When it comes to horror, how much violence is too much?
A few years ago, I would have given you a very different answer to this question than the one I would give you now. A few years ago, I was mainlining Saw movies and watching behind-the-scenes Final Destination clips of blood-splatter canons and loving every second of it; when I first came to horror, I wanted to jam my head full of all the violent, extreme shit that I could find, because I was finally brave enough to watch it and wanted to prove to myself that I could handle the most wildly extreme stuff that I could get my hands on. You know, the stuff that people were hand-wringing about gorenorgraphy over, the Eli Roth and Guinea Pig movies of the world.
And I’m not going to sit here now and tell you from my high bloodless horse that any horror with a really extreme amount of violence in it is automatically one that is lesser. Yes, a lot of so-called scary movies rely far too heavy on viscera to sell themselves, but there are some movies that make that violence work for them. I rewatched Takashi Miike’s Audition recently (which is based on a book of the same name by one of my favourite writers, Ryu Murukami, who I am legally obliged to beg you to read), and that’s a film with undeniable artistic merit and also a level of violence that will leave you squirming and gurning on the couch. Audition isn’t alone in this category: films like Raw, Cabin in the Woods, and Train to Busan all use heavy levels of violence to tell their stories, but are all excellent flicks in their own right. Horror is horror is horror is horror, and to some extent, you’re going to have to show something horrible in order to land yourself in that category, right?
Ann Radcliffe, a brilliant and influential author of Gothic fiction, wrote an essay that was published in 1826: On the Supernatural in Poetry. The whole thing is worth a read (here, if you’re curious), but the part that is most often quoted, and the part that matters most to this argument, is the one that concerns horror versus terror as a notion: ‘terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them’.
I think this is probably the most succinct summing-up of where the line is drawn between what scares us (the terror) and what disgusts us (the horror). Terror is the creak of the foot on the stairs, horror is showing us what made that creak. The anticipation to the payoff. Horror, in some ways, is a relief: it’s a promise that the dread is over, at least for a while. Terror forces us to engage with it, and that’s often a far more intense experience.
And, for me, this is where the line has come to be drawn. When does the pursuit of instilling genuine terror in the audience get overtaken by just throwing nasty shit in their direction? Midsommar was a good example of this for me; it’s a bunch of long pauses interspersed with exceptional violence, but it does little to build the fear, the dread that hangs on to you in the way that, say, Aster’s previous outing, Hereditary, did. A movie because gorenography or something like it when the horror comes before the terror. Something like The Blair Witch Project really doesn’t ever deliver on the relief of horror, and that, to me, is why it’s one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen. It is terror on terror on terror on terror, and most of the reason why I’ll never live in the countryside again.
How much violence is too much violence? There’s no hard-and-fast rule or percentage number I can give you to answer that question. But any film that takes its scares seriously, any horror that wants to linger beyond just the gore or the jumpscare, is one that’s going to balance the dread with the, uh, dead. Ann Radcliffe might have written that easy nearly two hundred years ago, but its message is as cogent and applicable to modern horror as ever: if your focus on brief shock outweighs your focus on maintained discomfort, you’re probably doing something wrong. Or your name is probably Rob Zombie and I like your films anyway.
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(header image via SlashFilm)