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The Theological Terrors of Easter

Monday, March 26, 2018 | Hallowed Horrors

By JESS PEACOCK

We have entered Holy Week, perhaps the most important religious observation and celebration on the Christian calendar, a sacred period for Christians around the world that culminates symbolically in a particularly terrifying and horrific narrative – the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

As mentioned in a previous column, the horror genre is about the inversion of the natural – and thus sacred – order. Victor Frankenstein creates new life (previously the exclusive domain of God) from dead scraps; H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones and their madness inducing forays into our mundane universe; and, yes, the zombie, now a staple of popular culture, a shambling reversal of the inexorable power of death.

These classic tropes of horror are theological terrors through their capsizal of the accepted understanding of the world. They challenge the sacred order by introducing existential chaos, totems of a new world order where the status quo is wiped out amidst a frenzy of gods and monsters, our ritualistic intimacy torn asunder by monstrous claws and teeth.

Within the Bible, the natural order is routinely shattered, never more famously than during the Easter narrative. I write in my book Such a Dark Thing: Theology of the Vampire Narrative in Popular Culture:

“After the resurrection but before the ascendance into heaven of Jesus the Christ within the narrative of the Gospels, the Nazarene has plunged through the mortal coil of the organic order of life and death, straddling the invisible chasm between the two. Neither dead nor alive and inhabiting a realm that can only be described as undeath, the numinous aura of the Christian demigod is evident to all who bear witness to his post-crucifixion exploits.”

 

Within the Bible, the natural order is routinely shattered, never more famously than during the Easter narrative.

While Jesus hinted at a reversal of the natural order when he reanimated Lazarus, it is the Easter narrative where Scripture downshifts into full horror movie mode. Aside from the physical torture of Jesus at the hands of the Romans (depicted in all of its torture porn glory in Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ), readers of the Gospels are treated over Easter weekend to a veritable parade of horror genre tropes.

The natural order is turned on its head throughout the final days of Holy Week when, after Jesus breathes his last, the light of day ominously and unnaturally transforms into darkness followed by a rock splitting earthquake, frightening and supernatural imagery echoed in countless apocalyptic horror narratives within contemporary entertainment.

Following this, the Gospel of Matthew, predating the zombie craze in popular culture by several thousand years, reads, “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” While we have no way of knowing whether these revived corpses were muttering “brains” or “shalom,” it’s safe to say that the sudden reappearance of the dead amid unnatural darkness is, read literally, nothing short of a terrifying turn of events.

Fast forward to Sunday where we are confronted with the finale to the Easter story. The Gospel of Luke tells us that those who saw Jesus “were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” By this account, while Jesus looked physically as he did before his death, his post-mortem appearance to the disciples was frightening to them—as it would be any time a dead person shows up for his own wake.

While I offer some of these reflections in an ironic spirit, I do think it’s important to acknowledge that religion and the horror genre are dueling narratives revolving around the unknown, of what lies beyond human reason and understanding. I would argue that one of the reasons The Walking Dead consistently draws tremendous ratings or why the zombie sub-genre itself consistently reanimates within popular culture through shows such as iZombie and The Santa Clarita Diet, is that horror entertainment has emerged as another form of religious language. In some sense, due to the need for palatable religious ritual, the ghastly elements of scripture have been buried, only to arise in the sinister form of vampires, zombies, and malevolent elder gods, symbols that enable us to explore the shadow side of the divine.

It’s fascinating that pastel colors, bunnies, and the ritualistic painting of eggs have come to represent the gruesome torture and death of Jesus, the shocking inversion of the natural order, corpses wandering through the streets, and an undead savior shattering the immutable barrier between life and death. This is the horror of Easter, a narrative that, while possibly hopeful, might lead us to a darker deliberation of the nature of humanity and our search for the Divine – benevolent or otherwise – in a fearsome and mysterious universe.

Jess Peacock
JESS PEACOCK is the author of SUCH A DARK THING: THEOLOGY OF THE VAMPIRE NARRATIVE IN POPULAR CULTURE ("Smart and insightful" - FANGORIA) from Wipf and Stock Publishers. He has contributed to RELIGION DISPATCHES, RUE MORGUE MAGAZINE, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, and is the former editor-in-chief of STREET SPEECH, a social justice publication produced by the Columbus Coalition for the Homeless in Ohio. Among his academic distinctions, Peacock is the recipient of Methodist Theological School in Ohio's Ronald L. Williams Book Prize in Theology and Ethics, as well as The Matey Janata Freedwomen Award for his research and work in women's issues and is the recipient of the Heldrich-Dvorak Fellowship from the Popular/American Culture Association. He currently writes the HALLOWED HORRORS column for RUE MORGUE online, and his similarly titled book is scheduled for release in early 2019 from Wipf and Stock. Jess is currently a PhD student living in Chicago and can regularly be heard on the LEGACY OF THE MARSTEN HOUSE podcast available on iTunes.