'How could you like dark things while also trying to be a kind of symbol of light?’
Peter Laws is an ordained Baptist minister with a taste for the macabre. He is the author of The Frighteners: Why We Love Monsters, Ghosts, Death and Gore which seeks to understand why humans have a morbid streak, and more recently created the Creepy Cove Community Church Podcast. He talks to Alex Baker about horror, Halloween - and how more Christians are acknowledging a spooky gene
Can you tell us a little bit about your book The Frighteners? What’s the premise for those who don't know?
The Frighteners is a non-fiction book I've written in response to a question I often get asked about which is how, as a Baptist minister, a kind of a person of the cloth, as it were, who is supposed to like nice things theoretically…how can I also really enjoy horror films and spooky, scary, mysterious stories? I've always loved that stuff since I was a young kid and before I went to church in my 20s. But it can be a bit of a disconnect for many people. They think, ‘How could you like dark things while also trying to be a kind of symbol of light?’
The Frighteners is my response to that: a book-length explanation of why not only me, but millions of people around the world (and throughout history), have been drawn to the morbid and macabre.
The book raises lots of questions. What would you say would be the most important impact it has made?
I had an inkling that the book would have a pastoral impact, maybe not quite as much as it has, and I’m encouraged by that. I wanted to explain my interest in these things and by doing that, I hoped that people would feel relieved if they were like that, too.
But I keep getting messages from people around the world who have said, "I thought there was maybe something wrong with me. I thought I was under some sort of spiritual attack because I like this stuff. Now, I'm looking at it from a different angle." It has been pastorally liberating for them. A critic might come across and say, "Well, you've just made excuses for sinful behaviour." But I just don't think that's the case. I think they've made connections with their spirituality and their interest in this stuff, and it's liberated them.
I remember the first time I felt very lonely as a Christian who liked this sort of thing, and isolated within my church community. It's not something that many people are willing to publicly support. I remember reading a book by a Christian who made reference in just one paragraph to the fact that he liked Halloween and found it enjoyable too. I remember reading that and my eyes starting to fill up - it was the loneliness of liking certain forms of culture, and living in a Christian context, which basically says you can only experience particular types of culture.
And in some ways, that's been the most surprising but important aspect of the book - the pastoral impact. But also generally, to try and explain that people are not psychopaths for liking this sort of thing. I've people come along at book signings and say, "Look, my wife loves this scary stuff. A lot of women do like horror and brutally scary films. And I don't understand it. And I want to try and get to understand her." They have then read it, not liking horror, but in an effort to try and understand their partner – and have found it helpful.
Another question the book raises is, "What is it that makes people seek out these things that disgusts, horrifies and freaks them out?" Did you get some answers to that?
Yes, I did. Initially, it would seem nonsensical for a human being to be drawn to things that involve death and mayhem. But actually, when you stop and think about it, these subjects are 100 per cent relevant to every human on the planet. Death is on its way for all of us. There may be some people who are quite happy not to ponder or reflect on these things, but many of us need to try and connect with these topics in ways that we can handle. I would struggle to sit and reflect all day on the fact that I'm going to die - that would depress me.
And so what I do is, I experience the topic of death, but in a way that is filtered and that I can understand. That may be through reading books that explore death, or dramas or crime fiction novels, which is what I'm more well-known for. I find these things can be quite therapeutic; they're a good way of taking my fears and putting them into recognisable safe formats. It's similar to people who go on roller coasters - they want to experience the thrill and adrenaline of being in danger. But they know, ultimately, that they're not in danger. I want to experience the psychological thrill of scary things. There is a philosophical aspect that is helping me to remember what life is. Life is fleeting. I need to make the most of life. And so I find my dark interests turn the colours up of everything else.
In a world that worships rationality and points an accusing finger at violent video games, can an interest in the horror culture actually give us a safe way to confront our reality?
Yes, I think it does. And I think the fact that it consistently exists should tell us that human beings find this valuable - particularly the fact of death in our face…yet the reality of death, like dead bodies and corpses, for example - many people would not have had contact with them in any way in their life. Contrast that with the Victorian age: this was a time when people would have thought it quite normal to have seen a corpse, or even have a picture of a dead relative on the mantelpiece. That reality of death, for many of us, has been pushed to the side and we don't experience it face to face. And what happens? Do you see the ascent of death's image in culture? We see it in art and in literature.
A good example of this is the zombie film. Zombie culture remains. As a horror fan myself, I write a monthly review column in a magazine, The Fortean Times and my fellow critics and I keep thinking that zombies are going to go out of fashion soon.
They've got to. But they consistently remain…like actual zombies - you just can't get rid of them! They keep on coming. You kill one of them and another one rises. And they are a really interesting symbol today for people's recognition that real death doesn't always happen ‘in their face’, yet we’re not prepared to ignore it. We want to come to terms with our mortality in ways that we can handle. One shouldn’t trivialise these things, but perhaps we can put them in a way that brings almost a sense of fun and adventure as well. Imagine sitting in the doctor's office and the doctor says, “You’ve got six months to live” - that’s just devastating. That's the pure reality of death. I'm not surprised that we try to ponder it in ways that are a bit more exciting.
You’re written a series of crime novels based around the character of Matt Hunter, an atheist ex-vicar who helps the police solve religiously motivated crimes. What's been the reaction to the series?
The reaction has been fantastic. I've been amazed by the impact on people that I’ve never met. I've had the experience of sitting on trains and chatting to people next to me - complete strangers - and they tell me that they've read one of the books I've written. Those sorts of things are really exciting for an author and very thrilling. They’ve come out in Germany recently too.
But there is an aspect of it which I knew would get attention - it's the fact that the main character is an atheist. I wanted to honour atheism and not belittle it in any way because I get annoyed when Christians sweep atheism to the side as if it's stupid. It's not a stupid world view. And so I wanted him to be an atheist. And he is. And many Christians said, “What? How on earth is that going to be a good message to give out to non-Christians that the atheist is the hero?”
And, to be fair, the Christians in the books are often psychopaths and murderers. People said that was just going to make things worse. And what I found is I keep getting messages, particularly from atheists, who say, “Thank you for respecting my point of view.” And then secondly, “This book's making me think about spiritual matters.” Now, that was not my aim, and, I hasten to add, I don't write these books as some sort of thinly veiled evangelical tract. I'm not trying to swoop in and rescue people from the shadows. I had a feeling that if you if you speak to people in their terms, they might be more interested in your opinions. The books are very strongly atheist.
But Matt Hunter is living in a world which is filled with religious and really motivated people. And I'm interested in that clash. I suppose that clash happens in me - I'm a religious person, but I also am a human being who has doubts. That's quite normal.
What’s the future vision for the series?
I'd love to continue writing the books, it's been exciting to get another book deal for this next one coming out. When it comes out, we'll see if another one happens. I don't have a trajectory. Some people have said, I know what you're doing - in Book 10, he's going to drop to his knees and shout "Praise Jesus”. I have nothing - no trajectory like that at all. The supernatural does creep more into the books where it goes from crime fiction to a bit of horror, and I do like that sort of exploration.
So, I've found that it is going in that direction in terms of exploring weird paranormal Fortean things as well as crime. I remember when, watching old TV shows like Columbo - when things got a bit boring – it’s like they thought, let's put Columbo on a cruise ship, let's do an episode about his wife, or let's bring in a new character. Who knows? I might end up with Matt Hunter going into space one episode! I just love getting to write them, they're very exciting.
Are you finding that Christians’ attitude to horror is changing? And especially at times of the year like Halloween?
I think Christians' attitude to everything is changing. And I welcome that. I think we're going through a very interesting period in Christian history where people are willing to embrace mystery more and be grey on certain topics. There would have been a time perhaps, like in 80s and 90s, when this satanic panic was in the evangelical church, when they would say that even watching He-Man, the TV series, was going to turn you into a Satanist.
We've moved on from that. We recognise the hypocrisy behind some of those things. I think people are questioning, and being willing to question, some of these classic positions: from sexuality to evolution, to all these things - and horror is part of that. I do want to call myself a pioneer. I started doing this sort of stuff about ten years ago and felt quite lonely. But nowadays, it seems more and more Christians are coming out, as it were, as horror fans. And for me, I find that exciting because these are human beings with human interests. And the isolation part is the part that's lonely. It thrills me to think that people are finding other like-minded people.
I was always a big fan of The Exorcist. Do you think you’ve helped Christians make sense of the darker themes in our culture? Perhaps appreciate the role horror plays in our culture?
I totally recognise that not everybody has what author Lint Hatcher calls, "The spooky gene". I do. Perhaps you do, too. And millions of people do. And it's people who, if you start to talk about these topics, their eyes light up.
But there are lots who just totally do not get it. And they would never dream of reading a book like mine or watching The Exorcist. I completely respect that. I'm not evangelical about horror. I'm a full-time writer these days, but I still go and speak in churches.
I'm not trying to convince people to go and embrace horror if they don't like it. But what I don't want to happen is that those people in the woodwork, who love this stuff, are neglected. I went cold turkey a few years when I first became a Christian. I stupidly burned loads of them - including vinyl albums of soundtracks that are now really expensive - because I felt that it was the right thing to do, but it only made the devil a much bigger, more scary force in my life.
Now that I've chilled out, I feel like my faith has become more mature. Mature in the mystery. Mature because it's got greyer, rather than it's got more black and white.
Does it surprise you that God is using your interests and passions in this way?
Yes and no. It surprises me in the sense that I get to be one of the people who do it in a public way. That's thrilling to me. And I feel blessed to do that.
But it doesn't surprise me that someone is being used. I always used to pray when I was starting out in this thing, “God, I think this is a needed thing in the world. And so please make it me, because that would be really great, because I'm into this stuff and I think this is what I made for you. But if it's not me, just get someone else. But this is because the need remains - no matter who does it.”
So it doesn't surprise me that God is doing is making these links. I think he's been making these links all the time. Look at the Bible itself and it's quite grisly. What I'm so delighted and surprised by is the fact that I'm one of the people who gets to do it. But it's not just me – there are growing numbers of people who are making these connections and that excites me.
What would your message be to a church which is planning Halloween? How should they approach members in their congregation who won’t be attending the Glow or Light parties, but instead be heading out to Halloween?
I say to those people that if you're going to make a big decision to, let's say, boycott Halloween or provide an alternative, you just really need to have thought through the reasons why you're doing that. Check the history of Halloween to make sure that it really is the sort of the pagan sacrifice event that people seem to think it is. I don't think it is. In fact, I think it has quite a Christian potential and heritage as well. I think a lot of churches are missing a trick by not being willing to embrace Halloween more. The knee-jerk reaction to it actually does not do our credibility much good.
Halloween, if you look at it as a season, is an opportunity to connect with community: something Baptists are always on about. Halloween is one of the most community-focused events, much more so than even Christmas. Christmas is a very insular get-together-with-your-family time. With Halloween, people and families are out in the streets… and the Christians would say, well, let's not do that. Let's huddle in here, you know, dressed as Bible characters. I don't know what that achieves other than just presses the gaps between what you could call just ‘everyday people’ and the church. There are lots of kids who are gutted that they can’t dress as a zombie or witch. To me, you've got to have good reasons to really be against that. And I don't think the reasons are good enough for me.
Peter Laws is a Baptist minister. He is the creator of the ongoing Matt Hunter crime fiction series (Purged, Unleashed, Severed and Possessed – published by Allison & Busby, since 2017, and Bastei Lubbe in Germany from 2018). The books feature an atheist ex-vicar turned academic who helps the police solve religiously motivated crimes.
Peter also writes a monthly column for the print edition of The Fortean Times magazine and hosts the popular podcast/YouTube show The Flicks That Church Forgot, exploring the deeper and sometimes spiritual themes of morbid culture.
His latest project is called ‘Creepy Cove Community Church Podcast’, a regular church service broadcast from a mysterious fishing town, where all horror movies actually happened. He started it during lockdown, and it can be accessed on most podcast services or via www.creepycove.com.
Alex Baker is a former sub-editor and movie reviewer of The Baptist Times who now works as a photographer.
This conversation took place at Greenbelt 2019.
Images | Alex Baker Photography www.alexbakerphotography.com
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