I just read this from Matt Cardin’s The Teeming Brain:
The meaning of horror and “that dark sorcerer” Cormac McCarthy (with nods to Ligotti)
He quotes the following from Benjamin Percy:
I feel that violence needs to be earned somehow — or it needs to earn out. You need to pipe the oxygen in before lighting the flame — or, in the wake of some violent act, there needs to be repercussions: a period in which the characters suffer and soak up what has occurred. Making it part of the causal structure and making it emotionally resonant, too. I would hope that any narrative that wrestles with this sort of thing is meant to horrify, and not excite. To discourage, instead of encourage, violence. And that’s the problem with movies like Saw and Hostel: They make a bloodbath into a kind of joyous exercise.
I’ve been practicing for these kind of scares my whole life. I grew up on genre: Westerns, sci-fi, fantasy novels, mysteries and spy thrillers — but especially on horror. Horror’s always gripped me in its bony fist. So I read everything by Shirley Jackson, and Anne Rice, and Stephen King, and Peter Straub and Robert Aikman [sic], John Saul, and Dean Koontz, and H. P. Lovecraft, and Poe. There’s something about me that’s drawn to darkness and to the theater of fear. I can’t quite put a finger on why that is — it’s the same reason some people like romance stories while others like action movies. But my greatest pleasure growing up was terrifying my sister by leaping out of closets with my hands made into claws, or scratching at her bedroom window. She slept with the light on until she was 27. I guess that was training ground for the novelist I’ve become.
I’ve become so attuned to craft that it’s sometimes difficult for me to get lost in a story. When I grew up reading, the only thing that concerned me was the question of what happens next — and the pages turned so fast they made a breeze across my face. The Road, for the first time in a very long time, owned me emotionally in that same fashion. I was able to turn off my craft radar and be swept away. I felt true terror. The kind of terror that used it [sic] make me, when I was a kid, wrap the sheets around my face and breathe through a little blowhole in fear of the shadow that seemed at the edges of my room. Cormac McCarthy, that dark sorcerer, makes me feel that way again.
Here is the comment I left at The Teeming Brain:
My judgment on whether a movie is torture porn would be to imagine myself as a sociopath and consider whether or not a particular movie would appeal to my sociopathic sensibilities and worldview. A deep thinking non-sociopath could possibly sense a profound existential dread in almost anything, but that doesn’t mean that was necessarily the intention of the makers of the film or the received experience of most viewers.
I’m not dismissive of portrayals of violence when used for a deeper expression of human reality. My opinion, though, is that violence can only achieve this when used sparingly. Otherwise, it more likely numbs one to possibility of existential dread. A better use of violence for this purpose is a movie such as Requiem for a Dream. Another movie that achieves this without any overt bloody gore is the less well known Kids.
As someone prone to depression, I’m more wary of the impact of torture porn and violence porn. I can’t shake the feeling that artists truly do have a moral responsibility to their viewers and to society as a whole, whether or not they want to accept this. It’s the fact that art can inspire people to great deeds and horrific acts that makes art so worthy. What we put out into the world is what we help to manifest. That is such a fundamental truth that too many people blindly and ignorantly dismiss.
That said, I would never want to forbid the use of extreme violence in movies. Like anything else, it is part of life. But art should inspire people to see beyond the violence toward compassion and understanding, toward existential insight or mortal wonder at our finitude. I personally don’t see movies like Saw achieving this, but maybe for a very small minority they might gain something worthy from such films. The question is whether what is gained by a small minority is great enough to offset the damage caused to the psyches of so many others, the moral numbing and societal disregard.
Enough preaching for now.
On another note, I woke up earlier today and a dream was lingering in my mind. All I could remember was being on a very long walk, an endlessly long walk. That was all there was to the dream. Going on and on and on. Then I remembered I had fell asleep listening to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, but I have read several other books by McCarthy and the adaptations thereof. My friend is an even bigger fan of McCarthy which is how I discovered him back in the mid 1990s. I find his writing interesting, although I’m not as big of a fan of that description-laden style.
The Road seemed very different in style. McCarthy was holding back by leaving a lot out. There was a hyper-focus on the man and his son with the apocalyptic world a mere backdrop. There was a slogging repetitiveness to it which would have utterly failed if attempted by a lesser writer. I’ll have to read the book sometime to get the full sense of it.