Ashley Lister’s A-Z of Horror: X is for X-Rated Language

Some people say that taboo language doesn’t belong in the well-written horror story.

Picture the scene: you’re walking through an empty house in the middle of the night. It’s dark but there’s no electricity so you can’t turn on a lamp. A sliver of moonlight cuts through a window and you see, standing before you, a ghost.

What do you say?

Or try this one: you’re a counsellor at a summer camp in America. You’ve just gotten lucky with one of the lithe young counsellors who work at the same camp and, although it’s slightly irresponsible, because you’re not devoting your full attention to the children in your care, you’ve given in to your salacious urges and the pair of you are sneaking off to find a remote hut where you can exchange bodily fluids. However, shortly after the first breast is exposed, a lunatic wearing a hockey mask and wielding a machete steps into the room and begins to administer mortal wounds to all participants.

What do you say?

Or: there’s a full moon. You and a friend are walking across a desolate moor. You hear a creature howling at the sky and you begin to wonder if there is any truth to the rumours about shapeshifters and animal transformations in these parts. Then you see the snarling creature loping towards you, looking for all the world like a combination between a massive wolf and a cruelly powerful human. He raises one hand as he runs and you realise his fingers are tipped with devastatingly long claws.

What do you say?

I think, in each of these cases, an articulate interjection would likely be ‘shit’ or ‘fuck’ or potentially something that combines blasphemy with profanity, such as ‘Jesus-fucking-Christ’.

However, in a lot of contemporary horror fiction, the veracity of taboo language is eschewed in favour of something more palatable for family consumption. Consequently, we will watch films where a character encounters a violent psychopath, an incomprehensible monster, or a potential apocalypse, and we hear nothing more vitriolic than ‘gosh’ or ‘blimey’ or ‘oh emm gee’.

This homogenising of language is disingenuous to the reality that the fiction is purportedly representing.

Studies suggest that our lexicon of taboo language is stored in a different part of the brain from the area where we store the lexes for our less profane vocabulary. Typically the higher functioning brain processes associated with general language are thought to come from the cerebral cortex, which controls logic and clinical understanding. The lower functioning brain processes, such as emotion and instinct, are more commonly controlled by parts of the basal ganglia and limbic system. And this is also the area from which taboo language typically arises.

Which makes sense. Accidentally hit your thumb with a hammer and it’s automatic to turn the air blue with a colourful outburst. You’re responding with emotion and instinct rather than logic and clinical understanding. Indeed, hit your thumb with a hammer and it’s difficult to imagine any fully rational human saying, “Crikey. That hurt like the blazes and I’m in extreme discomfort as a consequence.”

Stephen Pinker argues that this is similar to the way a cat will make a loud exclamation if you accidentally step on its tail. (I suppose it would make the same sound if someone deliberately trod on the cat’s tail, but I don’t like to think such unethical experiments would be condoned). The cat makes the sound as a response to the pain, just as we, after hitting our thumb with a hammer, shout, “Motherfucking cock-fart shit-biscuits.” It’s not pretty or pleasant but it does reflect reality.

There have been studies that show taboo language can have an analgesic effect on the person making such exclamations: either reducing the pain they feel or increasing their ability to tolerate pain. The typical experiment involves participants immersing one hand into icy water for as long as they can tolerate the discomfort. Those in a group that are allowed to use taboo language manage to keep a hand immersed for substantially longer than those who aren’t permitted the reprieve of swearing. The differences can be as simple as a single letter, so we see participants divided into a group allowed to say only ‘fuck’ and a group allowed to say only ‘duck’, and still the users of taboo language seem better able to deal with the pain they are suffering.

I mention all of this this because, in writing a horror story, we are putting characters in physical and psychological pain. We are giving those characters extreme levels of discomfort and, if those characters are to be perceived as realistic in any shape or form, they really should be responding in a fashion that mirrors reality.

So, as I said at the start of this article, there are some people who say that taboo language doesn’t belong in the well-written horror story. And, to those people, I say, “Fuck off.”

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