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.