Sunday, July 9, 2017

Violence in horror fiction: How much is too much?

From my YouTube channel: a viewer wanted to know my thoughts on violence in horror fiction. When does it become excessive? How much is too much?

I made a video response. But as always, I'll say a few words here, as well.

The answer to the question, "when does violence become excessive?" will always involve a judgment call. But a good rule of thumb is: Do you get the feeling that the filmmaker/author is substituting violence for storytelling? Does the film/fiction fetishize the violence--wallow in it?

Here is a non-horror example: I recently watched John Wick 2. The movie was little more than a hyper-violent video game. About 30% of the movie consisted of repetitive gunfights, with lots of head shots and lots of messy results (brain splatters). 

No, I wasn't shocked or offended. (I knew that no Hollywood extras were harmed in the making of the movie.) Rather, I was bored. The writers of John Wick 2 decided to substitute fetishized violence for solid storytelling. 

And that amounts to lazy storytelling, plain and simple.

The Walking Dead has gone a somewhat similar route. The first few seasons of the show were brilliant, filled with compelling plot lines, well-drawn characters, and a dark sense of wonder. The Walking Dead (and its spin-off, Fear the Walking Dead) has since fallen into the common trap of the zombie subgenre: The focus is on gore and sadism, propped up with simplistic plots.

Here's a common scenario you see in too much of the horror published in recent years (especially so-called "splatter punk"): A group of thinly drawn (or downright unlikable) characters are killed off one-by-one in a grotesque manner.  This more or less sums up Jack Ketchum's childish gross-out novel, Off Season. This is the entire catalogue of Poppy Z. Brite (whom I find practically unreadable).

On the other hand, Stephen King's early novels, (Carrie, The Shining, Christine, 'Salem's Lot, etc.) succeeded with strong characters and intriguing plots. This is why everyone has heard of Stephen King, while Jack Ketchum and Poppy Z. Brite are known only to diehard horror fans. 

Stephen King (unlike Ketchum and Brite) didn't say, "Hey, I'm writing horror, so grossing the reader out is more than enough!"

Writing horror doesn't exempt you from the fundamentals of good storytelling, in other words. When a writer/filmmaker relies too heavily on explicit violence, that is usually because he is writing a shallow (or hokey) story. 

For the rest of the discussion, watch the video.