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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

“Christian Horror” and the End of the World

How the popular subgenre of apocalyptic Christian horror media has shaped a generation of evangelical thinking.

In the opening scene of the 1972 film A Thief in the Night, the clock ticks ominously as a woman searches her home in vain for a husband who is no longer there, his sudden disappearance evidenced only by an electric razor left buzzing on the bathroom counter. The first famous foray by evangelical Christians into the horror genre, A Thief in the Night (and its three sequels) seized the imaginations of the Sunday school set with its campy depiction of the rapture and the ensuing fallout of the End Times. Despite the cringe-inducingly thick sideburns and low-budget camera work, the film contained an incredibly effective shard of fear that lodged in the hearts of generations of Christians. It was eventually translated into three languages and has been viewed by an estimated 300 million people. The film’s success and the persuasive powers of apocalypse were not lost on evangelical filmmakers and media moguls; A Thief in the Night pioneered a genre of apocalyptic books, television and movies that have had an outsized impact on the shaping of the current evangelical interpretation of fire and brimstone, and consequently, their views on sin, redemption, and the end of the world.

I first encountered A Thief in the Night in 7th grade Bible class, nearly four decades after its release. My teacher, a friendly Southern woman with a stylish mullet and a fake tan, rolled out the television cart to a sleepy, post-lunch class that was eager to take a break from analyzing Bible verses in exchange for a quiet afternoon dozing in a dark room. Despite an upbringing in the church and in Christian schools, the film was my first official introduction to the Book of Revelation outside of the surreptitious read-throughs I would do during particularly slow Sunday sermons. Revelation had always possessed a distinctly taboo air, its visions of destruction and retribution often skirted in favor of the miracles and resurrection of the more popular books of the Gospel. 

Based on a highly dramatized version of the themes in Revelation, A Thief in the Night was conceived by Christian filmmaker Dan Thompson as a vehicle for bringing the gospel to secular masses. To do that, he leaned hard into horror film scare tactics. The film unfolds through the eyes of a young woman named Patty Meyers, whose search for salvation in a post-rapture landscape is loosely tied together with bad acting and a soundtrack composed of the devil’s music. With the warnings of her raptured friends and family fresh in her mind, Patty spends the movie evading the clutches of an emergency world government formed by the United Nations called U.N.I.T.E, whose enforcers are outfitted in red armbands. Her refusal to submit to receiving a “mark” (of course, the numbers 666 written in binary code) prohibits her from engaging in day-to-day transactions and also identifies her as “one of those religious people” and thus, an enemy of the state.

The film’s scare tactics worked—for months after I saw it, my dreams were terrorized by imagery from the movie and an existential fear of being left behind. Over the course of the rest of the school year, I developed a troubling relationship with sleep, and would often get up in the middle of the night to check if my parents were indeed still sleeping in their beds. My experience was not unique; other viewers have reported a similar, deep-seated horror, often citing experiences of coming home to an empty house and immediately believing that they must have been left behind. Online review forums for the film are filled with stories of trauma: one reviewer even cites their childhood experience of watching A Thief in the Night as the primary motivation for their decision to pursue psychiatry with a focus in childhood trauma. However, the film’s use of fear was also highly successful when it came to its goal of driving people toward God. In her book Shaking the World for Jesus, MIT film and media professor Heather Hendershot reports that throughout her research, A Thief in the Night was the only evangelical film that her subjects would cite directly, and repeatedly, as something that helped provoke a conversion experience.

While many non-evangelical members of my generation may have escaped an encounter with A Thief in the Night, they have likely come into contact with the broader genre of apocalyptic horror that it inspired within evangelical media. Most influential of these is Left Behind, the multimedia franchise of the 1990s and early 2000s that included not only a New York Times best-selling 16-part book series, but also four movies by the Lalonde brothers, a video game series, and most recently, a failed Nicolas Cage film. Left Behind owes clear debts to A Thief in the Night—it contains similar plot points and also follows a dispensational premillenialist view of the End Times. (“Dispensationalism” tracks the relationship between humans and God via a timeline that is broken into eras, or dispensations; premillennialism refers to the specific era of tribulation and devastation that will ultimately lead to the restoration of Jesus’ kingdom on Earth, which will last 1000 years aka a millennium.) In the Left Behind series, the rapture occurs after peace is achieved in the Middle East, on the heels of an Israeli botanist’s reception of the Nobel Peace Prize for discovering how to grow crops in the desert. What follows is the consolidation of all nations under a young Romanian leader—who happens to be the Antichrist—through the United Nations, which then goes on to institute the “Mark of Loyalty,” a microchip that represents the Mark of the Beast and allows constituents to participate in economic activities within the new world order.

Left Behind’s co-creators, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, have often attributed the inspiration for the series to Dan Thompson’s evangelical films, and the Left Behind movies themselves directly reference A Thief in the Night in their repurposing of the movie’s theme song—Larry Norman’s eerie Jesus Freak anthem, I Wish We’d All Been Ready. Despite the various similarities, an examination of the films in conversation with one another reveals a troubling trend in how evangelical filmmakers have shifted the narrative around apocalypse and condemnation.

The journalist Adam Davidson highlights this shift through a 1999 analysis of the depiction of the Antichrist’s henchmen in these films. During the course of the series, Jerry, one of Patty’s friends, takes a job working for U.N.I.T.E, and is shown weeping with regret at the end of the fourth film, his story one of repentance too late. However, with the Left Behind movie series, the Antichrist’s henchmen are wiped of any trace of humanity. In the filmmaker’s endeavors to create a secular action movie, the Antichrist’s U.N.-based henchmen are villainized to such an extent that it suggests they never had the capacity for salvation. Davidson argues that this stylization of religion into entertainment had, by 1999, created dangerous dichotomies within evangelical America:

“The progression (or regression) is the move from rural towns to the halls of power. It’s the expansion of the evangelical sphere of concern from the very local (my friends, my church) to the national and global (my president, my international policy). It’s a move from a complex view of the individual to an oversimplification that identifies everyone as either good-believer or bad-heathen. It’s also a change in sentiment toward the unbeliever from sadness, caring, and invitation to triumph, judgment, and dismissal. It’s a chilling mutation, and has entrenched evangelical Christianity in an antagonism to secular America that borders, at times, on cruelty.”

Two decades later, in a fractured political landscape that has partly and uncritically adopted the language of evangelical media, Davidson’s description rings true not only for American Christianity but the United States as a whole.

The apocalypse, suggests writer Amy Frykholm in a 2012 analysis of “A Thief in the Night,” is a uniquely American fear, one that is rooted in the country’s founding by Puritan settlers who subscribed to the belief that their existence on the continent was either “phenomenally blessed or on the brink of a God-ordained disaster.” It should be no surprise, then, that when rioters stormed the Capitol on January 6th, the crowd was filled with signs, slogans, and images ripped from the Bible. Banners were emblazoned with slogans like “Jesus Saves,” “Jesus is My Savior, Trump is My President,” and “Jesus 2020.” The undercurrent of the end times was evident—a guillotine (not unlike the one employed by U.N.I.T.E to execute Patty) was set up amid calls for Mike Pence’s head. Israeli flags were flown (subscribers to premillennial dispensationalism believe in a prophecy that the rapture will occur soon after Jerusalem has been restored to the Jews), and other signs cited scripture from Revelation (one sign drew parallels between Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Jezebel). For many insurrectionists, this was a holy war.

The framing of Donald Trump’s campaign for presidency and the resulting conspiracy theories that surrounded his loss carry a sense of apocalyptic magnitude. While the insurrection itself was not solely a Christian endeavor, a large number of insurgents appear to have been white evangelicals. In the 2020 election, white evangelicals, who make up nearly 1 in 5 of the U.S. electorate, were the largest demographic of Trump supporters, with exit polls showing that 75 percent of white evangelical voters cast their votes for Trump. In the months before the election, evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham and the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody issued ominous warnings of the downfall of “Western civilization as we know it” and of an impending anti-Christian “storm” if Trump were to lose. The weaponization of the concept of apocalypse was bolstered from messaging within the campaign as well, with Trump’s spiritual advisor, Paula White, declaring that there were “demonic networks” at work in Biden’s favor during the Trump campaign’s rally in Florida. As such, when Trump delivered his inflammatory speech at the “Save America” rally held on January 6th, warning attendees that “if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore,” the crowds were primed for what they perceived as a spiritual battle.

Illustration by J. Longo

But while the insurrectionists may have been united in apocalyptic fervor, they were not unified around a traditional theology. The ideas behind their perceived war for America’s salvation, and thus, the apocalypse, are not really rooted in core Biblical tenets, but in the language and imagery popularized by A Thief in the Night and Left Behind. The QAnon conspiracy—perhaps the most effective modern weaponization of the apocalypse narrative—alleges that a cabal of cannibalistic, sSatanic pedophiles composed mostly of politicians, high-ranking government officials, and celebrities run a child sex trafficking ring and have also been using their network of power to conspire against Donald Trump. QAnon adherents, whose beliefs have been nurtured by Trump throughout his time in office, believe that Trump is planning a day of reckoning termed as the “Storm,” where the members of the cabal will be exposed, punished for their crimes, and stripped of their power.

QAnon’s ideas seem to have found traction in communities within or associated with evangelicalism. A recent survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute examined the ties between religious affiliation and QAnon believers, finding that 26 percent of white evangelicals and 29 percent of Hispanic Protestants agree with the statement: “There is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders.” Another study performed by Lifeway Research has found that 49 percent of Protestant pastors have heard conspiracy theories within their congregations. While it must be made clear that the majority of evangelical Christians do not subscribe to QAnon, the modern American evangelical church has proven fertile ground for conspiracy.

It is arguable that Q’s theories in particular, which have been disseminated in cryptic “drops” filled with riddles and paranoia, ring true in evangelical circles not just because they echo the imagery of Left Behind and other related media, but because they harken back to another familiar practice: decoding the prophecies in the Book of Revelations. In an interview with The Atlantic, Arthur Jones—the director of Feels Good Man, a documentary that explores the role of memes in the 2016 election—says that QAnon reminds him of his childhood growing up in an evangelical-Christian family in the rural Ozarks, where the devout have always held a deep interest in the Book of Revelation and deciphering its signs and symbols. “I think the same kind of person,” he said, “would all of a sudden start pulling at the threads of Q and start feeling like everything is starting to fall into place and make sense. If you are an evangelical and you look at Donald Trump on face value, he lies, he steals, he cheats, he’s been married multiple times, he’s clearly a sinner. But you are trying to find a way that he is somehow part of God’s plan.” In this interpretation of God’s plan, different characters can be slotted in to fill different needs: some sinners can be redeemed, and others can’t. According to Elaine Pagels, the religious scholar and author of Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics, the Book of Revelation’s continued relevance can be attributed to the slippery nature of its symbols. “The images in Revelation—the whore and the beast and the monsters and angels and demons—they work so well on both sides of any conflict because they’re not specific,” Pagels told me in a phone interview. “Revelations is, of course, about a war between good and evil—the people who go into a fiery pit are the dogs, the evil doers… But that could apply to anybody. It’s not like Matthew 25, which outlines very specific actions on how to enter the kingdom of God. In the Book of Revelation the people who go into eternal fire are horrible people, but that’s the only descriptor, so essentially, the beast and the whore, they can be anyone you dislike.”

The power of “A Thief in the Night” lies in its depiction of conflicted sinners, particularly Patty. While Patty considers herself a Christian and attends church weekly, she is left behind anyway because she has failed to accept Christ in her heart. A relatively new term in the canon of Christianity, “accepting Christ into one’s heart,” came about in the 20th century to describe a specific act of conversion. In A Thief in the Night and in the modern evangelical church, the path to salvation is boiled down to a formula that consists of asking Christ for forgiveness of one’s sins and re-dedicating one’s life to His will. Patty abstains from committing her life to Christ in this way, explaining that she goes to church and is a good person, trusting that this will protect her from the future of doom her peers warn her against. The idea that one could consider themselves aligned with Christianity but still be passed over in the rapture due to insufficient personal acceptance of Christ introduces a paradigm of insecurity that can seed religious fervor or, more commonly in the case of A Thief in The Night, paranoia. However, for some, the murky division between what constitutes “saved” and “unsaved” has become a source of empowerment, one that the religious right and its base of radicalized white evangelicals have co-opted into a political narrative where they are the arbiters of who is and is not included in salvation. The potential destruction of political “enemies” such as those named by QAnon is a matter of glee and celebration. The specter of the End Times, too, is welcomed openly by those who think they have nothing personally to fear.

The influence of this mentality extends far beyond right-wing conspiracy groups, with End Times-thinking shaping U.S. foreign policy, specifically when it comes to Israel, Palestine and the Middle East. Domestically, apocalyptic thinking has arguably helped fuel the U.S.’s own shift towards Christian nationalism, providing part of the theological foundation that has facilitated some of the distrust in government and the embrace of conspiracy that fueled the insurrection. This is in no small part correlated with the anti-government narrative put forward in A Thief in the Night and the Left Behind series. Evangelical media has always been deeply intertwined with the political intents of evangelical Christian leaders; Tim LaHaye, the author of the original Left Behind series, was a co-founder of the Moral Majority as well as the Council for National Policy, an influential and secretive group of the nation’s top conservatives. LaHaye believed that his writing in Left Behind, though dramatized, was a blueprint to prophecy unfolding, once saying, “We are using fiction to teach biblical truth.” Through their role as cultural touchstones, these media sources have provided American Christians and non-Christians alike with a visualization of what the End Times will look like, demonstrating tell-tale signs to look out for as well as political goals to strategize toward (for example, supporting Israel as a Jewish state because it is supposedly one of the necessary conditions for the apocalypse).

Of course, the United States itself is never mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Many scholars believe, based on the author’s self-description and the dating of the text, that Revelation was authored near the end of the first century B.C.E. by John of Patmos, a Christian on the run from Roman persecution. As an exile who no longer had a homeland, John of Patmos’s accounts of fire and tribulation would not have been mythic visions, but rather imagery and symbols drawn from the very real current political and environmental events of his lifetime—the war on Jerusalem, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, and the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. For Christians who were facing heavy persecution under the Romans, Revelation presented the hope of deliverance from suffering, and the dream of retribution served by a just God. The prophecies of Revelation weren’t fulfilled at the time, at least not as John of Patmos or his fellow believers likely had hoped they would be—Rome continued its rule, Christians continued to be persecuted until Constantine I’s conversion, and the Temple of Jerusalem remains unbuilt to this day. As a result, these prophecies have been interpreted and reinterpreted, each time aligning with new struggle and strife. According to Pagels, Revelation is constructed in a way so that “anyone who reads it is living on the end time.” As a result, it has always been easy for evangelicals to skate over the U.S.’s omission from the Bible and to center America in the narrative, extending and evolving prophecy over significant events such as the Civil War, the advent of Y2K, and now, the conclusion of Trump’s presidency. In this sense, anything of major political consequence can be interpreted as a symbol of the end.

In the past two years, it seems that ‘apocalypse’ has been on the tip of everyone’s tongues. Indeed, in the first early months of COVID-19 terror in New York, I thought often about my viewing of A Thief in the Night and childhood fixation with the End Times, wondering if this was what I had been preparing for my entire life. However, amidst a year and a half of intense collective grief and systemic disappointment, I feel that there has been a change in how people speak, and more importantly act around the concept of apocalypse. Instead of an ending, we have seen communities, activists, and even media treat apocalypse as a site for reinvention, as it has become clear that the inherited attitudes of scarcity and fear do little in crisis. Last summer saw protests that demanded an end to failed systems, the rise of informal mutual aid networks, and a greater awareness of our interdependency on one another. The need to build out new, workable infrastructure has become glaringly urgent in the face of climate disasters such as the unprecedented heat waves across the country and the normalization of sweeping wildfires on the West Coast. Recent scenes such as the eruption of flames in the Gulf of Mexico and wildfires in Canada set off by thousands of lightning strikes take on particularly Biblical proportions: they seem to promise that the future, if not apocalyptic, will certainly be radically different.

The storming of the Capitol in January can be read as an attempt to seize control of the apocalypse; to reclaim white evangelical agency over the future through a return to the outdated blueprint outlined by films like A Thief in the Night and Left Behind. As insurrectionists entered the Capitol building, chants to “Make America Great Again” intermingled with prayer in Jesus’ name over the country. The contradictory nature of the insurrectionists’ desire to consolidate political dominance in the earthly realm while simultaneously trying to usher in a period of apocalypse and worldly destruction highlights ideological fractures within the movement. But also, in a nation that has claimed divine anointing across centuries, apocalypse-seekers are absolved of fear because of the belief that they are covered in God’s favor, destined for salvation while their enemies and doubters face the fate of damnation. In this context, the aggregation of political dominance can provide an apparatus for apocalypse-seekers to create the conditions that will bring about the End Times.

In this brand of mythic thinking, which has been represented and reinforced in American pop culture by evangelical apocalyptic media, there is only a binary of good and evil, with little room to factor in the struggle or pain that informs the current state of division in which we find this country and Christianity as a whole. A Thief in the Night and Left Behind are a part of a greater American tradition that places fear as the endpoint, sensationalizing religion in order to rack up numbers of souls saved, with little regard for spiritual nourishment afterward.

Standing at the brink of apocalypse, American Christians may find that they are confronted by a different binary, one representing different historical strains of Christian thought. Will it be the culture of fear that has been sowed for generations, or will it be a return to a different tradition, one of community, care and love across hardship that has contributed to Christianity’s survival as a religion over millennia? Because, ultimately, if it feels like we are always living in the end times, it is because we always are.

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