If you’ve been keeping up with my blog posts, then you know I’m a horror writer/fan/fanatic, etc, etc and so forth. Horror is meant to scare you, give you the creeps, and, more often than not, disturb you. And that’s the root of horror, really. Because some people just can’t be scared by words on the page, no matter how good the writer. But most can be disturbed. Most can be moved in some way, even if slight. Just how classic literature should leave you thinking profound neverending thoughts when you close the book, horror should leave you feeling like something isn’t right, like the world has changed in some fundamental way.
Or, at least, that’s what it does for me.
I must warn you. The next statement is going to be pretty elementary, but I feel it is still necessary: to disturb, the writer must write the disturbing. Still with me? Good. With that established, one who hopes to write horror may one day be prompted with an inevitable question: how far is too far?
I have certainly read things–by well respected authors, no less–that have gone a little too far. I have certainly written things like that as well. But what is taboo in writing? At what point does it pass from creative genius and vital story/character/environmental development to having the true value of the piece overshadowed by inappropriate vulgarities?
The last book I finished was The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum. It is the story of a 14-year-old girl who is abused and tortured by her foster-parent and the neighborhood kids. And, as the title suggests, she lives right next door to the protagonist. I thought it was a an immensely suspenseful piece that continued to build into the the realm of the unimaginable, yet cruelly believable. The best part about the book was the narrator’s role. He found himself conflicted between his loyalty to his friends, what he knew as right from wrong and–most intriguing–his own carnal desires. At crucial times we even come to dislike the main character while still caring about his thoughts, actions, and emotional takeaways. Even more, we become invested in Meg–the girl next door.
And we are wholly disturbed.
I didn’t think about the content crossing the line until I looked at some user reviews on Amazon. I usually do this after watching a new movie, reading a book, or playing a game–it’s just a habit I have of seeing what other people have to say. I wasn’t surprised to see that many people thought it was just torture scene after torture scene that went too far with the inclusion of little kids and the eventual rape of the 14-year old by these little kids. It was moreso that I hadn’t considered the question until then.
My mind wanders to the Passion of the Christ. Critics of the movie say the intensity, detail, and longevity of the many torture scenes do a disservice to the message Mel Gibson tried to portray. On the other hand, others proclaim the disturbing images are a necessary way to fully portray what Christ went through and to help people appreciate his sacrifice. Could that be the case with The Girl Next Door? Do we need to bear through such horrific scenes to fully understand what Meg is going through? To fully appreciate her courage when she would rather risk being caught during a coordinated escape than to leave her sister? To create the dichotamy of hate and sympathy for the main character as he watches all of this happen and doesn’t say a word? Or is it all just . . . too far.
I can’t talk about horror without mentioning Stephen, who is the King of disturbing scenes. I’ve read about half of his novels, and his most disturbing so far is in IT. I’d say it’s the weirdest child sex scene ever, except that would be useless because it’s the only child sex scene I’ve ever come across. Towards the end of IT, the six 12-year-old friends agree that the 5 boys in their group should take turns losing their virginity to the one girl in order to make their bond stronger. I didn’t have to read reviews to think: wow, maybe you went a little far there, Steve. (There’s also a point in the book where two 12-year old boys have a comparably bizarre homo-erotic encounter out at a dumpster). I saw the necessity of the scene much less than the most disturbing moments in The Girl Next Door and The Passion of the Christ. In those, the torture were integral parts of the story, whereas in IT I’m left thinking that the author just wanted to put in the most disturbing thing he could think of, because there are definitely less pedophiliac ways to create a bond.
To bring this back to writing, I ask again: what is too far? When dealing with sensitive subjects like rape, death, children, sex, and any combination of the two, what is the protocol? Should you gloss over these scenes and summarize them for the sake of staying behind that line or should you throw censorship to the wind?
Or maybe there’s just one golden rule to follow: as long as the character’s 18, it’s all fair game.