September 3, 2015

The Art of Gore: a guest post by Ashley Franz Holzmann, author of "The Laws of Nature"

Ashley Franz Holzmann was born in Okinawa, Japan and raised in a variety of countries while his parents served in the Air Force. He considered attending art school, but is instead a graduate of West Point, where he enjoyed intramural grappling and studying systems engineering and military history. He majored in sociology and is currently a captain in the Army. Ashley speaks Korean, enjoys backpacking, and is the cook in his family. He currently lives in North Carolina with his wife, two sons, and their two dogs. (source:

The Art of Gore
by Ashley Franz Holzmann

The ability for an author to understand their pallet is just as important as any other profession's understanding of their vehicle of employment. A racecar driver needs to know when to hit the gas, or hug the apex of the turn, or both. A surgeon knows when to take a risk. A Soldier needs to know when to fire a well-placed shot, or to throw a grenade. Writers are no different, and understanding the range of the genre being written is crucial to being able to bend that genre to the will of the author.

Gore and violence are some of the most misunderstood tools used by a horror writer or filmmaker. The tools of a horror writer often center around emotions. A writer needs to understand human nature so that they can explain reactions; feelings; sensations. It's important for a horror creator to really get the investment of the audience. Connecting with a participant is when the real horror can come out. Gore should be used sparingly to advance the plot and to create depth within the characters that are present to experience or be effected by the violence.

We want the boy in The Shining to make it, because we've spent so much time with him--he's a developed young character and we understand how vulnerable he is. His vulnerability becomes ours because we are invested in his story. We want to see Ripley survive the Alien because we've seen her growth and strength--she starts off as an empowered woman and she ends as an empowered woman with a flamethrower. Seeing that growth is important, because it creates emotional investment.

Gore for the sake of gore doesn't work in the horror genre. Violence only works when we, as the audience, can relate to the violence. A random slasher romp can be fun, but the story will hardly rest in the mind of the audience once the story has been told. Those heartless slasher films are more fun rompts of suspended disbelief than they are horrific. Can they be fun? Yes. But will they settle into the back of your mind when you're alone nights later? Probably not. Slasher films are action movies with costumes.

Humanizing a character will allow the reader or viewer to relate to that character. That's a good start. Give them an average hobby or a skill of some kind. Let them be normal. Let them miss a train or stub a toe. Give them relatable human experiences. Then insert them into a horrible situation. A normal person in an abnormal world will do wonders for a story and really get the audience to care about this character. Maybe they're in love. Maybe they're a parent. Give us something to care about.

Tangent: if you want to really cause some emotional turmoil, add depth to the individual causing the violence. Justify the violence with some gray morality. Frankenstein's monster does some horrible things in the book, and the monster is to be feared; but by the end of the story, the monster is also pitied. He reacted in a way that was logical to some degree. That's depth. And that creates a story that can be viewed more than once. A story that will last in the mind of the audience. A story that understands that gore and violence have the most impact when there's depth behind the decision to employ such graphic language and material.

Then start doing horrible things. Let the protagonist get so close to victory and then take that away. Give the audience a reason to root for the character and then give the antagonist every upper hand you can. Use the tools that a writer has at their disposal. Emotions, conflict, grit. Create a world and then destroy it. A movie that does an excellent job of all of this is Se7en. Now that is a movie that understands how to use gore. The scene for lust never shows the act of rape, but we all know how horrible it is. We can see the horror on the face of the survivor. And he's the rapist. That's some conflicting information and the movie ends with the scene still resting with the audience. That's true horror, and that's how gore should be used. Only for a moment and with great effect.

This is both because we've connected with key characters in the story of Se7en (by the time the lust scene happens, we are very invested with the plot), and also because gore is used as only one of the tools of the film. Using scenes sparingly will force the audience to use their imagination, which is always more powerful than a direct scene. To use a story outside of the genre, let's look at The Matrix films. The first Matrix was more plot and character driven. The few scenes that did have fighting were used to great effect and often advanced the plot in some way. Neo first fights Morpheus to show us how much he has learned and also show us that Neo is capable of speed, but not yet in control of his abilities. This is already around the halfway point. It creates expectation in the audience. We want more. When Neo finally engages in hand-to-hand combat again (I'm not talking about the gun scenes or the running scenes), he's a master, but even then he loses and the fight scene is still relatively short. By the end of the movie, we want to see it all again. The fighting was awesome, but it was only a portion of what we experienced. What made the fighting so incredible was the emotions that we, the audience, connected to fighting. The characters, the story--there was a plot and there was purpose behind the violence. Flash forward to the Matrix sequels and the fighting scenes were long and drawn out. They were spectacles and not used as sparingly as the original. What resulted was a cool movie, but not the acclaim that the first film had achieved.

Gore is like every other tool for a writer. It has its place in the horror genre, but it should be used with intent. If a writer can achieve that (even with a short story), then they are well on their way to becoming a writer with some serious impact.

About The Laws of Nature: There is a dark side to human nature that neither can be wished away nor completely mitigated. Ashley Holzmann details just several of these "Laws of Nature" before taking his readers on a journey through the bizarre, the terrifying, and, ultimately, the disturbingly real truths that underlie much of modern American life.

Ashley makes his debut into the horror genre with "The Stump," a story about an afternoon trot through the woods that quickly becomes a blood bath--and, much as it does for that story's creature, the scent of fear will only lure veteran horror readers further through the forest. A teenager's vanity will likely cause his town to be consumed by a roaming swarm of insects that burst forth from his acne-riddled skin in "White Heads;" entire populations vanish into the void of the Alaskan tundra in "Glass Houses;" and superiority takes the form of a murdering, sadistic woman in "Lady Macbeth."  

But Ashley's best retellings focus less on gore and adrenaline and instead take human psychology as their medium, as demonstrated in "Plastic Glasses," where readers are brought into a world of disturbing personality and mental disorders. Ashley's work abounds with stories in this vein, stories which grab a hold of a common failing--such as marital friction in "Hush," or American male frustration in "Orpheus's Lot"--and take it to an extreme that is nevertheless not inconceivable for most people.

Coming from the mind of a man who has experienced more than his fair share of humanity, "The Laws of Nature" is, at its finest, a description of universal emotions of loss, nostalgia, anxiety, and soul-penetrating terror. Ashley's stories elicit empathy from his readers and draw them into worlds where they both acknowledge and cuddle with their fears and which leave them, ultimately, more human.

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