Detroit prof finds links between Bible, slasher movies

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
Author Brandon Grafius stands inside the Ecumenical Theological Seminary, of Detroit, where he is a professor.

If you want to make yourself shudder this Halloween season, just check out a movie theater. Or a Bible.

"The Bible," professor and author Brandon Grafius will tell you, "is a violent place." And theaters?

With the latest version of "Halloween" atop the box office for a second weekend, gore is easier to find than Goobers.

Where Grafius comes into the discussion on this cloudy All Hallows' Eve is connecting slasher movies with scripture — particularly the first-generation slash-fests from the 1980s, and passages from the Hebrew Bible that begat the Old Testament.

There are subtle differences. In scary movies, the focus is mostly sex and violence. With the Bible, it's mostly sects and violence.

But Grafius, who teaches Biblical studies at Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit, makes a compelling case that one particularly nasty tale is a chapter-and-verse fright night — and that like many parts of the Good Book, horror movies reflect the concerns and anxieties of a specific time and place.

If that's too lofty, he also says this: "My favorite movie genre is good horror movies. My second- or third-favorite is bad horror movies."

As for Bible verses, he wouldn't put Numbers 25 in his Top 10, but it's the foundation for his well-reviewed recent book, "Reading Phinehas, Watching Slashers: Horror Theory and Numbers 25" (Fortress Academic, $100).

In Numbers 25, written around 500 B.C., God gets testy because Israelites are cozying up to false idols as they try to romance bewitching Midianites.

An Israelite priest named Phinehas — also known as Phineas, or Phineas Krueger — sees one of his tribesmen slip off with a Midianite floozy, catches them in an act that would earn at least a PG-13 rating, and skewers them simultaneously with his spear.

It could be worse. In Judges 19, for instance, to save himself, a traveler gives his concubine to an angry mob, which "knew her and abused her all night until the morning." Then he takes her home and cuts her into 12 pieces.

"Sometimes, we only want to talk about the kind parts, and pretend the Bible is just 'God loves us,'" Grafius says.

That's an important piece of it, certainly. But God also torches us, drowns us and arranges for 42 mouthy children to be mauled by she-bears for making fun of the prophet Elisha's bald head.

Truth is, says editor David Crumm of the online magazine, most religions can be just as grisly.

Tales of battles, tortures and punishments are routinely inscribed in holy books, "sometimes to warn against particularly horrible acts, sometimes as cautionary tales," says Crumm, who lives in Canton. "Some of them are the equivalent of Grimm's Fairy Tales — absolutely horrifying stories told around the fires at night to scare the daylights out of children."

What makes Numbers 25 unusual, Grafius says, is that Phinehas' handiwork is endorsed after the fact by God, who gives him an attaboy and an everlasting priesthood for his descendants. God also puts the brakes on a plague, though not before it kills 24,000 people.

Grafius notes that the passage was written during a time of societal upheaval in the Middle East — much as the original "Halloween," released in October 1978, and its imitators and early sequels came during an unsettled time in the United States. 

A mid-'70s recession with marked inflation was followed by the Iran hostage crisis, a gasoline shortage and the Reagan revolution. In academic terms, Grafius says, the slasher represents the patriarchal authority that wants to reestablish itself.

Ergo, the outliers are eliminated quickly, spawning a generation of jokes from comedians about "How come the black guy always dies first?" The outliers are followed on the casualty list by whoever is sneaking off to have sex when they should have been home listening to Up with People records.

In the end, the negligent authority figures — be they police or parents — arrive to restore order.

"There's always a reason why trends in horror take off," says Grafius, 42.

Godzilla is the most obvious example, as a Japanese response to atomic destruction. Zombies, Grafius says, connect to environmental issues and gender and racial disruption. While he dislikes torture franchises like "Saw" and "Hostel," he understands their proliferation after the exposure of Abu Ghraib.

Meantime, away from work, he's just a normal, well-adjusted dad from Mason, the only city in the United States that serves as the county seat for a state capital.

The fresh-faced son of a Michigan State science professor and a harpist, he's the lead guitarist for the contemporary services at his Presbyterian church. He released a stirring Americana album in March called "Highways and Backroads," in which he shows off a voice you could reasonably describe as haunting.

At 13 years old, he sold his mom on the difference between horror films and slasher flicks: he knew he couldn't get away with "Slumber Party Massacre," but "The Omen," "The Exorcist" and "The Shining" became permissible.

Three decades later, he's working on a new book, tentatively titled "Reading the Bible with Horror."

With love and fascination, too. But horror, absolutely — if you know where to look, and you dare.

Twitter: nealrubin_dn