“Viewers may find the following images disturbing.”
It’s strange how we’ve often protected people from the horrors of reality, whilst peddling graphic fictional films to the public.
On TV in 2003, we saw the illegal invasion of a sovereign nation who hadn’t threatened us, but all the majority of news media showed us was a distant fireworks display above Baghdad, Iraq. The United States were so determined to conceal the flag-draped coffins from view after learning from the public relations disaster that was the Vietnam war thirty years earlier that they created press pools to tell the media exactly what was happening, in The Truth According to the Department of Offense Defense.
One million innocent civilians died as a result of that invasion. Protests continued, but whilst they battered the political credibility of Tony Blair and George W. Bush – with the former resigning and the latter suffering the lowest popularity ratings of any President since Harry Truman – they weren’t enough to outright stop the onslaught. The corporate mainstream media succeeded in predominantly covering much of the military assault as a legitimate conflict, refraining from conveying the impact of a million dead and thousands wounded, amputated, or scarred for life, both physically and mentally. That’s horror. Horror we didn’t see.
I’ve often said, news media needs to be more violent; entertainment media needs to be less violent. On this All-Hallows-Eve, I felt it appropriate to explain why, and to look at the concept of media horror in that context, drawing on something I’ve been meaning to refer for some time.
Not long ago, I was interviewed on the subject of horror films by film and video graduate Claire Watkinson as part of her research into the genre. I was asked to discuss the impact of “splatter” movies as a relatively recent phenomenon and how these have taken traditional horror to the next level.
Gone are the days of Max Schreck’s Nosferatu, or even Bela Lugosi’s Dracula; the suspense of their films or even those of genius Alfred Hitchcock are a fading philosophy. It’s now a culture of instant gratification, where filmmakers are offering chills, thrills and spills, spilling of blood, slashing of skin, splattering of guts, and blown-out brains as frequently as possible, each time gorier than the last.
The genre is darkly comedic in its absurd, throwaway, over-the-top approach, sometimes sort of satirical, but most often not. When they are not making a satirical statement, the dark humour is extremely manipulative in its desensitisation of violence, particularly towards women. Bereft of political/sociological awareness and invention, the aim has been to deliver as visually explicit a violent act as possible, which marks a regression in filmmaking. But there are a few welcome exceptions that offer a glimmer of hope in the darkness, some by both Claire Watkinson herself and my friend Brian Lockyer, both of whom have successfully penetrated the notoriously cliquey film festival circuit recently with their often-experimental indie works.
Even a Hollywood-based female director, however (in this case Mary Harron) has been able to take an utterly horrific, verging-on-misogynist novel by Bret Easton Ellis – American Psycho – and translate it to the screen with minimal misogyny and graphic, detailed, gut-wrenching violence found in most films – here, the misogyny was used as a statement about misogyny, and the violence was abhorrent without being blatant, so audiences saw the film for the message it was. In addition, the Blair Witch Project (harking back to Alfred Hitchcock’s methods) utterly petrified many audiences without showing almost anything at all; the viewer’s subjective imagination creating the horror for themselves. This proves that there are opportunities to create horror without this pornographic approach.
It can be argued that splatter films are another form of visceral pornography, a question raised by my interviewer. They say the difference between pornography and erotica is that the latter does not have to be blatantly visually explicit; it creates a subjective sense of sexuality and is not necessarily designed for the purposes of titillation. Likewise, the horror genre works best – artistically and ethically – when it creates room for a more subjective experience while making a specific point. The ability to make a statement, yet allow interpretations to be had subjectively, is after all the height of art.
As time has gone by, there has been an increase in awareness and liberal attitudes, buoyed by the French-driven Situationist International, and this has offered many progressions in the lives of people in society as prejudices have retreated. However, this – in addition to resistance of censorship – has often been used as an excuse to push the boundaries of explicitness. So, while there has always been “violence,” and “violence” in films, the representation of this violence has become more and more literal; blunt; blatant. In some cases it has even been OTT, which has an even worse effect by desensitising viewers to violence (see the “funny” scene in Pulp Fiction where Vincent Vega inadvertently blows off the head of a young African-American male without rhyme, reason, or artistic merit other than to lead to the director’s on-screen role in discussing “dead nigger storage”).
There has, again, been a mass-produced method of artistic and creative shortcuts where filmmakers have wanted to pay no mind to political points or consequences and more towards the of-the-moment approach of topping whatever has been done before in the visuals. This is representative of mainstream culture as a whole being, essentially, style over substance.
The irony of this movement was when Oliver Stone used violence in such an OTT, bombarding, almost oppressive way in his masterpiece Natural Born Killers in order to make a point about precisely that, and yet was promptly censored for it. Censorship is dangerous territory; interpretations are subjective, and all violent images are likely to be “triggering” in inducing trauma to some viewers, as well. So I am not advocating censorship.
The art and entertainment world – even professional wrestling – has always been the scapegoat for powers who pass policies harming societies, exploiting the poor, leaving people vulnerable, and generally – when forced to actually look at a cause instead of a cure (such as being “tough on crime”) – a useful place to point the finger towards as a form of “brainwashing.” (Interestingly, they do not accept this argument when the debate turns focus to corporate news and tabloid press – suddenly, then media is absolved of blame or responsibility).
There is a danger of powers calling for censorship of any creative form, because there is such a grey area and it is such a dark road to go down. I believe Heinrich Heine stated,
“where they burn books, they ultimately burn people”
Instead, just as with the “Axe Factor” mentality of pseudo-reality television, there needs to be a serious debate had around why these productions are being made, what they are doing to the culture, and what thought they provoke. When the excuse is “art for art’s sake,” then it’s an alarm bell for a piece of work that serves no purpose and makes no statement, and even dumbs-down the culture – why should this be funded? While private interests are in complete control of these sources of entertainment (moreso now that the UK Film Council has been predictably abolished by the Conservative government), they will bear no responsibility to contributing to society; there will only be an attempt to maintain the status quo and bolster the tried-and-tested studio formulas and reinforcements of the genre/star/auteur selling points to the public. To raise questions, is not a question for them.
So, yes, through this entertainment media, society becomes more immune to violence – for example, against women, or against the poor; one only has to sit with others when American Psycho’s main character, Patrick Bateman, stabs a homeless African-American man to murder him, then stomps his dog to death, to see what people are more horrified by (hint: it’s rarely the homeless man).
Meanwhile, perversely, corporate news continues to sanitise true life horror for us.
In Gaza – when, interestingly, the BBC reported “War In Gaza” while Al-Jazeera reported “War on Gaza” – only Al Jazeera itself had broadcast journalists on the ground showing bombs exploding around them. During the attack on Iraq mentioned earlier, when bombs were being dropped and men, women, and children were being murdered, most news programmes avoided broadcasting such images.
The image you saw at the top of this page was, from all accounts, very real: a photograph of an Iraqi man killed by the U.S. military. Images like that were allegedly used by American soldiers to trade, in exchange for sexual pornography. This is the desensitised culture being nurtured, where everything’s unreal, everything’s a video game, everything’s got a price.
It can be said, then, that desensitisation is inevitable when we live in a society where non-fiction violence is seen less, and fictional violence is rampant. Without seeing the realities of violence or its consequences, what messages are we sending to people? What is happening to the culture? It leaves me, for one, with a heavy heart indeed.
Claire Watkinson’s own horror film, Sitting Amongst the Apple Trees, premiered at the 2 Days Later short film competition festival this past weekend. Her company, Cherry Tree Productions, can be followed on Twitter.