We all know the scene. The madman on a killing spree, dispatching victims with every weapon they can get their bloody hands on; knives, scalpels, machetes, power-drills, chainsaws, you name it, they’ve got it, and the blood spatters the camera lens and we cringe and hold our hands in front of our faces and as much as it turns our stomachs to see the gore, we can’t look away, we can’t stop watching. And we can’t wait for the sequel, because even though we complain about sequels and there are no new, fresh ideas, we press that hard-earned twenty-dollar bill and get our tickets and we watch it all again because deep down inside, we like it. We like being scared because this is as close as we can get to the blood without a hazmat suit.
When the victims are disposable, we like it when they die. The more stereotypical the character, the more gruesome the death. We relish the designs of the reaper. But when that character is someone we can relate to, that we make a strong connection with, someone that we’ve grown to love in such a short amount of time, then we don’t want to see their terrible demise.
There’s a high correlation between our audience outrage and violent death depicted on the page and screen. The harder a character pegs our moral compass, the higher our reaction to their deaths. There’s also a strong relationship between the swing of that compass and the justification of a character’s death. We love to see the bad guy get it in the end, the eviler the character, the more justified their death becomes. Creators try to measure this moral compass and its swings through the stories they tell, but ultimately the ruler they use is subjective and intangible.
Writers constantly attempt to gauge their readers moral compass, usually without much success. Blame shifting social mores and norms and you’ve hit the reason for the misfires. When the benchmark is never stable, it’s extremely difficult to determine what’s going to make a reader squirm, or gag. Stephen King’s early editor, Bill Thompson, told a story when King was writing ‘Salem’s Lot, how there was this scene with a collapsed stairwell and hungry rats that was eventually cut from the book. Publish the same book with that deleted scene today and probably very few editors would shy away from it. Compared to what’s published today, the scene is now lame and not as nasty simply because we’ve become accustomed to the imagery. Truth be told, some might be more outraged by the torture those poor little rats were subjected to in the scene.
The reason the benchmark is unstable is because writers push the boundaries. The whole idea of writing is telling a story no one else can tell in a way that packs a hard emotional gut-punch to the reader. Stories illicit reactions, and sometimes those reactions are unpleasant. When done right, the unpleasant reaction is pleasurable for the reader, because it justifies their moral compass. The bad guys get their just deserts, the good guy wins at the end, and the fodder are collateral damage in this game we all call fiction.
THE DISTANCE OF THE PAGE
There is a subtle distinction between the horrors depicted on the page versus those shown on the screen. Both offer a safety net, allowing us to see the blood splatter without actually getting any on our clothes. Both can use visual imagery to graphically illustrate the depths of horrific depravity. Only one can also engage the other senses at some level, especially odor and taste, enhancing the experience to sensory overload. The written word captures all the senses. Film deals in sight and sound only, and when done right, can show the nuances of human emotion with a single word, even a moment of total silence or a short scene of a character’s tears rolling down her cheek. Even dialogue between characters place images directly into the audience’s head without shedding a single drop of blood.
“The doctors managed to reset her jaw more or less. Saved one of her eyes. His pulse never got above 85, even when he ate her tongue.” –Silence of the Lambs.
The written word has the power to put readers directly into the scene so they can feel the bone fragments bounce off their face, smell the ozone burn and the metallic blood mist in the air. We see the slimy beast, and smell the hot rancid breath coming from the crooked fangs. The machete whistles as it slices through the air, and the skull, of the killer’s latest victim. And yet, these are mere words, nuggets of information that only suggest the violence. When those words are chosen wisely, they strike a chord deep inside us, and can make every ounce of pain a character feels our very own. The distance of the page is only determined by the reader’s imagination.
It is high time we acknowledge that some characters are disposable. No matter how much you flesh out a character, a lot of the time they are in the scene to just die, and usually in a violent fashion if you’re reading horror fiction or watching a horror movie. These death scenes should be integral to the plot, moving the story forward; a way to show the audience just how nasty the villain is without actually attacking the main character of the story. Whether minor or not, if these characters interact with the main character of the story, the resolution of their deaths, the avengement, should provide a tinge of closure at the end of the story. Properly executed, the unexpected death of a minor character, even one who is on stage simply to die, can make or break a story.
The level of brutality should be evenly matched to their importance of the story. So old Lou, the newspaper guy who gives our hero his paper every morning at the street corner like he has for the past ten years should mean a lot to the main character. When the villain kills old Lou for seemingly no reason at all, it hurts our protagonist. This death lets the hero know the villain is dangerous and means serious business. If the writer decides to kill old Lou with a machete and then hangs his intestines right outside our main character’s front door, old Lou needs to figure more heavily in the story. Sadly, sometimes this isn’t the case, resulting in gore overkill that will turn off readers more than build an audience.
THE LOVABLE CHARACTER
What of those characters that have a deeper part in the story? Glenn from The Walking Dead, both the comic and the television series, easily comes to mind, as his recent demise has been spoiled for most anyway unless they live under a rock. Doomed from the first episode, we already know these kind of characters aren’t going to make it through the whole story. They’re not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, yet we can’t help but to love them. We want to be like them, especially if we witness their heroic growth. We put ourselves in the driver’s seat when reading a story or watching a film, and good story-tellers know how to vary that experience by letting us drive different characters throughout the narrative. We like being these characters because it puts us close to the danger from the safety of our own homes. Yet we know … we know … they’re going to die. Eventually, on the page, right before our eyes, they will meet the end of a barbed-wire baseball bat and get their skulls crushed in.
Do we want, or need, to see this happen? The answer is as difficult as the scene is to see, whether on the page or the screen. Writer’s constantly push boundaries just to see how far they can go. That is the very nature of writing, even more so of horror. There’s an argument for letting us see that scene, especially if it establishes a danger we’ve never seen before. There’s also an argument for approaching things more sensibly, and using the reader’s imagination to fill the blanks, at the very risk of weakening the threat. It is a fine line that writers cross, and will continue to cross, with every story.
SKULL CRUSHING IN THE MURDER HOLE
When characters we love die, the more their death ‘serves the plot’, the more we justify our reactions. It’s all fantasy, but when the character is nuanced and realistic, we tend to love them more, because we see ourselves in their place. When they die, we are crushed, hopefully for all of the right reasons. Calling all violent deaths in fiction ‘torture porn’ creates a do or don’t dichotomy that contradicts what horror means. Horror is an emotion. It needs reaction to thrive, regardless if you like the way it makes you feel. Writers of horror will continue to crush skulls in the murder hole, pushing the barrier, crossing the boundaries to produce stronger reactions than before because the benchmark is only as strong as the last violent scene. Well written horror, whether on the page or the screen, exists because the horrors of real life have real consequences. The idea is not to gag the audience out as much as possible, but to ultimately cast the mirror’s reflection onto ourselves to cast a light on the darkness we don’t want to see, yet we are unable to look away from.