Tuesday, August 7, 2012
On the Eerie Similarities Between Sex Scenes and Horror Stories
Sometimes it is not what you say, but what you don't say.
We live in vulgar times, an age in which the explicit and graphic depiction of sex and gore is the norm. My problem with graphic depictions of sex and violence is not that they are too strong, at least not in the sense of achieving their intended effects (though they are often too strong in the way that the smell of a garbage heap is, i.e., extremely offensive to good taste). Rather, my problem with them is that they are too weak.
They are weak and ineffectual because they show too much. They represent an unrefined sensibility that works on the assumption that more is always better. Take it from me: sometimes more is less.
See, the problem is that explicit depictions of sex and violence work against the full power of eroticism and horror. Both of these qualities relate to some of the deepest and most powerful of all human feelings, those connected with sexual love and the continuation of life, in the case of eroticism, and in the case of horror, those connected with fear, particularly fear of death and the unknown.
H. P. Lovecraft, one of the greatest horror writers of all time, famously said that "the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown". Old horror movies were far less gory and violent than today's, but they tended to be more mysterious, atmospheric, and moody. Classic horror (as opposed to modern horror) aimed to suggest rather than to show, and this is precisely where its power resided. The more you leave to the imagination, the more room is given to genuine psychological horror--those creepy feelings that something dark and fearsome and possibly evil is lurking out there, or perhaps very close at hand. This type of horror--which I consider to be true horror--is more often than not caused by the presence of unknown and unknowable supernatural entities or forces, rather than by bland and banal human murderers. True horror suggests that there is more to reality than our modern scientistic worldview affords, and therein lies its truly subversive power: it challenges our very concept of reality, our philosophical assumptions, the very ground beneath our feet.
The depiction of sex works very much the same way. Pornography, whether written or visual, leaves little or nothing to the imagination. It is focused on the physical body to a degree that could be considered clinical and therefore the very opposite of sexy. Truly erotic art, however, like true horror, focuses more on the psychological aspects of the experience, and suggests more than it shows. Its power lies in allowing the reader to fill in his or her own blanks, just as classic horror does. As the Symbolists said, "To name is to destroy; to suggest is to create." The power of suggestion is very powerful indeed, and is a potent artistic weapon that is too often neglected in our age of vulgar--and totally unexciting--excess. Trying too hard often results in failure; my advice to writers and filmmakers is to kick it up a notch by taking it down a thousand.