Monday, March 18, 2013

Walking Gore

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I've been up to my eyeballs in boxes over the last two weeks as we unpack and settle into our new house in Colorado. In the weeks before the move, however, I confess to becoming a reluctant fan of The Walking Dead. Reluctant because at first I couldn't watch beyond about ten minutes before I had to switch off. Gore, you see, isn't my thing. And The Walking Dead is full of gore...

But then I tried again (fast forwarding through the truly stomach churning bits) and I became hooked. Despite the copious amounts of blood, guts and brains, I found myself invested in the characters and the story and, though I still couldn't stomach the amount of gore, I had to keep watching. Story had triumphed over queasy stomach. 

When it comes to thrillers and mysteries, I usually draw the line at unnecessary violence and gore. I've never been one to go to horror movies and I don't enjoy flinching at detailed, bloodied, descriptions of death or mutilation. But the key for me is the term 'unnecessary'. Sometimes the story requires a degree of explicitness for it to remain authentic - and in this case, sometimes (only sometimes) I will forgo my usual sensibilities and keep reading. 

For me there are three critical elements needed for me to suspend my natural gag reflex and read on:

  • Firstly I must totally trust the writer - I need to feel assured that the violence/gore is both necessary and sufficient and that my trust in the writer won't be destroyed. I don't want to suddenly face a completely gratuitous scene which makes me doubt the authenticity of the experience the writer has provided.
  • Secondly, the context of the story must demand the level of explicitness/violence/horror or gore provided. I don't pick up a cozy mystery expecting to find a hacked corpse oozing bodily fluids and explicit description on page 100...
  • Thirdly, the explicit descriptions must be compelling and accurate. I don't want to find my stomach churning with a mishmash of innards only to suddenly think 'whoa, that doesn't sound right'. I'm no forensic pathologist or anatomy expert but sometimes explicit descriptions can easily veer into the realm of farce.  A good rule of thumb is probably not to involve too many body parts...

Still, there are lines that I am reluctant to cross. These include scenes involving children and animals. The story had better be the most compelling, viscerally affecting, and most brilliantly written piece of all time for me to cross over those lines.

So what about you? Any Walking Dead fans out there? How do you feel about gore in thrillers and mysteries? Are there lines you won't cross (as either a writer or a reader?)

27 comments:

  1. I'm not into gore, but it also doesn't bother me. If done right, the author might get a nod of appreciation from me. I don't like it when over-dramatized, but I think it works with horror, not so much with thrillers or mysteries.

    Stephen King almost crossed the line for me in Full Dark, No Stars which contained a story with a vivid rape scene. Then again, it's a Stephen King novella and so I forgive him for my not being able to shake myself of the visual. He's only doing what King does best. :)

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    1. I think we can usually forgive Stephen King many things as he manages to pull it off so well

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    2. Interesting that you key in on the rape scene in Full Dark. There are few words actually describing the sexual assault. However, the setting and the inferences like when he stuffs her underwear into his bib overalls pocket . . . GAH! There were some broken slats of wood in the entrance of my alley and I actually went out of my way so I didn't have to drive over them. Such is the mastery of King. He knows exactly what the monster under my bed is thinking.

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  2. I think violence, gore, and profanity are like powerful spices. Used sparingly, they enhance a dish. Used too much, they spoil it.

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  3. I don't watch horror on TV or read the genre. However some of Terry Goodkind's scenes in his Sword of Truth series can get pretty graphic. I get past them because I know the heroes will triumph in the end and it will be all the more satisfactory because of the torments they've suffered. As for mysteries, I prefer humorous cozies.

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    1. Nancy - I'm not into graphic scenes either but sometimes they are necessary and as long as I trust the author that it will be worth it all in the end I'll stick in there.

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  4. I qualify as a Walking Dead geek. I started with the comic book, believe it or not.

    Does the television series have gratuitous violence? Yes. Does it cross lines? Hmmm...if the child is a Walker, it's already dead. Still, it's disturbing. The scripting of the show has been superb, however. I actually felt sorry for the Walkers at one point this season. That's tough to pull off.

    A line I won't cross? Don't kill the dog. I actually threw PET SEMATARY across the room and stomped on it. I seem to recall doing the same thing with LAD, A DOG. It's interesting that you mention this, however, as I crossed my own line this weekend. Oh, but did the dog killer ever get his.

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    1. As a dog lover I'd find the death of a dog hard to stomach even if the killer gets his just desserts. I've never read the comic book but neither man nor beast (nor zombie) are safe on the show. Thank goodness for the fast forward button (I record it so I use this as needed!).

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    2. As a dog lover I'd find the death of a dog hard to stomach even if the killer gets his just desserts. I've never read the comic book but neither man nor beast (nor zombie) are safe on the show. Thank goodness for the fast forward button (I record it so I use this as needed!).

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  5. I have the same issue. I've made it through 1.5 episodes. Stephen King refers to this tact as "going for the grossout." Unfortunately, in this case, the writers are leaning on the grossout when their writing is spectacular without it. I can't stomach it. It's the difference between romance and porn. Tell the story. If it's good, you don't need the graphics.

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    1. Ron - I feel your pain. There are many, many grossout moments in the show though I've managed to see past these. I do wonder sometimes whether it's all necessary (as I said to Joe, thank goodness I can fast forward...)

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    2. Interesting. Because the typical Walking Dead fan has been grousing that there was too much talk and not enough action. Although the dude in the well triggered that tickle at the back of my throat.

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  6. It just wouldn't be a proper zombie apocalypse without some head smashing. Seriously, it's part of the genre. I look forward to the zombie kills every week. I laugh at them. So does my 72 year old mother. There was a spectacularly fabulous shovel to the head last night. I am continually amazed at the new ways they come up with to kill zombies. Following TWD is The Talking Dead. As part of that show they do a mock In Memoriam wherein they replay some of the top kills of the week, often with an amusing coda. I miss my zombie killing in the off season.

    But animals... I can't read or watch anything horrible happening to animals. I will skip pages, turn off the tv, or walk out of a theatre until after the Bad Things to Animals. I can't even bear to watch most animal shows because so often Bad Things Happen. OTOH it doesn't bother me at all in real life to see an animal kill, or work on a kill. One time I was close enough to a lion working on a zebra to hear the bones crunch... But I digress.

    Bumper stick slogan:

    Kill Zombies, Not Animals!

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    1. Ah yes the shovel to the head...and you're right it wouldn't be a proper zombie apocalypse without a lot of head smashing! When it comes to animals though, I'm so pathetic I can't even watch Lassie...

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  7. I had to stop watching Criminal Minds. It wasn't the gore in terms of blood and flesh that bothered me--it was the sense that each week the writers were trying to outdo themselves by having people killed in horrible and macabre ways. It just got to be too upsetting to watch, although I liked the premise of the show.

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    1. I haven't watched Criminal Minds and from the sound of it I won't start:) Sometimes I get the feeling that some shows have to rely on gore or macabre deaths to overcompensate for a lack of good story/characters.

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    2. I haven't watched Criminal Minds and from the sound of it I won't start:) Sometimes I get the feeling that some shows have to rely on gore or macabre deaths to overcompensate for a lack of good story/characters.

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    3. I love Criminal Minds to the nth degree. But I also loved Millennium (Clare, you may want to pass on that one).

      I do not like gratuitous splatter, but hardcore gore doesn't bother me as long as it drives the story. But I just wrote a flash fiction using lime jello as the murder weapon. I have a high tolerance after having trained on sorting crime scene photos.

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  8. I've long felt that the important thing in a zombie story isn't the zombies. The zombies exist to put pressure on the characters to allow them to show their true selves.

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    1. I think that's why The Walking Dead works as the characters grow/develop as a result of all they have faced. That's why I keep watching (not being a fan of zombie apocalypses usually!)

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  9. Not only gore, but the gratuitous violence including explosions and car crashes are the main reason I haven't been to a theatre in years. Explosions, audio on full and $8 popcorn isn't my idea of entertainment

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    1. It can be deafening can't it? I think some directors think, quick throw in some violence, as if that will sell tickets!

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  10. Hello, I've enjoyed this thread as it is a concern of mine as a writer. What would you all think about the level of violence and gore in Cormac McCarthy novels? Is it too much for you all? In organized crime/military thrillers, not gore - but violence and excessive curse words are part of the culture. I feel that if I don't represent the culture accurately that it takes away from the substance of the story. Conversely, I do not want to overly offend potential readers.

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    1. The best advice on profanity and violence in writing is, "If the violence a) advances the plot, b) reveals character, and c) supports the theme, you're golden."

      Don't recall the quoted writer's name

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  11. What does our refusal to see Dogs (or whatever) get killed in story say about what we are afraid of looking at in real life?

    I had a discussion with people today and some stated they were against "violence" in real life. Specifically they were referring to "physical violence".

    However, I pointed out that nobody seems to have a problem with "Economic Violence" being committed daily.

    Economic Violence is created from policies that as a result--change one's ability to make money: unemployed, laid off, outsourced, lowered wages, increased hours without compensation.

    The chain reaction of such results: drugs, alcohol, crime, broken families, broken marriages, suicides, murder.

    Economic Violence is created by the Power of the Pen as in writing policies that become laws allowing among other things: Free Trade getting rid of US Manufacturers and all the Jobs that went with it.

    Those jobs will NEVER come back until "free trade" is repealed.

    A friend who is 30 told me he can't get work in IT, and a help desk job he tried to get had a lineup of 55 people the other week for it...in person.

    These people would have money to BUY YOUR BOOK. But they don't. They're starving.

    But people don't want to SEE such Violence unless it's Fiction.

    No, they'd rather watch Zombies.

    Look around. People are starving and having their lives RUINED.

    now THAT'S VIOLENCE.

    Thanks, Kerry

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