Growing up with Christian Horror

People like horror because it speaks to something primal that still exists within them. It forces them to face things they’re hardwired to be afraid of.

What do you do, then, if you’re a Christian teen growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s at the height of the “Satanic Panic,” and not allowed to watch Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Friday the 13th? Maybe you aren’t allowed to Trick or Treat or even watch the Garfield Halloween Special.

Why, you watch videos and read books and listen to radio programs about how bad all of those things are, of course.

At the private Christian school I grew up in, books like the above were commonplace. Some kids weren’t even allowed to watch the Smurfs, but were permitted and even encouraged to read about black-cloaked devil worshippers sacrificing babies and forcing children to drink blood and eat feces.

These people were supposedly everywhere, and part of a vast conspiracy to conquer the world and crush everything good in it.

I knew kids whose parents threw out their He-Man toys because of this very book…

…and others like it.

They had parents thinking the Smurfs was a gateway to the occult.

Maybe it was, lol.

They showed us videos like Carman’s “Witch’s invitation.”

I knew kids whose parents wouldn’t let them play Zelda because “magic,” but wouldn’t think twice about loading them up on a bus to go see Christian comedian Mike Warnke, who told salacious cautionary tales of his tenure as a “satanic high priest.”

While there, you could purchase a book or cd delving much deeper into his entirely fabricated past:

We watched videos and read books about about how the music industry was run by satanists and every rock record was “blessed” by a witch as it went to press. My favorite of these was “Hell’s Bells: the Dangers of Rock.”

That mustachioed fellow above, in trying to warn me about very specific artists, actually steered me towards them. Without Eric Holmberg, I wouldn’t have been aware of bands like Mercyful Fate, Venom and Celtic Frost. I actually asked to borrow the tape and take it home, and they let me. I watched it over and over again, getting titillated by the utter salaciousness of it all.

There was a radio program called “Don’t Dance with the Devil,” which aired around Halloween. It was kind of like Art Bell, but with a religious agenda.

I had a crush on a girl whose church was putting on a scary play about Hell during the month of October. She invited me to go and I did because I wanted to make out with her, and it didn’t even happen. All I got was a lot of screaming, dry ice and strobe lights.

Such things were more prevalent than kids now can imagine. It was a cheat; a workaround. You got all the scares and darkness of horror within the framework of it being “exposed.”

To this day, this type of media continues to influence me and inform my idea of what “horror” is. I love Chick Tracts, for instance. I actually collect them.

I started to realize at some point that this type of media was really no different than the “secular” horror movies I had grown to like. The Exorcist and The Omen are essentially Jack Chick Tracts: the Movie. I mean, minus the Catholicism of the former, which Jack Chick made no bones about hating.

So yeah, Christians definitely love horror. They just like to call it something else and pretend they don’t.

All of my books, I’ve come to realize, involve the idea of cults and mass brainwashing, to one degree or another. Even Effugium. This stuff is inextricably embedded into my storytelling instincts. Even as a kid I was really into cults. I read lots of books about them, from the library, and I watched lots of TV docs. I knew all about Nazis. During Thanksgiving at my uncle’s house when I was 11 or so, the adults were playing Trivial Pursuit in the next room. I overheard a question about a Third Reich doctor who experimented on twins and I called out “Joseph Mengele!” They couldn’t believe I knew that, but I’d read a whole book about him. How can human beings be persuaded to adopt an obviously outlandish perspective on life? That was the question I tirelessly searched for the answer to. Right now I’m enjoying the opportunity to study the phenomenon in real time, because people’s views are so nakedly extreme.

Nowhere is this cult theme more prominently on display than in The Act of Laughing, my 2011 book about a Ba’al-worshipping, child-sacrificing cult operating under the guise of a homeowner’s association in a gated community.

I wanted to capture the titillating sense of danger and fear I got from those “Dangers of the Occult” books and vids, and I think I succeeded.

For the sequel, I’ve exploited more current fears:

Act II is about a pharmaceutical company called Tophet, inherited by two freaky-looking twins named Mikel and Moriah who publicly practice not Ba’al worship, but worship of Tanit, his goddess consort.

In the book, Tanit has infiltrated popular culture and been rendered wholly innocuous. She’s basically Pokemeon, or the Starbucks mermaid. On that level. The few fanatics speaking out against this trend, most notably survivors of the Blackwell Murders from the first book, are widely regarded as kooks.

After all, Tophet supports all the causes du jour, donates millions to charity and even operates an adoption agency. See where I’m going with that last one?

They’ve also developed a new variant-adaptive vaccine that promises to wipe out Covid and return life to “normal.”

Unbeknownst, though, to those lining up and rolling up their sleeves, Mikel and Moriah are hiding other plans up theirs.

I’m attempting to capture the lurid sensationalism of those ‘80s Satanic Panic books, but in a 2021 pandemic context. I’m taking modern conspiracies, merging them with primal fears and doing so in a borderline ham-fisted manner.

I’m taking all of these crazy writings and viral VHS productions I’ve consumed these past 40 years and distilling them down into a single story. It’s gonna SICK.

Does it feed and exploit current hysteria? Well shit yeah it does, but I’m just here to tell stories.

2 thoughts on “Growing up with Christian Horror

  1. I was exposed to some films like that growing up, too. I vaguely remember a Sci-Fi movie about a bunch of church kids defending Earth from Space Satan. That sort of thing never really clicked for me. Even as a kid, I felt like I was watching a parody, not something that was meant to be taken seriously or teach any serious sort of lesson.

  2. I had a similar reaction, but I appreciated it on a camp level. That, and watching some of the other kids having dead serious reactions to it was fascinating to me. I grew up in a less fanatical church but attended a multi-denominational school, so I knew people from many different systems of belief. Some very strict.

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