Thursday, June 19, 2014

Gore. Hoo. Uh. What is it Good for?

That title is an Edwin Starr joke. The internet really needs an audio track sometimes.

As previously mentioned, I grew up rather conservatively. Many of my genres of interest were stifled by this environment, but horror storytelling was the worst. Like a twelve year old with Playboys, I hid a stack of Goosebumps novels under my bed. As that pile slowly transitioned to Stephen King books, my parents hadn't eased up at all at how unwelcome anything horror was in their house.

My parents hated gore. They couldn't understand it.  They couldn't fathom why anyone would want to see it, or read it.  I suppose you have to remember that their generation of Evangelical Christians had rebelled from a world in which going to the movies at all was considered a sin.

Brief side note: my parents took me three towns over to see 101 Dalmatians when I was five. Why three towns over? So no one in my dad's church would see us.  That week at praise and prayer request time my little kindergarten hand shot up to thank Jesus that I got to go to see the dalmatian movie.  A family left the church as a result.  My parents frustrated response: "It's not like we let him see horror movies."

When extinguishing my interest in the macabre had no effect, my parents shifted to a new strategy: Christian Horror.  That's right: Christian Horror.  There is a whole genre of fiction dedicated to Christian-belief-friendly horror. My dad handed me a Frank E. Peretti book and assured me it was just as good as Stephen King and John Saul. He was wrong.  After reading it I said, "This isn't horror.  There's no gore."  To which my father replied, "Why do you even need gore?"

As a preteen, I couldn't articulate an answer to that question.  But seeing as Christian Horror continues to be a thing, let's do this.  Why is gore important?  Why do we need our zombies to ooze dead flesh and our vampires to ravenously cause arterial splatter?

It's a hard concept to verbalize.  When Ben said in his Oculus review that he was optimistic based on its R rating, every horror fan knew what he meant. But why?  Why does an R rating, which probably means more visceral gore and harsh language inspire hope in the product, when a mass market PG-13 film causes none?

In Stephen King's craft book On Writing, he proposes that a storyteller isn't doing their job correctly whenever the bookworm remembers they are reading or the movie goer remembers they are seeing photographs projected on a screen.  There's a magic, if we want to get all hippie artist about it, that's broken whenever you see the zipper down the back of the monster or the boom mic enters the frame. This holds equally true when gore is held back.

It comes down to honesty and realism.  It's been pointed out how laughable the X-Men and Wolverine franchises are with their PG-13 rating.  Wolverine has freaking knives for hands and is constantly getting into brawls, but we only ever see him slicing through inanimate objects and near-missing his opponents.  It's ridiculous. Every Wolverine fight should end with him covered in blood and regret, standing in a pool of all of his opponent fodder.

In horror, this is especially important.  Works of terror are supposed to unsettle you, take you to the depths of the evils of humanity or showcase the unholy potential of supernatural fear. When they do not, when the camera pulls away pre-gore or the book avoids even the impression of gore, we see the fiction for what it is and we remember that it's all fake.

One of my favorite movies of all time is the original Evil Dead.  I love it because it was made by a couple of guys (practically in my back yard in Michigan) who decided to make a movie.  I love it more because it's a gore filled masterpiece.  It holds back zero punches and you have no doubt while watching it that our band of heroes (rather victims) is dealing with a true evil.  Ben's piece on why practical effects are superior is perfectly exemplified here. After all of these years, the Evil Dead gore still holds up.

I'll never be able to get my parents to watch Evil Dead. I'll never be able to convince them why gore is important.  That said, as a writer and entertainment consumer, I have a declaration: if you are avoiding gore to aim towards a demographic, keep your parents happy, fulfill religious liturgy, or any other superficial reason, you have no business being a horror storyteller.


  1. There's a lot here I agree with, and some I don't.

    You're kind of getting into the question of what defines horror, and as there's nothing more tiresome in a discussion than getting out a dictionary to use as a baseline, I won't. Horror has as a vital thematic component the idea of justice: in slasher films, it's punishing the lusty for their carnal sins. In monster movies, it's punishing the scientists/conjurers for delving into secrets Man Was Not Meant to Know. Etc, etc. With Christian horror, it's clear that the justice is meted out by God Himself, like a Chick tract turned into a flipbook cartoon. What can be more horrifying to a devout Christian than an avoidable eternity of torment in the bowels of Hell? It's horror, just calibrated to a different wavelength.

    If you're going to show Wolverine attacking foes with knives sprouting from his hands, then yes: go balls to the wall and show us the gore. Show us the brutality of it. I entirely agree. We don't watch horror to feel uplifted (though that happens sometimes), we watch it to be unsettled. To be, well, horrified. The PG-13 horror films that show neither blood nor boobs are absolutely contemptible; they're obvious attempts to pander to the widest possible audience, and only succeed in achieving mediocrity.

  2. Thanks for the feedback!

    I agree. You could write a whole dissertation on this topic and probably only scratch the surface. Also my view of Christian literature is probably entirely different, given my history, than someone seeing it from the outside.

    I so want to see that rated R Wolverine movie someday. It really needs to happen.

  3. Agreed,

    After reading Jeff's post I gave a lot of thought to the idea of WHY I particularly like gore in horror movies, and in my earlier years it was to see films that really "pushed the limits" of acceptable taste. Nowadays I feel like it can help enhance a sense of terror, but the flip side of that coin (we got a good convo on Twitter going about this gore just for the sake of it can really create terrible results.

    I'm glad what we ALL seem to agree on is that watering down stories and violence to obtain mass appeal via a PG-13 rating is something that only creates more forgettable mediocre art to clutter the landscape.