Should we defend gratuitous violence in film? Rothery explores the wider implications of blindly consuming such bloody content.
Should we defend gratuitous violence in films, or is it actually instilling a harmful perspective of the world? This issue has been well debated in relation to video games, with many ultimately arguing “to each their own”: if you don’t want to see gore, don’t look. When talking about films, though, things get a little more complicated, especially considering the degree in which popular pictures impact our world view – you can’t tell me you don’t rethink the concept of time after watching a Christopher Nolan film! Gore is certainly essential to certain genres, but I believe we should reflect on our haste to excuse such brutality and consider its growing ubiquity.
I am a horror fan who loves the occasional slasher (what is Halloween without a screening of Halloween?) and I totally agree that some violence is needed to create suspense and fear. However, I’m starting to question if we really need to see someone’s chest being ripped to shreds or watch as a person’s decapitated head drains of blood, their eyes fading to grey. Yeah, I’ll admit to being somewhat squeamish, but I also think that the way we view violence is ingraining harmful ideologies into our brains, especially in regards to women. Whose bodies are we mutilating for the sake of “horror”?
“Whose bodies are we mutilating for the sake of ‘horror’?”
Take for instance Scream (1997), one of my favourite horror films. The opening scene is one of the most famous and applauded horror openings of all time due to the way it builds suspense; viewers sit on the edge of their seats in anticipation to see what the man on the phone is going to do. During the climax of this scene, we witness him jump Drew Barrymore’s character and savagely stab her chest, making her unable to scream – ironic, I know. After dragging her through the grass, her bloody mangled body is then hung from a tree in front of her house. Pretty scary, right, the way her lacerated body is sexualised and used as a spectacle? It almost makes me question why this opening was so influential, until I realise that in most films women’s bodies are sexualised despite them being alive or not. Of course, the gore is necessary in this scene for the suspense. Since we would not be scared if we knew we were not going to actually see her dead body, and having been presented with a twisted murderer as the film’s antagonist, our captivation is secured; we keep watching.
However, placing women specifically as the subject of such butchery encourages violence against women in real life and supports the ideology that women’s bodies are disposable. It’s a classic tactic for horror films to use the bodies of mutilated young women to scare people, as seen within the most famous horror films throughout time: Psycho (1960), The Exorcist (1973), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1998), and American Psycho (2000) are a few examples from the last 80 years that do exactly this.
Now, I’m not saying that gore is always grotesque beyond justification and should never be used because honestly, it’s a vital component of the horror genre. But personally, the reason I am anxious and frightened throughout most horror films is because I am scared something gross is going to happen. The way the film industry goes about creating gore has misogynistic consequences; it inculcates into our subconscious that the purpose of women’s bodies is to be torn apart.
“… it inculcates into our subconscious that the purpose of women’s bodies is to be torn apart.”
When I watch a horror film, I mentally prepare myself for such displays of gore in order to make the film easier to watch because I would never make it through any of my favorite films if I was deeply disturbed by every dead body. But, I think we need to hold the use of gore to a higher standard of function, no longer accepting it as a trope but demanding it be used creatively. This penchant for sanguinary has permeated into other genres (such as comic book adaptations, domestic dramas and crime thrillers, see The Suicide Squad (2021),The Undoing (2020) and anything Tarantino, ever) and feels somewhat misplaced and inappropriate. Gore is best used when trying to create discomfort, and this discomfort needs to be critical to some plot development or theme; discomfort for the sake of discomfort should be saved for experimental cinema.
Ultimately, seeing so much gore desensitizes us, in a dangerous way. We shouldn’t not flinch when we see a human body being viciously attacked, it should be natural for us to feel uncomfortable when we see this. The Changeling (1980) and A Quiet Place (2018) are examples of horror films that have proved successful without resorting to excessive slaughter. Just because I like slasher films doesn’t mean that I should ignore the harm that comes from becoming numb to gore, and it definitely doesn’t mean that the copious amounts of cruor on display in modern day cinema should be ignored.