Pro-Life Ghost Stories, and Other Things We Need

By John Zmirak Published on May 29, 2018

There’s a new good movie out there, Wraith. It’s a genuine indie film, made on a shoestring budget with gorgeous production values and (mostly) excellent acting. It’s part of a genre that ought to be enormous, but in fact barely exists: The pro-life horror movie.

Which is strange, when you think about it. Abortion is the single most gory, appalling thing the law allows in American life. It’s got everything: mutilations, killing, dismemberment, even the ghoulish gray market sale of human body parts to mad scientists. But we make cinematic hay out of exactly none of that. Perhaps the explosion of really gruesome (for me unwatchable) torture porn films in the vein of Saw is our culture’s way of processing abortion, without admitting what it’s doing.

Why aren’t there more pro-life ghost stories?

Now Wraith is nothing like Saw. It’s probably more accurate to call it a ghost story. I don’t want to give away the plot. But think about it for a second. Why aren’t there more pro-life ghost stories? We usually think of ghosts as spirits with “unfinished business.” The innocent victims of gross injustice, come back to tell their stories, enact revenge. Our nation is full of such ghosts, since Roe v. Wade. Why shouldn’t they come back to haunt us?

Go rent or buy Wraith, and watch it as a family. It’s fun, bears a worthy message, and the filmmakers deserve our support. They’re good at their craft, so even if you watch this movie because of that message, you’ll still enjoy yourself. As a failed fiction writer whose novels choked to death on their “messages,” I can tell you that isn’t easy.

Is Downstream Upstream of Yadda, Yadda, Yadda?

Which brings me to one of the more tedious arguments among Christians and conservatives. Is politics downstream of culture? Or is culture downstream of politics? Does it matter more when the left wins the White House and appoints Supreme Court justices who disestablish marriage? Or when movie studios declare “We need an MS-13 Disney Princess”? Are we obligated to fight in the political realm, from local races up through the presidency? Or should we study the feast days of the Christian year and teach our kids the Gospel?

Most of the leftist and viscerally anti-Christian artists rose through the ranks of their professions in apolitical ways. Those actresses lecturing you on misogyny today? They made their bones doing nude scenes for guys like Harvey Weinstein.

Riding the Vicious Cycle All the Way to Gomorrah

Because of course in each of these cases both things are true. Ever heard of a “feedback loop”? Or a “vicious cycle”? That’s what happens, say, when drinking a fifth of mezcal makes you wake up with a headache, so you treat it with more mezcal. Or when politics give a political or moral stance massive cultural approval. Then mass culture mavens promptly churn out more of it, which reaffirms those politics. (See same sex “marriage” in America.) Or vice versa: massive cultural pressure changes politics, which then calcifies the culture. (See abortion in Ireland.)

Which came first, the serpent or the egg?

It doesn’t matter.

Which is more important, fighting off political oppression, or keeping your family faithful and healthy?

Bone-headed question. Like asking: “Which does your body need, food or water?”

The only thing we can learn from debates like this: It’s foolish to mix up your missions, to “do” culture with methods suited to politics, or politics with methods suited to culture. No, don’t serve that lobster bisque to your dinner guests in baby bottles. It’s not “clever,” but stupid. (There is such a fine line between the two.) And don’t use a chain saw to carve a roast.

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Why Can’t We Make Propaganda Too?

Too often, though, when Christians, conservatives, or pro-lifers make media, that’s exactly what they do. They know that they’re fighting against a massive, systemic bias in arts and culture. To them it seems much more blatant than it appears to most of the public. We can see that heavy-handed agitprop in slick TV shows and high-budget movies. Why can’t our friends and neighbors? When we try to point it out, they might well dismiss us as “paranoid” or at least “pre-occupied.” In turn, we perceive them as dupes.

Good reasons exist for the dominance of leftists who’ve mastered their crafts. Most of the leftist and viscerally anti-Christian artists rose through the ranks of their professions in apolitical ways. Those actresses lecturing you on misogyny today? They made their bones doing nude scenes for guys like Harvey Weinstein. Or goofy comedies, with jokes they’d now scorn as sexist, “transphobic” or “ableist.” The same is true of the writers, directors, producers. … Money came first. It always comes first. Because it is not everything in entertainment. It is the only thing. That’s until you have quite a lot of it, anyway.

At that point, when you can buy your own nice home in a gated community far from migrant-crowded slums, you want something more. You want respect, the air of “seriousness,” the smell of virtue. Think of Byzantine empress Theodora. A one-time stripper and prostitute, she landed Justinian as her husband. At that point, she didn’t want reminders of her adventurous sexual past. She wanted mosaics of herself on the ceilings of churches — like the lovely one I saw in Ravenna, Italy.

That’s how you should see the political posturings of artists: as icons they create for veneration, once they’ve got all the money they need.

Master the Craft, Get Good at the Boring Stuff

So because they’ve spent decades on their craft and not their politics, these entertainers are pretty darn good at they do. The action scenes are exciting. The comedy scenes are usually funny enough, especially if like me you only go to theaters that serve beer. The plots makes sense, and pay off most of the time. The political tripe they insert is usually between the lines, or stuck between the jokes, to the point that even conservative or religious viewers are unlikely to walk out. Or even trash-talk the film. We don’t want to sound like buzzkills, or fanatics.

We don’t want to sweat the details, get good at the boring stuff that professionals need to do, over many years of repetitive labor, in order to achieve technical excellence. But that’s exactly what we’re called to do.

But people who make consciously conservative or Christian art and entertainment? We’re tempted to do the exact opposite. We’re not in it for the money. (We won’t make any.) And we didn’t spend 25 years making stupid sex comedies or gruesome horror flicks. We got into these arts because of our message. So the artworks we make tend to be heavy on the message. And light on other things, like snappy dialogue, first-rate writing, and slick production values. And the (small) crowds that consume such niche-productions are often happy enough to see their values for once affirmed in culture, even if not very well.

Conversely, as Maggie Gallagher has pointed out, when conservatives and Christians “do” politics, we treat it as if it were culture. We should be recruiting appealing candidates, canvassing votes, targeting money at tight races and getting folks to the polls. … Instead, we talk about “issues.” We pour money into non-profits that “raise awareness” all day long, as the candidates who do back our values go down to frequent defeat.

The common thread between these two failures, in politics and culture? We don’t want to sweat the details, get good at the boring stuff that professionals need to do, over many years of repetitive labor, in order to achieve technical excellence. But thats exactly what we’re called to do. Then we can use those skills to foster the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.   

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