Last night, I was quick-watching a few episodes of the AMC zombie show, Walking Dead, in an effort to choose something for my Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy class at the University of Oklahoma. I try to cover a broad spectrum of subgenres in the course, letting students examine various types of stories and then discussing aspects of plotting or story shaping, etc. And although I’m no fan of horror and don’t care for zombies as a matter of personal taste, I intended to spend a class period dealing with this slice of the market.
In my scan, I watched an episode which seemed so-so. One zombie beheading, a brutal fight, some wife abuse, a raving man handcuffed to a pipe like bait while zombies tried to swarm him–not too bad. But the plot had some holes and lacked good character motivation, so I decided to check another episode. I chose the series opener.
The initial hook has a sheriff’s deputy encounter a small girl in her jammies, carrying her teddy bear. The deputy wants to help her, but when the child turns around, it’s revealed that she’s a zombie. He shoots her between the eyes. In slow motion, with blood splatter.
I nearly threw the remote at my set. Then I nearly threw the DVD away. Then I thought the experience over.
Granted, the genre is horror. By definition, horror should shock and horrify its audience. But to what extent? What separates good story from gratuitous violence?
As a writer, I understand exactly where the author of this teleplay was going. We really need to grab viewers by the throat with this show. We’ll set up a sharp contrast between a sweet little blonde girl in her bunny slippers and a shuffling monster. We’ll show her blown away by a man in a uniform, a man that wants to help a little girl and instead has to destroy a monster. Oh, and we’ll make sure we take screen time to demonstrate that she’s a killer and he’s giving her a head tap in self-defense. Gotta keep him sympathetic while we make the audience scream.
I understand TV. I understand story. I understand plot hooks and stingers. I understand visual imagery.
But I think writers need to think about what they’re doing and why. When you’re writing shock to make your readers (or viewers) gasp and scream, how far will you go? And should you go there?
When should cheap entertainment surrender to decency and responsibility?
Some might argue that there’s no longer a line, that writers bear no part in what viewers or readers do after encountering the actions in a story. Others can cry censorship.
I’m not calling for that. I don’t think writers should be strangled, stifled, or banned. However, I do think writers should govern themselves.
Too idealistic? Perhaps I am. Just don’t offer me the defense of, gory shock sells.
Of course it does. It always has. (Just ask the gladiators of ancient Rome.)
But there are alternate ways in which to supply shock. Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, Psycho, was plenty horrifying but it didn’t supply a visual of every knife wound–complete with stabbing entry crunch and sucking blade exit.
Before the 1980s, there were certain taboos–lines, if you will, that most writers didn’t cross. One of those was that a writer didn’t harm a child character directly in a scene through violence. Stephen King was among the authors who broke that taboo. I’ve read that he was uneasy about killing the little boy in Pet Sematary and that he was uncertain whether he could get the novel published or that people would even read it. But he did and they did, and the broken taboo was stepped on and kicked and mangled by enough writers subsequently that it hasn’t been put together again.
Today, I can’t think of any writing taboos still standing. Writers are lobbing any topic, any character action, any degree of violence that they please at their readers, and readers seem to eat it up. Some, like Dennis LeHane and Andrew Vachss, do so for a cause. They say they’re trying to make people understand the depravity of child predators. Reputedly they hope that if the public learns about this type of horrific crime, public outcry will demand something be done about it.
But does public outcry happen?
Look at how desensitized we’ve become. Entertainment, in an effort to keep topping itself, runs farther and farther down a road that’s very hard to return from.
I have a friend who stopped watching NCIS at the close of its first season because Kate was shot in the head. In slow motion. With blood splatter. My friend has worked hard to KEEP her sensitivity. Good for her. I can’t imagine what she’d have to say about a deputy plugging a little girl between the eyes in our living rooms, just so we can laugh and cheer.
This morning, when I mentioned my disgust about the child scene to another friend, his reaction was an enthusiastic, “Isn’t that great? She’s a zombie!”
Instead, I’m thinking about teenage boys being shot on the streets of Florida and fathers striking their small boys with axes before setting fire to them. The news hands us one brutal crime against children after another in a reality seemingly gone mad.
As a novelist, I’m no wuss when it comes to violently wiping out my characters, but I don’t intend to contribute to desensitizing a mass audience just to gain cheap thrills.
I was called a softie this morning. Jokes were made about how I wouldn’t survive a “real” zombie attack.
That’s not the point, is it?
What do you think?