What, exactly, does getting stabbed sound like? It’s an issue to which the makers of Fox’s serial-killer drama The Following have clearly devoted serious consideration. Stabbings are the show’s money shots, and no effort has been spared to make them sound wet, dense, and destructive, as if a dagger were being plunged into a bag of overripe tomatoes, shaved ice, and Cap’n Crunch. NBC’s Hannibal is more interested in the look of ripping skin, constructing elaborate prostheses to show exactly what it’s like when epidermis is pulled away to expose glistening viscera. Ironically, none of the show’s living characters have human skin tone — they all look like reanimated corpses, the way the Sopranos cast used to in those overstaged “Here’s the new season” ads — but the dead ones are robustly flesh-and-bloody, all moist maroons and magentas. And after four seasons, AMC’s The Walking Dead has become even more refined in its simulations of what disintegrating skull and zombie brain pulp look like when a shotgun shell separates them from an extra’s dirty neck.
These shows are defiantly gross, gory, and explicit. They are, in their ways, everything that horror should be. Except scary.
It’s hard to argue that less is more in horror without sounding prudish and reactionary, like those people who used to say that in their day, Cary Grant and Irene Dunne just looking at each other — and the camera panning over to the window — was sexier than all this pornography nowadays. In truth, sometimes it was sexier but sometimes it wasn’t, and occasionally not leaving it to the imagination is the right call. (Jaws may have worked because you didn’t see too much of the shark, but you had to see a little.) Even in our anything-goes age, though, television that wants to be scary faces some steep hurdles: Watching in your own home rather than in a dark theater with strangers reinforces your sense of safety, and returning to the same show every week reinforces your sense of familiarity. Safety + familiarity = a terrible recipe for fear.
Graphic gore is a kind of no-calorie substitute: It works in the moment but leaves you almost immediately hungry. Even the shows’ creators know it’s a problem. “I’m not so much in love with blood and guts,” Following creator Kevin Williamson told reporters before the current season. “I’d rather be scary. … The challenge…is how do we scare the audience?” The answer, I think, is by withholding. Hannibal Lecter terrified us the first two times he appeared in novels and on screen, but even Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning “lead” performance in The Silence of the Lambs was just 16 minutes long, and lines like “His pulse never got above 85 even when he ate her tongue” were more terrifying than watching the title character of a weekly series eat a pain-stakingly designed fake tongue will ever be. I’ll take the word of Hannibal’s impassioned partisans that they find its hyper-designed art-book approach to ritual slaughter frightening, but it leaves me with more distaste than distress. Sixteen minutes? Sure. But an hour a week feels like proof that Lecter works better as a construct than as a character — he’s a brilliant pencil sketch of a monster who is made bland by attempts to explain him or to flesh out (no pun intended) a mythology that is more horrifying when alluded to than when literalized.
I did see some TV recently that was both bloody and scary. The Good Wife sent its audience reeling with the murder of Will Gardner. And on Scandal, one major player met a grisly shooting-and-gasping-and-bleeding-out end at the hands of another. The scenes were shocking and upsetting, largely because the dead guys were actual characters rather than just blood-soaked human props; the murders were about loss of life rather than the methodology of slaughter. The stakes were high and personal, you didn’t see the twists coming, and you don’t see them happen every week. If you want to create TV that’s genuinely frightening, that’s a good place to start.