Sunday, March 13, 2011

History vs Horror

So, while I was reading/listening to Beloved, the following thought occurred to me: what really is the difference between a historic-esque war epic and a slasher?

I suppose this thought requires a little explanation.  In the book there are a few, shall we say, graphic descriptions of violence.  Some of the torturous punishments the Sethe flashes back to, and the actual torture that Paul D flashes back to, got kind of bloody at times.  While nowhere near the type of gore that is present in horror stories, it did remind me of the war movies produced for today’s bloodlusty audiences.  I’m not talking about the tactical war stories like Full Metal Jacket, but more like the
"I like blood, but damn."
armies-at-opposite-ends-of-a-field-screaming-war-cries­-and-waving-their-swords-in-the-air-as-they-charge-each-other kind of epics.  The sheer amount of gore in historical fiction battle epics like 300 could put Jason Voorhees to shame.  The same can be true for literature: much as I love The Hunger Games, there is a significant deal of bloody battles once the Games start, lovingly descripted for our impressionable young minds.  I know people who refuse to watch Halloween but don’t mind Braveheart.  So why do we regard those battle epics as more prestigious and serious movie fare (albeit maybe only a little) than slasher flicks?

Both genres have people killing other people in creative, gory, and often physically impossible ways.  The motivation for the killing may be revenge, those fighting or killing having a superiority or god complex, trying to prevent the other side from gaining too much power or knowledge, or just trying to make a point.  Killers often use tactical strategies, increasingly creative killing methods, and often convoluted schemes in which there are so many holes that they only work because the plot says so.  The weapons, although each genre has its standard type, still vary from movie to movie.  And in neither is victory assured for the protagonists, although the audience is supposed to hope for it.  The big surprise twist ending?  Everyone dies!

A movie based on a book...
The most obvious difference is the amount of people killing, the amount of people being killed, and the attention certain characters get be it in screen time or page, um, ink.  In war epics, the aforementioned armies battle other armies, and only a small group among them, sometimes only on one side and sometimes on both, have any real character development or attention given to them.  We as an audience only know who belongs to a relative little bit of the blood that splatters the face of the assailant, and when we do the death is usually poignant and tragic.  The protagonists are the ones usually doing most of the killing, although death is a shared responsibility of the heroes and their enemies.  In slashers, most of the characters killed have at least a little time with us and we usually can identify at least one characteristic of each character killed – although often it is only one characteristic.  One mysterious and usually psychotic individual, or in a few cases a group of people, do almost all of the killing.  We know little of the killer in this instance and therefore the one characteristic we know of our victim makes us identify with him/her more.  Alternatively, sometimes we know the killer we just don’t know that he’s the killer. 

Ok, so the different characters involved are all well and good, but what about the less visible differences, the sort of things that make us think?  Slashers, with their use of mystery, are much more psychological (or try to be) than war epics, which are more philosophical (or try to be).  The main emotion being sought by a slasher writer is fear – obviously.  Maybe a feeling of pity for the victims and lately the killer – more on that later – is an emotional goal as well.  For war epics, the emotions are more complex.  Usually some sort of pride or patriotism is the main emotion, and generally you feel sympathy for the characters that get killed – in the event that they have been given development time – instead of just kind of grossed out.
Dude, an Agatha Christie GAME!
The way the in-story characters react to the killing going on around them is stronger generally in slashers, where the characters (usually) react to each person who dies and possibly has a connection to each of them.  This spurs the main protagonist(s) into fighting back against the mysterious insane killers.  Characters in an ancient epic accept the gore as a fact of war and only react to their own special friend getting killed, ignoring the fact that their enemies also theoretically have special friends of their own who will seek revenge.  Sometimes they are even proud of how many orcs or whatever they’ve killed and boast about their kill count to their elf friend.  In war epics, though, killing comes in little spurts, with all the drama between battle scenes, of which there might only be two or three or just at the climax.  Murder is more of a focus of slasher stories, being a constant element to the story, usually.

While slasher stories seem to be a relatively new genre of storytelling, arguably emerging with the introduction of slasher films, bloody battles are not only not new, but as old as storytelling itself.  That’s right, there were gory, death filled battle scenes in ancient times.  Think of the Iliad or Mahabharata.  Three thousand years ago people were singing graphically violent stories to each other, and writing them down almost as soon as writing was invented.  This is possibly why the battle epic usually takes place in pre-modern warfare settings, although arguably World War II and Vietnam stories may be just as graphic even if on a more focused scale.  But therein lies an even closer resemblance to slashers than war epics – a small group kills another small group in sometimes bloody ways to help prove a (political) point.

Well, they both have blood and death, but the message and feeling are what make a war epic exciting and a slasher flick (or book) suspenseful.  If they're done right, which often isn't the case (therefore all of my "usually"s).  If all you want is decapitations and bloodspray, well then either of these will work.


Hey!  Awesome!  A post where I have no additional notes!  Hura... oh.  Uh, oops.  Well, since I'm here I may as well thank my boyfriend for helping me with the research and offering this hilarious title, although I ultimately went with something a bit less evident.  "Running at each other screaming OR running away screaming."
Yeah, I did a Venn diagram.  I did not include everything on it in the post, but I tried at least to get most.  There's also an idea for my & my bf's own slasher flick if you care to see...

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