From the author: Horror's aesthetic is iconic, bleeding into not just the visual aspects of the genre but the way that stories are approached. So what makes it so effective?
In the Eye of the Beholder
Horror has a recognizable aesthetic, one that gets adopted and integrated into other genres in order to signal to the audience a specific set of expectations regarding the work at a particular moment.
It’s blood and guts and gore.
It’s dark, dusty houses and spiders and bats.
It’s discordant strings and untuned pianos and short, high-pitched scores.
The visual identity of horror draws upon the very instinctual cues meant to evoke fear and terror, prodding at the visceral nature that images are able to provoke. It also has something of a fanbase. People who revel in the aesthetics of dark things, who enjoy the creepy and the freaky, who deliberately choose to embrace the very images that we associate with danger, dying, and the grotesque.
Until recently, the people who embraced darker aesthetics were largely part of a subculture; frequently maligned and considered cast-outs because why would someone be so invested in the aesthetics of the grotesque? There’s been a shift in the culture, where gothic as an aesthetic has grown in popularity and accepted widely in the mainstream, but many parts of horror’s aesthetics - such as gore - remain looked down upon as low-brow and cheap.
In Defense of Gore
The usage of gore signals more than just a quick attempt at disturbing an audience with realistic, visceral images and blood-curdling screams. Gore in horror is often contextual, whether paired with the act of dying itself or long past the moment of death or within the sanitized-but-uncomfortable context of healthcare, the roots of a successful execution of the gory are the same.
Gore is one of the easiest aspects of horror’s aesthetics to lean into and it’s for this reason that it’s frequently used shock and scare without having to put in the effort of building other frameworks of horror. This in and of itself isn’t necessarily something to look down on from a high horse; horror is a genre that knows what it is and does what it does very well, even within pulp where the thrills and chills are closely interconnected unapologetically. Horror can be fun and by extension, gore can be fun. It’s a tool in horror’s aesthetics just as much as low-lights and decrepit buildings are.
And the usage of gore is not specific to horror as a genre of fiction. In the 80s, Cindy Sherman experimented with pulling away conventional aesthetics in her photography and centering instead the grotesque, going from recognizable portraits of people to simulated gore and bodily fluids. It was in part to shock, but also to force her audience to re-evaluate their relationship to photography and the human subject.
(There is, somewhere in here, a conversation about subversion, of what media aims to do when it embraces the unconventional and the grotesque and how it can be used, abused, and suppressed but that’s an aside to which I will direct you to Jacob Geller’s video “Who’s Afraid of Modern Art”)
I would be lying if I said this essay weren’t motivated by my own love of gore and subsequently the backlash that gore seems to receive by more passive consumers of horror. Gore’s place within the aesthetics of horror is not superficial. Like any other tool, it can be used by the lazy to create lazy, but it isn’t inherently lazy. Gore falls into a prominent category of horror where the real is used as the unreal, where aesthetics are formed to subvert expectations and to destabilize, where the impersonal is forced to become the personal.
An (Attempted) Introduction to Abjection
Part of what makes the aesthetics of horror so effective is that much of it relies on the exchange between the audience’s experience of the work and the creator, via the work itself, as in conversation with the audience. To back that up a little bit more, we - as the audience - react to the work which has been crafted in such a way to reflect what the creator wants to elicit. To back it up even more, we experience a Thing and the Thing was crafted by the creator.
The degrees to which the creator is successful in eliciting the reaction they intended will always boil down to their execution, but within the context of horror, most decisions - even when their execution is mediocre - will elicit some sort of visceral reaction. Something might fail at being a compelling plot piece that’s gross but it will probably still be gross.
Thus, so much of the framework of horror is within its aesthetics, working as a filter already set to disturb the audience. Much of it relies on the concept of abjection, wherein the audience experiences the fine line between the object (something not of the self) and the subject (something of the self). Discussions of abjection frequently circle back to horror and the horrific, outlining how the experience of being somewhere between the self and other leads to fear, loathing, and repulsion.
Fittingly, the most common example of this tends to be the dead and gore, where personhood is removed from something that was once a person, where the squishy goings-on of the body are removed from the self and made to be looked at as a Thing rather than as a Who.
It’s a simple act of destabilization, really. Horror not only makes one aware of mortality but also draws attention to the destabilization itself. It’s not just that something exists in a way that makes us reject it, but it forms an entire genre, experience, and way of storytelling around it.
That Inherent Sense of Wrongness
By now I think most people are familiar with the concept of the uncanny valley and liminal spaces. Often discussed but rarely defined using definitions that aren’t redundant, the uncanny valley and liminal spaces occupy a similar space to gore within the abject. The most frequent discussions will define the uncanny valley and liminal spaces as something existing in a way that is Off, that there’s some inherent wrongness to them. But what defines it as being “off”? What makes them “wrong”?
It is, as a definition, something that can be applied to all of horror. The lingering wrongness then feeds into dread, slowly creeping toward a full and realized reaction of fear.
The uncanny valley and gore both create a sense of fear and repulsion through this narrow space of You are Not as I, or that person before the audience is both like and unlike the audience, forming a state of rejection from the deepest of our primal instincts. What gore does is much clearer: it is the self not as the self should be, a jarring image and reminder of the very meaty, fleshy bits that make up our bodies removed from the Self. It’s harder to apply this to the uncanny valley - and then further, more broadly, to the concept of liminal spaces - but the idea is much the same. I see myself in You, but You are not as I should be. To define it simply as “wrong” or “off” is an oversimplification that brings us right back to where we started: why does this give us dread and fear?
In order for there to be a “wrong” there must also be a “right”, typically set up in media as the expectations of the audience as they approach a work. Your audience expectation is your baseline, the framework from which you are able to destabilize and bring discomfort to your audience.
When looking to utilize the abject, to destabilize your audience, reality as we - the audience - know it is distorted, twisted around to form images and aesthetics that are meant to cause discomfort. It’s often a mix of the more straightforward of primal fears (much like falling, or the dark, or spiders) and those which pull on primal fears in ways that are not quite so obvious. I have, more often than not, gotten frustrated that the uncanny valley gets grouped separately from gore and even considered to be more “intellectual” when presented in horror, but the two function much the same way, drawing upon our instincts that we should reject Ourselves when it is Not the self and left to confront why a deliberately skewed representation causes discomfort.
And in fact, in video games, you’ll often find this merging of the uncanny valley and liminal spaces with gore, where rooms might be made of flesh but subtly so, such that you’d have to get up nice and close or stand still to watch the walls pulsate as though alive. Commonly, levels and rooms in video games create this baseline expectation within the uncanny valley, starting with an empty or decrepit building and slowly having it fall into gore.
There are deliberate choices being made when creating the environmental aesthetics of a work of horror, even if the reasoning doesn’t seem obvious at first. “A thing is scary, so put into the scary thing” while correct, ignores the many, many layers of why a thing is scary and the pieces that then make a work come together in a cohesive way. And it’s not that every single thing needs to have a reason, but rather that many elements have predetermined implications with a specific set of typical reactions. What you do with it, then, is a matter of taste.