Help me appreciate horror movies.
October 23, 2007 11:16 PM   Subscribe

What exactly is the appeal of slasher movies like Saw, Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes and Wolf Creek?

I consider myself something of a film buff. I like action movies, period pieces, science fiction and more. I can look at my favorite movies, say what's great about them, explain what their appeal is. But for the life of me I simply cannot fathom why people would like films like this. I can't stand watching them, but I understand that there are many people who do. And it is their views I am looking for here.

I don't begrudge them for it or judge them. I'm not saying films like this should be censored and nor would I want them to be censored. But I simply can't see why someone would like a film like this.

I appreciate that sometimes violence is needed to service a story. Many of the movies I like have a lot of violence in them. But not to the level of your typical horror flick. I mean what, exactly, is the appeal of seeing someone decapitated, even though its fake? What is the appeal of seeing a screaming girl being dragged off by someone to be tortured or killed, or a young guy being tortured in some dark room somewhere as in Hostel? It services the weak story of most of those films, granted, but it seems that the violence in these films is the point of the film itself, rather than an element of something more substantial.

So help me to understand why horror films like this are worth watching. Maybe then I can find something about them to appreciate and enjoy a whole new genre of film!
posted by Effigy2000 to Media & Arts (53 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Pastabagel touched on this subject in this excellent comment on the blue
posted by bunglin jones at 11:33 PM on October 23, 2007

The heavy beat of your heart. Our un-evolved brains have a hard time differentiating the scenes and what's right next to us. We can't really tell the difference. We call it suspension of disbelief but that is a fancy term for us thinking moving pictures is real life. We like to have the s*** scared out of us because it makes us feel something. Some of us like to feel non-typical feelings such as fear, suspense and utter terror. It's a change of pace from the fuzzy and mundane.
posted by crustix at 11:42 PM on October 23, 2007

They provide me kill a way blood to enjoy the viceral qualities of torture and mass murder redrum without having to act on stab what the voices so loud in my head tell me to do.
posted by SeanMac at 11:48 PM on October 23, 2007 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Catharsis.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:52 PM on October 23, 2007

I agree generally with pastabagel's comment, but it's by no means "new" to enjoy suffering. Actual torture has been presented as entertainment for the masses in many cultures throughout history.

However--with some notable exceptions such as House of 1000 Corpses, which falls very flat because of it--films generally include a strong element of comeuppance to the hated and feared characters, and reward to the "audience identifier" characters.

I guess the typical viewer watches them, is horrified by the gruesome experience of the characters, empathises with their plight, feels "happy" that they personally are not suffering said plight, fantasises about how they might escape the situation presented, empathises with the hero character, and takes vicarious joy in the thrill of the escape (from a terrible enemy, against great odds) and the punishment of the villains.

Try watching the Scream series, and the HBO series Dexter, about an anti-hero serial killer. Both owe a lot to the slasher genre, and are well worth watching IMO.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:54 PM on October 23, 2007

Stephen King wrote a very good essay on this in the foreword to Night Shift.
Fear makes us blind, and we touch each fear with all the avid curiousity of self-interest, trying to make a whole out of a hundred parts, like the blind men with their elephant. We sense the shape. Children grasp it easily, forget it, and relearn it as adults. The shape is there, and most of us come to realize what it is sooner or later: it is the shape of a body under a sheet. All our fears add up to one great fear, all our fears are part of that great fear - an arm, a leg, a finger, an ear. We're afraid of the body under the sheet. It's our body. And the great appeal of horror fiction through the ages is that it serves as a rehearsal for our own deaths.
posted by happyturtle at 12:02 AM on October 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

Pastabagel's comment is pretty good in many ways, but we are not a nation of borderline sociopaths - that takes it a bit far.

My personal opinion has two sides to it...

1) fear fascinates us when it's controllable. Take rollercoasters, "haunted houses", skydiving and the many other thrill-ride like things we can experience. It's almost certainly due to some base chemical response with the brain as well as our innate fear of death and/or pain. Slasher films allow us to confront those fears in a controlled fashion.

2) We're also odd as a species in that mental stimulation - even the negative kind - is seemingly addictive. Consider the concept of emotional inertia - why does a person who is sad or depressed then go listen to sentimental, sad music?

We like to be stimulated in both good and bad ways - slasher films provide the latter.

I've quite enjoyed the Saw series as well as Hostel (I didn't see the second one). They disturb the hell out of me, but it's a controlled environment - a movie.

I want to be clear about one thing, because Pastabagel's comment [linked above] made a statement I really disagree with on a base level:

I actually take no pleasure in the hyper-realistic violence... rather, I think I'm fascinated by my emotional response and my ability to safely turn it off afterward because it's only a movie. There is no part of me enjoying someone "getting their comeuppance" as pastabagel put it.
posted by twiggy at 12:06 AM on October 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

It's a complex thing. I think many viewers enjoy the fantasy that allows them to be both sadist and masochist, the hunter and the hunted. It allows you to be disgusted and thrilled at the same time, it allows you to explore taboo areas, it allows you to examine the strange beauty of our viscera in a safe setting without dealing with actual deaths.

There's also the fact that we live in an era that is grappling with the concept of torture, and it's pretty natural that our art is going to explore that. Some may shudder to see Hostel called art, and I happen to think it's a pretty crap movie, but the fact is that it resonates with people, and that makes it important if you like it or not. People love pointing out that the horror movies of the 70s were filled with images from Vietnam, and how that gives those movies depth. Likewise, modern horror makers have (perhaps subconciously) grabbed a theme that resonates with our national psyche. This is natural and good, and I promise you that in twenty years people will be writing about how these movies were the secret mirror of the American mind .
posted by Bookhouse at 12:26 AM on October 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

PS -- I admire your open-minded attitude about this.
posted by Bookhouse at 12:26 AM on October 24, 2007

The first few seconds of Saw III, where a man bludgeons his foot into mush so as to slip it out of a chain, I loved. It was so shocking, so unexpected.
That said, I found the rest of the film a horrifying ordeal, so my sensitivity level is obviously turned a bit high for this sort of thing. But in those first few seconds, I think I got a hint of what people enjoy about these films.
posted by greytape at 1:04 AM on October 24, 2007

It is definitely something to do with the adrenaline rush that you get when you know someone is going to jump out with a machete or something, but not knowing how/when.
posted by cholly at 1:22 AM on October 24, 2007

I think now that maybe my linking to pastabagel's comment mightn't have been the best thing to do since you were asking why these films are worth watching, rather than "why do people watch them"? I think these films can be assessed to a large degree according to their level of inventiveness. Based on the enthusiastic "Oh man, did you see the bit when....." comments I heard from many teenage boys as they left the cinema after seeing Saw, it seems to me that, while all these gore porn movies revulse and shock and disgust the viewer, the good films do these things in inventive ways. Thinking of new ways to digust is what's kept the Aristocrats joke going and it's what drives the Itchy& Scratchy cartoons. Combine this with the usual criteria of whether or not the film achieves what it sets out to (does it shock? does it digust? does it fill you with terror?) and I think you've got some means by which to judge the merits of the film. But (based on my own experience of watching these films) I think you're facing an uphill battle when it comes to trying to "appreciate" one of them. : the plot, no matter how clever it's trying or pretending to be, is usually nothing more than a means by which the viewer can be transported from one graphically violent set-piece to another. Substitute "graphically violent" for "graphically sexual" and you're talking about a run-of-the-mill porn flick; it's very tough trying to non-ironically "appreciate" porn from a film buff's point of view.
posted by bunglin jones at 1:33 AM on October 24, 2007

I'm right there with you. My current position is this: Horror films are scary! Feeling scared sucks.

I want the special effect the others are getting.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:53 AM on October 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think a small part of it may be that on a subconscious level people grok that exposure to shocking stimuli helps them have greater control in the future. Like, I derive some slight enjoyment from keeping still when others around me are startled. Or being able to comfortably eat a sandwich during a necropsy while my friend turns green. Maybe one of the reasons I like the occasional splatterpunk flick is because it gives me an advantage in the schadenfreude department?
posted by hjo3 at 2:11 AM on October 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: bunglin jones: "I think now that maybe my linking to pastabagel's comment mightn't have been the best thing to do since you were asking why these films are worth watching, rather than "why do people watch them"?"

Actually, I'm probably interested in answers to both those questions. I am trying to find out what makes these films enjoyable to others, so inherent in that question is the question of why people watch them.

iamkimiam: "I'm right there with you. My current position is this: Horror films are scary! Feeling scared sucks."

It's not so much that I'm scared but disgusted. The last one of these films I watched was Wolf Creek which, I kid you not, left me in something of a state of shock for days. It was a brutal, disgusting film, and it kind of angered me. Not on a "this violence shouldn't be shown" level but on a "the decisions the characters made were so stupid; a real person wouldn't have made them and therefore a real person wouldn't have suffered these horrible fates" level. So I was disgusted not only by the pretend violence but by the fact that the story drove these characters to make plainly idiotic decisions just so that they could be murdered horribly.

Anyway, after Wolf Creek I gave up on the whole genre, and I couldn't for the life of me work out why I ever watched them, or why for that matter I would ever want to watch a movie like it again. Hence the question. I don't want to be missing out on something that may actually be worth watching, just because I don't 'get it.'

Interesting answers from all so far, thank you. Keep `em coming.
posted by Effigy2000 at 3:19 AM on October 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ok, here's the thing. There are good horror movies and there are bad horror movies. There are more of the latter, but the same could said about any genre.

I used to hate horror. Never understood the appeal. Then, in my mid-teens, I sat down and watched Night of the Living Dead, not because it was horror but because it was a critically acclaimed part of cinema history, and I felt compelled to not have a gap in my education. It is an amazing piece of cinema and the horror in the film is something beyond the mere physical. It says something about human beings in general, much like the best science fiction films aren't really about the future, but about the present. From there I took this as a sign that not all horror movies are schlocky 80's slasher flicks. I went on to watch The Shining, Rosemary's Baby, Psycho, Alien and Nosferatu. These are generally considered the best horror movies ever made and they stand up beyond the confines of the genre.

Now, I'm telling you this because the appreciation for the GOOD horror movies opened up the potential for me to enjoy bad ones. Much like people will watch schlocky romantic comedies without too much value, just because they've seen the good ones too many times and want something new. You get the genre archetypes and cliches that you can laugh at. And after a while, bad horror movies become comforting in the same way as any other genre that feels familiar.

Good luck. I've been watching horror movies for the last 10 years and it is the one genre that still has the potential to surprise me and keep me interested.
posted by slimepuppy at 3:27 AM on October 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: slimepuppy: You actually mentioned a couple of films I like there, such as The Shining and Alien. Movies such as those are horror films and they are good horror films, but they aren't on the level of something like Saw, Hostel or Wolf Creek, which seem to be about violence for the sake of violence, and making a characters death as horrible as it can.

But as you yourself say, these movies are more of an exception to the rule; small, shining lights in a sea of turds. Which makes me think that I am simply not 'getting' these films, because surely an entire genre can't suck that badly?
posted by Effigy2000 at 3:33 AM on October 24, 2007

They're exploitation movies, pure and simple.

"I Spit on your Grave" for the noughties.

Gorno. Whatever you want to call it. The medium is the message.
posted by ReiToei at 3:45 AM on October 24, 2007

Response by poster: Let me put it another way. I saw this picture in a magazine I read which was advertising The Hills Have Eyes II.

The picture is obviously something which the producers think will help sell the movie to people who like these movies. But given my disposition towards such movies, I look at this image and I am left dumbfounded. Why is this a scene I would want to see? What makes a movie that has this scene in it worth watching. I can't see it, but obviously there will be people out there who will.

Hence my question.
posted by Effigy2000 at 3:48 AM on October 24, 2007

I think the core issue you have is that you believe that horror is synonymous with Hostel, Saw and their ilk. As you say yourself, there are horror movies that you do enjoy, so the genre in general is not at fault, it is only a particular subgenre of horror that puts you off. There is nothing wrong with not being a fan of torture-porn/gore movies, regardless of the underlying motivations of people who do enjoy them. I watch them get moments of enjoyment out of them, but over all I find the entire subgenre somewhat tired and shallow.

Finding good horror movies is like most mainstream cinema to me: you have to root through a lot of crap to get to the good films. There are a lot more of these shining lights, but they are usually overwhelmed by the bigger budget/less innovative horror movies. I could recommend a list of 20 recent horror movies for you that would probably be more to your liking (and some possibly not). I don't quite know how you can go about getting into horror without a few misteps along the way before you can start to feel you way around synopsis, directors and other indicators of what subgenre of horror movie you're going to get yourself into.
posted by slimepuppy at 3:55 AM on October 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

My (extremely simplified) take on it is this: It's horror porn. If someone is advertising a porno movie on a poster, there will be boobs. People watch these movies like they'd watch a dirty movie, but instead of getting off on the spectacle of people fucking, they're getting off on the spectacle of people getting tortured, killed or mutilated.
posted by ReiToei at 3:56 AM on October 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: FourFour had a review of Captivity that goes into this question a bit.
posted by lampoil at 4:26 AM on October 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

There are literally thousands of articles, books, lectures, films and essays written about why horror is popular. AskMe, though wonderful, is hardly going to find the definitive answer to it all. I wish we could, but you're not going to find the general answer you're looking for that covers every single person who likes horror.

I know this is hardly a fair comparison, but the poster for Clockwork Orange has the movie's tagline: 'Being the adventures of a young man who's principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven.' With a picture of a smiling guy with a knife and an eye-ball. Subtle is not really the name of the game when it comes to some horror movies. Sex sells and all that.

Why that Hills Have Eyes II poster appeals to me? It tells a story. Hell, one of the oldest ones there is, and cleverly adopted by David Lynch as the tagline for INLAND EMPIRE: 'A woman in trouble.' It's so much better than floating heads looking into the distance where the only difference between an action movie and a romantic comedy is the ratio of men to women and the colour-scheme.

I understand what you're asking, but I don't there is an ojective answer.
posted by slimepuppy at 4:27 AM on October 24, 2007

I originally watched Saw because its premise seemed quite similar to a screenplay I wrote in college (two people trapped in a room with a gun, door won't open until one of them is dead).

Then I got into the whole Rube Goldstein-esqueness of the traps. I liked to imagine people I hated in them.

I only like this series of films, though. I have no interest in Hostel et al.
posted by Lucinda at 5:04 AM on October 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Do you mean horror films or torture films? I'm all about scary movies (The Ring is stellar), but Wolf Creek destroyed me, and I think that it is totally different. I had lazily attributed the new rise/resurgence of the torture flick to some complicated gestalt/zeitgeist/whatever regarding Abu Ghraib. Pastabagel's comment remarks that there are articles about this, though I'm not finding them right now.
posted by unknowncommand at 5:21 AM on October 24, 2007

(rather, Google isn't finding them)
posted by unknowncommand at 5:23 AM on October 24, 2007

Good question. Good answers.

I've wondered deep and long about Effigy2000's question, and I think the movies tickle something different in different groups of people.

Among those sectors of the gorno audience not already discussed:

* People who would like to do something like the screeen shows to people they dislike (for which urge the movie may provide relief).

* Teenagers who like the fact that it's a bonding experience to endure, and gives them something to talk about with their friends.
posted by sacre_bleu at 5:39 AM on October 24, 2007

I agree with Twiggy's comment whole-heartedly, & also with Lucind's aside about enjoying Saw, but having no interest in Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes, etc.
For me a slasher flick is different than these movies though (Saw included), slashers, Friday the 13th, Halloween & Hatchet to name a newer one, are more "fun". The key difference for me is that a slasher film has humour intended; this other type of horror film, gorno, for lack of a better word, is a very different genre. There may be some moments in these films that garner a smirk or two, but they aren't humourous, part of their appeal is that they seem more serious & are thus more scary. I also consider myself a bit of a movie buff, but I don't find many of these films as enjoyable as slashers or "grindhouse" (loved the Grindhouse Tarantino/ Rodriguez homage).
One tip though if you want to expand your movie genre norm (you may or may not end up ever enjoying these types of movies though), if you ever have an opportunity to go to a horror/ fantasy film festival, do it. Do the research, choose your movies in advance & buy a pack of tickets for movies outside your typical stuff. Montreal has the Fantasia festival, I've seen some amazing horror (& fantasy) stuff from all around the world, it's eye-opening to say the least.
posted by Laura in Canada at 5:58 AM on October 24, 2007

I'd check out some Japanese fucked up violence/torture films (no idea what the real genre is called). Plot and charecter wise they are much more interesting than the American ones. After watching Ichi The Killer, I couldn't stop thinking about it for days. I couldn't say I actually liked the film, but it was damn interesting. When I watch films like Hostel or The Hills Have Eyes now, I find them utterly mundane.
posted by afu at 6:00 AM on October 24, 2007

The statement:

I was disgusted not only by the pretend violence but by the fact that the story drove these characters to make plainly idiotic decisions just so that they could be murdered horribly.

is kind of interesting... In pretty much any horror movie, the audience is played on in this way - we know that the characters shouldn't go into that basement/turn their backs on that innocent-seeming doll/give that hitchhiker a ride. Sure, sometimes, the characters are behaving the way no person in their right mind would, but other times, it's just our knowledge of the genre or our omniscient knowledge as the audience that gives us the urge to scream "RUN VERY FAST!" at the screen. Characters defy our expectations in all kinds of movies, from romantic comedies to Oscar-winning dramas in the same way - if we could predict every move a protaganist made, movies wouldn't be that interesting - but this device is definitely used most extremely in horror movies. For an example, think about the incredibly stupid decisions that were made at every turn in Alien, a film you enjoyed.

I'm someone who enjoys horror movies, and who couldn't disagree with Roger Ebert more about Wolf Creek. That movie definitely didn't turn me on in any voyeuristic/blood-lusty way, but I did enjoy watching it, and I would see it again. What did I like about the movie? The deliberate, slow buildup; the cinematography and scenery; the sudden and shocking violence; the lack of any explanation of or reason for the killer's acts... Basically, I felt like the director did an absolutely amazing job of slowly putting the audience in a terrifying place, then building on and sustaining that terror.
posted by sluggo at 6:04 AM on October 24, 2007

And also, Intersting/related comments on the blue.
posted by sluggo at 6:19 AM on October 24, 2007

There's a reason this particular subgenre of horror is called torture-porn. I have a theory that the folks that are really into this kind of flick have trouble accessing core emotions and expressing things like anger and passion, and being triggered in this way is a shortcut.
posted by softlord at 6:21 AM on October 24, 2007

Basically, I felt like the director did an absolutely amazing job of slowly putting the audience in a terrifying place, then building on and sustaining that terror.

I can definitely see that point, and as someone who enjoys the horror genre on the whole I can completely understand and respect the intentions of filmmakers who can craft those kinds of movies. That, however, does not mean that the end result will sit right with me -- often I've seen films that I just feel downright 'bad' about seeing, and wished I hadn't. That's not to say that they're bad movies at all; it's just my reaction.

Two examples I can give you from European extreme cinema: Funny Games just didn't sit right with me at all. I felt disgusted by it, betrayed, cold, isolated -- I had a very negative visceral reaction to its beakness. At the same time, I completely respect what Michael Haneke was doing with the film. But I, personally, didn't enjoy one moment of it, and I still wish I could have those two hours back.

Secondly, Switchblade Romance (Haute Tension): I don't know whether it was (again) the bleakness of tone, or the palpable aura of disgust, or what, but I got cold sweats watching this, in a cinema full of people on a sunny Friday evening, and I just wanted to go home and curl up under the covers in the foetal position.
posted by macdara at 6:33 AM on October 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

In many of these splatter flicks (though not all), it's my belief that the appeal is often a very specific brand of comedy. Watch a film audience's reactions when zombies rip out some guy's intestines on screen ("Choke on 'em! Choke on 'em!"). They're cringing, wincing, groaning...and laughing. They'll grin and giggle at some of the violence, and quite a few horror writers and directors will specifically play to this, delivering disembowelments more for punchlines than pathos. There's even a kind of joke rhythm of set-up and carefully timed delivery. Sometimes it's the gore equivalent of "Take my wife, please," and sometimes it's "The Aristocrats."

I don't know who coined the term, but "splat-stick" was invented to describe this kind of situation.

This specifically applies mostly to gore, I think, and not to the more intense and deliberate torture scenes. Eli Roth's work actually gives good examples of the difference -- "Cabin Fever" is total goddamn splat-stick and is some funny, funny stuff, but "Hostel" is at times a different sort of animal. When he cut off that girl's eye after it was plucked out and was dangling on her cheek, I didn't have the normal comedy-horror reaction. I was shocked and horrified and felt adrenaline fluttering in my chest and dumping into my legs and had to force my eyes to stay on the action. It woke me up.

On preview: I have a theory that the folks that are really into this kind of flick have trouble accessing core emotions and expressing things like anger and passion, and being triggered in this way is a shortcut.

Due respect, the brush you paint with is waaaaaaaay too broad. I and many of my friends are very much in touch with our feelings and can express them in healthy and direct ways without awkwardness. Many of us are painters and writers and musicians and tender husbands and fathers. We're unafraid to cry, know how to resolve disputes, kiss our kids, and even exchange heterosexual "I love you"s with each other on occasion. And we all think that Evil Dead 2 fucking rules.
posted by middleclasstool at 6:36 AM on October 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

Torture movies like Saw and Hostel satisfy my voyeuristic tendencies. I like to watch people in trouble, to see how they act/think/feel. I like to put myself in their shoes, and try to determine how i'd act/think/feel. What would I do if someone cut off my fingers? Or chained me to a pipe? I like watching what people do so that I have direction and a plan in case these things ever happen to me. I know, intellectually at least, that they won't. But I feel more in control of my life when I have a solid escape route in case a murder comes to visit, and a good idea of how to soldier through the pain of getting torn apart so I can get away to live another day.
So, in conclusion. These movies, as odd as it seems, are comforting to me.
posted by d13t_p3ps1 at 6:54 AM on October 24, 2007

I think one of the best recent examples of the What Would I Do type of horror movie that d13t_p3ps1 talks about is the very popular Battle Royale.
posted by slimepuppy at 7:25 AM on October 24, 2007

Well, we know that we (humans) can fight and kill each other and animals as part of our normal behavior. These situations (the end of the hunt, close-quarter combat) are enormously stressful, lots of adrenaline and compensatory hormones and the like, but also associated with important and fundamental benefits (more food, competition for mates and resources, establishing primacy etc.) They are important times for us.

It seems reasonable, therefore, to suggest that these powerful situations, feelings and emotions drive us to experience the same kind of physical and mental states through shocking and violent movies. The fact that we are most prone to do this when we are young and male, full of competition, testosterone and aggression, makes sense too.

Of course, all this is complete supposition. Reductionist biological explanations are interesting, but human behavior is very complex and variable. But makes some sense to me.
posted by alasdair at 7:31 AM on October 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think that happyturtle's quote of Stphen King sums it all: "And the great appeal of horror fiction through the ages is that it serves as a rehearsal for our own deaths."

The most scandalous, horrifying and revolting fact when you become conscious that you are alive is death. It's absolutely, totally antithetic to consciousness. And it takes years and tons of projections and reenactments to finally come to term with it. It begins very young: Halloween is first how kids learns to deal with the idea of death if nobody or not pet has yet died in their family. Then comes all the variations on "Pow! You are dead!". Zombies and horror movies just play further into our revolt against death and our path to submission to its reality.

Effigy2000: "I gave up on the whole genre, and I couldn't for the life of me work out why I ever watched them, or why for that matter I would ever want to watch a movie like it again." The same thing also happened to me and seems to prove the point: once you are resigned to the ineluctable reality of death, which can happen anytime between 10 and 40, you have lost any motivation for death rituals.

Horror doesn't need anymore to be played outside: it has set in yourself.
posted by bru at 7:48 AM on October 24, 2007

Guardian story on "torture porn"

"In most of these films, both men and women end up being sliced, gored, dismembered, decapitated. In that sense they offer audiences equal-opportunity gore. But it's the violence against women that's most troubling, because it is here that sex and extreme violence collide.

The publicity campaigns for many of these films flag up the prospect of watching a nubile young woman being tortured as a genuinely pleasurable experience. . . ."
posted by lhall at 8:24 AM on October 24, 2007

I might be late to the party, but this thread is awesome.

But I think a lot of the comments here are answering a question which wasn't asked. The question is not why do people like horror movies. For that answer you need look no further than Hitchcock who simply said, "People love to be scared."

I'm going to jump in on Effigy2000's follow-up comment above:
The picture is obviously something which the producers think will help sell the movie to people who like these movies. But given my disposition towards such movies, I look at this image and I am left dumbfounded. Why is this a scene I would want to see? What makes a movie that has this scene in it worth watching. I can't see it, but obviously there will be people out there who will.

The question is about the specific genre of torture films. Evil Dead, a very fun film, is not a torture movie. Nor are Halloween, or Nightmare on Elm Street.

Why would someone want to see this image, of a girl bloodied, being dragged away to some unpleasant fate? Why would someone want to see four Saw movies about killing people with various instrumentalities?

Think about it for a moment. If the story of Saw were real, and you were a victim, what difference would it make to you if you were going to die by gunshot to the face or a bear trap around your neck to rip open your skull? If doesn't make a difference to the victim, dead is dead.

But it makes a big difference to the killer, and to anyone watching. And to people who don't realize they'd be attracted to something like that until they get a taste of it. See the comments mentioning voyeurism above.

My comment that was linked way above said that "We are a nation of borderline sociopaths". That was a bit broad, I guess, but I'd only amend it to say that a lot of Americans are borderline sociopaths, their number is increasing, and popular culture caters to it and reinforces it.

Who is the audience rooting for in these movies? The victims, or the killer? Or is that dynamic secondary to the sadistic desire to see violence and brutality? And clinically that's what it is, sadism, and perhaps malignant narcissism as well. I don't mean sexual sadism, I mean clinical, pathological sadism, joy or pleasure in cruelty performed or witnessed by proxy.

This does not mean that people who watch these movies are violent people. It means that the people who like them and seek them out at are at least deriving some pleasure from seeing the violence, or have a need to see the violence that when left unmet creates anxiety.

Now, some people take this further to say that they don't necessarily like the violence, they don't derive joy from seeing the violence, but they like to be grossed out, or sickened. They want to experience the stress or revulsion that such violence naturally causes in people. But if you are seeking out those derivative feelings, that is a masochistic tendency. Again, it doesn't necessarily have to be sexual, it can merely be calming or comforting to experience these negative feelings.

But do you see how a single artificial image can meet the emotional needs of both the budding sadistic personality as well as the budding masochist? This is because they are both part of the same emotional dynamic. They are both caught up in some power dynamic that is realized in the context of these films through violence alone, rather than sexual violence. Again this doesn't mean someone who likes these movies is a sadist or a masochist, but it does suggest that the people who like them or seek them out have sadistic or masochistic tendencies which likely present in other small ways in their lives.

Is there an argument to be made that lovers of any horror movies may have some some degree of sadism or masochism in their personality? Sure. Everyone has all of these elements in their personality, but they are usually regulated by the rest of the personality, and kept in check.

Thus, in my opinion and to answer the original question, the people who like these movies are people in whom these more harmful personality characteristics are 'too' dominant or are unchecked.

Again not everyone who likes saw is a serial killer. But if all human behavior exists on a spectrum with Ed Gein and Josef Mengele on one end and a six year old girl who likes rainbows and periwinkle unicorns on the other end, the people who like these movies are closer to on extreme than the other.

There is a book, The Horror Film and Psychoanalysis, that will give you much greater insight into the operative psychologies of the filmmakers and the audiences of horror movies. Also check out Projected Fears, though not as rigorous as the other one.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:09 AM on October 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I occasionally watch these sorts of movies not for the thrill or catharsis, but because of my fascination with the technological and special effects aspects of making them.

If I'm watching such a movie, and I'm getting so scared I can hardly bear it, I take comfort in the knowledge that all that's really happening is a bunch of nerds are having a blast with ketchup.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 9:18 AM on October 24, 2007

So help me to understand why horror films like this are worth watching.

Well, I'm an idiot, because I spent all that time answering precisely the wrong question. I suppose what makes them worth watching is the ability to understand the minds of other people who like them.

But let me ask an odd question. What is attracting you to them? Is it some taboo, or the idea that you will cross some line and see things you have not seen before, and explore some darkside? Why do you want to explore your dark side? Have you explored your "light side", your compassion, love for you fellow man? Do you find yourself attracted to a movie like Life is Beautiful because it underscores reveals the inner beauty in all of us?

I of course don't know you, so please don't take offense to these questions. A lot of people who want to explore their darkness only ever explore their darkness, but never go to the metacritical level and ask why do they only want to explore that side, and why isn't there a desire to explore their other sides?

Any work of art (and I'm using that term all-inclusively in this context) is worth seeing because it illuminates the human condition - intellectually, emotionally, or both. So seeing these movies will reveal to you that there are people who like to make these movies because they like to simulate anbd show violence, or because they will do anything for $. It will also reveal that people really wantt o see this kind of violence.

And you will have seen it too. You too will have seen humans depicted as little more than bags of meat for the amusement of other humans.

Maybe for you this will be troubling, or maybe it will make the beautiful things you seen shine that much brighter. But just as a beautiful work of art can inspire you, illuminate your mind, and enrich your experience of the world, an ugly work of art can have the opposite effect.

Remember that some things once seen cannot be unseen.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:29 AM on October 24, 2007

Adrenaline, escapism, and distraction. You're right in saying that the violence/torture/mayhem in these films is the attraction, not the plot. The plot is window-dressing to put you into the world of the film, if it's really needed at all.

You mentioned watching Wolf Creek and being in a state of shock for a few days. During those days, did you worry as much about paying your bills? What about problems in your home life, or at work? I'd imagine they were muted a little, turned down from what they had been. There are a handful of buttons you can push in the human mind, and making films where your fight-or-flight instinct is hammered beyond recognition while showing you violence that turns your mind inside out is one way to hit a lot of those buttons.

You can't stand watching them because you're differentiating between a pleasurable movie experience and a visceral movie experience and have no interest in the latter.
posted by mikeh at 11:22 AM on October 24, 2007

In search of an example, I get a little bit of an "eww, yuck" feeling when looking at that movie cover you linked. There's what appears to be an attractive woman, bloodied and being dragged by an unreadable dark figure. So already we have a fear of the unknown other, the promise of vague sexual content, the revulsion of seeing someone treated that way, and the realization that it looks like she's screaming, so we know there's more to be scared of that's going to happen.

I got all of that from one picture, and it already hit half a dozen things that make me queasy.
posted by mikeh at 11:26 AM on October 24, 2007

One problem with asking why people like super-violent horror movies is that (as this thread shows) you get a lot more people talking about what is wrong with people who enjoy watching super-violent movies than you do people who actually like the movies.

I haven't seen any of the current crop of torture porn movies, but in general I like stuff like Takashi Miike or David Cronenberg's early work because it DOES shock me. I have seen a lot of movies, you have to go pretty far to show me something that hasn't been done. While Ichi the Killer is hard to watch, I guarantee you've never seen anything like it: it's not even so much about the story, it's about breaking taboos in interesting ways.

Maybe it does tap into some elemental sado-masochistic urges on an unconscious level, but I don't think it shows some kind of sickness -- I'm a grad student and a bleeding heart liberal, I'm kind to small children and I like puppies and all that -- I think it's just a fascination with seeing things that are extreme and nightmare-ish. I think the roller coaster analogy someone made upthread is on point. It's scary and I do have a visceral reaction, but in a controlled environment.
posted by SoftRain at 11:34 AM on October 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think it's important to remember who the target demographic is for most films, and particularly these films. I'm certainly not a fan of this genre, but I think what Bru said upthread is really smart. I think it's natural for people to have an attraction to darker things when they're teenagers. At least in my experience, being a teenager was being on the brink of some of the most hugely life-changing decisions of my life, and feeling both terrified and powerless and only half-conscious of it all. I watched a lot of stuff then that I wouldn't get near at this point in my life. And teens today can't even remember there not being an internet.

My apologies if I'm addressing a thread full of 13-year-olds and don't realize it. This internet thing is tricky. (Goes back to rocker on front porch)
posted by zebra3 at 12:20 PM on October 24, 2007

FWIW You might find this article by William Burke (yeah that Burke) on fear and the sublime interesting.
posted by thankyoujohnnyfever at 12:31 PM on October 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm a fan of the horror genre, yet this is the subgenre where I definitely draw the line - for me, that is, it's just too cringe inducing. (I'm with you on non-censorship.) I was in a great course on horror film in grad school where we used Monster Show for our text, and we covered (viewed/discussed) the original Hills Have Eyes. I haven't read the updated version yet - am wondering if he'll have anything to say on the "torture porn" - before this there was the slasher flicks of the 70s and 80s which seem a bit lightweight in comparison to the ramped up sadism of the newer trend. Granted, none of this is exactly new, it's just the visuals seem to be getting more intense. Then again, I'm getting older and more out of the demographic that zebra3 points out is the target here.
posted by batgrlHG at 2:43 PM on October 24, 2007

Just an aside, I'm curious as to why you tagged your post with grindhouse?

Grindhouse doesn't necessarily mean horror, it is more akin to exploitation, which could be many different genres, not just horror per se.

Come to think of it, you mentioned slasher as well, when it sounds like you are referring to torture porn since you mentioned Saw and Hostel. Slasher could include a film like Halloween, which has little to do with the type of films you are talking about.

(Ok, I'll stop with the sub-genre nit picking now.)
posted by jca at 3:36 PM on October 24, 2007

"Ok, I'll stop with the sub-genre nit picking now."

Not nit picking really - it's definitely more of a sub-genre thing. Though the lines may be a bit blurry for some films, and that seems to be the fun of most genre studies - trying to figure out where to draw the line in defining things, and how to not be entirely subjective. (Which isn't really possible.)
And yes, I think I'd disagree with the grindhouse tag - which may be defined more with the recent flick and its plot than with the traditional definition of grindhouse, which could then get you into multiple genres besides horror.

It's a really worthwhile topic in that social commentary is always being made by what films seem to be saying about our culture. Not that there's ever one right answer for that.
posted by batgrlHG at 4:02 PM on October 24, 2007

middleclasstool: i didn't mean evil dead, i meant hostel/saw, etc. and there are those who will go to EVERY SINGLE tortureporn movie and watch in rapt attention as someone slices through their own eyeball with a razor to get at a key that has been surgically implanted next to their brain in a shot with no cuts. Which is a different animal than a guys hand chasing him around the house.
posted by softlord at 5:28 PM on October 24, 2007

Response by poster: lampoli's link gets a best answer. Why? Well, after reading and re-reading this thread to try and make sense of it all, I saw lampoli's link, which somehow I had missed the previous times I'd read this thread, and read the linked to article.

The article itself was interesting but didn't really answer my question per se, though it went some way towards doing so. But more useful was another article linked to in the original article, alson on fourfour. This is it.

The author makes several good points in his article but what I think goes the furthrest towards answering my question is the following para, near the end of the article.
And that's saying nothing of what must be the festering minds that come up with such nastiness! Is it necessary, as Edelstein does, to apply the phrase "post-9/11" when talking about the current wave of brutal horror cinema? Is this on-screen sickness a product of our culture of fear and potential terror? I don't think so. If we're singling out extreme cinema, we're necessarily doing so by holding it up against other cinema ("extreme," after all, is a definitive example of relative terminology).Most directors making horror movies worth any attention to are die-hard fans of the genre (Rob Zombie and Eli Roth, for sure; Defalco probably, considering his Last House biting). Most likely, then, what these torture porn movies respond to is the past 10 years of horror cinema: how cutesy and jokey things became in the wake of Scream, and how gnarled the genre became with all the PG-13 ghost stories that flooded it during the early part of this decade (perhaps itself a result of theaters that have become stricter about admitting underage patrons to R-rated films). Really, I find it hard to believe that a greater social consciousness on the part of these filmmakers could override their geekdom.
He goes on to write;
I don't know if I'm desensitized or what, but I, a relatively peaceful person, can watch these films and other extreme cinema without being traumatized. I can appreciate them entirely for their audacity, soaking in the extreme for the sake of extremity. There's a big difference between gawking at rape and staring in amazement over a director's choice to go there. It's much like the difference between laughing with and laughing at incompetent comedy. (And really, I'm not judging here: if you get off on rape and sadism, and you find catharsis via these films that keeps you from acting out, these films have more social value than even the most ardent horror fans usually give them credit for.) The point is that you don't have to get off to torture porn to appreciate it, and you don't have to appreciate it to understand the mechanism behind it.
So it seems as though the reasons for appreciating the film are twofold;

1) Being a film geek who likes seeing directors take bold, challenging new choices and;

2) For some, but not all, it's catharsis, by the looks of it (hence TheophileEscarigot's best answer), that makes most people appreciate these films.

Now I do consider myself a film geek and I do like when directors make bold choices. But do I like seeing rape on screen or someone being tortured or ripped apart or whatever? No. No I do not. And I don't get the cathartic value out of these films that some might, which is probably another reason I can't appreciate them myself.

So I guess if we accept that those two reasons are the main reasons one can appreicate gorno films, I would have to accept that I probably just can't appreciate gorno movies and probably never will, so that aspect of my question is almost certainly a lost cause. But the other aspect of my question, specifically "what is their appeal" and why they are worth watching, has probably been answered and answered quite well. But that is, of course, only my opinion. I suspect others in this thread who said an objective answer will be hard to reach are quite right, and there will be those who disagree with my assessment of the situation because of this.

But this isn't their question, is it? It's mine, and as far as I'm concerned the question is answered. Thanks for your help, one and all!
posted by Effigy2000 at 5:27 PM on November 7, 2007 [2 favorites]

Gore films remind me of reading books about those unfortunate souls who were condemned to death, and had to face a public hanging or Madame Guillotine. Peter Ackroyd's "London: The Biography" is a good reference, as he mentions it a couple of times. The condemned is in the middle of a square and hundreds of people have gathered around to watch. It was a day out to see death. They'd bring picnics, and the kids. Of course, life was shorter then, and death was much closer. People have always liked shocking death, as it's not happening to them.

E. M. Forster wrote (on death and birth), "Our final experience, like our first, is conjectural. We move between two darknesses." meaning that we do not know what they are like, as they are experiences that we cannot remember. By illuminating the darkness, one attempts to remove the fear of the unknown. In watching death like that, and in trying to see what the end is like. Conversely, that catharsis of seeing and perhaps empathising with someone else dieing, makes you appreciate your own life that much more for that moment.

People watch executions, people slow down for gruesome car accidents. For a terrifying/horrifying movie, there is the empathy with the people in it and, regardless of the ending, the release that it's not happening to you. Terror as opposed to shock or gore, meaning it's not 5 minutes of torture or rape in which the camera stays focussed on the proceedings like a documentary - rather there is a psychological buildup and not all of it is shown so as not to be totally voyeuristic... the end of 'Looking for Mr. Goodbar' comes to mind. A quote by a band that I can remember is "The moment of terror is the beginning of life." Terror is primal. The reptilian hindbrain causes you to be scared for a good reason - if it's bad, you must run from it. Horror films stimulate that response according to an imagined threat, and we get the endorphin rush without the bodily peril.
posted by Zack_Replica at 9:29 PM on November 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

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