Peter Laws is an author, journalist and church minister with a taste for the macabre. He writes the Matt Hunter creepy crime fiction series, about an ex-vicar turned atheist professor, who helps the police solve religiously motivated crimes. He writes a monthly column in The Fortean Times magazine. He’s a regularly public speaker and lives in Bedfordshire.
Twitter/ Instagram: @revpeterlaws
Amazon: author page
Podcast: The flicks that church forgot
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?
Ooof, you’ve started off with a deep one. Okay…, so, I’m writing this during the Coronavirus lockdown, and something happened the other day that was quite upsetting for me. I felt like I wanted to cry but my young kids were in the room and my first thought was to wait till they left – but I couldn’t help it and ended up crying anyway. I haven’t really done that with my kids before, but they just leaped up and rushed to me so they could hug me. As they did, they kept saying wonderful, encouraging things to me ‘ You’re the best Daddy in the world’ ‘We love you so much’…that was wonderful, and it made me feel incredibly lucky to have that. It also made me realise that it was being vulnerable and ‘weak’ that unlocked that wonder. It’s been a reminder to me, that I must see the strength in being weak. And in particular…visibly weak in front of others.
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
I think our sense of wonder comes from mystery. The more we’re exposed to experiences that seem bigger than us – that are harder to lock down – we’re left with a sense of wonder. This is ironic because we seem to spend our lives on a mission to explain everything. We sometimes act like the task of humans is to drive mystery out of life, like it was somehow undesirable. We want answers, we want logical systems, we want explanations for every event in life. Here’s an example…
While I mostly write these days, I’m still ordained as a Church Minister. One thing I notice when people face suffering is that some of them have this compulsion to understand the reasons why the suffering happened. This is particularly true with religious people. They can feel there must be a reason for everything. So, let’s say a religious woman loses her husband in a freak lawnmower accident. She struggles to accept this as simply a result of the mysterious chaos of life…she’s been conditioned (by a more modernist reading of religion) that there MUST be a reason for everything, including this death. So she ends up weighing up the pros and cons of what happened. She’s devastated of course, but she’s forced to balance out the tragedy with what she perceives as good outcomes from it…’well, at least his unchurched friends may come to the funeral, and learn of my husband’s faith. If even one of them starts coming to church they might find ‘salvation in the Lord’, and so that must be why God allowed my husband to die’.
This is not a healthy way of viewing the world, and it leads us to a dysfunctional view of God. The world is filled with mystery, both good and bad, and the Bible often says these things are simply baffling. The promise is that we’ll have a loving companion in the midst of our pain, but the promise is not that we will fully understand the causes of our pain. In some ways the key to maturity is accepting that life is chaotic and impossible to figure out at times. In other words, life is often a mystery, to which our response is wonder.
Children get this naturally. They see a world that pretty much bulges with wonder. Why do they view the world this way? Because they haven’t answered every question yet. They accept that they don’t know all the answers. Then they grow up and the more they know something – or think they know something – the less mystery they perceive. They become us, and so their wonder radar shrinks and shrinks. I think this is one of the reasons why Jesus said that the key to spiritual maturity is ‘to become like little children.’
In other words, we need to relax a little. We don’t have to explain every single thing that happens in our lives. We accept mystery and chaos…which is scary, sure. But wonder tends to come with that, too. So yeah, that was the long answer! The short one is this: wonder comes from our willingness to embrace mystery.
I realise you wrote a whole book on this but why do we love monsters, ghosts, death and gore?
Ha ha, you’re right, I did write an entire book on this topic – which was a blast to write by the way. It took me to Transylvania and Rome and all across Britain, where I had crazy adventures along the way – from hunting werewolves in Hull to meeting real life vampires to being strapped to an electric chair by the BBC. The point of this quest was to understand why I, and millions of other people, are drawn to the morbid. I wanted not only to explain why that happens, but also to defend it…I think our morbid curiosities are a natural part of us being human. In fact, many of us need these topics to process our own fears.
Case in point would be this current Corona Virus outbreak, which is really scary. What films are trending on Netflix as I write this? Frightening and disturbing disaster movies that centre on global pandemics. See, you might think that we humans would want to look at the light, if we’re feeling scared of the darkness…but actually we often do the opposite. We humans tend to respect our fears and so we need space to reflect on them. Culture therefore, has always made room (lots of it) for morbid stories. It’s not a sign that we are horrible people…it’s a sign that we are normal, sensitive, sometimes frightened people, who have invented ingenious ways to face our fears. There are lots more detailed reasons why in the book, but yeah, that’s the one that seems relevant to this moment.
For you personally what’s the appeal of the morbid?
I certainly find that things like horror films and scary stories help me process that which scares me. I’m mostly known for writing crime fiction novels (which have plenty of threads of horror and the supernatural). For example, the first book in the series, Purged, see Matt Hunter trying to stop a Christian serial killer who thinks the best way to evangelise is to baptise people then murder them immediately afterwards. That way they won’t lose their faith, and will be fast tracked to heaven.
People sometimes think I must write these sorts of books because I ‘get off’ on crime and murder. The opposite is true…I find that stuff really disturbing. I need to have mastery over it. So I sit in my office and take all those fears of death and suffering that I have, and mould those topics into my own story. I choose who lives or dies, but the key is, when I shut the laptop, I’m safe. It’s the same with the reader, or viewer. When they close the book, or hit the remote after a horror movie, or crime drama or whatever, they are safe. There is something empowering about that, and we’ve been doing it in art and culture forever.
Do you believe in ghosts etc?
I believe in God, so I’m certainly open to the supernatural. However, I also have a cynical streak about everything too, which I think is reasonable to have. So for example I’m still open to the possibility God might not exist – but I doubt he doesn’t. When it comes to real life tales of ghosts I find I can be especially cautious, because I feel it’s so often possible for people to misinterpret data…a creak in the house, a missing set of keys, a figure seen at the end of the bed while half asleep. This leads me to have a heightened level of cynicism when someone says…I saw a ghost. However, and it’s a big however, I do sometime encounter people, who I trust, who tell me things they have seen that are much harder to explain. Particularly when it comes to poltergeist activity. And there are some cases that are really hard to dismiss. So in short, I don’t know, but I’m open to it. If you were to ask me do I want ghosts to exist, I’d say…absolutely. I find the idea of ghosts both spooky and hope-giving at the same time.
What has been your most terrifying experience?
When I wrote The Frighteners, the entire point of that book was for me to experience some scary things. So I was chased through an underground bunker in Essex by zombies, I walked barefoot through fire, I had spiders thrown on me, I was surrounded by a pack of wild dogs in an old Saxon village one night in Transylvania. The thing is though, I found all of these experiences totally exhilarating! However, I did stay in a haunted hotel for a night, and I have to say that I was genuinely scared that night. I explain in the book why, but that was one of the few scary experiences that I wanted to escape from.
As a person of faith, what’s your relationship with mystery?
Building on what I said above, I think mystery is something we must embrace and accept. I find that easier than some because I get excited by the idea of possibility and having questions that don’t have clear answers. That’s not to say I’m anti-science or anything, as I’m very much in favour of logic and reasoning. But my point is, that when it gets to questions that are of a different type – to do with philosophy, religion, ideas etc, I prefer to keep an open mind.
Other Christians I know struggle with this. They think that the older you get, the more black and white and solid you should be on your own beliefs. I don’t subscribe to that. I think the older you get, the more data you receive from the world, which forces you into a position of questioning some things you thought were obvious early on in your life. I see this as a good thing – as a sign of maturity – of embracing the mystery. It’s becoming a child again…just like Jesus suggested. But I do understand why some people find it scary and undesirable. I think it depends on your personality.
Do you think the church is scared of mystery?
Yes, but some branches of church are more scared than others. After growing up very anti-church, I became a Christian in my early 20s. My first experience of the church was the evangelical church, and they have so many great things to commend them. Yet, I found they were not very good with mystery.
I feel like evangelicalism doesn’t realise how modernist it is – that everything should make pure and logical sense. I think this is why evangelical churches often have very ‘obvious’ art. The only visual art in those types of churches can sometimes be banners which either have super clear symbols on them (a dove, a cross etc) or they have words explaining their meaning. If you were to say, ‘let’s just hang this painting of a London Bus driving in the desert’, they might say…but why? What is the point? Where is the meaning? That’s because they might be reluctant to let the congregation choose a meaning…instead there must be a single meaning to express, decided by the leaders. I think this is a natural symptom of churches who are suspicious of the world and are paranoid about ‘false teaching’. Yet it’s a real shame, and its one of the reasons why many people simply don’t gel with the church today. Because it wants to brush mystery away. (Though, other streams of Christian spirituality are better at embracing this, and you see this reflected in their art).
Does your fascination with death help make you a better pastor to those close to it?
Ha ha. It sounds odd when you put it like that, so let me rephrase it, if you don’t mind. I’m only fascinated with death because I’m deeply disturbed by it. It upsets me, it angers me, it scares me. Therefore, I do tend to have empathy with those who feel the same way about it, which maybe makes me a better pastor. It’s sometimes hard for people outside to see this difference. They might think that I’m just fascinated with death because real death excites me…but it REALLY doesn’t.
For example, even though I mainly write these days, I still lead funerals. I sometimes worry that a family might hear what else I do and think I lead funerals because I think they’re great fun or something. The opposite it true. I lead them because I recognise how horrible and profound death can be, and I want to help people in the midst of that.
The apostle Paul writes about thinking on things above and focusing on the good/excellent. Is the horror genre in conflict with this?
In the same verse he also says we must think about what is true. So for humans to act as if there is no death, suffering or horror in this world, would not just be a half truth, it would be a lie. Besides, we must see the final goal of these things and not just the journey to the goal. So, for example, when people go to a horror movie or watch a crime drama, they often feel thrilled, exhilarated, excited etc. Those really are good and excellent things.
In other words, I do not think Paul was saying we should only ever talk about ’nice’ things. To say as such is Biblically flimsy and not thought through. Particularly because if you were to apply that thinking to the rest of the Bible, you’d have to edit out huge sections of scripture itself. The Bible is sometimes an incredibly dark text, but God uses the horrible colours to paint meaningful things. I think God may still be doing such things through morbid culture.
As someone who thinks up murder scenarios for your fictional characters, does a perfect murder exist?
I’m not sure, but if you’re volunteering as a subject to such an experiment, I know some people.
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