Shock Value And Storytelling Mediums – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d talk about shock value and storytelling mediums today mostly because, early this year (I write these articles quite far in advance), I happened to read a few online articles about a controversial play in London which apparently made an audience member faint. This made me remember when I saw a “shocking” play quite a few years ago.

It was a recreation of several short late 19th/early 20th century Grand Guignol plays that was performed at the 2009 Abertoir film festival. Although it told the kind of melodramatic vintage horror stories that wouldn’t be that scary or shocking in most other mediums, it was about ten times more shocking for the simple reason that the play’s horrors actually appeared to take place in real life. So, this made me think about whether shock value works better in different mediums.

But, whilst mediums that place less distance between the audience and the story (eg: theatre, videogames etc..) can shock the audience slightly more easily than mediums where the audience feels slightly further away from what is happening (eg: film, comics, novels, music etc..), shock value can be achieved in every medium. However, I’d argue that shock value probably has more to do with both the audience and their expectations than the medium itself.

I mean, the Grand Guignol play was shocking for the simple reason that I’d never seen a play in the horror genre before. On the other hand, I’ve seen quite a few horror movies, played several horror computer/video games and read numerous horror novels etc.. so, these things have to be especially shocking in order to elicit this reaction in me. So, what your audience are used to plays quite a large role in how much shock value something has.

On a side note, this is also probably why Raven Gregory’s “Return To Wonderland” was such a shocking horror comic to read. Leaving aside the ultra-gruesome artwork and disturbing storyline, horror comics are nowhere near as common as they apparently were in the genre’s 1940s-50s heyday (before they got censored by the Comics Code and were replaced with superhero comics). So, when I happened to read this comic a decade or so ago, it was a genuine shock because I hadn’t really seen many horror comics – let alone more modern ones- before.

But, the best types of shock value play with audience expectations in interesting ways and this is something that can be done in pretty much any medium. Of course, there many ways to achieve this type of shock value – but the best of these involves leading the audience to expect something mildly “shocking” and then giving them something even more shocking. This works for the simple reason that it makes the audience feel like they are tough or unshockable, only to catch them by surprise later.

So, whilst some mediums have a slightly easier time achieving shock value than others, it can still be achieved in pretty much any medium since it has more to do with the audience than the medium itself.

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Sorry for the short article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂

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