Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Reacting to Horror and Horror Films

Last week on the Girl Zombie Authors blog that I’m part of (you all knew it existed and read it, right? I talk a lot about zombies on there), Scott commented and asked a question about what I think about the hyper-realistic depiction of cannibalism as it pertains to zombie films and to the new movie Green Inferno that came out. I kind of answered it in the comments, but it got my mental wheels turning, and I feel like it needs more of an explanation.

Here was his comment:

Question re: slasher films.

Are you going to see
Green Inferno? I state up front that my interest in z-poc fiction doesn't lie in the blood and gore part of the genre. Sure, there's that, and there should be, but I don't see it as a fun focus. On the other hand, there's a good deal of it out there, especially in anthologies, where the writers revel in it. So, with that in mind, and since you brought up slasher movies, how do you feel about a hyper-realistic depiction of cannibalism? Honestly...I can't imagine watching it any more than I can imagine watching Human Centipede or HC2. I know there's definitely a cult following of those two movie...not that I understand why, lol. But, thoughts?

He was asking the question in regards to my comment about slasher films. Many of you know that I have written about slasher films in my book Life Lessons from Slasher Films. Like a lot of the films Eli Roth creates, this genre was also condemned and critiqued for being overly gory and violent.

Oddly enough, I don’t believe I have heard the same argument made for zombie films. I’m sure there are people out there who have said it, but there seems to be a bit more acceptance of having gore and cannibalism in zombie films than in other horror.

I will say that when Night of the Living Dead first came out, it showed humans being devoured in gory fashion. Most zombie films before that had Haitian zombies, and they were more slaves than devourers of flesh. Night shocked audiences because of its content, and zombie films have been following its lead ever since—often to the point of pushing the envelope and showing deaths and the consummation of flesh in intricate detail. It’s rare to find a zombie film or TV show that doesn’t have intestines in it.

In my book, Undead Obsessed, I talk a little about cannibalism. Here’s what I say:

Cannibalism is incredibly taboo within our society. We view it as the most abhorrent act one human can do to another. It is primal and barbaric. Only in extreme cases of survival is it viewed as tolerable. Night of the Living Dead takes this notion and portrays it in gory detail, often showing zombies fighting over various body parts of their victims. To add to the horror, the other characters never refer to the zombies as zombies, they are just “them” or “ghouls.” They don’t look like monsters, which makes them incredibly dangerous. This is especially evident near the end of the film when a little girl attacks and kills her parents. She still looks like a child, but behind her innocence is a desire to maim and consume. The girl eats part of her father, and when her mother shows up she knows the creature before her is no longer her daughter, but she can’t act to destroy her child. This leads to her being stabbed repeatedly with a trowel. If the monster doesn’t look different, how do you fight against it?

In most horror films, the basic premise is us versus them, humans versus a monster. In most films, that monster is a creature that looks different. Humans can differentiate themselves from them because they aren’t us. But at one point in time, zombies were us.

In most zombie films and shows, zombies aren’t the only creatures the survivors have to be wary of. They also have to be suspicious and cautious of other survivors. The lines between us versus them become blurred. There’s still a difference between the groups, but not a huge one.

While I haven’t seen the Green Inferno (and yes, I’m intrigued, but I doubt I will see it in the theater), I have a feeling that Eli Roth will portray the cannibalism in horrific and gory fashion. I’m sure his goal is to make the audience walk out of the theater feeling nauseous and uncomfortable. But that’s what he does.

Eli Roth and a few other horror film makers (the creators of Saw come readily to mind) have developed a genre that many refer to as “torture horror” or “torture porn,” and it is condemned for being ridiculously violent and gory for the sake of gore. And these films absolutely push the envelope when it comes to violence.

But they’re not the first. Slasher films used these tactics when they first came out. “Realistic” horror films such as Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes or Wrong Turn also employ this over-the-top violence. And while some people claim it’s just gore for the sake of gore, it’s also used to shock the audience. It’s used to make us feel uncomfortable, to make us squirm in our seats, to heighten our level of disgust and fear.

One of the goals of horror is to bring to the forefront those things that scare society. In the 1950s, that fear was the fear of nuclear war and communism, so the films reflected that. There were such moves as Them! and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

When it came to slasher films, which had their heyday in the 1980s, they reflected the idea of wanting to return to a more conservative time. The 60s and 70s had just happened with teens rising up to change social norms, so slasher killers try to suppress teens and their social change by killing them. They also want them to stop their sexual revolution, which is why most teens get killed during or after some kind of sexual encounter.

I have no doubt that Green Inferno also has some type of social message in it also. Again, I haven’t seen the film, only the trailer, which shows a group of teens who want to go into the rain forest to protest its destruction, and they get captured by a savage, primal tribe. I can only guess that they are tortured and eaten in horrific fashion with a few of them trying to escape—and maybe succeeding, but only after going through a horrific ordeal.

But, again, I don’t know because I haven’t seen the film yet.

My point is that horror has always and will always continue to push the boundaries of what makes an audience uncomfortable. There will always been an us versus them and a fear of the unknown—because that’s what continues to scare the American population.

It continues to be said that we have become sensitized to violence, and a lot of the blame lies in horror movies, but in some cases, it’s just real life. How much violence do we see on our news channels? How many reports do we read about people being killed by gunmen? What about the war? Violence is something we can’t and don’t get away from in our daily lives. We may not see it in all of its gory detail on the news like we do in horror movies, but it’s still present.

Horror movies have a certain freedom when it comes to depicting violence on film because the audience knows it’s fake. The audience may not like it or condone the violence, but we know no one really got hurt. The same can’t be said about what we see on the news. There is no fantasy or separation from reality there.

And we should be uncomfortable with the violence—both in the movies and in the news. We shouldn’t appreciate that bad things happen or become numb to it, and I think that’s where horror movies become important. By pushing the envelope and by making the audience queasy, it reminds us that we should react to violence. We should be horrified by what we see, and that should make us want to change.

However, on the other side, these are just films created to be entertaining and allow the audience to escape for a while. So, if that’s how you approach watching them, so be it. You are allowed to enjoy them.

So, to answer Scott’s questions, I think that hyper-realistic depictions of cannibalism and violence in horror films have their place, and I think it’s a safe place that allows audiences to confront the horror, know it’s fake, and then decide the best way to react to it. I think it allows us to look at what is happening in the real world and realize that something has to be done.

And to his other question about the Human Centipede and its sequel, I have never seen either film and don’t plan on seeing either film, but I believe that like other horror films they speak to the depravity of the human condition and what some are willing to do to others and the reaction they get should be one of disgust; however, if it’s something an audience enjoys, they can.