Dawn of the Dead, Zombi, The House by the Cemetery, Brain-Dead (or Dead Alive in the US), Suspiria, The Last House on the Left, The Thing, Videodrome, The Fly. These are all films that I enjoy. And they are all films that pack in the gore, violence, dismemberment, and evisceration. I do not consider myself a gorehound but there is no denying that watching a zombie get its head cut off, especially if it’s by Tom Savini, is particularly gratifying. But the main question that these films pose is where do we draw the line with violence, gore, and sex. All of these films had almost all of these elements in spades and there are many books that are just as, if not even more, brutal than some of these films. So the question is, where do we draw the line? Is there a line?
When it comes to writing a horror story, there is usually an element of physical danger. Not always. Sometimes it is a purely psychological threat of madness but most of the time we get some form of physical threat. I believe I can say with some level of certainty that feelings of fear and horror are inextricably tied to the body and our sense of bodily integrity. A good example is Roman Polanski’s Repulsion which is a psychological horror film that we could say is mostly about the main character’s mental break down. There is a bit of violence in it but the main source of horror is the protagonist’s increasingly loose grasp on reality. But if we break down the protagonist’s problem, we find that at its root, is the fear of sexuality. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the main character develops a fear of heights after his partner falls from a great height. In the fantastic Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (seriously, check this movie out) we are treated to a romp through a dreamscape where everything seems to be metaphorical which is why this could be considered a psychological horror. But there is still the issue of the titular character’s coming of age which is of course tied to the body again. So the use of violence and gore can be justified in general. Our sense of self is deeply tied to our sense of body and when it is harmed, we react strongly from instincts that are in place to keep us alive. But the films I presented at the start of this post do more than vaguely hint at bodily violation. They dive in up to the elbows! So how can those films be justified?
The films at the top of the post do gore and they do it well and almost to excess. But what they do equally well is story and character. We care about the characters or at the very least, we want to know where the story will take us next. The gore is integral to telling the story since the story is about the body and the body’s destruction. David Cronenberg’s masterful remake of The Fly has as its subject the slow, painful transformation of a scientist into a man-fly hybrid. The Last House on the Left by Wes Craven is truly brutal in the depiction of the abduction and systematic torture of two young girls by a group of sadistic lunatics and what their parents do when they discover that the group of people who’ve sought shelter in their house are responsible for the rape and murder of their daughter. While the violence and sadism of the film are shocking, one can’t say that it is too much because it is no worse than what happens in real life. To deny the film as a cheap shock-fest is to turn a blind eye to the reality that we are embedded in. The Thing and Videodrome, while science fiction and extremely gooey, once again take body and its violation as its main theme though there are additional themes layer on top. The Thing deals with paranoia and, on a deeper level, is about the fear of contagion. Keep in mind that this film was made back when AIDS was becoming a real threat and people were terrified of this new and seemingly omnipresent infection. Videodrome deals with the question of where television and reality intersect. At what point does reality actually become subservient to illusion? How better to explore this than by looking at the body? Since the body is sort of the first thing we can say that we recognize and is the beginning of and filter through which we collect information about the reality, what happens when it is warped and remolded by fiction? How can we tell what is real anymore when the body becomes contorted by illusion? In these and many other stories, the body is the subject or the body plays a central role. In that case, there must be blood. We must be reminded that we are viscera machines. Soft, squishy, and vulnerable. But the gore serves the story. It is there as a mandatory condition. To sanitize it is to remove the story’s reason for being which is to explore our physicality and everything that goes along with it. But there is another type of entertainment that isn’t interested in these questions but just wants to slap us in the face with a bucket of giblets.
Back when I was doing a philosophy course in undergraduate, during my brief stint as a philosophy major, I wrote a paper about the ethics of modern horror films, comparing the use of gore in the films with earlier and equally graphic films. In the end, I concluded that many of these modern films go beyond good taste and presented gore in a less than ethical way. If only I had considered the implications that would have for grind house and splatter punk genres. Luckily, I’ve thought more about this issue since then and have reformulated my conclusion. I’ve also lightened up a bit and got off my high horse. Now, I all I can say is that if you enjoy it fine. While great entertainment may carry a deeper message about the human condition, sometimes fun is just fun. Planet Horror and Crank and Crank 2 were both violent, gory, and filled with sex. Both hearkened back to an era of film making that emphasized stupid fun over substance. These films knew what they were and didn’t try to be anything else. Compare The Toxic Avenger with something like Transformers. The former realizes that its premise is ridiculous and runs with it like a sugar-crazed bird with a gummy worm in its beak. The latter plays it way too straight, not realizing that we went to the movie to watch giant robots beat the living motherboard out of each other. I don’t really need much more beyond that. If you at least make the robots interesting or likable, like our much beloved Toxie, we won’t mind the absurdity. Now, The Toxic Avenger had some of the most outlandish gore out there. People were beaten stupid with their own severed arm! But if you went into it with the right mindset, you’d have a damn good time. Of course, these films had gore akin to a Saturday morning cartoon. It was so excessive that you couldn’t take it seriously. But then there are films like Hostel that require a bit of a different approach.
In a film like Hostel, the gore and brutality is played straight. You are not supposed to laugh. You are supposed to be uncomfortable and sickened. We as an audience are not supposed to enjoy what we see. But as we watch the simulated torture we become voyeurs to sick and twisted behaviors that, since they are already committed to film, cannot be altered. And we can’t claim ignorance either. We know going into a film like Saw or Hostel what is on the menu. Most of the characters in those films are not going to make it. They are squishy cannon fodder. We know that they will suffer painful, protracted deaths. But we still go and we still watch. I’d argue that these films do in fact push beyond certain boundaries. I don’t know if I could successfully argue otherwise when these films are doing everything in their power to push beyond the boundaries. But is it too much? In terms of censorship, I can’t say yes since I oppose censorship. But are they too much in that they shouldn’t have been made? Again, I can’t say I’d support that either. Movies aren’t always nice. They may show things that are deeply unsettling for no other reason than to provoke a reaction. Can I blame them? When trying to provoke a reaction, sometimes the cheap tricks are the best tricks. We are of course sickened and shocked by gore and violence and for different reasons. We are shocked by gore because we are not supposed to have an intimate, face-to-face relationship with the things inside our bodies. Our organs and blood are not to be seen and when we see on screen or read in a book that the intestines have come out to say hello, we react with a deep feeling of wrongness. Violence shocks us because we are empathetic creatures. We have a tendency to feel or at least understand what others are experiencing. So to see someone get stabbed or read about it, we take some of that into ourselves and experience a bit of that pain. But there is a bit more to the story of the modern “torture porn” flick.
One of the deeply embedded facets of human nature is the propensity to violence. We can run with the humanism thing all we want but in the end, we are animals like other animals and we have gotten to this point today because we were better at killing and destroying than anything else on the planet. That is not the only reason we have been so successful. Intelligence, farming, and tight-knit groups that cooperated helped a lot. But we can’t say that weapons and a taste for blood didn’t help. But how often do you kill someone or something these days? I think the last time I killed something was zapping a fruit fly. But young men are still full of primordial fury! This is why there are so many cases of aggression coming from teenagers and men in their early 20’s. It’s that urge to clobber something resurfacing in an environment that doesn’t allow for such behavior. These films allow people to experience something brutal without getting their hands dirty. Though of course, this suggests that some people, instead of identifying with the victims, are identifying with the torturers. This is a frightening thought but not surprising. We all have the capacity to do horrible things and these films allow for those who are more inclined to that sort of behavior to experience a vicarious thrill. And so far, I haven’t heard of a case where someone kills a person then blames it on Hostel. This reminds me of A Clockwork Orange, the novel, not Stanley Kubrick’s stunning adaptation. At the end of the original text, our faithful narrator Alex grows out of his violent behavior and decides that he wants to act like an adult. So if the thought that these movies creating a horde of testosterone leaking psychopaths is weighing heavy on your mind, don’t let it. Especially because my next point puts it into a bit of context.
In these days, manhood isn’t what it used to be even though we are still relying on software or hardware that is ancient. We still feel the need in many cases to earn the distinction of manhood. There are still many cultures around the world that have initiations in which young men become adults.
But we don’t have any such rituals in this culture. But with these films, we’ve found something like battle-testing ourselves. We challenge our friends to sit through these films and not throw up or run out screaming. In these films, we’ve found a proving ground to separate the men from the boys as the saying goes. Think about the demographic these films are marketed to. Young males who will go to other young males and dare them to sit through it. “Dude, I saw the sickest movie. A guy totally pulled another guy’s pancreas out through his ear!” They will talk about it and dare each other to sit through it. Since we can’t go into battle and retrieve an enemy’s head, we now come back with a ticket stub.
So where do we draw the line? As a writer, especially a writer of horror, this becomes a crucial question. My stories so far, don’t feature a lot of blood or overt violence. But that isn’t to say they won’t and I have some stories I’m planning that deal directly with themes of bodily violation. How does one balance the need to portray gore without going to the limits of excess? Or perhaps that is a false concern? Maybe the limits are not there. Take for instance, Salo by Pierre Paolo Passolini. It pushed every boundary imaginable. It is a film that I have not been able to watch through twice due to how unpleasant it is. But it was a good film. It dealt with the wretched excess that would be the logical conclusion of the fascist regime in Italy in World War 2. Morbid and perverse, it presents the fictionalization of an era’s ghouls who hid behind the mask of authority. So maybe it isn’t the question of how much is too much but what it is being used for. Is it to provide immature laughs, allow someone to experience deeply repressed urges, or reveal something about human nature? The amount of gore and violence is thus taken out of the issue of taste and propriety and put in the area of intention. What is the effect you’re trying to create in the reader or viewer? Shocks? Scares? Gross-out reflections on the vulnerability of the human body? I think this is why there is no line, only a sliding scale that you have to place yourself.