Faithful Frighteners is a series of interviews with people of faith in the horror and weird fiction scenes.
M.S. Corley is a freelance illustrator and graphic designer specializing in book covers and character design. His work also includes video game concept art and comic book art. His clients include Simon & Schuster, Thomas & Mercer, Crossing, Skyscape, 47North, Valancourt Books, Henry Holt Macmillan, Dark Horse Comics, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Microsoft, and Random House.
JR: How, when, and why did you get into horror culture (film, literature, video games, etc)?
MC: I never thought of it exactly as a culture, but I remember being very young and going into libraries and I’d go to the ‘paranormal’ section of the books, look up things like bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, UFOs, ghosts, etc. I’ve always had a fascination with the supernatural and unexplainable but I’m not sure of the root cause for that, I’ve had my own experiences but that didn’t come til much later in life so I don’t know the exact genesis…
But since the beginning, literature in specific has been what I’ve been interested in, I’m not a huge fan of horror movies (can’t stand gore of any kind) but I do really enjoy the classic universal monster movies—would those be considered horror? They have monsters and stuff but they aren’t scary, great atmosphere. At the end of the day that’s what I like. Give me the fear without having to kill things in an absurd manner.
JR: What is your faith? How did you come to it (conversion, generational)?
MC: I would be labeled most easily as a Christian, though the term itself is so loaded these days I prefer to just be called a Believer. In Jesus and the Bible specifically.
My journey was a long one. Looking back it probably started very young when I was trying to figure things out in life, what’s the meaning of it all. Why did the things that happened to me happen? I’d lie in bed at night and think about what it means to die, about what comes after that, trying to imagine “the nothing”. What does it feel like to not exist? To just be gone? I wrestled with that for a long time, probably elementary through high school years. Something deep down didn’t make sense to me that it can just end, there has to be something else. Eternity existed in my heart but it wasn’t taught to me by anything generationally. I just had a hunch and I had to figure out what it was at some point.
But in my high school years I became an atheist, science was my god and had accepted all the answers the mainstream gave me. I didn’t question the stuff that didn’t actually make sense regarding the scientific facts we are given. It was less that I didn’t believe that a God could exist—I did deep down I think (though I would never have admitted that), but I was more angry at the idea of a God, like I think most people are if they are honest with themselves.
If there was a God how could life be the way it is? Not only for all the injustices and wrongs in the world at large, but in my life specifically. I didn’t end up coming to faith until after I graduated from High School in a somewhat round-about sequence of events much too long to recount here.
The short answer is I found it when I wasn’t looking for it in the slightest.
JR: What are its fundamental doctrines or principles?
MC: Core beliefs: God is one god in three persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
God created the world and everything in it, Man fell in the garden and sin entered the world at that time.
God provided a way to overcome sin and win back fallen man through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If one believes in Jesus, recognizes their own sin and puts their trust in what he did for them the eternal problem is solved.
I’m not a theologian so I’m probably making it a lot broader of an answer than I should give… But that’s the… gist?
JR: How does your faith inform your consumption of horror culture?
MC: Not specifically, I have rules for myself visually but I probably had them prior to faith as well. Mainly it revolves around gore or torture in specific. I’m a very visual person and those are the kinds of things I don’t need in my mind as they have a hard time leaving once they are there.
As a rule I have a hard time falling asleep, so while I lie awake at night staring at the ceiling all the things I don’t want to think about creep in, including the visuals that I’d like to forget, so those, when it pertains to horror culture, I avoid at all cost.
JR: How does your faith inform your creation of horror art?
MC: If it does I hope it somehow is using the gifts given to me in a way that pleases God in the end. He knows what I like and enjoy and he made me a uniquely weird individual with very specific very weird interests, so it seems right in some manner to work in the field and pursue the drawing of “monsters” in the simplest sense, if only for the fact to show that a person can do such a thing and still believe.
JR: Do you see a conflict between your faith and horror culture or your own work?
MC: I personally don’t. A friend and author of mine who also is a believer and lover of monsters has discussed at length the fact that there are many comparisons between real people (believers and non-believers) and the various classic monsters that we know. We are all monsters of one kind or another inside, and we all need to be saved from ourselves.
JR: How does being a person of faith affect you amidst the weird lit community’s prevailing popular notions of cosmicism, atheism, anti-natalism, etc.?
MC: I have had several people that I’ve worked with over the years comment that it seems odd that I’m a Christian in the field, like I shouldn’t or couldn’t be. I have to be atheist or whatever. They tend to either accept me as a pleasant surprise or they tiptoe around asking somewhat silly questions like, “Do you like this thing here? Can you like such and such? Are you okay with this book… it’s got magic in it!?” But generally I don’t think I’m affected that much, it’s more just like a weird party trick that people have, “Oh you can walk on the knuckles of your feet? Odd. Oh you’re a Christian and in the horror/weird fiction community? Odd.”
We can still be friends.
JR: Do you view the horror/weird lit communities as hostile or welcoming to diverse perspectives on faith, including more traditional viewpoints?
MC: I think all communities in this day and age seem very hostile towards Christianity as a whole. I can easily admit that there has been plenty of bad done in the world in the name of Christ, wrongly, and inaccurately to say the least. The trouble is no one cares to point out the difference between what having the faith actually is or who a real believer might be, compared to someone who just claims they are, as I term them, an “American Christian.” A word which here means someone who isn’t actually invested or interested in what Christ said and taught, but simply someone just checking a box labeled “I believe there’s some old man with a beard in the sky that will let me into heaven with those harps cause I’m a good person gosh darn it and all the other countries or people I don’t agree with will go to Hell!” *yells and shoots bullets into the air*
I’ve seen a particular uptick in the past decade of downright hate for anyone who believes in such a crazy notion of a God. “Those people should be put on a ship and sunk at sea and while we’re at it lets burn down the sea that swallowed them up.” Stuff like that. It’s really bizarre.
I think media and pop culture have a heavy hand in that, and very vocal Christian organizations like Westboro Baptists (I say that ironically) who do nothing but spout hate and that gets picked up by the media because its juicy, and so assumptions get made that THAT in particular, is what a Christian is.
I see even more irony in the people who do not like Christians and actively use hate-filled messaging to explain to people how hate-filled Christians themselves are…
It could also be personal bad experiences people have had with a faith in the past make them strike it out of their book as false, fake, evil, corrupted. Man does very bad things claiming very good reasons. And we have to remember that man is fallen, and a Christian is not ‘better’ than any other in the sense of goodness. I’m not entirely a good person, I too make mistakes, I know my flaws and what I’ve done but that has no bearing on who God actually is in the broader sense. The bad I do is not Him and he shouldn’t be judged a certain way because of me.
I’m very lucky to not have grown up in the faith because seeing what I see now inside the church at times or in the culture that claims Christianity (but obviously doesn’t know Christ) those things would 100% turn me off to any chance of viewing the truths of God. I have frequently said that if I wasn’t a Christian (having known the actual truth) I would never be a Christian.
JR: Do you see your faith as being a part of your work in any way, including a missional sense?
MC: Certainly, I think the fact that I have very clearly stated I am a Christian, when people first start working with me, that makes it clear who I am and what I do. It’s not like, “Hi, I’m a Christian and I’ll be your designer for the day” but that would be a funny opening line and I may need to start using it.
I work with a lot of people of who are militant atheists or people of different faiths, races, sexual orientations, whatever, who know that I am a Christian and I hope at the end of the day, if they take away nothing else from working with me (besides the art) it’s that I am not the stereotype that media presents. So in a missional sense my goal is to hopefully put the seed in their minds that what they are taught to hate might not actually be as worthy of the hate as they once thought.
JR: How do others in your faith group view horror culture?
MC: I guarantee a certain percentage in the faith have extremely negative feelings towards it. Horror as a word conjures up immediate imagery for everyone, so if I say I’m a believer and I like horror and monsters, to other believers it might seem like a contradiction. As if I’m dabbling in things ‘of the Devil’ or treading too closely to the gates of Hell.
But again, for myself I don’t see any issue.
I have also made plenty of friends over the years that write horror-specific books, and then I find out they are in fact believers and we have a little high-five emoji party. It’s a pleasant surprise for both of us because there is a certain feeling like “I’m the only one” but there are plenty of us out there if we look. Which is comforting to know but easy to forget.
JR: How do they react to your own work, or your profession as a horror writer/editor?
MC: Some positive, some negative. I think most Christians who see my work like it, for the art, but may have issues with the subject matter. I was having a discussion recently about how I see Christians have contradictory terms with these things. In my house, ghosts and monsters are a daily topic. We are very aware of the supernatural and we like spooky things. So it’s funny to me when a Christian is concerned I’m raising my kids to enjoy stories and art about monsters or witches or things like that and they think it’s a dangerous route. I should instead stick with safer things for kids like Disney movies as an example. Frozen is a perfectly safe and acceptable thing for the kids to get addicted to! Or how about Mary Poppins?! And my forehead becomes sore from all the facepalms as I try to explain… those are stories about witches… it’s all witches and magic!
JR: How would/do you evangelize or explain horror to other, perhaps more conservative, persons in your faith group? Can a faith-based argument be made for engaging with horror?
MC: I think like mentioned above about how monsters and people are very similar in a lot of ways, there are many analogies that can be drawn between the two if we are all honest with ourselves about the darkness that lurks inside.
JR: What are your past or future projects that are informed by your faith? How have your past projects with these themes or ideas been received?
MC: There is a future project that I am working on right now that could be considered thus, Carnacki: Recorder of Things Strange. It’s an ongoing comic series that should see its first volume released later this year. The life Carnacki leads and the experiences he goes through are a direct reflection of some of my own, both internal and external, about life and faith and everything else that I think about on a daily basis. But the comic is much more supernatural than my life is (to my disappointment), so while he’s wandering around fighting monsters and evil all day, the only obvious evil I encounter is what I find in my son’s diaper.