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