Splatterpunk Utopia: In Defense of Violent Entertainment

Renowned horror author John Shirley, pioneer of the splatterpunk genre, offers a few ideas about where human violence comes from — and it's not violent entertainment.

And heaven, I think-is too close to Hell...

—The Jesus and Mary Chain, "Darklands"

Yesterday, driving my car to get take-out, I heard a radio report about famine in the horn of Africa. The reported concluded with a rather offhanded remark that struck piercingly home: "Mothers walking to the distant Food Center have had to abandon their weakest child by the road in the hopes of getting to food with their stronger child, so that at least one of the children might survive."

Immediately after this remark, the station launched into a commercial for Burger King's "Bacon Whopper". And immediately after that came an ad for weight loss "lap bands".

No one apologized for the callous irony. We accept the disconnect. We're used to it.

Then there's Florida. It's a state that serves up plenty of the examples I need.

A few days ago, in Florida, a teenager killed his parents with a hammer, methodically bludgeoning them to death. After laying them out in their bedroom he called his friends up, and announced a beer party at his house. A noisy, well-attended party was held while the bodies of boy's parents were still cooling upstairs.

Also in scenic Florida, not long ago, several young people beat another child to death over a perceived slight; they then cut the body into pieces and tried to hide it in a lagoon.

A couple of months ago, adolescents in Florida set a boy on fire due to a dispute over an X-Box. The burned child survived, but it was a close thing.

I write dark science-fiction, horrific noir, and horror-and it's difficult to keep up with the world. (Or even just Florida).

This is the age when the splatterpunk genre, in film and fiction, has given way to "torture porn"-a derisive term used by critics of films like Saw. Me, I've written some quite extreme fiction. Some of my writing-like the novels Wetbones (from eReads, currently) and In Darkness Waiting (Infrapress)— appears to have been among the progenitors of "splatterpunk", or so I'm told. Some of my fiction is collected in a new book, In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley (Underland Press). But I feel confident that even my darkest writing, at its most grotesque, is not salacious; that it is a kind of meaningful protest, a wakeup call—that it at least aspires to be art.

Usually I get a good reviews-though the reviewer might sound a bit shell shocked-but once upon a time a critic in Kirkus discussing my admittedly extreme novel The View From Hell asked, "There are readers who suck his lollipops of pain?" A memorable line! (I'm planning to market some lollipops of pain, at some point.)

Lollipops of pain, if you say so; true splatterpunk, only occasionally; but I've never written so-called "torture porn", in prose or script. Several points sharply distinguish my writing from that sort, but the most obvious is the point of view; there's always something salacious, something innately sadistic about "torture porn", a subgenre that crouches in the point of view of the monster and never seriously departs from it. There's something distinctly sociopathic about it. Movies like The Devil's Rejects, the Japanese film Audition, the Saw movies, come to mind—they seem eagerly sadistic. The French film Martyrs may have some redeeming social meaning but ultimately it's torture porn. At best "Torture porn" seems a steam valve for a pressure that should never have built up-and it never has a genuine message. More meaningful examples of extreme fiction and film expose sadism, or the brutal, dehumanizing absurdities of life, without losing a moral center.

Still, I think it unlikely that the basest splatterpunk films, torture porn, or even violent videogames spark the rising violence we're seeing in people. Allow me to dismiss one objection that people glibly fling about regarding the contemporary bubbling up of startling viciousness in surprising numbers of people-the notion that "this kind of thing always happened, it just wasn't reported in the 1950s and 60s before the age of the 24 news cycle". No, I promise you, any insane act of astonishing violence would have been widely reported in newspapers across the country-and was, on the rare occasions when it happened-with a technology we had at the time. It was something called "telegraphy". News was sent "on the wire". We didn't actually have to use talking drums.

Perhaps wildly violent entertainment media encourages a hardness, a mean jadedness -but clearly the Columbine killers committed mass murder because they were damaged by something other than media. Common sense tells us that a young man who beats his parents brains in and then calls his friends to a beer party doesn't do it because he watched House of 1000 Corpses or the remakes of Halloween —nor because he enjoys playing the very splatterpunk F.E.A.R. 2 videogame.

Where's the damage coming from, then? Some say it's environmental-and it's true that neurotoxins are flowing unhindered all around us, in plastics that leach into our food, in phthalates, in pesticides sprayed on our food, seeped into our water.

But I suspect it's more to do with a toxic cognitive dissonance, with a poisonous shame—and fundamental emotional disconnection.

Here are two headlines from the new issue of LiveScience magazine: "Fatty Comfort Food Lessens Sad Feelings," and "Tech Withdrawal Similar to Giving Up Drinking and Smoking."

There are tons, as it were, of obese people; perhaps a good deal of the cause of the plague of obesity is as simple as sadness, and a misguided attempt to relieve it with fatty foods. How'd they get so sad in the first place?

And how caught up in tech do you have to be to suffer actual physical withdrawal?

Meanwhile, an op-ed piece in The New York Times opines that while the internet, smart phones and social media expand our contacts on certain levels, these technologies actually foster a kind of neurotic introversion-it's all a safe substitute for direct human contact.

Suppose it's all connected. Suppose it's the case that people now grow up feeling no real attachment to their families-and no fundamental grasp of their society. Deeply saddened and only fragmentarily socialized, they feel uncomfortable with real intimacy, with face to face friends. Their families, after all, are fragile, often broken by divorce; their parents are confused, angry, disappointed in life. Young people are taught to aim for colleges that thrall them in debt; they're taught to squirm for expendable jobs that, if they're lucky, turn out to be dead ends. They're forced to accept some franchised cog in the cognitive dissonance of corporate civilization as their place in life-but they feel no real connection to it. Every time they start to get some sense of who they might be, another media trend or economic crisis, like an undertow, yanks their identity off its feet-like kicking the legs out from under a toddler who's just learned to walk. They suffer in increasing numbers from the mysterious plague of ADHD-its cause is unknown but somehow attention deficit seems weirdly designed for the 21st century world.

They eat a bacon Whopper and then hear, perhaps, of people abandoning one child so another child can live-and some of them twist inwardly in shame. To deal with that, they lol about it all online.

The wealthy, the famous, the privileged are ever present in the new media super-reality. The average person feel stunted, humiliated by constant social comparisons, reminders of their own status as "loser".

They start to simmer with anger inside-when the simmer becomes a boil, they look for media offers release. The vileness of torture porn— entertainment deliberately designed to be without ethical compass—offers a sluice to funnel away the sudden, painful spurts of venomous fury...

For some it's not enough. The most damaged become violent psychopaths. They're people who failed to connect, to bond on the most basic level, with parents hopelessly sucked away into the anxieties of corporate civilization. So perhaps they smash their disconnected parents with ball peen hammers and call for a beer party as the blood drips onto the floor upstairs.

Anyway, it's a theory-a hypothesis about a syndrome of frustration and disconnection enhanced by the ungraspable Teflon surfaces of corporation-defined society.

For too many people, there's nothing to really relate to, to center on-and when your family chills, far away from you, in Xanax and the Shopping Channel, maybe you want to scream...or set someone on fire.

It seems to me, though, that we're adapting in a perverse, deformed way. Our corporate civilization is working up its own little splatterpunk utopia. It's cultivating a new corproate organism and we're finding our psychopathic places in it. Sure, some can't take the pressure, and they turn to extremes of violence, like all those men we've gotten used to, who kill their families, and then themselves. But most of us accept the palliatives, the catharsis we're offered.

We're learning to survive within a societal paradox— a socialized sociopathy. We give up family and real community—and we accept the corporate civilization without protest. We find our place in the splatterpunk utopia.

John Shirley's latest novel, BioShock: Rapture, is available in bookstores now. Find out more about Shirley's other works on his website.