A Catholic perspective on the world and all the good things therein, especially books and food. Literature cum chocolate is the order of the day at The Crockery.

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No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Corpse Bride: Notes on Christianity and the Creepy

Last summer, I attended a chick flick which I will not here identify, in the company of some female friends of mine who will also remain nameless for the protection of the innocent. One of the previews shown before the movie was for Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, a film probably soon to be showing in the second-run theater nearest you, as it seems to be wrapping up its run in the normal theaters. After the Corpse Bride preview ended, one of my fellow movie-goers made a comment about it looking weird, or some such thing. I replied something along the lines of "Really? It looks like something I'd like to see." And, having seen it this Friday, I can say that I did in fact enjoy it; see Steven Greydanus' review to get a good explanation of some of the things Christian viewers might take away from this movie.

Nevertheless, it seemed to me that I was one of the few people I knew who wanted to see Corpse Bride. Somehow, it never came up as a suggested selection for movie night. This, coupled with perennial online debates about "What are Christians to do about Halloween?" has led me to ruminate a bit about Christianity and what, for lack of a better phrase, I will call "the creepy." (If there were a word that included scary stories, morbid humor, and the grotesque, I'd use that word instead, but if it exists, alas, no middle-school vocabulary list included it.)

There are some people, I know, who do not like morbid humor, the grotesque, or the whole world of scary movies and stories. That is fine. We don't all have to like Tim Burton flicks or well-done ghost stories. But there are some people who mistake morbidity for sinfulness, who think that because a work -say, one of Roald Dahl's books, or the more timely Series of Unfortunate Events- is dark, it must be bad, or somehow not acceptable for Christians, at least for children. (I can only assume that these people have never read Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales, or that they would burn them if they had the chance.) This, to me, does not seem fine. This seems ignorant: those who hold the view that what is scary or morbid must be bad are acting without reference to a good chunk of Christian art history.

In truth, Christianity has long made use of the grotesque. Wealthy Medieval Christians sometimes decorated their tombs with skeletal statues of themselves- right within the walls of the church buildings. The Dance of Death was a popular subject for religious artwork; images of Death and the Maiden are perhaps even more disturbing. Such morbid artwork served the theological purpose of reminding viewers of their own mortality. I suspect it was also enjoyable simply as- well, as something creepy.

Christian use of the creepy or the grotesque did not die with the ending of the Middle Ages. Some cultures still celebrate "The Day of the Dead" as a festival reminding participants that under their flesh their lies a skeleton which will one day be exposed in death. In literature, Flannery O'Connor made good use of the grotesque in stories that are, in many cases, simply well-crafted morality tales. Some would probably call her stories morbid- but that's the point. In the later half of the twentieth century, Russel Kirk (yes, Russell Kirk!) and others have written supernatural thrillers -authentically creepy stories- for more or less theological purposes. Even more of this type of literature has been produced in the '90s and the early part of the twenty-first century, but the present of "Christian chillers" should not be surprising.

If all of the above establishes that Christians should not feel threatened by works simply because they are "morbid" or "scary," it may not address the issue of scary works which aren't explicitly religious. Of course, Roald Dahl, "Limony Snicket" and Tim Burton are not creating morbid works for any specific theological purposes. Such works have to be evaluated on their own merits, both moral and artistic. And in the field of children's literature and children's movies, parents have to use their discretion in determining whether something it too scary for a sensitive child, regardless of whether that scariness serves a religious function as a reminder of mortality. In short, I'm not recommending the Corpse Bride to all ages and dispositions. I'm just pointing out that there's no need to worry about the film simply because it makes use of the comically grotesque. In fact, the grotesque has long served venerable societal purposes: just ask the gargoyles!


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9:20 PM  

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