Violence in Fiction: Stunning Versus Schlocky
by Colin Griffith
As consumers of modern cultural media, if sometimes feels as though we’ve become inured to the presence of violence in fiction.
It’s easy to pick on movies like Hostel and the Saw franchise, because these films are essentially mutilation scenes tossed around patchwork dialogue. The same goes for the modern version of The Hills Have Eyes, which remains the only film I’ve ever turned off on purpose out of disgust.
These stories are based around the idea of violence as a source of horror, but we don’t feel the gravity of the scenes because their violence is so unreal. These stories are based around the idea that violence will happen—that the only conceivable possibility is a turn to violence. The emotional horror is neutered, because there is no mystery surrounding it.
This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to create an effective story around graphic violence. Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Blood Meridian, is probably the best argument for using violence as a template for a narrative.
The novel is strange and challenging in its abstraction, but it’s most crystalline moments come in its scenes of horrific carnage.
McCarthy spares no detail. Every scalping and every spilled intestine is delivered in gory relief, leaving nothing to the imagination. The result is a tale so overwhelmingly gruesome that it becomes a meditation on violence itself, a reflection on man’s inexorable tendency towards destruction.
Violence is merely a texture for the novel’s grander thesis.
Likewise, it is possible to create a worthwhile story through using violence with great restraint. Quentin Tarantino is probably our most adept artist in this pursuit (the Kill Bill films aside). Unlike McCarthy, Tarantino uses dialogue and setting to create immeasurable, overwhelming anxiety, which sometimes explodes into short moments of violence.
The first scene of Inglourious Basterds comes to mind here: slow and methodical, Tarantino creates a deeply palpable tension that finally erupts when the firing squad enters the house. We know violence will occur, but the buildup is so effective that we genuinely fear what’s coming.
Violence is everywhere…
It permeates virtually every facet of our lives, from Hollywood to CNN. Pundits are fond of suggesting that we’ve become desensitized to violence because of its saturation through every genre of fiction.
But I’m not really sure this is true.
Violence has become so common that the artistic community has unwittingly trained its audiences to recognize schlock when they see it. We’re not indifferent to violence—we’ve simply been taught to ignore it when it’s used poorly.
Colin Griffith is the Publishing Director for Tethered by Letters. He received his undergraduate degree in 2012 from Kenyon College, where he studied English with an emphasis in film. Focused on fiction and nonfiction alike, he’s especially fascinated by science fiction, horror, and cultural commentary. In addition to editing and publishing TBL’s quarterly journal, Colin writes fiction reviews for the TBL website.
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