Monday, April 29, 2013

The Appeal of Gore & Torture

Like all other genres of literature, film, and music, fans of the horror genre are extremely diverse. As mentioned in our discussion of the appeal of horror, differing perspectives among fans give way to various sub-genres in order to cater to individual tastes [and fears]. Some people prefer lighthearted b-horror movies, some people like slasher stories, some like movies with supernatural themes, some like gore, and some people like stories involving torture. With that being said, this lecture is about the attraction to violence; specifically gore and torture. It's perfectly understandable that many people—even die hard horror fans—don't care for excessive blood and guts; Some make comments along the lines of, "I just don't get it," so the purpose of this essay is to help those people understand [and maybe even appreciate] the allure.

We all know that conflict is what makes a story interesting; without conflict, books and movies would be no more captivating than our everyday lives... who cares about a story where everyone gets along and everything is just business as usual? I'm bored just thinking about it. Conflict—whether it is implied or explicitly stated—is what drives a story and gives it a beginning, middle, and end. We all know that, and I'm not going to ramble on about why conflict is important. In fiction and reality alike, the physical manifestation of conflict is violence. Actions speak louder than words. If we had never developed audio technology to accompany motion pictures, the natural progression for silent films would have been increased violence because violence is enthralling by nature. Throughout human history, we know for a fact that spectators have stood by to cheer on public executions (guillotines, gallows, crucifixions) as well as fights to the death. I'll spare you the complete lesson, but human history up this point has been bloody to say the least.

What could go wrong?
Why are we fascinated by blood and guts? It is because we learn so much about them in biology, and we know the basic principles of health, but [unless you're a surgeon,] we never get to see these miraculous organs in our entire lives? We're all aware of the fact that each of us is full of blood, guts, and bones, we know how vital they are to our conscious existence, we know what they look like and how they function, but we never see them or talk about them. Hey, stop giving me that "you're a fucking psycho" look, this is just theory. My point is that most everyone agrees that human biology is incredibly fascinating, but the only time entrails are ever discussed outside of a classroom is when something is horribly wrong. Colon cancer. Pancreatic cancer. Brain tumor. Bad liver. Gallstones. Kidney stones. Stomach ache. Aside from those people who regularly get colonics, hardly anyone starts a conversation with something positive about human organs. Because we speak of them so rarely, there is a natural fear attached to all that slippery stuff locked away inside of us, and so horror (specifically the "body horror," "slasher," and "splatter" sub-genres) capitalizes on that intrinsic fear. In "The Appeal of Horror," I previously stated:
Gore and violence—which are most everyone's greatest fears, really—are part of what makes a horror film a moving and emotional experience.

When we pair this last thought with the observation that seeing (or even talking about) blood and guts is an inherent fear that all human beings share, it becomes easier to understand the role of gore in horror. If violence is representative of conflict, gore represents the aftermath; it adds drama/ tension and often helps to carry the story. If we broadly define the horror genre as, "an exaggeration of conflict intended to produce tension," it makes sense why horror stories go to such extremes to trigger emotional reactions in the audience.

Some people say that gore is not art. Gore alone may not be an art form, it's the context and execution that makes gore in horror artistic (even with context aside, there are no shortage of movies and books which feature gory scenes that many do, in fact, consider to be of artistic value). In his essay entitled "The Attractions of Violent Entertainment," Jeffrey Goldstein of University of Utrecht writes:
Both the context of violent images themselves and the circumstances in which they are experienced play a crucial role in their appeal... Bloody images lose their appeal when there are few cues to their unreality. If the violent imagery does not itself reveal its unreality, the physical environment may do so. We are aware of holding a book, of sitting in a movie theater or a sports stadium, of manipulating a joystick or remote control. Without background music, awareness of the camera, exaggerated special effects, or film editing, images of violence are unattractive to both males and females...

To once again re-hash the previous lesson on "The Appeal of Horror," the fictional, controlled environment is what makes horror enjoyable. Some people insist that gore is uncreative, but that's a topic to be addressed another day.

So I'm a cat person; I have two cats, and I know that they will always be bloodthirsty animals no matter how much I "domesticate" them. They love raw meat. They love pretending to hunt and kill mice. They have loud, epic fights every day just because they're bored. If I were to drop dead in my home, I know those cute little bastards aren't going to wait very long before they start eating me. Every day I think about how ludicrous it is to willingly share the same apartment with carnivorous beasts... I know better than that!
As a society, we are not terribly different from cats. Several thousand years ago, early humans had to hunt for their food daily, and now we've reached the point where we've established infrastructure and basically domesticated ourselves. We work in offices, we buy packaged foods at grocery stores using coupons and credit cards, we use indoor toilets that relocate our excrement to who-knows-where, we watch one of a hundred TV shows about singing and call in to vote for our favorite each week... yet we still have traces of that killer instinct from 10,000 years ago, and we need nondestructive ways to release it. One minute my cats might look fat and bored, but when I give them a toy mouse, they eviscerate it and stare at me like, "who's next?" For humans, horror movies are the equivalent to the toy mouse.

"Audition" (1999)
A major inspiration for this essay is a common exchange I witness in horror forums on a regular basis: someone will bring up a gory horror film, then another horror fan says, "I never saw that one because I heard it was really gory. I don't care for excessive gore, or these torture porn movies like 'Saw' and 'Hostel.'" Every day, the same comment in every horror forum. Having just discussed the appeal of gore, I would like to now address torture. First, let me begin by saying that "torture porn" is a fairly accurate description of some very graphic horror films, as the appreciation for torture in film is almost like a fetish (not necessarily sexual), but the term "torture porn" is generally used by critics to be derogatory and dismissive of otherwise great works of horror. Takashi Miike's "Audition" is considered to be torture porn, but there's no torture until the last 20 minutes of the movie, so I think just "horror" is sufficient to describe it to someone who hasn't seen it (otherwise they might assume there is graphic torture throughout and discount the film entirely). Secondly—and I have said this in a forum once before—you may be doing yourself a disservice as a horror fan by dismissing a film as merely torture porn (especially in the case of "Hostel," which actually has very little torture and gore compared to the amount of plot and character development). In place of the term "torture porn," I would prefer to use "splatter film" as it implies extra attention to gore without immediately negating a movie by attaching the inaccurate stigma of "torture for the sake of torture."

The big question on everyone's mind is, "what is the appeal of torture? Why would anyone want to see that?"
My best guess is that the idea of being bound & tortured is another one of those universal fears we've picked up from years of watching spy movies and news broadcasts, therefore it is a fear that horror fans would like to face in a controlled, fictional environment. When a character in any other sort of horror film struggles for their life—like a victim in a slasher movie, for example—the audience tends to told its breath until they are given the cue that the character is dead. Once an audience member knows that the victim is dead, they resume their breathing as they become filled with a sense of hopelessness. In movies like, "Scream," where characters run from the villain for a few minutes before he wrestles them down and kills them, those fighting scenes which cause moviegoers to hold their breaths are rarely longer than 30 seconds. Alternatively, when the lights come up on a defenseless victim tied to a chair, the audience has no clue whether the scene will last a few seconds or several minutes, and that thought alone induces anxiety. From a strictly theatrical standpoint, depictions of torture are incredibly unnerving to watch because they force the audience to "hold their breath" longer, simultaneously playing off their fears of bodily harm, suffering, and the unknown. As for the people who enjoy watching torture scenes in horror films, I would say the appeal is a combination of that primal bloodlust that our species still hasn't let go of, and a sincere appreciation for special effects & makeup. Admittedly, I do enjoy a good torture scene, but even still, I almost always cringe in repulsion.

Simply put, torture is an extremely effective device to use in horror because it elicits a profound negative response (which, of course, is the point); some horror fans like the concept because torture scenes are a unique combination of action and suspense which raise the audience's level of terror.