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At LTUE I attended several panels all about the bright side, if you will, of writing horror, appealing in particular to LDS writers. The LDS church teaches us to pursue “anything virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy” (Article of Faith 1:13) and to “not attend, view, or participate in entertainment that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way. Do not participate in entertainment that in any way presents immoral or violent behavior as acceptable” (For Strength of Youth pg. 17). As a result, our culture is very media-conscious–which is a good thing.
The horror genre gets a bad rap in LDS culture, according to the panelists, because it takes a deep and dramatically extreme look at evil, dark, destructive, disturbing, etc. forces to see how individuals respond to those kinds of intrusions in their lives. For many, this prospect of horror as an art form runs right along the border of what is wholesome vs. what really is inviting evil into our lives, and most would rather stay away from that line for fear of crossing it. It was nice to hear from a group of largely LDS authors who write in the horror genre why they think horror is valuable. I don’t want to go through every point I found informative in this post, but I wanted to go over a few.
What is Horror?
Horror can act in a couple of ways. One is to subvert something we find comforting and turn it into something disturbing (easy/cheap to do this using graphic sex and violence by grossing people out, but it’s challenging to do without it).
The power of the unknown is another way. One of the panelists brilliantly described the psychology of horror in that it involves evoking the fight or flight response in readers and suspending them in a state where they really don’t know whether to fight or flee or fall back at ease because they ultimately don’t know what they’re dealing with. That’s when we literally experience horror in real live situations. The only other “genre” that seeks to arouse our survival instincts that deeply is pornography.
Horror is also about the battle for good and evil that takes place inside each of us. If we can confront the monster in the mirror and dissect her/him when we write, we can create very effective and meaningful horror. Cautionary tales come to mind here.
Creating Horror Without Graphic Sex or Violence
To me it seemed the panels had a difficult time explaining exactly where or how they draw boundaries on what content they decide to include in a story. For them, a lot of it seemed instinctive: use your gut. Use common sense. In general, don’t use excessive profanity just to shock and offend your audience, don’t make your scenes pornographic, and violence…make sure anything you show and any details or specifics you use are meaningful and have a purpose in the plot. If you’re not sure about your story, get going on a it, and if it’s just not saying something you think is appropriate then abandon it and try something else, etc.
The panelists also mentioned that different people have different boundaries as well as different tolerances for the horrible. Some people just can’t digest certain things or don’t want to, and I’m certainly in that boat on some topics (I have a much higher tolerance for violence in my media diet than sex, for example). I think this approach was helpful in that the panel didn’t over-emphasize censorship to a community that does plenty of healthy self-censoring. Rather, this encouraged the attitude of “don’t be afraid to write the story that needs to be written,” because, and I agree, most of the time that story isn’t as inappropriate as you think it’s going to be if you’ve really set out to write something meaningful.
Dr. Michael Collings related a story about an eighteen-month-old child experiencing horror when a huge animal he had never seen before (a cow) made eye contact, came up to him, and licked his little shoe with it’s big wet tongue. Horror can be gross (I imagine cow tongues are pretty gross when they lick you, especially when you’ve never seen a cow before), but it doesn’t have to be. And that’s where the difference, perhaps, between “graphic” and “gratuitous” comes in. Apparently the difference between a typical slasher movie (yeah, I don’t watch…) and Stephen King novels is that slasher movies aren’t really scary–it’s all about “seeing the latest special effects with latex and corn syrup.” If you’re ever watching a movie for the high of blood splattering everywhere, saying, “yeah, this is awesome–more blood!” the gore is probably gratuitous (and either not necessary or “inappropriate”). If you actually care about the characters that are being gored and you’re horrified by them getting ripped apart, etc., that gory horror may still be graphic but it’s meaningful rather than gratuitous.
Why Horror Can Be Awesome (and Meaningful)
Horror also presents an opportunity to define pure good by confronting pure evil, to make God, the Devil, angels and demons real entities in a story rather than muted, apathetic aliens. Many of the panelists also shared personal “horror” stories and how being forced to pull meaning from life in situations where they literally felt lost and horrified has strengthened their testimonies of God (as well as their writing).
Dr. Collings began to lose his hearing as he got older (I think he suffers from bipolar disorder too) and mentioned that it’s one thing to say the Gospel will make you happy, but another thing entirely to say the Gospel will make you happy even when you think you’re going crazy and it absolutely terrifies you.
Michaelbrent Collings shared a story about his wife. He said that she’s a beautiful woman, but she never looked more beautiful than in the moment they had just lost their baby (and she was covered in blood), and she smiled at him with tears in her eyes and told him it was going to be all right.
If that’s the power horror stories can have, to take us into our vulnerabilities, to make us contemplate our utter mortality, and to make us stronger and more sensitive individuals for it, that’s really beautiful and I want that kind of depth and power in my writing.