If you’re an avid horror movie fan, you might have taken notice that recent films in your beloved genre have become increasingly gory. It hasn’t always been this way. Horror movies began in the 1930s, the so-called “Golden Age”, with the classic tales of Frankenstein and Dracula. These films were dark, foggy, moral tales of supernatural monsters set to creepy organ crescendos. These flights of fancy transported audiences to another place, a stark contrast to today’s horror, which is all about in-your-face, gross out extremes, and immediate horrifying visuals.
Are these omnipresent images of gore a consequence of a desensitized society? Or do these very images contribute to the callousness of our culture? The answer among researchers seems divided. There has been a lot of study conducted on the topic, but not many conclusive long-term results.
This is largely because people receive violent images from many different sources. They also come from varying backgrounds with different degrees of violent behavior. Thus it becomes difficult to single out one piece of stimuli like horror films and definitively say that is the culprit for any wanton aggression in an individual.
The world of horror cinema changed in the 1960s with Alfred Hitchcock’s riveting film Pyscho and its unprecedented depictions of sex and violence. More importantly it was the first horror film to really go in depth exploring the potential for fear ignited through purely psychological means. After this film the genre was changed forever.
Rosemary’s Baby in the 1970s followed suit using the mounting paranoia of a young city wife to generate an escalating sense of fear and confusion in the viewer. Enter moral ambiguity. The films of the “Golden Age” of horror had clearly and boldly delineated bad guys. and you always knew who to fear. However, in Rosemary’s Baby (directed by a young Roman Polanski) we are unsure of who the “bad guy” is, or even if there IS a bad guy. The fear is driven by the seemingly normal backdrop of the movie, and the ever-powerful human concept of paranoia (Zinoman 21). This is talent. Polanski knew how to get beneath people’s skin by playing on an innate sense of psychosis.
Directors of horror movies in the late 1960s and 1970s maintained this ambiguity but added another layer of gore, and gratuitous sex. Movies like Night of the Living Dead and The Last House on the Left contained many shocking and gory scenes, but they also had over-arching social commentary.
Gore wasn’t invented in the last ten years, but it seems lack of talent and original, coherent story-telling was. In the 70s the gore factor wasn’t the sole engine driving these films. It was, gore with a purpose. Today we see the genre moving away from intriguing storylines and well-developed characters to a constant and grotesque bombardment of gory and shocking images, a pattern that has led to the development of the term “torture porn”.
Lost is the inherently terrifying notion of ‘the implied’. Horror film directors working today seem to have decided we need to not only see everything that happens but actually see inside the people it is happening to. If there is any talent in today’s gore films it’s found in their ingenuity for coming up with new and disgusting ways to mutilate and humiliate the bodies of human beings.
There have been many studies conducted, and articles written, on the effect of such horrific imagery on the minds and behavior of the population. Does being inundated by scenes of violence and torture lead people to be more violent? Or simply to become desensitized? While studies have shown that being repeatedly exposed to violent images does indeed lead to some level of desensitization, they have not been shown to increase the likelihood of actually committing acts of violence.
In some cases soldiers and/or emergency first responders, such as EMT workers, have stated that these gory violent films have the opposite effect, and act as a means of catharsis for them- a way to release the accumulated tension that comes from the real-life horror they witness and can’t take lightly while working (Zinoman 76).
The Internet, with its vast availability of revolting images, has led many people to have a higher threshold and level of expectation when it comes to horror films which are touted for their very ability to shock. Compared to the gore offered for free online the old spookiness of horror just isn’t cutting it anymore for many of the morbidly-curious sector. The Internet has upped the ante so to speak and Hollywood horror has answered in full force with films like Hostel, and the Saw series. In this light, today’s extreme gore in horror is more of a response than a stimulus.
Many psychologists argue the context factor of horror. When a person sits down to view a horror film they are knowingly and willingly suspending disbelief for the next hour and a half and thus fully aware of the fantastical and surreal nature of the scenes they witness. It seems extreme violence on news programs and/or on fictional “realistic” drama films/T.V. would be more detrimental in skewing an audience member’s vision of right and wrong as these depictions are either real or meant to imitate real-life authentically.
Yet interestingly enough, these real-life depictions of violence are never blamed for random acts of depravity by psychotic individuals, whereas horror films are often cited as contributing factors. A scenario that seems to vastly undermine the population’s ability to tell truth from fiction.
Citations: Zinoman, Jason. Shock Value. New York: The Penguin Press, 2011