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Horror Truisms: Writing Violence in a Post-Torture Porn Culture

I found myself telling stories of childhood terrors with old friends recently. Going around the circle in the dimly lit room, pizza left to go cold… we genuinely frightened one another.


by Jade Fisher

We, tough Gen Y’ers, raised on the meat of sleepover gore fests, burnt out on Torture Porn, gonzo, extremo, Slasher and the more mainstream Splat Pack. Felt the tingling chill of real fear we had forgotten… and wondered.

“Good horror creates a recognisable human world where
people are morally tested in the extreme.”-John Truby

Perhaps the space for our consumption of ‘shock‘ as a mainstream cinematic device is dwindling. Increasingly, good story makes room for a few more reels of razor wire. But the nature of the medium prevents horror movies from competing with the experience of the extreme online. Once we’ve sat through ‘3 guys, 1 hammer’ — nothing that happens in Saw IX can touch us.

The genre pushes boundaries as it evolves, from Slasher’s birth (arguably 1974) to Wan and Whannell, we say “Show me”, then one day, we’ve seen it all. And we’re not frightened in the cinema anymore.

So where do we go from here?

Where does genre storytelling go when we might have collectively reached the end point of an approach?

The answer to writing for a post- Spacedicks generation of Horror seekers must lie in the genre’s definitive core.

Define “Horror” — every definition uses the verb to feel. To feel pain, repugnance, shock, fear. Feel. The escalation of stylistic extreme violence has pushed us away from this core.

All good horror genre advisors tell us to write ‘real’. The first lesson in inciting emotion in our audiences has always been to have them identify with the characters. But who among us can identify with the sensation of cutting off an arm? Being stabbed or sliced or mashed? This spectacle-centric writing is confused in that it elicits  sympathy for the character suffering, but not empathy. It creates a purely observational screen experience. Like watching the stars in the night sky, it’s too far away.

But who among us can identify with
the sensation of cutting off an arm?

Feeling fear comes through connection, and connection is created through character development. If we bring this idea down to its elementary form, we first think about creating empathy for sensations felt by our characters. No, I can’t even imagine cutting off an arm. But tearing off a fingernail…

… might be a jumping off point. I am reminded of certain self-harming scenes from Black Swan. Certainly I was more horrified by moments in that film that by anything in Cannibal Holocaust.

Think small about the violent act.

Violence in the new Horror might surprise our numbed sensitivity with its stark simplicity, its Truth: the detail and intimacy of a violent act, something small or organic, corporeal, damaging, lasting. The unexpected nature of a violent act — instead of telegraphing ‘the stabbing’ with traditional convention, an unsettling use of misdirection. The suddenness in itself could be the element that creates a psychological disconnect, and truly frightens. The identification with a violent act, something so close to home that the ‘suspension of our disbelief’ becomes so thin that lines being to blur…

We might start anew by thinking small like this. Remember that particular childhood terror. The ineffable, unconscious fear – paralysed, and overheating under the covers – unable to breathe. That vivid, disturbing quality of our nightmares …

Remember that particular childhood terror.
The ineffable, unconscious fear

These ideas do not intend to remove the fantastic from horror stories. If anything, a new approach might free genre writers from the tired tropes and plot devices that keep us writing in circles. Preventing what is actually frightening to us, the dark truths revealed in our nightmares, from finding their place on the screen.

Nor does this represent an idea that Horror should move away from violence, perish the thought!

Even Tennessee Williams said of his own work

“If there is any truth in the Aristotelian idea that violence is purged by its poetic representation, […] then it may be that my cycle of violent plays has had a moral justification after all.”

The Post – Torture Porn writer must be seeking new strategies for creating truisms in Horror. Given the long history and prolific life of the genre, it’s a hard starting place, the writer must be honest, introspective, brutal, and above all – good.

-Jade Fisher

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I come to screenwriting from a poetry background with a BCA in Creative Writing. I’ve travelled, worked as a cinema projectionist, studied photography, massage therapy, anatomy and am finally learning (& making) my true love, film.

I’m currently interested in developing a linear narrative theory that combines the way story operates in heroic myth with the way it behaves in dreams — where plot structure exists without causal links.[/box]

About the Author

Jade Fisher

Comments 3

  1. “I’m currently interested in developing a linear narrative theory that combines the way story operates in heroic myth with the way it behaves in dreams — where plot structure exists without causal links”

    I don’t think plot structure can exist without causal links, strictly speaking: Because a dream is a series of psychological associations, therefore a structure with causal links.

    I enjoyed the article, thanks.

  2. I liked reading the post. It’s a perspective worth exploring, empathy driven fear- a subconscious loop of “what if it was me” running through the audiences head without them realizing it. That’s a great challenge and a sweeter victory right there.
    Also curious about where your research will lead you regarding the linear narration theory. Sounds interesting and it’s insane enough to be a ground breaker. Good luck with that.

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