn something from the book, what I really hope is that they’ll find points of connection with their own journey, and they’ll be able to think about some aspects of their lives in new ways.”
Horror Movie Q&A:
In the spirit of the season, Grafius answered a few questions about horror movies and how he goes about analyzing these works.
What are some of your favorite horror movies?
In my new book, I mention Sinister and The Ring as the two movies that have probably scared me the most as an adult. I love them for that. But it’s hard to top Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. And in terms of more recent films, both Us and The Lighthouse have stuck with me for a long time.
What horror films, shows, or books have interested you recently?
There’s been a lot of great horror out, even just this year! In terms of multi-plex movies, Nope was mind-bending and gets deeper the more you think about it. And The Black Phone was just plain scary. I’ve also loved some smaller releases, like We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. And You Won’t Be Alone is a hauntingly beautiful film that could fairly be described as Terrence Malick remakes The Witch.
What movies have been most influential in your work/research, and do they differ from movies you watch for entertainment?
I’m fortunate enough to be able to make a living doing what I love, so I don’t really distinguish between what I watch for research and what I watch for entertainment, at least most of the time. When I watch a movie and I find myself thinking about it days later, that tells me that I need to spend some time with it. The Witch is probably the clearest example of it. There was a book being put together called Make American Hate Again: Trump-Era Horror and the Politics of Fear, and I pitched an article for it on The Witch and how fear of an external threat is usually a way to mask our own insecurities. I really liked the article but felt there was a lot more in the movie I wanted to think through. I ended up writing a short book on the film as a guide to researchers and students looking to unpack the importance of the Puritan religion in the film.
How do you approach watching/analyzing a horror movie through a religious lens?
I start by thinking about the questions that the film asks and the anxieties that the film addresses. Usually, those questions and anxieties have a corollary in religion.
There aren’t many places in our culture where we’re encouraged to ask the “big questions,” questions about what life means, how we relate to each other, and what our place in the world might be. Religion is clearly one of those places, but I think horror (and sometimes other genres) is another. These questions are often disguised just a bit, since horror is primarily about telling a good story, but often it’s a pretty short step from the narrative to these big questions.
So, it’s about finding that point of connection. Once I find that connection, I’ve got something to work with, and I can start thinking through how the conversation might happen.