I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes some things scary and what makes some things…not scary as of late. Is repulsion really “horror”? What separates horror from shock and disgust, or are they interchangeable?
For me, these things are not mutually exclusive.
Horror and terror can be easily summed up in VSauce’s excellent explanation as to why things are creepy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PEikGKDVsCc
There are many different categories, therefore of fear, I believe. As a writer, reader, and avid consumer of all things horror, I find that I prefer “horror” and especially “terror” types of scares when it comes to things. Intrigue and the unexplainable, hell, even the incomprehensible, interest me. However, there is a distinct type of “scary” that I do not avidly subscribe to as being actually frightening, that being gore.
A reaction of disgust and a reaction of fear, at least for me, are very different. Typically, when one is afraid, one withdraws in on oneself, pulling the covers up to their neck, jumping at every small noise, and bristling with goosebumps. In contrast, when one is disgusted, the reaction is much more outward in the form of a loud “UGH!” or in more extreme cases, projectile vomiting. Horror games are not necessarily overly gory, but may have moments of blood just to establish a clear and present danger to the protagonist. The Silent Hill series does this brilliantly. Even though monsters and deaths may be bloody, the reason why it is scary comes from the fact that the monsters represent one’s subconscious laid bare, as well as the sense of the unknown.
Gore in an of itself isn’t scary in particular and is more of a device to accentuate the mood. Action movies can be gory, as can comedies, adventure films, horror, and fantasy. But gore itself should never stand as a genre, because at that point you risk losing a purpose to storytelling. When we see someone, for example, strangled and ripped apart by a ghostly shrine maiden in Fatal Frame, it serves to ramp up the seriousness of the threat and is not the overarching theme throughout. This may only be shown once, but just enough to emphasize that the ghost is dangerous and to introduce the rope curse. Another example of gore as mood is in Outlast, which, although it had its moments of launching headlong into the “gross out” genre, its gore was mostly pertinent. The best example of this is the introduction, when one enters a room full of bodies that Chris Walker had dismantled. This serves to increase suspicion and fear. Just who exactly did this? It leads perfectly into the first jumpscare with Chris.
A problem arises when we classify gore itself as scary. If we go with this, we end up with the countless “horror” movies produced by American filmmakers that are affectionately called “torture porn”. The Saw series after the first movie, Hostel, the hilariously bad Wrong Turn series, and several poorly executed slasher films. These movies are reviled by some horror fans and celebrated by others, but, for the most part, if the gore is too egregious, the film becomes unenjoyable. Overblown gore can either come across as absolutely hilarious, as in the Peter Jackson film Dead Alive, or vomit-inducing, as in the later Saw films. This extends to video games as well. Horror games that rely too much on gore and too little on scares are generally considered to be bad. By noting gore as “scary” rather than “disgusting” or “useful”, we risk identifying some rather unscary things as horror. Mortal Kombat, anyone? It’s gory, disgusting, and features lots of people dying, but it is far from being horror, even with Mileena’s dental work and a gaggle of soul-stealing maniacs taken into account.
In conclusion, I have no problem with gore being used in writing and sometimes use it as a device myself. However, be very careful when you get too egregious lest you provoke a reaction that you did not intend and send your reader running to the toilet to vacate their stomach contents, or, perhaps worse, make them laugh hysterically. If the purpose of horror, and more appropriately, terror, is to induce a panic for fear of the unknown in someone, then why be blatant with mutilations, when you could make their skin crawl and cause paranoia insead?