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My barber swung the cape around me as I sat in her chair. She looked at me, arms covered in tattoos with scissors in her hands, and asked “Just a trim?” I nodded in approval. It’s a queer little place tucked away in Park Slope, Brooklyn where I make my commute from Manhattan to get my haircut. The barbers are excellent and the ambiance welcomes every type of person looking for a haircut, from the most basic to the latest statement. I love going here and I love my barber.
We got on the topic of horror movies and I would quickly learn I was with a horror movie pro. I told her “I love zombies and what they communicate to us about our relationship with death.” She listened, calmly, my barber is much more introverted than me and said “I feel like zombies are overdone. They are almost boring.” I was out of my league. I was with a real horror expert. This was a couple days after Wes Craven died. The Wes Craven who went to Wheaton College and redefined the horror movie industry with films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream.
“Do you like horror films?” She asked. “Um, not really. I like psychological thrillers the best, but as soon as the crazy blood and guts and violence comes out I get squeamish.” My barber lit up “That’s the point! Horror helps us deal with our fears.” My barber then took this as an opportunity to educate the zombie-loving pastor on how to watch a horror film as a psychological reflection of my fears. Horror doesn’t make us afraid it reveals what we are already afraid of.
Wes Craven once gave advice on how to watch horror films. He said “I think the experience of going to a theater and seeing a movie with a lot of people is still part of the transformational power of the film, and it’s equivalent to the old shaman telling a story by the campfire to a bunch of people. That is a remarkable thing, if you scream and everyone else in the audience screams, you realize that your fears are not just within yourself, they’re in other people as well, and that’s strangely releasing.”
This idea that horror is actually releasing and provides an avenue for us to interact with our fears makes me think of Halloween and the church’s relationship to this holiday.
Do we avoid what we fear?
Growing up we would have the “harvest parties” at church. They would be the exact same activities as Halloween parties but we just couldn’t call it Halloween and the costumes would be happier and not so ghoulish. When I moved to New York City for my pastoral call I quickly realized I served a church that loved Halloween, called it Halloween, and through the years has created a Haunted House in the basement level classrooms. This was a new thing for this Midwest transplant to the big city church life. And I loved it. (Well, for the most part. We may not have a haunted house in the church anymore because that was pushing it even for me. But we do celebrate Halloween and call it Halloween!)
Reflecting on my conversation with my barber and my complete excitement to get dressed up this weekend as a zombie pastor who was bit in the zombie apocalypse, I’ve been wondering: does the American church choose to avoid our fears instead of actually confronting them (or being confronted by them) or even playing with them? Could we learn from horror? Could we learn that when Scripture says over and over, “Do not fear,” it does not mean, “Do not avoid?” What if the very thing we fear is something to be played with so its power is diminished? Isn’t that kind of what Jesus did in dying on cross, expose the fears?
This past Sunday when I was leading my adult education class one of my parishioners asked, “Who here is afraid of death?” This question opened up this gorgeous and honest conversation about our relationship to death. We laughed, we paused in reverence for the things that are scary, and we talked with care about how we hope to die. Death is something I have fear around. I know I’m not supposed to say that and I know I’m supposed to quote “Death where is thy sting” right after I admit my fear, but I’m not that kind of pastor who refrains from honestly sharing what I think. I have now outlived my birth parents. My parents who adopted me, my biological maternal grandparents, are doing well but they are older and I have had to do some hard internal work around my fears of them dying. Death is on my mind it always has been on my mind.
Dr. Kelly J. Baker wrote a book called The Zombies Are Coming! The Realities of the Zombie Apocalypse in American Culture. Baker presents zombies in a way that are relatable and also provide a cultural analysis of what we are really talking about when we talk about zombies. She says this about the zombie apocalypse:
“Rather than just a theology or belief, apocalypticism emerges as a system of interpretation and power relations indebted to a negative view of humanity, nostalgic renderings of the past, required chaos in the present, and a profound yearning for a future utopian society created amidst the ruins of our current world.” (It’s a great book and I highly recommend it if you like horror, zombies, or The Walking Dead.)
I’m going to celebrate Halloween this year with my church community and I’m going as a zombie pastor. It might be too basic for my barber, but I know this represents where my fears lie. I’ll leave the monsters in the closest and vampires to my barber’s expertise. It makes sense that I’m attracted zombies. If death is where my fears currently reside then I want to look at that in the eye and play with it and go as a zombie, or as the Walking Dead calls them, walkers. Perhaps the act of dressing up as a zombie is my bold proclamation, “Death where is thy sting?”
One more thing: “Braaaaaains.”