Hello! This article features no spoilers about The Walking Dead, except for speaking generally about how very unpleasant the show’s Season Seven premiere was. But you probably gathered that anyway.
The Walking Dead’s Season Seven premiere has stirred a tidal wave of online think pieces. Many of these ask whether the show has finally overstepped some kind of imaginary mark. Some of them downright state this as fact.
In Its Season Premiere, The Walking Dead’s Brutal Violence Finally Went Too Far
Maybe The Walking Dead Went Too Far With The Gore This Time
The Walking Dead: Has Gore On Television Finally Gone Too Far?
In addition to these headlines, I’ve seen plenty of online folk declare that they won’t be watching The Walking Dead any more. Which would of course be fine in itself, if some of these declarations didn’t also suggest some degree of finger wagging.
So many of these reactions seem to treat this AMC TV show like an infant that overfilled its chamber pot. Too much, too far, bad Walking Dead!
If The Walking Dead really has gone too far for someone, then it’s gone too far for them, which is an important distinction. It’s no longer to their taste. It no longer matches their viewing preferences. But there is no objective mark that the show is not allowed to cross, apart from AMC’s weird swearing regulations...
Those hand-wringing headlines really miss the point in highlighting the violence and gore, while invariably dredging up the lazy and sneery label ‘torture porn’ (don’t even get me started on how that term not only tries to brand a non-existent subgenre based on the excellent and very different horror movies Saw and Hostel, but insults horror fans by making presumptions as to why they enjoy horror.) The Season Seven premiere was no more gory or violent than the average episode of The Walking Dead. What was dialled up, to the highest possible setting, was the emotional content. The events of this episode were downright horrible. I expected them to be unpleasant, but actually didn’t expect the show to go so far, to the point of being mentally scarring.
But thank God it went there. This means a TV show managed to break through our numbed defences and inflict pain. It managed to stir empathy for other human beings, in an age which is increasingly all about me, myself and I. And different people react very differently to such transgressions. There’s going to be elation, rage and everything in between.
Plenty of people don’t enjoy being traumatised, which is absolutely fair enough. But of course, even a hard-hitting show like The Walking Dead only provokes trauma in a restricted sense, compared to real-life trauma. Most horror fiction only really offers horror by proxy. It’s a walk in the park, compared to the unthinkable sights seen on a daily basis in a war zone or an abattoir. Which is fine and necessary. Most of the time, we really don’t want to feed ourselves into an emotional wringer. There are things in this world that might ruin us if we truly faced them, as surely as staring at the sun. So we’re generally fine with the watered down versions seen in most horror fiction. Sometimes we’re even fine with one of a thousand generic ghost stories about a couple who move to a house in the country after losing a child.
While the horror genre is a very broad church, most of it offers a valuable social service: a safe place to explore horrendous things. It’s a psychological dress rehearsal for some of the very worst events that life may or may not have to offer. But it’s worth noting how rarely horror really does strive to make us feel something – how rarely it chooses to execute its almost unique ability to facilitate one hell of a psychological workout.
The Walking Dead premiere arguably offered a more painfully visceral brand of horror than any TV show before it. Jesus, even most movies. It trained an unblinking eye on a total nightmare happening to people we care about. It glanced at the painful truth of man's inhumanity. The whole episode was so tense as to feel like an ordeal, with a palpable sense of relief when it was over. It was an experience. Not just another way to pass an hour.
Any reviewers insisting it was “comical” are only exhibiting another example of the rainbow of reactions to true horror. Any reviewers insisting it was “pointless” are exhibiting that peculiarly modern tendency to judge the first part of a story in isolation from what will follow. Any reviewers insisting the violence was “gratuitous” are merely stating their personal preference for what other people’s art should be.
So, do I really think horror can never go too far, or was that just a nicely beguiling headline for this piece?
I truly do not believe in boundaries for this genre of fiction, partly because crossing lines can often be the whole damn point. For me, horror can be at its most effective when you have no idea how far it's prepared to go.
The ugliest horror film I’ve ever seen is Mordum, the second instalment of the August Underground trilogy. It disturbed the living hell out of me, made me feel nauseous and brought out a cold sweat. While I don’t plan to revisit that movie, and almost wish I never saw it, I deeply admire the way the thing didn’t so much push the limits of horror as behave like they did not exist. Much the same goes for the super-extreme likes of A Serbian Film, Murder Set Pieces and the Human Centipede movies.
One of horror’s many jobs is to explore extremes, which is why I’m so proud of The Walking Dead for grabbing that baton. It’s a TV horror show that earned mainstream success, but has not behaved in a mainstream way. In fact, it has done quite the opposite. It’s perfectly understandable that many viewers will declare themselves out: that’s only a natural side effect of the show careering too close to reality for their liking. But nothing can take away the fact that this was one of the most unforgettable hours in TV history. Even those who hated it will remember it for a very long time. And all of this very much reminds me why The Walking Dead is my favourite show currently blazing a trail across TV.
As I said, horror can be so many things, all of which are equally valid.
At one end of the scale, horror can be the most subtle of suggestions. A chameleon element with the ability to creep into other genres.
At the other end, horror can also be a special effects blast. A kinetic gorefest that quickens the pulse while leaving the heartstrings mercifully untwanged.
But when horror decides to trash perceived boundaries and really make us feel something red and raw and aching, to the point of catharsis, let’s not be so quick to clutch our pearls. The clue was, after all, always in the genre’s name.
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