Happy Halloween and Samhain! I’m posting today while I wait for NaNoWriMo to begin and thought I’d write about a topic that I’ve been wanting to address for the last month or so but hadn’t found a good time to post about so far. Given the subject matter, I can’t think of a better time than now on Halloween, a day dedicated to the grotesque and macabre.
As a society, we are addicted to being thrilled. From amusement parks to movies, we crave the emotional and physical sensations of being excited, of feeling our hearts thumping in our chest and adrenaline pumping through our veins. Action in movies play upon this desire. How many throw shadow punches during a good boxing movie? How many pantomime rocketing at 80 mph down the highway during a Fast and the Furious movie? How many turned off their targeting computer during the Star Wars trench scene? We imagine ourselves in these situations and it gives us a palpable thrill, a surge of emotion and energy. The same could be said of good books, ones that transport us and exhilarate us, whether its love’s first blush or being part of the charge of Rohirrim during the Battle of Pelennor Fields. Good books pull us into the action. A good narrative always does that, whether on page or celluloid or televised.
Of course, there’s the darker side of those thrills, a need to be scared, shocked and surprised. Horror as a genre is nothing new. It has existed for thousands of years in the form of superstitions, folklore and dark fables. In some ways it can be cautionary or educational, imparting moral lessons or survival instincts. More recently, it has been to let us dip our toes into a darker world, one where we are not necessarily the masters of our world or of our fate. This is the same kind of thrill an intimidating roller coaster would have, pushing us close to the brink of death, under a control that is not of our making. But always the terror and horror are saying something, be it a warning or a lesson.
So, what happens when the end result of terror is the act of terror itself. When there is no lesson, no moral. What should we make of stories whose only purpose is exulting in the horrible and the unspeakable. Again, this is nothing new. The Circus Maximus of Rome is infamous for its use of terror and horror as entertainment, where the only lesson being taught is one of blood and gore. I feel we’ve circled back to this mentality, of reveling in horror for its own sake, always trying to push the boundaries of the permissible. There is no narrative beyond people die and in especially gruesome ways.
I think that there is merit in turning a microscope of the monster. One of my favorite literary monster would be Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan. One might also say Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter, but I would disagree. While I love the character Hannibal, he is more mundane and relate-able: he’s a cannibal yes, but he’s incredibly intelligent and wily, sophisticated and artistic and has an incredible (if too varied) palate. I would entertain having dinner with Hannibal Lecter, as long as he wasn’t the one choosing the menu. Why? Because while he is a cannibal and a murderer, he is also portrayed in a very human way. We understand him on some level: his sister was killed when he was young? Check. His captors turned her into stew and made him eat her? Check. As monstrous as he is, he’s still a man we can understand if not condone him.
Not so Dexter. Dexter (in the books, not the show) is alien, completely detached from humanity. You might as well set the table for a six foot iguana for all the similarity that exists between a normal person and literary Dexter. While I loved the TV show, it radically changed the nature of Dexter. In the show, he kills for moral reasons, hides himself for sentimentality. In the books, his creed and his choices are twitches, autonomic responses. He doesn’t murder killers because they are killers; he kills them because they are less likely to get him caught. He is an iguana in a man-suit, masquerading as a human and completely alien to us. And in that, his gore and his role as a monster lets us peek into the mind of a serial killer, even an imaginary one. We can see him and see ourselves reflected back.
Yet what about fiction that doesn’t care about being narrative. I feel a prime example of this would be the collected works of Eli Ross. So infamous are his movies that they actually coined a phrase for his type of horror: gore-porn or gorn. Whereas pornography is sex with no romance or emotions, gore-porn is brutality for its own sake. His movies (plus others) focus exclusively on the brutality and cruelty, with very little story to go along with it. It’s the equivalent of a nineteenth century freak show, where we all go into a darkened room and look at something scary and horrible for the same of gawking, with no context or background. Roth’s latest endeavor, The Green Inferno, is about a group of activists who travel to South America to protect a logging camp. On their way back, they are captured by cannibals and tortured. It is touted as an homage to 1970’s movies like Cannibal Holocaust or Cannibal Ferox.
Beyond the most passing attempt to lend a narrative to the story, this movie is primarily for the exhibition of people dying gruesomely and painfully. Putting aside the real-world societal and historical nature of cannibalism (usually it was a reverential act, done to consume the spirit of a foe and thus unlikely to involve ritualized torture), the point of all of the gore in the movie is to serve a single purpose: to tantalize and to provoke. There is no story to tell here, no irony to impart, although I understand Roth was trying to make some sort of social commentary here. It is simply meant to appeal to a certain lascivious taste. Or to enrage.
And therein lies my question and my inner debate. I can understand if Roth as a filmmaker is trying to test the waters of cinema and try new things, even horrible gruesome things. However, I don’t feel that is the case here. Again, there’s no story here -not really- just scene after scene of death. Even serial killers impart more meaning into their kills than Roth does. I do not mean this to be a critique of Roth and his work; there are dozens of other directors, screenwriters and authors in general who make this their bread and butter. Nor am I saying that there is not an interest in this type of fare (although I could questions whether there should be). After all, people keep paying to see these films.
Rather, my question as a content creator is whether the ends justifies the means. As a writer, where should I draw a line? When does enough equal too much? One of my favorite horror movies is still John Carpenter’s The Thing. It is a terrifying movie that relies heavily on body horror and gore. One might argue that it goes too far. Realizing that I might be splitting hairs a bit here, I would argue that the difference lies in the purpose. In Green Inferno, people die for no narrative purpose. Everything is intended for the jeering, cringing, salivating audience, like Romans watching lions maul the Christians. It is a spectacle only. Whereas in The Thing, the point of the story is that something hideous is pretending to be a person. When the titular Thing emerges, only then do we see how monstrous it is and how it had been among us the entire time. It is a story about suspicion, isolation, desperation and ultimately self-sacrifice. The gore is a vehicle for the story.
So, where do we draw the line as artists? Is the portrayal of horror and brutality a justified exercise in and of itself? Or should we be more circumspect about our use of the dark and the dire? Where does art stop and pornography begin? When is visual depictions of brutal death no longer of merit but simply obscene? The law in the United States Supreme Court has defined this in terms of sexual pornography (as opposed to gore-porn), ironically named the Roth test: obscenity is “whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to a prurient interest“.
While I would not advocate in the least censoring Eli Roth’s movies or the ability to film or pen material of its like, I also question whether the ability to create something like it justifies the necessity to create it. When I put words to paper, I always have to ask whether my work will enrich someone’s life, even a little. Am I sharing a fantasy with them? Giving them a thrill to escape into a different world and live it as a different person, feeling that person’s emotions? Is what I am doing improving the world, either by showing them something better or by illustrating the nature of something terrible? Is this something we all should aspire to? Or do we need a taste of the purposeless and inexplicablly horrible to remind us the world is not ordered and is sometimes senselessly violent? Does this brand of horror have a place and a purpose? Or are we simply exulting in our own base and monstrous desires? Maybe that’s the purpose Roth is trying to make: “look at you watching this, see how horrible you have become!“
Maybe Eli Roth is the personification of “gazing into the abyss”, thrusting before us a mirror where we can see the bestial savagery that exists within us. If that is the case, does that lend merit? Or do we need to be reminded of our baser instincts, of our brutal natures? Instead, perhaps it is better to be aspirational and even cautionary, to urge towards pride in our successes rather than guilt in our failures? It is a tricky question. What do you think?