As a lover of the horror genre, I have one serious drawback: I have a decidedly weak stomach.
Seriously, I keeled over in a first aid course once. We weren’t doing anything but talking about the kind of wounds a first-aider might encounter at the time. No pictures, no graphics, not even pretend make-up wounds or anything. Just a lecture. There was the instructor standing up front, merrily telling us all about gashed-up arms with bits of glass sticking out of them, and there I was heading straight down, falling off my chair in a faint at the mere mention of nasty bloody injuries.
How embarrassing is that, hmmm? I grew up watching Freddy Krueger slash-and-quip without batting an eyelid, but these days I can’t even compare kitchen-accident-wound stories without getting as giddy as a gal gracing the cover of one of those bad 90s romance books featuring Fabio. Which is an image guaranteed to turn anyone’s stomach, ugh.
Now, I don’t recall the horror movies and novels of my youth leaving me feeling all faint and head-spinny. The slasher flicks of the 80s, the gore-ridden Evil Dead originals, the Stephen King novels I consumed by the dozen. (Much to the distaste of one particular high school English teacher who, if I recall, outright refused to believe me when I tried to tell her King’s novel It was ultimately about the loss of childhood innocence. According to her, you can’t have that and evil killer clowns at the same time. Naturally, I begged to differ. But baiting English teachers was my high school hobby, so there was nothing new in that.)
These were fictions filled with gore, with horror, and also with terror – which is quite a different thing – but they weren’t, well, torture porn. The blood, while there was plenty of it, was somehow less real, I guess. Or perhaps it was just the psychological terror found therein was greater than the physical horror exploding out at me – though if you’ve seen the original Evil Dead trilogy you’ll wonder how that might be possible. Maybe it was just the technology available to film makers back-in-the-day just didn’t allow for as realistic portrayals of nastiness as it does now.
Yet I’m not writing this to decry torture porn. It’s a (sub)genre with its own merits and limitations, it has an audience wide enough to support its continued creation, and some of it has impressed even me and my weak stomach – the original Saw movie, for example, was a very good and, yes, innovative movie. And if perhaps its originality has been tarnished over the years by its zabillion clone-like sequels, well, that’s also a staple of the horror genre from way back. Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, all those haunted villains from my childhood were also the subject of sequels which replayed the same story with the same horror over and over and over again, spiralling inwards with ever diminishing scares. It’s just something horror does.
Obviously torture porn is Not My Thing. I skip it, for the most part. Quite happy never to see Hostel, even though I adored Eli Roth’s earlier Cabin Fever. Felt a bit of a pang when I decided to forego Wolf Creek, but so be it. And I’m decidedly careful before agreeing to watch certain things. Anything by Takashi Miike, for example. Awesome film maker. I adore his storytelling. Yet I’m still too nervous to watch 13 Assassins because the thought of Miike and samurai battle scenes seems like a totally awesome, and for me potentially unwatchable, combination.
(If I’m wrong on this, someone please let me know. I do plan to watch it one day. I just need to get up the nerve first.)
Just an aside – Miike’s Audition was the first film I ever saw in which I had to hide behind my hands. In fact, it was the first film I ever saw that I couldn’t actually watch in entirety – I had to fast forward through chunks of that elongated revenge scene at the end. (Yes, you know the one. If you’ve seen the film, you know it. And if you haven’t, go watch it, it’s a great film. Just, well, be aware of that scene. The one that Keeps. On. Going.) And I loved Miike’s Masters of Horror episode… right up until I had to stop watching it because I was, yes, going to keel off my chair.
How did this happen? How could I be simultaneously a lover of horror stories and yet struggle to keep conscious through some of it?
I should point out that I don’t actually make a habit of fainting all over the place. Aside from the first-aid-course incident, and another delightful moment when catching up with a couple of friends who decided to hold a “my nasty knife accident story is bloodier than yours” conversation over lunch, I’ve pretty much been able to keep my head, and stomach, where they should be. But that’s mostly because I’ve learned not to look, not even to listen. I’ve become the scaredy-cat hiding behind the lounge cushions at crucial moments.
It’s not that I’m too scared, I swear to you. It’s that I really am not good with blood and guts of the realistic variety. And today’s fictions are awfully realistic, you know.
See, while I’ve not always had to be careful of horror fiction, I have always been bad with blood. This isn’t some queasiness which developed along with the grey hairs in my head or anything. My mother will tell you (should you be silly enough to ask her) about how when I was very young I could break an arm and not much notice, but skin a knee and I’d be panic-stations, freaking out, the-sky-is-falling-dammit!, screaming and all round misery. More than one teacher felt the need to comment to her upon it through my early school years.
Of course, my mother will also tell you I had teachers describe me as morbid. But that’s only because I wrote a short story about a ghostly hand which went about strangling anyone stupid enough to stay in a haunted room where a hundred years before a young girl had been locked in and left in to die.
What can I say? Even at the age of eight I was writing horror, even as I was screaming at the sight of blood.
I don’t believe in the false dichotomies of terror vs. horror. I personally may prefer the terrifying prose of a literary ghost story to an hour and a half of visuals in a flick about the torture of witless teens, but body horror, physical gore, it’s all a viable, legitimate and necessary part of the genre. Some aspects of horror will lend itself more to the psychological, to the terrifying, to the subtle, while others will be more about the physical, the over-the-top, the horrifying.
But the two are not mutually exclusive. One can and should inform the other. I can read The Monk and get my fill of physical gore – that scene with the nun and her dead baby, anyone? – from what is ultimately a classic terrifying tale. And John Carpenter’s The Thing is body horror at its most awesome, yet depends on its incredibly claustrophobic atmosphere and the seriously dense paranoia of the story for its real terror.
Ultimately, horror is about the frights. The scares. (Yes, okay, and sarcastic one-liners when surrounded by buckets of fake-looking blood. Humour can be an entrenched part of horror too.) Whether it be an MR James ghost story or an Eli Roth movie, that’s what it’s meant to do. Scare us. Repulse us. Make us question the dominant authority. Horror has to rock the status quo, it has to shake the bars of social assumption, of society’s rules, of perceived good taste.
Horror has to threaten. And in being threatening, to individuals, to society, to the dominant order we otherwise wouldn’t consider challenging, it makes us think.
That is why I have always loved and will always love horror.
Even when it makes me giddy enough to fall off my chair.