The Horror Story: A Halloween Special Edition Discussion

By Emilia Grant and Jennie Jarvis

The origins of the horror story are hard to pinpoint, because these stories are elemental. Horror is born of basic human instinct, like a romance story, only, instead of love, they stem from fear. Every time you get a chill imagining the mysterious shape in that shadowy corner is evil poised to pounce, you experience the root of the horror story.

Scary stories as we know them today date back to the 1700’s. Our tales of demons, ghosts, monsters, possessions, madmen and slasher murderers grew out of the Western religious influence, of xenophobia, and the ancient Greek theater tradition. The idea of a scary story, however, is as old as storytelling itself, and transcends cultural boundaries. Horror is rooted deep in the human experience.

Here’s what I love about horror stories: the thrill, the intrigue, the haunting acknowledgement of danger and malice lurking just outside of human awareness, just beyond the daily lives of our central characters. Like science fiction, horror provides a filter through which to view our society, our entire world, anew. The horror allegory makes it possible for us to study our lives from a different perspective. So, if the world was taken over by flesh eating zombies, would this civilization be worth fighting for? Would we, in the end, discover that the real danger, the real evil, is with the living? A good ghost story, a monster’s legend, a bit of haunting folklore, a twisted tale of madness, a narrative with a purpose, that’s what I want out of a horror story.

Here’s what I can’t handle: excessive violence, constant jump scenes, pointless brutality, a narrative with no clear direction or purpose for existence. I think guts and gore and jump scenes are too easy, and all too often they’re used as a crutch for an empty story. That’s not to say they don’t make for an entertaining story. Well, maybe entertaining is the wrong word. Engrossing? Horrifying? These devices work. They work really, really well–on me especially.

Hold on a second there, Emilia. I’m loving what you are writing, but I have to intrude.

You are starting to do what many people in today’s society LOVE to do, and it irritates the crap out of me. You are lumping together two genres, which frankly, have different purposes: Horror and torture porn.

While there have been multiple examples of “torture porn” throughout the years, the film Saw helped to guide the mainstream path for this subgenre in film. Whereas horror does all those cool existential things that you were talking about (teasing us with our own fear of death, forcing us to question what evil truly is and the like), what torture porn tends to do is just find the most creative and gruesome ways of killing a person. Films like Hostel and The Hills Have Eyes (a remake of a much less gory film) are essentially snuff films that challenge a viewer to see how long they can watch before they lose their lunch.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to sound like I am completely bashing this subgenre. I feel that it, like midget porn, has its audience. This is a category of film for viewers who are hyper alert of being alive. Good old Sigmund Freud believed that there was a very tight connection between the death drive and the sex drive, so often the audiences for these bloody death filled films are often the same audiences that are surging with sexual hormones (see, and you thought I was just being derogatory with the midget porn reference).

My point, however, is that these uber-gory films aren’t “horror” films, even if they are sometimes classified that way for lack of a better genre title (can you imagine if Netflix had a category called “Torture Porn”? There would be lawsuits!). These films need to be watched with squinted eyes and a strong stomach. They have their greatest impact on the viewer as he or she sits in the theater.

True horror films like The Shining and Paranormal Activity stay with you long after you throw away your empty popcorn bucket (or leave it on the floor for the ushers to clean up). They are the stuff that nightmares are made of. They stick with you and haunt you for years afterwards.

Jennie, you make an excellent point (although, shouldn’t we say Little People Porn? Or maybe diversity sensitive language doesn’t matter in porn discourse). There’s a distinct difference between a horror story and a trumped up premise that succeeds only in exploring the limits of gore, human depravity, and special effects. I think the jump from horror to torture is easier to make in film than in fiction, simply because film is visual.

On paper, we don’t get any special effects, just our words. Our words are powerful, sure. Consider this phrase:

“His severed leg lies in a pool of blood, the skin ashy grey from the ragged cut to his mangled toes.”

Maybe it leaves you uneasy. But if I show you this image:

I get a much more visceral reaction.

In Torture Porn or Horror, in fiction or film, it’s easy to fall into the trap of seeking a basic, instinctual response; of writing for the jump, for the shock. Sure it’s entertaining, but what do we learn from it, what do we take away? Nothing, as you pointed out.

It takes a story, in film or in fiction, with a real plot and real purpose to make a lasting impression.

You mentioned Kubrick’s The Shining. Let’s talk about that. It’s an excellent example of horror that’s working way beyond the surface level of jump scares and gore. Kubrick’s source material, Stephen King’s masterpiece of modern horror by the same name, is at its heart a story about family. The novel explores the weight of secrets kept from generation to generation, the complicated relationship between parents and children, and the impact of our personal decisions on those we love the most. King’s The Shining addresses addiction, mental illness, and domestic abuse all within the guise of a ghost story.

It’s really good fiction, but King’s novel also goes way beyond the accepted levels of violence in “literary” horror. It far exceeds the violence found in, for example, Lovecraft, Shelly, or Stoker. The Shining features visions of bloody murder weapons, bloated, long dead corpses, and a protagonist who at one point bashes in his own face with a mallet… after being stabbed by his wife. Even more disturbing, all of these scenes are played out in front of a small boy. And yet, it works, it never feels excessive, because it’s necessary to the story.

What I find fascinating is that the horror of the audience (the small boy) was never a factor for me. I always saw the young boy as another element OF the horror and not something that would add to the horror. His creepy “Redrums” made him a supernatural figure to me, not a young boy of flesh and blood.

Actually, the “redrums” are only in the movie…

Don’t be a literary know-it-all, Emilia.

My point is that I am convinced that the most important part of any horror story is the person reading or watching it. I have always had a very vivid imagination, and the scariest part of reading Christopher Pike, R.L. Stein or Stephen King for me growing up was what wasn’t on the page. It was all of the details and shadows that I added to the story in my mind. Perhaps this is why I’m always disappointed in films when the monster is finally revealed. It is never as scary as what I thought it might look like. Whether it’s Jaws, Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield or even the indie sci-fi film Monsters, the allusions to the beasts always made me jump more than the beast itself. Taking it back to Freud, the sexiest Halloween costumes are always those that allude to sex but don’t show the details of the female body. It’s what’s in our minds that count.

So, I suppose that Horror makes us ask those deep questions about our own existence because, in both horror and our lives, what scares us most is what we don’t know. We can’t know when or how we are going to die, and horror plays with that notion. It is the unknown, and not the hyper gory bloody smut porn, that can truly terrify.

  1. #1 by Famous Monster (@AdamFrazier) on October 31, 2012 - 3:54 pm

    Good Stuff! I would point out, though, that the first SAW film has very little blood or gore in it, believe it or not. Most of the sequences are sped-up so as to not to linger on said gore, and the ‘money shot’ of the leg being cut off is really only on the poster – the other films became more gratuitous but the first film works more as a very dark crime thriller. It’s closer to Se7en than Hostel.

    Of course ‘Torture Porn’ is just a new name for the same subgenre that’s been around since the early 1900s – its roots are in French Grand Guignol theatre, where scenes of realistic blood and violence were staged for audiences. In the ’80s they were called ‘splatter films’ –

    In the ’60s they were called splatter films, Herschell Gordon Lewis was the ‘Godfather of Gore’ and I would say his films are a million times worse than anything Eli Roth could dream up… just awful, schlocky, insane stuff. Torture Porn has just become the buzz word for what has always been there – though it is an extremely apt description.

    Also, good points about The Shining – the book, which is fantastic, is filled with characterization that makes the horror all the more palpable. While as masterful as Kubrick’s film is, it is altogether meaningless – there’s no development or depth in any of the characters – Nicholson’s Torrance might as well start the movie as a psychopath, as he’s filled with contempt for his family from the get-go. All those things you mentioned – addiction, mental illness, and domestic abuse – they’re all extremely vague in the film, where everything (including the bare-bones story) takes a backseat to Kubrick’s meticulous composition. I wish the film were one-tenth as effective as the book.

  2. #2 by jarviswrites on October 31, 2012 - 4:00 pm

    A very good point about the lack of gore in Saw, Adam, but you have to admit that it opened the door for all the mainstream films that followed. It’s because everyone talked about that foot being sawed off that filmmakers decided to exploit the gore. After all, if ONE gory scene got people talking than surely multiple scenes would surely bring in the box office dough! Lewis was definitely a lot sicker than many of us could dream, but I wouldn’t call him mainstream by any means, would you?

  3. #3 by Jonnie Martin on October 31, 2012 - 4:42 pm

    Good (creepy, timely, etc.) post. I usually do not think of horror stories or films — not particularly drawn to them. But your post reminded me of a short story we discussed at one of the grad sessions at Queens — I think Nathaniel Rich was the prof — and it was a Halloween story about a man who hated his wife so much he gets even with her in a ghastly way involving their annual family “spook house.” Anyone remember that one? Remember the name? No gore — we supplied our own horror in the twist of the tale, when we figured out what the man had done.

  4. #4 by Famous Monster (@AdamFrazier) on October 31, 2012 - 4:50 pm

    It did open the door – but I think that’s because a) it was a pretty good movie with a big twist that intrigued audiences enough to come back for a second one and b) the horror genre was all but non-existent in 2004 – you had The Sixth Sense in ’99, the explosion of Japanese horror (The Grudge, The Ring) and the beginnings of the remake crazy w/ Texas Chainsaw in 2003 – but there was no such thing as a horror franchise – The SAW producers had a movie out every october for 7 years straight – sure it was gory, but no where near as truly horrific as Se7en, which is kind of like the Citizen Kane of Torture Porn if you think about it, haha.

    I think audiences are proving right now that ‘torture porn’ doesn’t really matter, – Paranormal activity has little to no blood, and it’s taken over Saw’s October theatrical release window for the past 4 years – with relatively small budgets and raking in huge amount of dough. I’m not trying to disagree with your assertions, just saying that torture porn is kind of already over as a fad – there will be exceptions, no doubt, but after Slashers, Supernatural Asian Horror, Torture Porn, and now Found Footage – these horror subgenres usually exhaust themselves in 10 years or so.

    Though… I don’t doubt we’ll see SAW resurrected again at some point. Jigsaw has become this generation’s Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees – the day SAW gets remade and is made EVEN MORE torture porny is the day we’ll know the horror genre is dead, haha.

  5. #5 by jarviswrites on November 1, 2012 - 10:50 am

    Jonie, I know exactly which story you mean, and it’s driving me crazy that I can’t remember the name of it! I’ll try to figure it out and get back to you.

    Adam, I think that you nailed it on the head! Saw was successful BECAUSE of the story, but then the “fad” of torture porn erupted because of the one scene that had the gore. The first Saw is horror, not gore except for that last scene – although it’s the scene that most people remember. I don’t know if I can quite agree with you on how the fad is already over, though. Have you seen the new trailer for the remake of Evil Dead? It’s been touted as the most gruesome movie trailer of all time, and my guess is that the film itself will be more torture porn than the original Bruce Campbell vehicle that we love. I like that, like all the “fads” that you listed, torture porn will just be incorporated into the overall horror genre and not ever really vanish. After all, the surge of these movies has desensitized so many younger audiences to gore that they now expect it. I taught a horror film class when I was working at the Art Institute of Jacksonville, and I showed Se7en – a horror crime hybrid – to talk about the difference between horror and gore. And I had a few students, one female in particular, who couldn’t understand what the big deal was about Se7en. She wasn’t disgusted by the gory scenes at all, and she wasn’t emotionally moved by the horror scenes. This genuinely terrified me because it shows the desensitization of American youth. Many of them don’t want to be scared anymore – they want to be disgusted.

  6. #6 by jarviswrites on November 1, 2012 - 12:34 pm

    Jonie, it’s The October Game by Bradbury!

  7. #7 by Jonnie Martin on November 1, 2012 - 1:08 pm

    Jennie, thanks — that has been driving me crazy!

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