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Grossness and brief rambling about reality TV (i.e., grossness)

I got a tiny bit more done in my abduction-themed horror book last week, and a thought has started to nag me.  I worry that my book is going to transform from "claustrophobic tension" to "just a lot of gross-out scenes."

Grossness is an interesting ingredient in horror.  It's kinda like cilantro.  Some people get a hint of it, even just the faintest whiff, and they go, "Bah!  You ruined this perfectly good horror with your gore and bugs!"  Other people can't get enough.  They'll be chewing on whole stalks of it, not even getting the story in their mouth, and going, "My, these eye-gougings and blisters are incredible.  You got any decaying bodies or what?"

I don't mind having a little bit.  Or even a lot, sometimes.  The Thing is one of my favorite movies ever, and it surely wouldn't be half as effective without the unsettling creature effects and body horror.

But I do hate it when horror becomes a vehicle for grossness rather than the other way around.  At a certain point, it can become nothing more than an exercise in unpleasantness.

I feel like that's a common thing with reality/horror TV shows.  Fear Factor, for example, was a show that was ostensibly about striking a nerve and putting people into heart-pounding situations.  Like suspending them above a 200 foot drop or something and being like, "Now you have to look down and, I don't know, dangle this ribbon out of your ass.  Dance, monkey."

But all anybody really remembers about it was some creepy frat boy making girls eat worms, right? Like, when you hear the words "Fear Factor," you don't think, "Terse, pulse-pounding dread," you think, "Probably somebody shat in a bag and made somebody dig a key out of it" - right?

Thank god that's over with. Hmm? What do you mean, "they brought it back?"

Sigh. This is why our country doesn’t have good things.

But to be fair, Fear Factor’s brand of grossness hasn’t ever gone away. Not long ago I watched a couple episodes of Hellevator on Netflix, and while that show does try to put some haunted house tropes and tactics into the mix, it also spends a fair amount of time just finding ways to be gross. “Here’s some roaches” or “here’s a puddle of icky goo.”

I don’t want that to be what happens to my book. And yet, I have to acknowledge that grossness is inherent. The premise involves being abandoned in a putrid, confined setting. It would be tough to sustain any kind of dread in those circumstances without regressing to a mean of disgust.

The challenge as a whole gets me to wondering if that's at the core of horror all along.  Consider: a person who goes around randomly shooting people in the head is scary, but not especially memorable in a visceral sense.  A guy could shoot two hundred innocent people and he'd be labeled a "mass killer" or "nutjob" or something like that.  But we probably wouldn't think of him as a "serial killer."  People wouldn't mythologize him; they'd just armchair-diagnose him and wonder how we can track that kind of behavior.

But compare that to a guy who butchers twenty people - still a lot, but comparatively way low - and eats their entrails.  The fact that this second guy is indulging in cannibalism doesn't make his victims any more or less dead than the first guy's victims, but now the story becomes terrifying.  Now he's a bonafide "serial killer."  Now we want to make movies about him and tell his tale around campfires.

The main difference between the two, aside from scale, is aesthetics.  The second case is so much more disgusting and shocking, so we're going to glom onto it.  So it goes with horror.  Without a persistent threat of muck and gore and disgust, it just becomes "suspense."

And so it's probably inevitable for my tale to wallow in filth.  Unless I want to brand it as a "science fiction thriller."  Which I guess I could, but... c'mon.  I want to scare the crap out of people.  I'll work on a thriller some other time.