Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Filmmaker Scott Derrickson Interviewed on Horror and his Christian Faith

By Steven D. Greydanus

Scott Derrickson is a very nice guy who makes movies about things that aren’t very nice.

Articulate, thoughtful and disarmingly frank, Derrickson is a rare outspoken Christian in Hollywood. He’s also a horror filmmaker and aficionado probably been best known for the 2005 supernatural thriller The Exorcism of Emily Rose — though his recent deal with Marvel to bring the comic-book character Doctor Strange to the big screen changes that in a big way.

I recently caught up with Derrickson in Manhattan, where he held forth at length on horror, faith, art and Catholicism. (Our sprawling 45-minute interview covered more ground than I can do justice to in this article; you can watch the full video review on my blog.)

What does a nice Christian guy like you see in this genre? What does horror at its best offer us?

For me, [horror] is the perfect genre for a person of faith to work in. You can think about good and evil pretty openly. I always talk about it being the genre of non-denial. I like the fact that it’s a genre about confronting evil, confronting what’s frightening in the world.

I like the mystery of the genre. It’s a genre that takes the mystery in the world very seriously. There are a lot of voices that are broadcasting that the world is explainable. Corporate America limits the world to consumerism. Science can limit it to the material world. Even religion limits it to a lot of theories that can explain everything. I think we need cinema to break that apart and remind us that we’re not in control, and we don’t understand as much as we think do.

What about the flip side — the potential pitfalls or down side of horror as a genre? Any concerns there?

Sure. There are concerns for every genre. Action can become mere stimulus and mere distraction. When an action film is reduced to that, I’m not sure how healthy that is, at least in large quantities. Horror is the same way. When it’s reduced to mere scariness — or even worse, mere exploitation … I don’t think it’s necessarily a good or healthy thing, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. Horror, for me at least, invites depth, invites moral passion, invites ideas that are to be taken seriously.

It’s interesting to me that you’ve raised the theme of balance. As a film critic, I try to think seriously about the long-term impact on me of the things I expose myself to. I don’t think any one film is going to destroy my soul, but I do take very seriously an idea that may or may not have been expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson in the words, “We become what we think about all day long.” And I think of people like exorcists, priests, policemen, clinical social workers, divorce attorneys, garbage men …


Dentists, exactly! People who deal with the less inspiring aspects of human existence and that sort of occupational hazard. Is that something you think about?

I think a genre film director who takes fear and the horrible seriously belongs in that list. What all of those occupations demand is a particular kind of strength. I happen to have that particular kind of strength, when it comes to making these movies. I’m an unlikely candidate to have it, because I grew up so scared. But the process of confronting fear in my own life made me an unusually strong-minded person, I think.

When it comes to viewing the material, everyone has to make those decisions for themselves — where their strength level is and what it does for them.

I think it’s important for anyone who takes cinema seriously not to limit yourself to just optimistic or happy movies. I think that’s a problem. You’ve got to be willing to let the art of cinema take you into some darker places if you’re going to make full use of it. There are some people who shouldn’t watch horror films, and I’m all right with that.

It’s not about putting something evil in the world. It’s about reckoning with evil. We don’t need any more evil in the world. We need a lot more reckoning with it.

Sounds to me like some things G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis have said about terrifying things in fairy tales ...


You have to have dragons in order that knights can defeat them.

I think [the scary things in horror movies] are the dragons of pop culture. That’s exactly what they are.

A few exorcism films, like The Last Exorcism, have dealt with this material from a non-Catholic perspective — but not many. As Roger Ebert wrote, “When it comes to fighting vampires and performing exorcisms, the Roman Catholic Church has the heavy artillery.”

[Laughing] God bless Roger Ebert. Don’t we all miss him so much!

Do you think that’s true?

I think there’s some truth to it. Catholicism is so steeped in imagery. It’s one of the many reasons Catholicism has given birth to so many great filmmakers compared to the Protestant tradition — even in America, where we’re primarily Protestant.

I also think that when it comes to the supernatural, I think there’s a general appreciation of the fact that the Catholic Church at least is rigorous about it. They’re not hucksters selling the idea for show. Every Catholic I’ve ever met who was involved in the actual process of exorcism — they’re always looking for a reason to not do it, to discredit it. I don’t think that’s the tendency in the Protestant tradition.

You are not Catholic …

I am not Catholic. I am, as a friend of mine once said, “one Chesterton book away from crossing the Tiber.” Chesterton’s my favorite writer. I’m a big fan of a lot of Catholic mystic writers. I think the honest answer at this point in my life is I think I would become Catholic if I weren’t a parent. And the only reason I don’t is my tradition is so Protestant; it’s what I know. I don’t know how to raise my kids Catholic. Given the busyness of my life, it’s something I can’t start at this point. Maybe I will. Otherwise, I’m not sure there’s any reason for me not to make that leap. I wear a St. Francis rosary almost all the time. There’s a lot of things about Catholicism that have become increasingly important to me.

Orthodoxy is the seminal book of ideas in my life. That book I’ve read more than any other book. It’s the spinal column that leads up to my brain and informs the way I think. Flannery O’Connor is my favorite American writer. Mystery and Manners is my favorite book on writing and creativity. And she said this about Catholicism: Catholicism is the only institution left in the world that protects mystery. I think that’s true. And I think it’s that role that it has in the world that is at the root of my current fondness for it.

[But] I don’t know it well enough to bring my kids into it and raise them in it. I do know how to raise them as Presbyterians … [laughing] which is far less interesting! But I can do it, and I can make it interesting in my own way. I have nothing but love for Catholicism.

If you ever felt the need to bring in some “heavy artillery” … would you go to your Presbyterian pastor or would you go to a Catholic priest?

[Laughing] Oh, I would probably go to a Catholic priest.