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I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: How We Mistake Dark Stories for Complex Ones

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | December 5, 2012 | Comments ()


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I'm watching my way through endless seasons of "Criminal Minds" at the moment, due to an abiding fascination with dark stories despite a relative aversion to procedurals. Episode after episode hammers home Mandy Patinkin's words about the show, that he just couldn't handle psychologically that the point of the show was to return week after week to such a dark place. But I think that Patinkin was imprecise. It's not that dark stories inherently take us to a bad place, it's that dark stories with no moral complexity have a way of being a particular form of pornography.

There is a distinction between darkness and complexity, and I think that we often mistake the two and label them as each other. For a very long time, the sanitizing of so much of our fiction stripped away the darkness, at least covering it with a slick veneer. Consider the Comic Code, the Hays Code, those seven words that could not be said on television, the descent into retrospectively hilarious prudishness such as portraying married couples sleeping in separate beds. A climate of moralistic censorship ensured that our mass fictions delved into real darkness in two cases: the pornographic and the rebellious.

But those artists willing to rebel, by either bending or breaking the rules, would also end up being the best of storytellers. Not just because great storytelling requires exactly such an attitude, but also because those who rebelled for the sake of rebelling without the talent and genius to survive in the various industries of fiction would quickly be out of jobs in such a puritanical climate. And storytellers of the caliber sufficient to survive as a rebel would also be those to tell stories of complexity and moral nuance, leading to generations for whom stories of darkness and stories of complexity tended to be conflated.

Although we are decades removed from the Hays Code and its ilk, the repercussions still can be traced in our fictions. The current fad of trying to tell stories that are dark, infected with all of the now clichéd buzzwords of "gritty" and "realistic," is the side effect of this era. Within the context of talking about movies and television, we don't have quite the right language for expressing what we want. When we talk about loving dark stories, we mean something more than that, we really mean stories that are dark and complex. The latter gets left off somewhere along the way in most development, because even when its aimed for, its bloody hard to get right.

And even in this hair-splitting description, the language doesn't quite work right, because complexity also has implications of plots that resemble spaghetti, which isn't exactly right either. What we're really trying to get at is moral complexity, not plot complexity. Difficult questions are not the same as complex ones.

In the second season of "24", the last one I bothered watching, there's a wonderful illustrative example. There's the conspiracy to blow up a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles, thwarted by bravery and pluck, and for a several episode sequence all evidence points to the plot being a joint effort by several Middle Eastern governments. Planes are in the air, ambassadors are recalled, the world is on the brink. And of course Jack Bauer discovers the key evidence that reveals that the cabal was actually within the American government itself. Complex? Well that isn't a simple plot. Dark? Well there were nukes and people dying. But morally complex?

All the air went out of the show at the exact moment of that reveal because it turned a terrible moral question of how to respond to a horrific act of war (do you drop the bomb even though the plot failed? Invade three other countries?) into a simple question. Find the bad guys. Shoot them.

It seems to be a recipe these days, heaping more and more darkness into stories without any tempering morally complexity. At one extreme it leads to the entire torture porn subgenre of horror, in which there is a total absence of difficult questions, in which all complexity is completely stripped out in order to simply make room for more mindless darkness. But it also makes forays into less controversial fiction. Want a big impact on a television show? Start killing characters, preferably as creatively as possible, nevermind that doing so is often a lazy way out. Killing off a character means not having to deal with any difficult questions raised by their presence.

We desperately need darkness in our fiction, but when it's used as cheaply as salt on french fries, it becomes a trivialization. Instead of gazing into the darkness, we're just wallowing in it, adding casual brutality to our entertainments and mistaking it for adding depth.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.







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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Dragonchild

    I know this thread is dead,
    But what SLW wrote needed to be said.
    This flawed logic must be put to bed:
    Complexity is more than just bloodshed.

  • Jesse Baker

    Mentioning 24 here is a mistake if you are going to just mention one season; 24 is very much as a whole, a huge bit of existential horror as far as watching how Jack's life goes to hell and the overall price he pays for being a torture happy government agent against terrorism.

    When the series begins, Jack is a desk jockey removed from his black ops days that is on the verge of reuniting his family, after a brief split due to Jack having problems coping to life behind a desk. Very much a happy picture. Cut to eight seasons later, his wife is dead, his friends and lovers have either been killed, nearly killed, tortured, or driven irreversibly insane from torture they endured in order to hurt them in order to hurt Jack. And that Jack himself has been repeatedly sadistically tortured to the brink of death, most notably for an entire year at the hands of the Chinese, to the point that Jack was legitimately suicidal when he was finally let go. His daughter has pretty much disowned him and any inroads he might have made to get back into his life and have any sort of contact with his grandchild are erased in the final season and he's basically forced to spend the rest of his life a fugitive wanted by his enemies AND the US government, who eventually decides that Jack is too much of liability for the cutthroat, lie driven world of international politics.

  • cheryl

    " Start killing characters, preferably as creatively as possible,
    nevermind that doing so is often a lazy way out. Killing off a character
    means not having to deal with any difficult questions raised by their
    presence."

    This right here is Reason #1 why George RR Martin jumped the shark. Yes, George it was shocking and edgy and dark the FIRST dozen times you did it, now you're simply engaging in cheap hack shock antics with zero weight or meaning.

  • John W

    Very first Ellision story I ever read. Talk about jumping in the deep end of the pool.

  • Ozioma

    The first time I read it, I couldn't sleep for three nights. It still haunts me if I think about it too much.

  • BierceAmbrose

    Outstanding stuff, Mr. SLW. I'm liking you more, which I find ... uncomfortable.

    Given the article's title, a story...

    Back in the day, the movie made from "A Boy and His Dog" generated great controversy on one particular campus. So, the author flew himself out to debate with the women's caucus(*) and others. The story was still fresh when I heard it first hand from folks who were there, the year before.

    "A Boy and His Dog" is a wonderfully bitter little pill of exactly the kind of conundrum you, SLW, point out. Yes, it's a dark tale, yet who's wrong in the telling? Everybody. Who's right? Also everybody. Now we have something to ponder.

    It's a bit better known that his story "Croatoan" managed to piss of the right to lifers and the abortion advocates at the same time. I wonder if that's an indicator of some kind of honesty or truth in the hard issues - if you manage to piss off all the snarling sides, you're probably something like right.

    (*) This campus hosted a women's caucus somewhat more strident and less inclusive than the Taliban. No exaggeration. Andrea Dworkin was about 6 stages too tolerant for them & I am utterly convinced they had womb-shaped secret labs underground where they researched reproduction by cloning, budding, and direct genetic manipulation to hasten the day when they could rid the world of Y chromosomes.

    The visible head, or perhaps figurehead of this caucus had a second consuming crusade. When she wasn't working to rid the world of men, and their (our) influence, she was "raising awareness" about the hidden scourge of vampires, that stalked, and fed, and mind-controlled among us.

    I'm not sure there's any particular point to this digression, other than perhaps, just like darkness, batshittery isn't necessarily interesting, either.

  • DarthCorleone

    Nice piece, although I must say that I never met a properly salted french fry that I didn't like.

    I mean that literally - not metaphorically.

  • Jill

    Great article.

    I had to comment, though on instantly recognizing the screaming woman pic above. Those books scared me more than any other as a child. I bought the boxed set for my children (2 and 5) and am waiting for the right day ( many years from now) to give it to them.

    I always thought that was a black cat, half obscured, standing to her right.

  • MaryC756

    Ok so I wasn't the only one who was terrified as a child, I feel better. But even as an adult Stephen Gammel's illustrations stir up a little sense of horror in me!

  • TMP311

    Dude for real, the one about the scarecrow, Harold, still gives me the creeps.

  • Captain_Tuttle

    What are the books? I'd love to check them out. I mean, for my kid.

  • ab

    Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz

  • Bodhi

    Ditto. Those books scared the hell out of me as a kid. The pictures alone still make me shudder.

  • Ariel

    Well, this Englih teacher would like to commend you for writing this. My students always ask me why so much of literature is depressing, and I reply that darkness and tragedy often create great and meaningful art. Then again, it also creates a lot of shitty wannabe-deep "art". Here's to hoping they grow up able to differentiate between the two!

  • Slash

    RE "when it’s used as cheaply as salt on french fries, it becomes a trivialization. Instead of gazing into the darkness, we’re just wallowing in it, adding casual brutality to our entertainments and mistaking it for adding depth."

    There you go. That's pretty awesome.

  • Salieri2
    Harry: Oh, really? When I buy a new book, I read the last page first. That way, in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends. That, my friend, is a dark side.
    Sally: That doesn't mean you're deep or anything.
  • Captain_Tuttle

    I do it because I can't stand not knowing how things end. No dark side, just an impatient one.

  • Slim

    Nicely written. My husband is surprised that someone like myself with a subconscious very sensitive to visual violence gravitates to storytelling like that of The Wire or Luther - or in reading, to Stieg Larsson, Kate Atkinson, Tana French. And the difference lies in the moral complexity, where shooting the villain doesn't solve everything. I would be interested in this community's viewpoint on something like American Horror Story - which I cannot watch - as I think that's where Ryan Murphy falls apart (from being an early Nip/Tuck fan). Creative, flashy ideas, good casting, plenty o' dark, but completely adrift when it comes to exploring difficult questions.

  • Slash

    Actually, I think his show does have a point to all the freaky shit going on. I understand if you don't wanna watch it, but I think he is making some points.

  • DarthCorleone

    I think it has a point in some cases, but it addresses each point rather superficially before moving on to the next point. I do think it manages to accomplish what it does entertainingly, but there isn't much depth therein.

  • Slash

    Sure. I'd agree with that. He's a TV producer, not a philosophy professor. Or Christopher Nolan.

  • Thank you for helping me figure out why I can't watch that show! It should be right up my alley, but there was something about it that disturbed me beyond the imagery, which was not all that freaky compared to some things I've read and seen (and written). It was the fact that there was ultimately no point to the darkness, at least not by the time I stopped watching. Maybe there was a payoff at the end of the first season, but I couldn't stick around that long.

  • Patrick the Bunny

    Loved this piece, but the header pic kept reminding me of getting the pants scared off me as a child.

  • Puddin

    This aligns nicely with my theory that any song, I mean ANY song, can become an underground indie hit if you play it on the acoustic guitar using the most melancholy chords. Try it. Sing "Call Me Maybe" really slowly and wistfully. Ohhh, it's sooooo poignant. Now try "I'm a Slave For You". Oh my gosh, it really speaks to me on such a visceral level.

    If only I could use my ninja like skills of manipulation for something that made a profit. I could own, like, four dolphins by now.

  • And by dolphins, I'm assuming you mean the NFL team.

  • Puddin

    Oh no, real dolphins. With dorsal fins and everything.

  • Quatermain

    Those might actually be better football players. Also, if you want to use your ninja like skills of manipulation for something that made a profit, go into politics.

  • Matt

    Great points. There's nothing compelling about things that are "dark" for the sake of it without any emotional/moral tie. Walter's moral dilemma over whether or not to kill Crazy 8 in Breaking Bad is a (somewhat) recent example of dark fiction that did it right in my opinion

  • Badalamenti

    Nice nod to Harlan...

  • mercurialgrl

    Criminal Minds is Wire in the Blood lite.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    That doesn't mean they occasionally come up with really disturbing stuff. This week's episode was beyond creepy, for example. (Yeah, I'm still watching. Shut up.)

    But thanks for the tip. I'll have to check that series out.

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