Columns > Published on September 10th, 2020

The Art of the Gross Out Contest — from a Two Time Reigning Champ

I am officially the grossest man in the world two years running. I’m gross on a championship level and still reigning. I won the KillerCon Gross Out Contest in 2019 and in 2020. So, I think it goes without saying that my mother is super proud.

What Is A Gross Out Contest?

It is a competitive reading done by authors of horror, extreme horror, and splatterpunk fiction. These short performances are done for an audience and then judged by an esteemed panel of notable genre members who embrace the gross.

Anything short of slurs, actual nudity, or assault goes in terms of the storytelling. Descriptions of blood, gore, violence, desecration, rot, decay, bodily fluids, sacrilege, depravity, and more could make an appearance in any story and often does, over and over. The audience is warned ahead of time as to what they should expect if they choose to stay. No recording is allowed.

Each author is given three minutes. At the end of three minutes, the audience decides whether the reader/performer is allowed to continue. If they find favor with the crowd, they get an additional two minutes to finish their story and win the day. At the end of the night, the judges decide on first, second, and third place winners. Often, the previous year’s winner goes last.

The Splatter Club on Facebook, a group of fans of splatterpunk fiction and gore in all its forms, invites the winner to read their story again on Facebook live. Both of my winning stories can be found there. I also appeared on an episode of the Ghoulish podcast with Max Booth III where I read my stories and discussed the artform. You can check out those places if you want specific examples.

How Did This Start and Why Hasn’t Anyone Stopped it?

There are many authors in the extreme subgenres of horror who can probably give a more detailed description of how this contest evolved, and I will most definitely tell some of this wrong, but they are not the reigning champion, so you get me and my version of things.

The first I became aware of this tradition was at the World Horror Convention. I never went. I had no interest. I was drifting into extreme horror writing, but still considered this particular event to not be my thing.

Brian Keene first introduced props, and others followed suit to add a visual element to the storytelling. Fake blood. Fake pieces of this or that. A cup of pudding isn’t gross unless a storyteller spins a tale so vivid that the pudding transforms in your imagination into something else. Eventually, the contest was revived as part of KillerCon, the extreme horror convention.

I’m sure I missed some steps along the path. I know there have been comparable events at different conventions. The year Stephen Kozeniewski won KillerCon’s Gross Out Contest, it is my understanding he won a similar contest at another event.

Regardless of official canon, the spirit of the gross out contest is tied to the live reading of extreme material. Extreme horror authors attract extreme fans. Often, conventions will schedule readings late at night for the bloodiest horror authors or writers of the darkest erotica. The late hours at a genre convention promise stories and performances that push the envelope. No extreme horror author ever wants to be labeled the second most extreme, so friendly competition rises naturally from there.

Why Did I Decide to Participate?

Early in 2019, if I remember correctly, there was a controversy at the BizarroCon Ultimate Bizarro Showdown. This was structured very much like the Gross Out Contest. Extreme horror authors cross over into bizarro fiction, but there are other genres and other sensibilities mixed in with that.

One performance that year was met with mixed response that escalated into a full-scale controversy—an uproar even. I came out pretty vocally in defense of the performer (and free speech more broadly) in articles, on my podcast, and elsewhere. Everyone has since moved on at this point. After I defended gross out performances as strongly as I did without ever having attended an event, I figured I needed to at least participate once on general principle.

And I won.

I was really nervous because of the reputation of the crowd for being willing to boo people right off the stage. My only goal was not to get booed off. I practiced. I rewrote. I practiced some more to get every line perfect, and to structure the performance just right. After I won, I immediately started thinking about the next year. I worked on a story off and on throughout the year. It was only in the final weeks before the 2020 event that I got everything right.

I was quite impressed both years with the quality of the work. This is by nature lowbrow stuff full of base humor, but these were award winning authors adding real depth into these short, gross pieces. Even the stories that didn’t place impressed me very much. Some of the authors were new to me and others were heroes of mine from before I started writing professionally. It was pure talent on display.

And I beat them all! Twice in some cases!

The Philosophy and Technique Behind the Gross Out Competition

This is a weird thing to build a philosophy around, but I did it. There is nothing definitive in this list. These are my opinions, not facts. This is just my approach to this particular type of writing and performance. Even if you don’t intend to compete in a gross out contest ever, who knows where else these concepts might be applied?

• Nothing is Gained by Going Over 3 Minutes

I kept my reading under three minutes both times on purpose. There’s nothing inherently wrong with going five minutes, and most people read between three and five minutes, but there are advantages to staying under three. You can more easily memorize your piece, if you choose to do so. You finish before the crowd decides whether you can go on. It keeps control of the room in the hands of the performer. You decide when you are done with them. There are also only so many lines the audience can remember. Going two more minutes is likely to cause them to forget some zingers from the beginning. There is nothing magical you can say in the last two minutes you can't say in the first three by tightening up the piece. No long set-up. No detailed character development. It has to be quick and funny with gross action.

• Memorize the Piece

People can brace for gross, but no one can brace for funny. So, make them laugh. Then, they’ll be off guard when a good line of gross detail hits them...

Most people don’t do this. Gross Out Contests are more performance than reading. Reading from a paper, even with practice, has a certain feel that is different from performing a well-practiced monolog. There are points awarded for engaging the audience and they are the most important points in swaying the judges, I think. Everything else builds from that. There is a confidence there and an energy that is lacking when listening to something read from a page. This is not meant to beat up on traditional author readings. I love them. But this is a competition. It’s a different type of performance.

• First Person Stories are Best

These are visceral stories. It needs to be personal. It needs to be told like it is true, even if it obviously isn’t. You don’t have a lot of time to draw them in, so tell it like a person describing a car wreck they just crawled out of.

• Hand Gestures and Blocking Beat Props

There were great stories with props and effects I saw for myself and others I heard about. I enjoy those performances. It’s tough to compete with what the audience has seen on film, especially the kind of audience that would come to a Gross Out Contest at an extreme horror convention. I memorized my stories and memorized the blocking down to the hand gestures. When I reperformed the stories audio-only on a podcast, I still caught myself doing the gestures because I had practiced them until they were part of the story. Creating the framework through gesture for what is being described and then leaving the extreme audience’s over-stimulated imagination to do the rest is quite a powerful tool.

• Funny is More Powerful than Gross

You need both humor and good, gross details, but the quality of the humor will be the difference between winning and losing. A gross out story performed in front of a crowd faces the same challenges that extreme horror authors face when writing stories. Extreme horror fans and readers are expecting it. They have likely heard something similar to the grossest thing you can think to say, or worse. People can brace for gross, but no one can brace for funny. Extreme horror fans are more likely to laugh at something gross than to be truly grossed out. So, make them laugh. Then, they’ll be off guard when a good line of gross detail hits them in the middle of their laughter. Lean into the comedy harder than the gross and choose your grossest lines carefully.

The Last Dance

Can I go for the threepeat? A few legendary competitors have faced this challenge in other sports. I can’t think of any of them off hand, but I’m sure there are a few. The rules are that if you win three times, you’re retired from the Gross Out Contest. You can serve as a judge, but can't compete again. I usually don’t have to work this hard to get banned from something. Authors like Brian Keene and Edward Lee, giants in genre fiction, have achieved this dubious honor. Winning three times in a row and then being out forever is a good way to go. Maybe I’ll compete in black market gross out contests in Eastern Europe after this. Who knows? I need to focus on next year.

Best of luck to any of you interested in trying this unique artform. I look forward to seeing you and hearing your stories as you all fight it out for second place.

About the author

Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in beautiful Conway, South Carolina. He is a full-time writer of horror and speculative fiction. Jay left his job as a teacher to become a full time writer and has never looked back. Well, that’s not entirely true. He wants to be sure he isn’t being followed, so he looks back sometimes.

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