Writing Graphic Horror as a Public Service

Posted: February 7, 2013 by afletcherharper in Andy's Words, Uncategorized
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“What the hell are you talking about?” you ask, incredulous at the ridiculous and counter-intuitive title you just clicked.  Horror, especially the graphic sort, is a public menace that desensitizes us to negativity.  In the war between good and evil, positive and negative, light and dark, extreme fiction pulls us out of balance in a direction we should not tread.

This, my friends, is horse manure.

Like any other symbolic product, art that draws on the dark, the nasty, the gruesome, and the violent is received by different audience members in a variety of ways.  I know this because I have experienced horrific art in ways different than others assumed that I would. The idea that because I like something you see as negative means I glorify or support negativity is false.  Personally, I feel like I’ve taken positive lessons from extreme art.

By way of example, let me take you back to my teen years.  Yes, the dreaded 1980s.  Big hair, parachute pants, actual arcades.  The decade was awash in all kinds of subcultural sounds, from pre-Goth, depressing New Wave stuff to dudes in make-up party rock.  Me, I dug on thrash.  Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and of course, Slayer.  You would be correct to assume, with names of that sort, that these bands didn’t exactly sing happy songs.  And as part of the subculture that worshiped these bands, I had many a devil and skull on my bedroom walls.  The thing was, I never took it as bad because I was never a bad person.

So imagine my surprise when one day, based on the Slayer tee I wore, I was accused of being a Nazi.  Turns out, a lot of people thought that the band glorified the Third Reich and supported their ideology.  And maybe they did.  There was certainly some Nazi imagery in the artwork the band chose.  The biggest reason people thought that, however, was because of one of the bands most popular songs, Angel of Death.  The song is about Josef Mengele, and approaches the notorious doctor by singing graphically about his gruesome medical experiments during the Holocaust.  The lyrics pull no punches. They are graphic and nasty. And they are likely in the realm of truth in depicting what this monster actually did.

Now, I freely admit that I did (and still do) really like this song.  The music is fast and the subject matter appeals to my sense of the macabre.  But, I never liked it because it glorified Mengele and the Nazis.  In fact, as gruesome as some of the lyrics were, they are actually presented in a value neutral sort of way.  They come off more as a list of facts.  When I heard the song, I never thought the band was holding Mengele up to be emulated.  I actually took the song to be on the side of the victims.  I took it as an illustration of horror and terror brought down on innocent people, and I tended to empathize with them.

The song sensitized me to the horrific.  The opposite of what many believe horror does.

That influence carries over into what I write today.  I choose, at times, to rub my readers faces in nastiness because I want them to feel it in a visceral way.  No doubt, sexual violence makes frequent appearances in what I write.  But I don’t write it for the purpose of titillation, though I’m aware a small percentage of readers will be titillated.  And I don’t write it just to shock.  I write it because it’s a prominent part of our culture and I want people to engage with it, understand it, and work to integrate the impulses that cause it.  I want to sensitize the reader to the horror a victim experiences so that they will empathize with them.  Hopefully that empathy becomes part of the way they approach the world.  And, I want to sensitize the reader to the darkness that might lead someone to victimize someone in that way.  I want people to empathize with the perpetrator because he is us and he won’t go away by ignoring him. Perhaps that sensitivity will lead to solutions.

Does graphic horror desensitize?  In a world where drone strikes are discussed as body counts and dead innocents are referred to as collateral damage, I think maybe we’d be more sensitive if our noses were rubbed in the smell of burned fleshed and the gore of shattered bodies a little more often.  Go watch graphic scenes of torture in films like Hostel or Martyrs and see if you can still stomach the idea of “enhanced interrogation” or still think it’s okay to farm out information gathering to nations with less restrictive rules.  Irreversible does not make me want to victimize women.  It makes me, by engaging my primal emotions, want to resist their victimization.

So go on out there and fight desensitization.  Get elbow deep in the gutter.  Imagine the out of control.  Empathize with the light by entering the darkness.  Write some extreme fiction.  It can be a public service.

  1. sryeager says:

    I grew up with the exact same influences. Same bands, same shows, same affection for anything evil and weird. There is nothing wrong with writing horror, or showing the dark corners of society… But horror has changed. Gone are the days where horror was something hidden behind the next corner, or inside the bedroom closet, or behind the hockey mask.

    Now, it is in your face and raw. Torture, mutilation, grossness. In order to shock, the next level of depravity needs to be reached, to be explained in complete, vivid detail. We are now blending violence with sex, and while neither subject is necessarily taboo, when mashed together and every detail covered, it just makes things that much worse.

    I love The Walking Dead. Ten years ago, the show would have shocked the hell out of me with its level of violence and gore. Now, I barely take notice and my kids even watch and laugh.

    So, I would claim that what we are seeing and reading does not sensitize us to violence and make us shrink back from it, or bring us closer to the plight of victims, but instead acts to desensitize us to all acts of violence.

    Most people live in a bubble and have never seen true horror up close and personal.

    Instead, we dare ourselves to go to movies, or read stories meant to shock us, to see just how much we can stomach. But the more times we are shocked, the less effect it has and we require bigger fixes the next time to get a buzz. Look how porn went from seeing topless women in Playboy to Two-Girls-One-Cup.

    Does that make us better for it? Are we better people because we sat through Saw IV? Or are we subtracting from humanity and common hope by cheapening horror with in-depth descriptions of depravity?

    It seems a downward spiral to me. While I can understand horror elements and their usage, I also see another side. That is the side of hope and an escape from darkness. When horror is balanced in that way, it turns something horrific into something with real meaning. Many of the excellent writers, like King, Koontz, and Masterton know and do this.

    Ultimately, is writing about horrible acts of violence without some sense of justice or hope a good thing? Debatable, but I on the side of ‘no.’

    • As with any other form of expression, there will be variation in how it’s received. Honestly, if you think blending sex and violence in an express way is new then you weren’t watching Friday the 13th in 80s and 90s. Intent and artistry do make a difference in how the work comes out and the likelihood that it will be simple shock shlock or if it can be transcendent and give insight into the human spirit. And even then, there’s no guarantee regarding how many people will read it that way. Perhaps I’m unusual in my empathy, though I’ve met many others who share it.

      The fact is, most people (like you) react with revulsion to more extreme depictions of horror. That belies your assertion that its existence desensitizes people. For others of us, horror gives a lens into the human soul. An extreme depiction of torture can lay bare the beauty of the human will as the victim resists just as easily as it can illustrate the depravity of which humans are equally capable. And the absence of justice and hope? Well if we miss them in a story, doesn’t that say something good about our humanity? And might we then look around for where it might be missing in reality?

      Can depictions of extreme violence be a bad thing? Of course. It is equally likely, given the human penchant for grace as well as depravity, that good can come of them. What really allowed the civil rights movement to succeed? The graphic depiction of biting dogs and billy clubs and high pressure hoses piped through television. Hope and justice were just words until enough people were forced to empathize and really FEEL the lack of and need for hope and justice. Why did American forces force German civilians to tour the concentration camps, to see the bodies, to smell the ashes? Punishment? Perhaps. Or could it be they knew that the Germans’ humanity would be sparked with the graphic display of their complicit depravity? Could it be that the intention was to sensitize through horror?

      • sryeager says:

        Blending sex and violence has been around since the 80s? I thought it had been around longer than that. The book of Genesis comes to mind, but that too is not going back far enough. No, it has been around a very long time. What I was attempting to say was that when violence and sex are blended, it creates visceral reactions. To do it for cheap thrills is wrong. But, you don’t do that. I recognize that.

        If I were to condemn you for writing graphic horror, I would be wrong in doing so. I’m not. In fact, I’d be a hypocrite for doing so considering what I write. However, what I took exception to is the idea that writing vivid scenes of gore somehow sensitizes people and makes them stop and think. Well, when done well, as you do, it sometimes does. But there is a secondary cost, a consequence. Once the initial shock wears off, the next time you have to go that much further to elicit the same response.

        So, that’s what I’m lamenting. I’m not saying don’t write it, or horror does not have redeeming qualities, but what truly frightens me is when people read vivid depictions of violence and don’t react at all.

  2. […] Writing Graphic Horror as a Public Service. […]

  3. Jesse says:

    Brilliant post, Andy. I’m one of the few people on your side of the fence, and I get tired of hearing people berate, look down, or even FEAR me simply because I like a good gore flick. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m the gentlest person around. I don’t often speak that way, true, but I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, hurt anyone.

    Your observation that true visceral horror can help us empathize with victims is spot-on. One of my favorite movies in that example is Salo. A fantastic, and misunderstood film, which, like most controversial movies of it’s type, people took to be a simple gross-out horror show. But like in Irreversible, it uses themes of sexual violence and physical degradation to get us to empathize with the horrible actions that are being committed to these young people, who have done nothing wrong. It’s showing us the human body being whittled down to it’s most objectified form to elicit horror and rage in the perpetrators. I think it’s one of the greatest films ever made, and I could go on about it for hours.

    Anyway, I’m with you on this one.

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