Three Possible Reasons Why “Shock Value” Was A Major Part Of British Horror Fiction During The 1980s

Well, I thought that I’d talk about 1980s horror fiction today. This is mostly because, with Halloween only about a month away, I decided to start re-reading Shaun Hutson’s 1986 horror novel “Relics”. To my surprise, there were even more “shock value” elements to the story than I remembered (eg: grisly deaths, obscene rituals, vicious cruelty etc..).

Of course, as 1980s horror novels (at least in Britain) go, “Relics” is hardly an outlier. After all, this was the decade of splatterpunk fiction. So, why was 1980s British horror fiction a lot more “shocking” than it’s more psychological and ominous modern counterpart?

Here are a few of my speculations and theories:

1) Film censorship: Simply put, the 1980s was a decade of stifling censorship in Britain. It was a decade where grisly VHS horror films sparked a massive moral panic that led to video censorship legislation that is unfortunately still with us, pretty much unchanged, to this day.

Of course, thanks to the Lady Chatterley trial in the early 1960s, literature was protected from censorship. So, in an era when horror films were getting grislier (but being censored more heavily in the UK), horror fiction had something of a unique selling point. It could be more gruesome than the horror films that were available to the public. And, of course, astute horror authors took full advantage of this fact.

So, 1980s horror novels were grislier and more shocking than modern ones for the simple reason that they could bypass the strict censorship of the time. Of course, with film censorship being slightly less over-zealous in modern Britain, there is less of an incentive for horror authors to make their stories as extreme as possible.

2) Audience and context: One interesting thing about “shocking” 1980s horror novels is that they seem to have been reasonably popular amongst teenagers and it isn’t difficult to see why.

Even though the heyday of paperback horror fiction was already in it’s later stages when I was born, I belatedly discovered my first second-hand ’80s horror novel at about the age of thirteen and it absolutely astonished me. Needless to say, I read a lot more 1980s horror fiction during the next few years. And, from what I can remember of reviews/articles I’ve seen about older horror fiction over the years, this type of experience was something that also happened in the generation before mine too.

It’s a rebellious genre of fiction – I mean, it’s called “Splatterpunk“for a reason. It was the type of “shocking” fiction that made reading books seem like a “cool” thing to do. Add to this the fact that, at the time these novels were originally published (and a decade or two afterwards as well), the younger generations were pretty much expected to rebel. And what better way to rebel than reading an ultra-gruesome horror novel that would probably be banned if it was ever turned into a film?

Of course, these days, we live in an age where YA fiction is a more popular genre. We live in an age where, thanks to smartphones etc…, fewer people from all age groups read books. Likewise, these days, there isn’t really the expectation that the younger generation should “rebel” that there was in the past.

In other words, 1980s horror novels included a lot more shock value because they had a slightly different audience and a different historical context to modern horror fiction.

3) Popularity: Simply put, the horror genre was a lot more popular during the 1980s. In those halcyon days, horror fiction was apparently widely available in newsagents and all bookshops.

After all, slasher movies were a major genre in the cinema. Not to mention that, as portable entertainment options went, books were also pretty much the only choice. Add to this the fact that books were a lot cheaper than VHS tapes/VCRs and you can see why horror fiction was also an attractive choice for home entertainment too.

So, horror novels were mass entertainment. And, whilst the more cynical among you might think that this means that the “shock value” elements were there to appeal to the lowest common denominator, I’d argue that it is a little bit more sophisticated than this.

Simply put, “shock value” horror isn’t actually about shocking the audience, it is about giving them the illusion of bravery. Yes, the first “shock value” horror novel you read will probably shock you. But, once you’ve read a couple, you’ll know what to expect and it won’t shock you. As such, you’ll be able to read “horrifying” novels without so much as a scintilla of fear – which makes you feel courageous and tough. So, these novels are more about evoking this feeling than about actually frightening the audience.

And, given that people enjoy this feeling of toughness (eg: just look at all of the superhero movies these days), it was probably part of the mass appeal of “shock value” horror novels in 1980s Britain. Of course, with horror fiction being less popular these days, modern horror authors have to focus more on actually frightening the audience with things like psychological horror, bleak horror, suspense etc…

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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