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The Redeeming Qualities of Horror Film and Literature: Gratuitous Nudity, Atmospheric Chills, or All of the Above?


Written by: Josh Black

In the past couple of months, I’ve been both reading a lot more books than usual and watching a lot more movies. I’ve noticed that there’s a huge difference in the type of horror I seek out and enjoy in each of these mediums. The more I think about it, the less I seem to understand it.

When it comes to movies, it seems that the more gratuitous nudity and bloodshed there is, the more likely I am to have a good time. Inanimate objects come inexplicably to life and/or giant monsters tearing shit up are a surefire way to keep me glued to the seat. Utter absurdity, political incorrectness and a cheese factor cranked to eleven? I’m game.

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Horror novels or short stories, on the other hand, are a different beast altogether. If any or all of the things listed above feature prominently, I’m not likely to even crack the book open let alone read it to completion. Give me a quiet, atmospheric tale, a character-driven piece, something cerebral that leaves an insidious feeling of dread swimming under the reader’s skin. That’s the stuff I want to read.

There is, of course, writing that combines these two seemingly clashing modes of expression (the works of Clive Barker immediately come to mind). I’m told that the best of bizarro fiction explores so called “serious issues” with intelligence and sensitivity, but admittedly I’m not familiar with the genre. It’s horror I’m talking about here anyway.

One theory I’ve come up with is that it’s incredibly difficult to get inside the heads of characters on film in the same way you can in writing. The movies I’ve seen that attempt to do this range from mediocre to exceptional, but even the most well-structured ones can’t compare to the sense of connection I feel with the best prose.

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Still I’m not sure why I can fully enjoy movies as varied as Frankenhooker, Piranha 3D and Friday the 13th(not to mention maintain the opinion that Return of the Killer Tomatoes* is one of the greatest films of all time), while I wouldn’t look twice at these stories if they were contained within the pages of a book. Maybe it has something to do with more time and effort being needed to read as opposed to passively watching. Still, where does that leave short stories?

This isn’t meant to be some erudite exploration of anything. Really it’s just thinking out loud, coupled with curiosity as to whether there are more like-minded fans of the dark side out there.

I’m going to close with a couple of open questions: Does anyone else have such a gaping disparity between taste in literature and film when it comes to the horror genre? If so, how do you account for it?

* Not remotely a horror movie, I know. Just really wanted to throw that out there.

About The Overseer (1669 Articles)
Author of Say No to Drugs, writer for Blumhouse, Dread Central, Horror Novel Reviews and Addicted to Horror Movies.

9 Comments on The Redeeming Qualities of Horror Film and Literature: Gratuitous Nudity, Atmospheric Chills, or All of the Above?

  1. Good questions that deserve way better answers than I’m capable of. I agree that I can never get the same depth of connection with movie characters than I can those in novels. I think in part its that as a reader you become immersed in the characters and their world. In the absence of images, you imagine how they look, how they sound etc And the author can tell you their thoughts in a way a movie really never can. So I become absorbed in the story, or by the story. Now in saying that I don’t tend towards any particular type of horror. I do enjoy creepy, disturbing tales. But I also love in your face, guts on the walls type stories too. I see the latter as equivalent to the popcorn, place your brain in a jar for an hour and a half type splatter movies that I love. Even as a teenager I always had a place on my reading shelf for authors like Shaun Hutson, who back then was my go-to guy for fun/gross horror. But I also liked to balance that with more character driven tales that sent the proverbial chills up my spine (and yes that could often bring a tear to my eye). I’m a very mood driven reader and movie watcher. Sometimes I want something that will burrow its way into my brain and haunt my dreams for a week..other times, internal organs and body parts hanging from a chandelier..I’m not really sure what the says about me! ………I loved your article by the way!

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    • Thanks for the kind words. 🙂 I definitely agree with that sense of immersion when it comes to books, and all the fine details. And I know what you mean about the mood-driven thing. Sometimes I read books for plain old fun. It’s just that there’s a particular brand of ridiculousness that doesn’t translate well for me when it comes through the written word. Not sure why, but it just strikes me as juvenile, which really makes no sense at all considering the movies I like the most.

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  2. Reading is a much more intimate experience. I’d love for films to be capable of it, but with time constraints and the variables involved it rarely happens. I don’t share your disparity between film and literature when it comes to horror. Not much of an interest in splatter or nudity in any genre or media. Creepiness wins every time. When a writer flips the dim light switch in a squalid kitchen and roaches scuttle, or floats shadow people silently past bedroom doors it stirs butterflies in my soul. Perhaps we’re more vulnerable reading because we generally do so at home. Movies do accomplish that occasionally, but it’s generally after I’m invested in a good story or interesting characters. I confess to having second thoughts creep in the first time swimming after seeing Jaws in the theater. Perhaps HPL was right about deepest fears being rooted in vulnerability…

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  3. Reading is a much more intimate experience. I don’t share your disparity between what I prefer in films and literature. Don’t have much of an interest in splatter or nudity in any media or genre. Creepiness wins every time for me. When a writer shines a dim light in a squalid kitchen and roaches scuttle, or rolls shadow people silently past bedroom doors it stirs butterflies in my soul. Occasional films have done the job, but it’s generally after sucking me in with a good story and/or interesting characters so I’m invested. I admit to having second thoughts creep in the first time swimming after seeing Jaws in the theater. Perhaps HPL was right about the deepest fears being rooted in our vulnerability…

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    • I’m actually a sucker for those quiet kinds of scares as well. Really liked Insidious, The Woman in Black, etc etc. I suppose I was thinking more along the lines of something like Frailty, which I think is an amazing movie (aside from the ending, but enough about that). Maybe I’m blurring the lines here between horror and psychological thriller, who knows..

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  4. Personally, I find the difference is that, with a novel or an anthology, I’m an active participant in creating that world. Yes, the author has provided the framework through his or her descriptive prowess, but it’s ultimately my imagination that fills in the millions of little details that breathe life and plausibility into the story by deciding how a location looks, how exactly tan or pale a character is,what tone of voice they’re using when they when they speak… I’m helping to put the flesh on those bones. With a movie, it’s a diffenrent creature. The filmmakers are doing all the work , so my reponse is somewhat more detached: Instead of using my imagintion to conjure up the scene, I’m free to sit back and enjoy the pleasures the film has to offer. That allows me to become intrigued by a plot and emotionaly attached to characters without being intimately involved in how it looks, how it sounds or how it makes me feel. That’s why I can enjoy a film like Killer Klowns from Outer Space as much as The Departed….I’m simply reaping the benefits of someone else’s vision, not filtering it through my own perspective.

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    • Y’know, one day I’m going to post a comment (or write an article) here on HNR that doesn’t have any typos or editing oversights in it. I can feel it. I’m due.

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    • Well said, D.S. I agree completely. In addition to all the things you listed, I’d add that you can read between the lines and graft some additional dimensions onto a character’s personality or the way the locale affects character, plot, that kind of thing. You could conceivably do this while watching movies, but there’s really not enough time to do anything but sit back and enjoy, as you said.

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