I’m planning on releasing a series of horror reviews this month! Because October! But before I started that, I wanted to write about the difference between shock value and atmospheric horror.

What is Shock Value?

Shock value is an element of media that goes beyond the threshold the users/viewers expect0 events or actions to get to. Some examples include:

  • Excessively violence scenes (Game of Thrones)
  • Torture scenes (Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne)
  • Jump scares (Five Nights at Freddies)

Shock has immediate impact. As long as the audience feels the attempt at a shocking scene is actually shocking, the scene will easily make a point about a character or situation. “Wow, that character is so vile that they enjoy ___!” or “Wow, the world these characters live in is so terrible because they condone ___!”.

Shock is easy to write. Going to extremes is something that is easy from a writing perspective to drive a point. After all, it’s simpler to use gore than a series of political maneuverings to say that ‘this character is bad’. Superficial shock value doesn’t require a lot of set-up or build-up either, saving time and effort on needs for planning.

Shock is bad in excess. For those that are less fazed by shock value, it will start to lose impact faster. On the other hand, there’s also a very real chance that viewers can be impacted too much and turn away from the material. In addition, excessive use of shock may very well lead to shallow characterization, so it should be used in conjunction with other techniques.

What is Atmosphere?

Not necessarily excess gore, violence, etc. can just be consistent paranoia that leads up to something bigger. creates tension

Atmosphere is the context. Atmosphere doesn’t focus on one moment to impact you, it focuses on cascading multiple moments for a much larger impact. These multiple moments can show the scale of a problem (something affecting a city instead of just a neighborhood), or the depth of a problem (the progression of a character’s insanity).

Atmosphere sticks with you. A truly dark atmosphere will continue to haunt you, even after the 2nd, 5th, 10th, etc. viewing. That does not mean you will necessarily feel the same way as you did upon the first viewing, but it does mean that there is something fundamentally deeper and haunting about the horror.

Atmosphere pulls everything together. Cinematography, color, music, dialogue, writing, and sound effects. Atmosphere is the culmination of all the techniques available to the medium the piece is in. When everything works together, it creates an environment that gives you feelings beyond just fear. Anxiety, discomfort, paranoia, claustrophobia, and other negative emotions can all stem from a well done atmosphere.

Is Either Better than the Other?

No, not necessarily! While it is important to note that a focus on atmosphere will have a higher replay/rewatch ability, combining the two leads to the strongest horror. Say that, perhaps, the setting is a quiet town where everything feels friendly and normal. That atmosphere is calming, and a baseline of the ‘norm’ is set. If a high level of shock is introduced, the entire atmosphere of the place can change. (Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni does this extremely well, as it slowly introduces more shocking elements and paranoia to show horror.) In the case where the tension is already high, shock can create the ‘breaking point’ required to set events into action. Tense situations without that point just devolve or lose their suspense. In essence, a horrific atmosphere can’t be achieved without shock.