SALT LAKE CITY — Still searching for a spooky Halloween costume? Try reading the Bible for inspiration.
Old and New Testament stories describe sea monsters, giants and avenging spirits that are just as scary as the vampires or zombies we see on TV, according to religion scholars. People of faith just don't retell these tales very often, preferring more comforting religious messages.
"A lot of people don't have a way of knowing that there are monsters throughout the Bible because so many of them have been tamed or domesticated," said Esther J. Hamori, an associate professor of the Hebrew Bible at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
Take cherubim, for example. Today, we think of them as "happy, fat angel babies," but in the Bible they're winged guardians who sometimes have the body of a lion, Hamori noted.
"That's always a slight shock to my students," she said.
By redesigning or ignoring biblical monsters, we miss out on more than great costume ideas, Hamori and others explained. We miss a chance to have deeper conversations about why bad things happen and how God wants us to respond.
"There's so much disorder and instability in our lives and experiences. I think religion speaks to that, not just in terms of controlling it or putting it down, but reflecting it," said Timothy Beal, a professor in and chair of the religious studies department at Case Western Reserve University.
The Bible's monsters
Beal credits enthusiastic students with deepening his interest in biblical monsters. Class discussions nearly two decades ago helped him see that God's connection to murderous creatures is more complicated than most people assume.
"Sometimes, monsters are the enemies of God, but, other times, God identifies with them, even when they're dangerous and chaotic and deadly," he said.
Beal offered an excerpt from the Old Testament book of Job to support this claim. From chapters 40 to 42, God boasts about some of his most threatening creations, praising Behemoth, an undefeatable ox-like beast, and Leviathan, which has "terror all around its teeth" and "laughs at the rattle of javelins."
Similarly, the Bible includes tales of angels sent on search-and-destroy missions, causing chaos instead of offering comfort, Hamori noted. 2 Kings 19:35 reads, "That very night the angel of the Lord set out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians; when morning dawned, they were all dead bodies." In the Old Testament, Satan is an angel.
"In the Bible, monsters are part of God's entourage," said Hamori, who is working on a book about biblical monsters.
Since the earliest days of Christianity, the Bible's darkest scenes have caused tension. Some early church leaders wanted to preach that there were two separate gods: one with monsters in his employ and one who is the essence of love, said Jess Peacock, a graduate student in religion who writes a column on theology and horror for Rue Morgue magazine.
"The dark side of the divine was an issue for early church fathers," he said.
Over the centuries, Bible-linked faith communities typically have chosen to downplay the monstrous aspects of their religious texts, and so pop culture became the place to grapple with scary concepts, Peacock said.
The Bible's confusing or disturbing parts have "bubbled up through horror narratives," he said.
For example, one of the earliest gothic novels, "The Castle of Otranto," asked whether future generations should be punished for their forefathers' sins, drawing inspiration from biblical teachings. And famous zombie or vampire stories, like Bram Stoker's "Dracula," deal with the promise of eternal life, playing with the idea that eternal beings might get bored, depressed or violent.
The religious themes underlying many horror books and movies might surprise some conservative religious leaders, who sometimes discourage church members from reading or watching horror books and movies or even celebrating Halloween, Peacock said.
"Within religious circles, horror has a bad reputation. It's seen as sinful or something that will warp people's minds," he said.
Embracing scary stories
People who love studying religion and monsters can empathize with those who don't. Reading about deadly angels or sea monsters controlled by God isn't as soothing as reading about Jesus Christ healing the sick.
"What people want from religion is certainty, comfort and stability. It's not comforting to think that God is taking sides with the monstrous over against us," said Beal, who published "Religion and Its Monsters" in 2001.
However, Beal and others still advocate for deeper engagement with the Bible's scariest stories. It can be empowering to study how the people described in religious texts responded to unexpected monster encounters and good to be reminded that God is more complex than we can ever imagine, Beal said.
"We can go more honestly into chaotic and disorienting experiences if we're open to those kinds of insights from the Bible," he said, noting that he's taught Sunday School classes on monsters at his Presbyterian church.
Exploring the dark parts of the Bible can lead to a more challenging, and rewarding, religious experience.
"I love that the monsters of the Bible raise hard questions. I love that we can't read what are essentially horror stories in the Bible and come away with easy answers," said Hamori, who is Jewish.
And they also really do make for great costumes, she added.
"If people want to be terrifying, they could dress up as angels for Halloween," she said.