Well, although I’ve written about the topic of gruesomeness in horror fiction before, I ended up thinking about it again after watching a few episodes of a hilarious comedy horror TV show called “Ash Vs. Evil Dead”. Although television and prose fiction are two very different mediums, one of the interesting things about “Ash Vs. Evil Dead” is that it is almost as cartoonishly ultra-gruesome as many classic 1980s British horror novels are. And, seeing this level of gruesomeness in a visual medium rather than a written one made me think of more reasons why gruesomeness isn’t inherently scary in horror fiction.
Don’t get me wrong, horror fiction can and should be gruesome. When used well, gruesome moments can really intensify any other types of horror that your story uses. Likewise, gruesomeness not being inherently scary can actually be a good thing sometimes – especially in the comedy horror genre or for those moments when you want to sneakily dial back the scariness in order to make your readers feel more courageous and/or to lull them into a false sense of security.
Gruesomeness in horror fiction isn’t a bad thing. But it isn’t scary either, and here’s a few reasons why:
1) Spectacle, shock and craft: This is a bit like the old rule about using profanity in fiction – you can use as much of it as you like, but every time will have slightly less dramatic impact than the previous one. In other words, gruesome horror fiction isn’t scary because the audience gets used to it fairly quickly. It goes from a horrifying unexpected thing to just an ordinary part of the story.
And, when this happens, the audience is more likely to see these moments as spectacle rather than horror. Yes, they can still be dramatic, but it will be in a more theatrical way than the “realistic” way you should be aiming for if you want to write scary horror fiction. In other words, because the audience no longer feels shocked, they are much more likely to pay attention to the craft behind these scenes. And this reminds the audience that they’re just reading a novel or watching a film. In other words, something artificial that cannot scare them.
In the case of a TV show like “Ash Vs. Evil Dead”, this will probably mean that you’ll end up thinking “Wow! I wonder how many gallons of stage blood they used in this scene?” or “Was that blood spatter CGI?” rather than “Oh my god! An evil zombie!“. In a horror novel, it will probably mean that you’ll pay more attention to the – surprisingly poetic – descriptions and turns of phrase that are a hallmark of old-school British splatterpunk fiction and/or to any characteristic phrases that the author uses in these scenes (eg: Shaun Hutson’s frequent use of words like “coppery”, “putrescent”, “mucoid”, “liquescent”, “orb” etc…)
So, frequent gruesome moments in horror fiction are less scary than you might think because not only do they lose their shock value quickly, but they also focus the audience’s attention on the craft of the scene – which can break their immersion in the story.
2) Slapstick, exaggeration and realism: By their very nature, the kind of ultra-gruesome descriptions that you’ll see in horror fiction or the special effects you’ll see in a gruesome horror film, are unrealistic. After all, they have to be as gruesome as possible to shock or gross out the audience. And this usually lends these scenes a certain level of exaggeration and melodrama that can often come across as a more macabre form of slapstick comedy. This is, of course, absolutely great for things in the comedy horror genre (like “Ash Vs. Evil Dead”), but it makes “serious” horror feel a bit less serious.
After all, truly scary horror – the type that will haunt the reader’s nightmares for days afterwards- relies on verisimilitude. The feeling that the story could actually happen. To you.
However, outside of a Halloween party, no-one is going to see a gruesome zombie or monster lurching towards them. Likewise, although horrific things unfortunately do happen in real life, the chances of actually seeing or experiencing them are thankfully relatively low (despite the frightening impression that reading or watching the news may give you).
In other words, gruesome moments of horror will seem unrealistic (and therefore less scary) because not only will most people be lucky enough never to see anything like it in real life, but also because the only way to write “shocking” gruesome moments is to exaggerate them to the point where they almost seem like a grim type of slapstick comedy.
3) Focus and consequences: Most gruesome horror isn’t scary because of what it focuses on. In other words, it focuses more on the messy physical consequences of horrific events rather than the much more disturbing emotional and psychological consequences of them.
For example, one of the most genuinely shocking and disturbing “gruesome” moments I’ve read in a novel during the past couple of years is actually less “gruesome” than a typical scene in a splatterpunk horror novel. I am, of course, talking about the opening chapter of Jack O’Connell’s “Word Made Flesh” (read it at your own peril. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!).
Although this scene is fairly gruesome, it is genuinely disturbing because – instead of just devoting page after page to gory descriptions – the chapter also focuses on things like the horrific concept of what is happening, on the agony a character suffers and on the chillingly cold cruelty of several other characters. It is also narrated by a creepy fourth wall breaking narrator who will callously crack jokes about what is happening in a way that makes it feel like someone very very evil is sitting right next to you. It is a chapter that you won’t forget reading.
And, yet, it is technically less gruesome than a splatterpunk novel. Yet, it is more shocking because of what it chooses to focus on. So, gruesome horror fiction usually isn’t that scary because it often focuses on the least scary elements of horrific moments and events.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂