Horror: How much is too much?

Posted: March 4, 2013 in Writing
Tags: , ,

I edit a lot of manuscripts in all sorts of genres. One genre that particularly interests me is horror. I’m fascinated by macabre scenes and the psychology behind the act of murder, particularly when done by a serial killer. Perhaps this is why I ventured into writing horror, despite the fact that I can’t even sit through The Shining without having to stare at the wall for half the movie.

But that’s besides the point.

My question for today is this: When is it going too far?

Horror is supposed to scare you. It’s supposed to make you feel uncomfortable. It’s supposed to make you cringe and cry and check your closet before you go to bed.

But what’s too uncomfortable? What’s too cringe-worthy? What makes you put the book down and never pick it back up again?

I ask this because I recently edited a book that had to do with human sacrifice. It wasn’t a bad book. The concept was interesting, the detail was there, and the characters were likeable. But I had trouble getting through it. For those of you who have read my collection of horror short stories, you may be confused.

Trust me, I was too.

My stories weren’t exactly full of bunny rabbits and sunshine, so I’m trying to figure it out. It isn’t the fact that some guy is going around killing people. That’s not unprecedented in this genre. It’s not the fact that he’s drinking their blood. Or that he takes pleasure in the kill. It’s not even the torture he performs on his victims.

It’s the little things. The things like the fact he (*warning, this is going to get detailed*) bit off a woman’s nipple. *shiver* He was aroused by his own daughter. There was even an excruciatingly detailed scene about pulling a person’s intestines out of their body.


I don’t have a weak stomach. I can take a lot and not even bat an eye, but some of the parts in this book felt taboo to me. They felt like they crossed a line I hadn’t realized was there.

So, what’s too much? When do you lay on the detail and when do you hold back for the sake of your readers? What’s the line that you just don’t cross in this genre? What are the unwritten rules?

  1. C.Hill says:

    Best quote I’ve ever come across when detailing writing details: “Always leave a little something for the reader’s imagination.” Surgical precision in horror, like your examples, is alright in a dehumanized sadist kind of way. But sometimes it’s better to hold back, especially in horror.

    I don’t know, my only preference for the genre is pyschological horror/thriller, not this blood and guts stuff Hollywood loves so much. If one reader likes it, the other hates it. Write what you want, even if it’s demented stuff like you proofread.

    • Karen Rought says:

      That’s a great quote, and I completely agree with it. I like psychological horror too, which is why I think that MS I was editing didn’t grab me. The author was going for more shock value than anything, which is fine for some people, but I kept wanting to get into the killer’s head, and when that didn’t happen, I was disappointed.

    • Jae says:

      I second your comment.

  2. ddog13 says:

    I guess writing is writing because there are no limits. But to me, what you write reflects YOU. I wouldn’t want some of what you relayed above to represent me. For example, I love Tarantino’s writing, but never in my life would I make my writing as vulgar as his. But maybe that’s unrelated. Some people abuse their pen and just tell sadistic stories…no thank you, not for me! 🙂

    • Karen Rought says:

      Something I’ve learned through personal experience is that writing does not necessarily reflect the person. I mean, it does to an extent. Those ideas have to come from somewhere. But I’m a very positive person. Very happy-go-lucky, meek, innocent to the point of naïveté. And yet I’ve written some things that have turned people’s stomachs. I mean, I don’t even watch horror movies. And I would never think about going around kidnapping and killing other people.

      However, I think you touch on something interesting in that the *audience* tends to believe the story represents the author. That if you write horror you must be obsessed with death, etc. It’s something that I think prevents a lot of people from writing and/or publishing stories they have inside them, but are too afraid to release because they assume people will question their sanity. And, to tell you the truth, they will. I’ve definitely gotten my fair share of strange looks when I describe what my horror collection is about.

      • ddog13 says:

        I have a cousin who has published horror, and it’s some pretty dark stuff. Nonetheless, he isn’t a depressed, dark, isolated guy. He’s just normal. When I write, I feel like it reflects my interests and message. Neither my interests nor my message is the dark kind off horror that is written pretty often. It doesn’t appeal to me, personally, as reading is supposed to be insightful and thought provoking. If one could write a story that is both gruesome and eye-opening, go ahead. But if someone’s goal is to just write sadistic stuff, I’ll pass. Same goes for movies. A good movie is one that gets people talking. If it’s just showy stuff, it’s not for me.

  3. i think it can’t be gratuitous. the nipple biting, interest in his own daughter stuff all have to have significance to how it shapes his character – how it profiles him, so to speak. you can’t just be tossing it evil acts to up the shiver ante. they have to make sense. maybe that’s why it felt off? the actions didn’t make sense? just guessing.

    • Karen Rought says:

      I think that’s absolutely right. It was for shock value. In some places it didn’t feel right. It was just a scene to showcase how awful this guy was for no other fact than to make you squirm, not something that let you take a peek into his psyche. I think you’re right and that’s why some parts fell flat for me.

  4. Julie Glover says:

    This isn’t horror, but I really had to think about these lines when recently reading LOLITA by Nabokov. This classic novel is told from the perspective of a pedophile pursuing a “nymphet” 12-year-old girl. The book is well-written, but some parts were extremely difficult to read. Sometimes I would shudder, feel sick to my stomach, and have to put the book aside. I suppose what kept me reading was the masterful prose and the intense desire to see this villain get his comeuppance.

    I also wonder what WRITING something like that would do to an author. Almost like Heath Ledger getting lost in the part of The Joker, I feel like it would take its toll on me.

    • Karen Rought says:

      I could definitely see something like that happening, especially with authors who do an intense amount of research. Some people have a tough time separating the real life from their writing.

  5. Jae says:

    So as a horror writer then, out of curiosity, what’s the appeal in the gruesome? Or was that your point, that you don’t like things to get too gruesome? Just curious. Horror is certainly not my genre, nor do I venture there much, so I was curious why it fascinates so many people.

    • Karen Rought says:

      I actually wrote a blog about this a while ago: https://themidnightnovelist.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/why-do-i-write-horror/

      I think I like the gruesome because it’s realistic. I’m starting to like darker and edgier stories. I don’t like reading about people getting chopped up, per se, but I like trying to understand serial killers. I like realistic portrayals of crime that people can then overcome and become stronger because of. I actually find it oddly inspirational, which I think it a strange sentiment considering what the story is actually about.

      Does that make sense?

      • Jae says:

        I think so. I’m glad to know you’re not a gruesome for the sake of gruesome. Thanks for the post link, too. I guess when I think about it, there are some violent things that happen in my stories. I guess it’s a balance between what works and what’s gratuitous. I imagine it’s even more difficult for a horror writer. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I think it’s all a matter of personal preference .. different types of detailed horror affect every individual differently. Something totally disturbing to one person may not even phase another person.

  7. I don’t think there is a limit to horror but there is a point where it changes to some other genre. Kind of like the difference between The Descent and Saw. One has tense thrills and the other can at times just try to get a reaction. Just make sure it matters to the plot and you can get away with murder Haha humorous 😀

  8. supaar says:

    I actually enjoy when horror is extraordinary and too gorey. The more unbelievable, the better. I hope you have read American Psycho. Now that took the genre too far, but it made it that much interesting for me to read.

  9. […] not to say we shouldn’t be careful. There’s definitely a possibility of stepping over a line. But feeling guilty about putting violence in your story is like feeling guilty for putting romance […]

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