A Case for Mennonite Horror

One day a man named John came up with an idea that he wanted to turn into story. Here it is: a ruling corporate class uses commercial materialism to create a society of perpetually unsatisfied and self-centered consumers, while maintaining entire populations of invisible laborers in perpetual servitude.

Now, as a story, this thing's got problems. There's no main character, no setting, and no real hook. The central conflict is vague, overly grand, and full of clichés (never mind that they're true). Even worse for us as a Mennonite audience, we have heard it all before. Jesus himself told us, "Sell everything you have and give to the poor" (Luke 18:22). The ultimate anti-consumerism message from the only man in history to speak in bright red letters. Which, unfortunately, leads to the final nail in the coffin for the story pitch above: it sets moralizing above entertainment. You can't charm an audience with sanctimonious finger-wagging.

Yet most of us would agree that our friend John shouldn't let his idea die. Modern ravenous consumerism is more destructive than even Jesus could have imagined.

So let's look at how John refashioned his idea into a more palatable, mainstream story, starting with the hook: A blue-collar drifter wanders into Los Angeles looking for work. Just like that, we have a protagonist and a setting—two-thirds of the ingredients for a functional story.

Now for the conflict: The drifter discovers a pair of sunglasses that reveal a city draped in subliminal attacks on humanity. Billboards carry messages like OBEY and STAY ASLEEP. Dollar bills bear an even more straightforward directive: THIS IS YOUR GOD. Best of all, the magic sunglasses unmask a race of monstrous, parasitic aliens hidden among their human subjects, propagating their insidious message to consume and obey.

Tying the bow on the Hollywood ribbon, the climax of the story begins when our protagonist—joined by a diverse, plucky band of companions—takes the fight to the alien headquarters, a corrupt television station in central Los Angeles. The showdown results in a predictably repellant and satisfying carnival of explosions and alien goo.

Some of you may recognize the story above to be iconic director John Carpenter's 1988 B-movie horror masterpiece, They Live.

Before we go too much further, it is probably worth briefly dissecting what a horror story actually is and what it is not. The Horror Writers Association argues that "horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. Horror is an emotion." In my Studies in Literature course at Hesston College, we use Stephen King's classic supernatural thriller The Shining as one model to lay out exactly which emotions a horror story is designed to elicit: fear, dread, shock, disgust, and dismay. And we further explore cultural taboos King employs to draw out those emotions, including broken families, spousal and child abuse, joblessness, poverty, and gender roles. Talk about fertile ground for cultural discussion.

I should also preface my argument with a caveat: I am not advocating that all horror stories contribute to meaningful cultural discussion. Gendered violence in horror is particularly destructive and dehumanizing. I recently saw an interview with one of my favorite Japanese horror manga authors, Junji Ito. At one point the interviewer asked why so many of his stories star attractive, imperiled young women. He responded, "This idea of having cute girls tremble in terror is a horror staple, after all." He's not wrong. Since the moment films could be shown with sound, young actresses have been launching careers as Scream Queens. From Fay Wray to Jamie Lee Curtis, audiences have delighted in watching beautiful girls and women struggle for their lives on screen. The dead end of that dark path is snuff films, but even when we know the actresses are safe and happy, something happens to our minds when we watch a parade of teen girls get brutalized by monsters, both human and supernatural. Consume too many stories like that, and it almost begins to feel like those girls did something to deserve their victimhood.

Starting in the 1970s, filmmakers leaned into the concept that women could invite the attention of serial killers with a single, fairly common act: sex. "Death by Sex" is an especially common trope in the "slasher" genre of horror films, in which a single, slow-moving killer (typically male) stalks several protagonists (typically teens) until the final survivor defeats them somehow. Combining puritanical religious notions with horror stories is no accident, and when those concepts collide, women are, most unsurprisingly, held to impossible, competing standards of purity and allure. Which is why Jamie Lee Curtis's virginal character in Halloween (written and directed by our friend John Carpenter) is able to defeat the masked killer Michael Myers, while her friend Lynda is murdered moments after having consensual sex with her boyfriend. The horror genre's lust and hatred for girls is unquestionably a source of lasting cultural harm, and all the more so because it takes its cues from millennia of religious vilification of women.

Which brings us to the curious case of Mennonite horror. Mennonites as a group have our own horror stories, but—aside from recent outliers like Jessica Penner's relentlessly tense supernatural thriller Shaken in the Water—those stories are historical rather than fictitious. Martyrs Mirror is the most obvious and upsetting example, although the Bible does a pretty good job drumming up horror clichés, too. Incest, slavery, human sacrifice, infanticide, holy war, genocide, divine rape, torture, mass executions, demon possession, the undead, everlasting torment. In fact, one could argue that the most enduring contemporary horror tropes find their roots in the Biblical story.

But we're focusing on Mennonites, so let's stick with Martyrs Mirror. Our collective reverence for this text proves just how much Mennonites already love horror, but only as long as we're the victims of it. The hallways in the building where I work at Hesston College contain several pieces of artwork; all of them are depictions of murder and martyrdom from Martyrs Mirror. They are framed subtly, tastefully, accompanied by small museum-style placards describing the unfortunate early Mennonites' betrayals and murders at the hands of the Establishment.

Like exploitative violence against women, this is not the type of horror I am advocating here. Mennonites, along with other Christians and members of basically all organized religions, have been persecuted in some form, by some Establishment, as long as they have existed. We should certainly study and learn from that history, particularly considering that white protestant Christianity is, and has long been, the Establishment in our own culture. We're now the people who have the power, who could righteously dunk a "heretic's" face in a barrel of water until their body stops jerking. Or, if you prefer institutional violence over the personal variety, how about democratically voting at a national convention to silence already-marginalized voices who are begging to be heard as equals? No one dies, but human beings are still traumatized in the name of preserving unequal power structures.

John Carpenter, the movie director discussed above, was and is a wealthy white capitalist. He makes studio movies that millions of people around the world pay money to watch. With They Live, he was writing a story with caricatures of himself—his people and culture of capitalist greed—as the monsters. This is the version of horror I'm advocating. Not the version that portrays the least oppressed class of the world's wealthiest country as perpetual victims throughout the centuries. Not the version that fetishizes the Martyrs Mirror and ignores the fact that, for example, in the early 20th century, Mennonites accepted Nazi handouts of land stolen from the Jews.

Look, it is human nature to avoid things that make ourselves or our beliefs look monstrous. That's why horror can be such an excellent venue for exploring what is wrong with us. Horror disarms readers in a couple of ways that other story types cannot. First, audiences come to horror prepared to be scared, shocked, and uncomfortable, so they are more open to those emotions before the story even begins. Second, by most people's reckoning, ghosts and monsters and other supernatural beasties do not exist. Therefore, they can serve as "safe" vehicles for taboo subjects. In other words, by creating stories that are fundamentally unsafe in terms of story conventions, horror writers and artists can explore topics that would otherwise be off limits. Good horror storytellers use monsters and/or fundamentally monstrous situations to manipulate audiences into confronting realities about ourselves and our cultures that we habitually avoid.

Consider The Witch (or "VVitch," as it's spelled on promotional posters), a 2015 film set in the 17th century about a Christian zealot who gets himself and his family cast out of a small New England town. The story follows the family's mounting struggles to survive in an unforgiving landscape. The crops fail. A baby disappears. The remaining children fight and "sin" daily, forcing confessionals to their father, who, it is revealed, has begun stealing his wife's possessions to sell off for food in town (he then blames the children for the missing wares). As the eldest son nears sexual maturity, he begins to notice his older sister's body. The older sister is in turn vilified for her own womanhood to the point that both her parents begin to suspect her of being the titular witch in the story. How else, they ask, could their unrelenting faith lead them to ruin?

The Witch, both in setting and title, is an obvious nod to the infamous Salem Witch Trials of the late 1600s. But it is also a frankly terrifying cautionary tale against always seeing oneself as a victim. Because make no mistake, the father's fanaticism is not the only thing that makes him so dangerous. It is also his addiction to seeing himself and his faith as being persecuted. His lying and thieving, his sacrifice of his whole family so that he can go on being right—these are the character flaws the story explores. And we, as people who have grown up in a religious setting, can recognize those traits readily. (The temptation, of course, is to recognize them only in other people or groups rather than ourselves.)

It could be argued that, in tackling the woes and taboos of the real world, horror fantasy like They Live is a good deal less "important" than actual news. For example, hard journalism about daily body cavity searches and attempted worker suicides at the Foxconn plant in Taiwan, where tens of thousands of indentured laborers spend their lives building the iPhones we so gleefully throw away every six months. But that Foxconn article, essential though it is, is also a conversation stopper. It highlights our cultural privilege—particularly if we read it on our iPhones—in a way that either puts us on the defensive or makes us feel so hopeless that we slip into a kind of defeated apathy. They Live is a conversation starter. Sure, it's dumb and hilarious and simplistic, but that is a deliberate choice to keep us, the audience, from feeling defensive and shutting down. They Live opens up a conversation about consumerism and privilege and power imbalances in a way that somehow feels safer than the real-life Foxconn article.

Similarly, Stephen King's 1014-page coming-of-age novel about a haunted town, simply called IT, explores themes of abuse, sexism, racism, small-town secrecy, and even the regular horrors of puberty through the schlocky trope of a killer clown. Pennywise the Dancing Clown may be on the cover of the book, but the real star of the show is King's incisive, wholly familiar portrayals of dysfunction in 20th century small-town America. Admittedly, 1980s-era Stephen King's brand of intersectionality has some real problems, but it is certainly a conversation starter.

There is a growing cadre of what Bluffton University professor and poet Jeff Gundy has called "fringe" Mennonite voices, writers of speculative fiction and writers from the LGBTQIA community. As I've argued, speculative fiction—of which horror is one small part—frees writers and readers alike to explore taboo subjects without the normal moral or political baggage we might carry into a real-life conversation.

My newest book, The Wretched Afterlife of Odetta Koop, follows the struggles of a young man fighting two private wars: one with a vindictive ghost and another with his own sexual identity. In fact, the characters in the book must navigate many of the same issues fracturing the contemporary Mennonite Church USA, including the role of privilege in abuse and victim-blaming, struggles with sexual identity and orientation, the increasingly desperate cruelty of the patriarchy, and even a divided church splitting in two. But those things also can't be the point of the story, or I risk lapsing into the finger-wagging I mentioned earlier.

My primary responsibility as a storyteller, then, is entertainment, escapism, what Stephen King calls "telepathy" between author and reader. Mennonite cultural taboos appear in my story because they serve the story. And if they also start some conversations—even internal ones—then the book has begun to operate on a second level.

Mennonites avoid conflict better than most, to the point of actively, viciously silencing "fringe" voices in both public and private forums. Conflict avoidance has also led to split after split after split throughout our history. Sometimes the conflicts have been based in minutiae or ritual, like immersion baptism versus pouring, and sometimes they've been philosophically enormous, as is the case with the many issues mentioned above. And after each successive split, the two sides wade glumly into the wreckage and start building some new thing. If the bold experiment that is MC USA truly is crumbling around us the way it seems to be, we need stories that defy our habits of silence and conflict avoidance. We need stories that start conversations. We need Mennonite horror.

About the Author

André Swartley

André Swartley is the award-winning author of four novels, most recently The Wretched Afterlife of Odetta Koop. He founded the indie press Workplay Publishing, which has published nearly 20 books of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry since 2009. He currently teaches ESL and Creative Writing at Hesston College.