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Are There Limits In Horror?

Horror is about pushing boundaries as much as it is about scaring people. No other genre so regularly totes the line between what is “acceptable” and what isn’t except for satire, which is why the two have always seemed to pair together so well. Pushing boundaries is essential to the core of horror. There’s nothing safer than a plateau, nothing safer than operating within the established norms. Horror is punk rock and anti-establishment, it represents the fear of change, and thus it must tread where others refuse to go.
Does that mean the horror genre is not bound by any sort of constraints? The answer, quite frankly, is no. There must always be limits in order to push past them. There are three major parties when it comes to creating content, whose own limits will always undoubtedly be imposed upon any creative project, horror related or not.
Clip from Dead Space 2. This is why we can’t have nice things…

“The Man”

The first and most obvious party would be the regulatory agencies that slap parental advisory stickers and sometimes seemingly arbitrary ratings on all the media we consume. They provide a necessary service to consumers, however, the limits they impose are not always so clearly defined. What separates a movie from a PG-13 rating and an R rating can be totally dependent on the appearance of a single word or the amount of blood shown on screen.
Before Deadpool smashed box office records, an R rating could have been the kiss of death for a film’s monetary gains. Your film would be shown in less theater’s and thus seen by fewer people. I believe audiences are more desensitized these days and more open to exploring limits then ever before, so the effect of these imposed limits has been tapering off. I think we’ll continue to see this trend in the years to come.
Clip from Hostel. It’s really gross, but an eye opening experience…

“The Audience”

In literature, the best villains are the ones whose point of view the audience can relate to. They are likable but are always dancing with the devil. The more depraved and evil the things your villain does are, the harder it is for the audience to empathize and excuse their actions. The same thing can be said about the relationship between a content creator and their audience.

As a creator, you can only take an audience as far as they will allow you to. This is really tricky because what every person is willing to “endure” is very subjective. The more fucked up and depraved your content is, the higher the risk of alienating people and losing the audience. That’s why horror has always been looked down upon as a “fringe” genre because it almost exclusively operates in this realm.

Clip from the woefully underrated  2013 Evil Dead remake. Demonic possession and trees don’t mix…

“The Creator”

Every creator at one time or another must ask themselves “What am I willing to talk about and how do I talk about it?” Horror creators are just people trying to find the answer to that question by exploring the darkest places of the human soul. This is perhaps the greatest limitation to overcome because it requires a knowledge of one’s self. Reflection is no easy thing, but once you identify your own limits you can overcome them if so desired.

You also have to be able to live with what you create because once it’s out for the world to enjoy, it takes on a life of its own.  You also have to live with the fact that you are capable of generating such darkness. However, I think the horror genre is filled with self-aware people and people who are more willing to accept their own darkness. Once you do, something beautiful and emotionally resonant can come from it.

The ending of The Mist. Extreme spoiler if you haven’t seen it yet, but if you have seen it, it’s a scene that’s unforgettable.

What can and can’t be shown, read, or heard? Are there other things that limit what you can do in the horror genre? Am I just talking out my own ass? Let me know in the comments below.

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I think with horror it doesn’t matter to me how gross it gets or far it goes as long as there is a believable narrative or character motivation behind how far it has gone. When it is just violence and gore for the sake of sensationalism, that’s more or less where I check out and unfortunately too many horror stories just think upping the violence is all they need to do.


Horror is supposed to be a fringe category because good horror works best when it tests the borders of civilized society. Nowadays, horror has been mainstreamed as a commodity. Horror has been relegated to either unstoppable slashers like Freddy, Jason, Leatherface, and Michael Meyers, or to abduction thrillers by Dean Koontz, and Mary Higgins Clark. I don’t criticize the work. Clearly there’s a market for those kinds of stories, but real horror, the kind of horror that keeps you awake at night, the kind that makes your asshole pucker, SHOULD make you uncomfortable. You should have difficulty breathing. Horror should… Read more »