The Shocking: Notes Toward a Theory

We’re often told that comedy appeals to our intellectual side–our appreciation of wit and timing–while drama appeals to our emotions. Appealing to one or the other is the way to reach an audience, to create a significant effect in the reader’s/viewer’s brain that will cause them to be entertained. Either we need to laugh at the protagonist and his/her futile struggles, or we need to cry for them, to want them to succeed.

I’m a fan of horror stories, though, and it occurs to me that there might be a third axis of effect. A third way to reach an audience. Specifically I’m thinking of the physiological effect. The moment when the movie-goer jumps out of their seat, or the reader closes the book, unable to read further. I don’t think this is an emotional effect. I think it happens faster, in the spinal cord where our reflexes live, not in the brain. This is not sustained fear or dread but the moment of shock, the jolt of pure adrenaline.

As an experiment, I tried to plot a number of types of stories–subgenres of fiction–onto these three axes, to show why we need the physiological category. The graph above shows my work. I like to think of the three arms of the graph, the intellectual, emotional, and physiological effects, as, respectively, the “Aha!” moment, the “Oh, no!” moment, and the “Oh shit!” moment. Every story, in this model, attempts to create one of those effects–or a combination of them.

Different stories–different genres, if you like–aim to achieve different effects. Romantic comedies want us to aspire to the condition of the lover or the beloved, while whodunnit mysteries want us to think that the author is very clever. The most obvious example of the physiologically-oriented story is of course pornography–which wants to create an immediate, physical reaction in the consumer. However I think much of horror–and almost all horror movies–fit in here somewhere as well, in the region between the intellect and the physiological which I’ve labeled as The Shocking.

The story which attempts to evoke shock has a perverse sort of mission–it dares you to stop experiencing the very thing you sought out. It makes you want to cover your eyes so you don’t see the blood-stained axe. It mocks your attempt to make it all the way through a Stephen King novel when it’s already 3 am and you’re alone in that creaky old farmhouse. It doesn’t care about your intellect–you can’t think your way out of a jump scare. It doesn’t have anything to do with love or hate or any of the more nuanced emotions. It just wants to watch you squirm.

Fear, of course, is an emotion, and belongs on a different axis. But “true” fear isn’t what I’m getting at here. Fear sticks with you. It bothers you. Shock, on the other hand, is immediate and cathartic. You jump, your hand goes to your mouth–but then you relax. Your nervous system may be tuned to a higher pitch but you don’t linger on the feeling. True horror fans will not, I think, be surprised to find that I’ve linked shock and pornography here. The distance between shock and fear is the same as the space between lust and love.

Shock and the physiological do not require deep characterization or intricate plot to achieve their end. In fact these things tend to draw us out of the effect. Just as horror comedies always end up being funny but not scary, shock movies with complicated plots always feel wrong–the shock becomes prurient, sprinkled in to keep the viewer awake and therefore less “artful”. No, a good shock moment is one where the plot suddenly becomes meaningless, where the characters turn into nothing more than witnesses to a crime. Shock is an irruption of story, an unexpected moment which offers neither explanation nor apology. It is amazingly effective when done right; when done ham-handedly, nothing feels cheaper or more contrived.

There are horror stories which eschew shock and the physiological effect, of course. Weird fiction comes to mind, a subgenre which puts aside jumping cats and pure gore, instead attempting to achieve an effect of the uncanny–the moment when you realize something is very wrong with the world, something you can’t quite identify. Lovecraft is often held up as the inventor or at least perfector of weird fiction, but he had his moments of relishing the gory and the grotesque–when I put weird fiction on the other side of the graph here I’m thinking more of the abstract horrors of Aickman and Ligotti and the luminous Ramsey Campbell.

Gothic fiction, the predecessor to modern horror, attempted to explore the depths of the pathetic (the term is not meant to be pejorative, but more clinical). A young woman in peril evokes our pity and our hope, but always we know the nasty thing was lurking around the corner, spying on her, and that makes us clench our jaws in anticipation. It’s interesting that the Gothic split, in the early 20th century, into horror and romance, two categories we think of very differently now–but which both attempt to evoke the physiological effect.

I subtitled this piece “notes toward a theory” because I’m still not entirely sure if this model is complete. There may be additional axes. I think there might be a Spiritual axis–stories which attempt to elevate the soul rather than the emotions, though we see so few of those kind of stories these days its hard to say if that element deserves a full dimension on the graph. But I do believe that looking at our physiological response to some stories, especially horror stories, can add new light to our understanding of how stories work.