(OR: BLAME IT ON THE ACID, AND JOHN WATERS!)
by John Skipp
Ever since our own Elizabeth Massie – one of the hardest-punching gals in the history of horror – raised “the question”, a few days back (see her essay, POOP ON A PLATE), I’ve been hard-pressed to think of anything else.
So here’s my theory on how gross-out fiction wandered into the horror section, and stayed there.
It goes a little something like this:
Long before guys like me raised a ruckus in the ‘80’s by upping the voltage on sex, violence, and profanity in horror fiction…
…and LONG before Ed Lee and pals picked up the dung-encrusted vomit-ball and ran it all the way to the finish line for a touchdown…
…there was this little film called PINK FLAMINGOS.
Made for almost nothing, by a bunch of freaks from Baltimore, this barely-cinematic jaw-dropper oozed out into our consciousness in 1972. It was a full-frontal assault on every notion of good taste that our genteel species had ever concocted.
It was – literally – a chicken-fucking, asshole-fluttering, shit-eating extravaganza of transgressive, anti-social behavior, careening into the cultural brainscape. It was thoroughly shameless, and delirious with malformed glee, and – surprise, surprise – incredibly popular, too.
So here’s my theory:
Landing, as it did, on the same emerging “midnight movie” circuit as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, FRITZ THE CAT, and EL TOPO – with almost everybody stoned or tripping their ass off – it HOTWIRED OUR TRANSGRESSIVE GLANDS into a kind of cultural synthesthesia.
Suddenly, George Romero’s graphic zombie gut-munching (another big cinematic first) genetically merged with Divine’s dung-munching shenanigans, redefining shock and awe for the next generation of outlaw artists. (Meanwhile, Jodorowsky’s metaphysical grand guignol and Ralph Bakshi’s animated R. Crumb riffs on sex, violence, and culture upped the ante and voltage, as well.)
From that point on, for many of us (including myself), ALL BETS WERE OFF. Where they remain, to this day.
That’s my theory, anyway.
It is, of course, legit to ask: why use shock tactics at all? There are plenty of possible reasons.
If it’s part of one’s no-holds-barred arsenal in the war against complacency, stupography and pablum, that’s one thing.
If it’s just for shits ‘n’ giggles, that’s another.
And if someone’s really the kind of simp that just likes to wallow in their own filth, that is yet another.
So if the question is, “How do you get Lumpy the Turd Boy to skooch down the bench a little?” my advice is: ASK HIM NICELY.
As for the people who look at you funny, when you tell them you write horror, my advice is always: JUST STAND UP FOR WHO YOU ARE.
If someone tries to tar you with somebody else’s poop-stained brush, and that’s not what you’re about, gently inform them of that fact. Tell them who you are, what you write, and why you write it.
Be humble and proud and honest and clear.
Be, in short, the ambassador you are.
And if Lumpy the Turd Boy comes wandering up, just say, “Oh, that’s Lumpy. He rode the short bus in. But he’s pretty funny, sometimes! Just don’t let him sit in your lap.”
Know what I’m sayin’?
Seriously, you don’t want to “clean up” the image of horror. Especially for people who don’t like it in the first place. Half the POINT of horror, as I understand it, is that you can’t make life’s ugly shit go away. You have to deal with it. Make peace with it. Rise above it, if you can.
Doesn’t mean you have to shit on a dinner plate and suggest that people eat it. (At least not necessarily…)
But we’re the guys and gals who are tough enough, smart enough, wild enough, and honest enough to talk about ANYTHING.
Gahan Wilson said it beautifully, quite a number of years back. He said (and I’m paraphrasing like crazy, here):
Horror is the geek tent. It’s not on the midway, with all the nice rides and games, where all the nice families congregate. Rather, it’s down at the end – in that dark corner, off to the left – where we keep the malformed and unsightly.
Only in the dark do the monsters and misfits feel safe enough to show themselves.
And only there do we feel safe enough to look them in the eye, and see ourselves reflected there.
In other words: Lumpy’s in the geek tent because that’s the only place that would have him.
That’s where he belongs.
Do you belong there, too?
These are tough questions. And I think they’re worth asking, from time to time.
Because honestly? I think that if you want to write horror, but don’t want to be lumped in with the unsavory elements of life, you may just have chosen the WRONG LINE OF WORK.
Horror can be elegant, yes. And beautiful. And ennobling. Thought-provoking, without being provocational. Addressing the damage, without wallowing shamelessly.
And if that’s your mission, I’m behind you all the way.
In that case, use the quality of your work to distinguish yourself – not merely from the low end of the horror food chain – but from all the cluckers and smeckers who sneer down their snoots at that nasty old “horror”.
If they still don’t get you, after you explain yourself clearly, then you don’t really want ‘em at the party, after all.
I bet John Waters wouldn’t!
And I hear his parties are great.
One closing note, about gross-out contests:
You know why they’re so popular? Because THEY’RE SO MUCH FUN! It’s like watching the movie THE ARISTOCRATS, where dozens and dozens of great comedians work overtime to blow each other’s minds with the craziest shit you’ve ever heard.
I judged the contest at World Horror, in ’05. It was my first, and it was stunning. These guys weren’t just floppin’ around in the filth. They were doing PIROUETTES in the filth. Somersaults. Backflips. Highly acrobatic tightwire feats of unmistakable derring doo-doo!
When writers of genuine genius like Cody Goodfellow go to town on this stuff, it ain’t like he just craps in his hand and flings it at ya. He sculpts mountains of mayhem, airlifts you up there with his words, and then drops you face-first down the rotten volcano. All in less than six minutes.
We’re talkin’ HILARIOUS, here!
Two-time winner Colin Bunn? HILARIOUS! Jeff Strand? Mark McLaughlin? HILARIOUS! Actor Bill Mosely, reading Ed Lee’s shit out loud? UNBELIEVABLY HILARIOUS!
The vibe is one of revelry, and delirious delight.
Much like watching one of the great early John Waters films (my personal faves are DESPERATE LIVING and FEMALE TROUBLE).
And it’s no coincidence, methinks, that these contests take place at midnight…
OOPS! There’s the bell! See you next month! CLASS DISMISSED!