An Open, Earnest Letter to People Who Like Gruesomeness in Books & Film

Posted by @ 11:54 am on May 18th, 2010

This is your brain on fear. As it turns out, Hippocampus isn't fat camp for Latin nerds.

Dear People,

I’m the pain in the ass who makes deciding on a movie en masse impossible. But is it violent? How violent is it, if it is? Do animals get murdered? Do children get murdered? Eventually we’ll decide on a bonehead comedy or a beautifully shot Icelandic film about rafts in the gloaming.

Fact: I was never desensitized to violence. I will flinch during commercials or crime shows that your grandmother watches. Is a fascination with or threshold for violence a thing like so many other things that can be traced to what we were exposed to as children? Are some people immune to desensitization? Because I read Less Than Zero once as a late adolescent, and then again, after some years had passed, and the second time around was more difficult than the first. And worse, I felt manipulated by it, cheated, and I don’t think I would have known to feel that way the first time, being young and quick to believe in authorial godliness. (I never bothered with American Psycho.)

But then, desensitization probably isn’t the point, is it? The point is to feel it, I’m guessing? In a safe way? Like the death-thrill of the roller coaster, maybe.

I wish I could borrow the mind of a horror/gore aficionado for one day.

Another fact: in 11th grade we were made to watch the “Miracle of Life” video. I spent the period in the library doing homework. A couple years ago, when I was pregnant and enrolled in a childbirth class, the nurse cheerfully announced that we’d be watching a labor and delivery video. It might’ve been the same one. I spent those 25 minutes wandering around the hospital eating a Skor bar. I was okay with what was going to happen, come go time. I just didn’t want to see it, or watch it happen to someone else.

My experience with and reaction to violence, on the page and on the screen, is multi-layered. First, I feel shock. No matter how far ahead I see it coming–and I usually see it from quite a distance, a time during which I feel genuine fear–I still feel at the very least surprised; at most, all-out assaulted. Then I feel puzzled–why did I need to see/read that? Was it essential? Was its gratuitousness essential? Then I feel mad, cheated (see above), by what seems to be a strenuous lack of imagination–well, couldn’t anyone dream up the ghastliest, bloodiest, most disturbing nightmare imaginable, and then describe it and call it a scene? Are people vying for the Gross Out Prize? And then I feel quiet, a little willing to believe that I’m missing something massive, a little foolish for not being able to distance myself from the thing, to recognize it as artifice or performance or–how embarrassing for me–art.

Mostly, I get scared, way deep in my body. I don’t like being scared. In the words of Zachary Schomburg, “No scary.”

I don’t believe that art is or “should be” devoid of violence. And I’m aware that the terms in this post probably should be qualified a dozen times over–there are so many small, even imperceptible violences. Form can be violence. Syntax can be violence. Many of my favorite writers have written violence in a way that inspires only my awe and admiration. And on the whole, I’m much more willing to read it than I am to watch it, although reading it can be more excruciating because I’m unable to skip ahead–in fact, I will read and re-read the scene until I have almost memorized it. I will force myself to plunge on, keep going, but invariably, I get stuck going back a second and third time, visualizing each detail as though I will be responsible for filming it afterward. It’s a trauma-response. With film or television, the details have already been realized by someone else–close my eyes and they’re gone. Well, not immediately, but a lot sooner.

So, to clarify, what I’m thinking about here is gore/horror/psychotic violence, let’s say. Don’t talk to me about Rimbaud and Faulkner and Hitchcock–I’m good with all that.  But you who read and watch the gruesome stuff, and you who write it–the stuff that goes beyond intimation, the stuff that perverts subtlety, slits it throat–talk to me. What does it feel like to enjoy it?



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