Guts and Gore Galore
If it bleeds, it will bring green. The splatter film, one of American horror cinema’s defining genres, rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars a year off of cheaply produced films made to make us shriek, cringe and hopefully throw up. This October, we should prepare to see lots of guts and gore, not unfamiliar to Hollywood’s fall-friendly formula: cheap + huge box office pay off = Splatter Film franchises galore.
When we think of splatter films, we might point to Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Human Centipede, each film having a budget of under 10 million dollars, and grossing a profit of over 100 million, and giving us famous gut-wrenching and torso twisting scenes. Except when we dig deeper into American horror film exploitation genres, we find that the impetus of splatter films are their preoccupation with gore as an artform. George A. Romero first coined the term, “splatter cinema” when describing his own film, Dawn of the Dead. Except Romero fought back against the critiques of needless exploitation for his film and insisted on social commentary as a defining element of his film and in retrospect, the genre. So, what if this spooky season, we take a step back and examine: what do splatter films say about American society? This could get messy.
Splatter film, by definition, is a subgenre—it is a type of horror film that capitalizes on graphic violence. It is often through special effects and visual elements that we fascinate ourselves with the mutilation and vulnerability of the human body. As the genre grew, it began to be described as “torture porn” or “gorno” by mainly film critics that were pointing out the incessant need to draw fear (and pleasure) out of audiences by pushing destruction of selves and the pain that accompanies. The popularity of these techniques center around two key elements to Hollywood industry: audience and profit. Splatter films are like jump scares in the sense that they are cheap ways to draw high-level fear. These films do not cost much to produce, these stories are easy to understand and replicate and the profits are astronomical—most of the times grossing ten times the budgets. The Saw Franchise is an example we can tip our hats to. A splatter film at conception, it has now produced eight installments, the most recent Jigsaw, following its predecessors in making 10 times its ten million dollar budget. The second element that makes these films box office sweet spots is how perfectly they entice Hollywood’s key demographic: 15 to 25 year old males.
It is no surprise that Hollywood is targeting stereotypes of adolescent masculinity by marketing overtly graphic, torturous “gore porn.” Many of these films have a sort of masochism embedded in the seams. There is a level of enjoyment an audience experiences in watching such grotesque displays on screen. Coupled with a few formulalic devices of the subgenre like eroticism, sex, drinking, or drug use, splatter films rightly and intentionally earn their name as torture porn. People fuck their way to death, and we as viewers derive pleasure from the on-screen destruction.
Except we must not pretend that exploitation does not cost someone something. Putting violence on screen and reinforcing guts and gore for cinematic effect can be harmful to viewers. Needless and merciless glorified mutilation is unforgettable (and this is often the exact reason why filmmakers cram movies with gory scenes), but searing our consciousness with these images doesn’t stop after the blood-splatter. An article “This is Your Brain On Gore” detailed the findings of psychologists at Vanderbilt University. “Gore—and even erotic images—cause temporary ‘blindness’ in the moments following the scene.” This can explain why scenes can infiltrate our subconscious and haunt us weeks or years after we’ve seen something particularly repugnant, yet we are unable to recall anything directly after that part of the movie. This sort of erasure can link to a coping mechanism for stressful or traumatic situations in which we “forget,” or our brains wipe our memory of it. In fact, the studies go so far as to explain that we have evolved to focus on situations or things that are “quintessentially gross,” like watching someone throw up, but we still peak through the spaces in our fingers. Nonetheless, splatter films are packed with scene after scene of memory-altering trauma, regardless of how entertaining they are.
Splatter films also show synthetic portrayals of characters and situations that perpetuate unfair and decontextualized stereotypes. A few infamous horror movie cliches are especially true when discussing splatter films, such as racialized characters like the token racial minority of the cast always dying (and dying rather quickly). And of course there’s the most heavily employed stereotype of horror movies: the gender politics of murder. It is often assumed that sex will get you killed. Moments like the woods scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre reinforce the idea of promiscuous women getting taken out (and taken out brutally). This idea bounces off of the “Final Girl” trope that normally gives the “morally pure” virginal girl the final confrontation with the killer, however it ends (she kills him or is saved by some outside force). Carol J. Clover first coined this concept in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, where she explains the assumed “privilege” of this morally sound woman who has refused to engage in “risky” behavior like sex and drinking, unlike her unfortunate (and now, dead) friends.
These expectations of splatter films and the discussion around their place in American Cinema stem back to why we may settle into our cozy dorm rooms, turn on our ghost-themed string lights and watch 135 minutes of mutilation, danger and blood. Maybe because it causes an adrenaline rush and enforces the tactic that all cinema relies on, a suspension of disbelief that allows us to be simultaneously scared and comforted by our distance from this awful circumstance. Or maybe in the our dark moments, we buy into the masochism of it all, finding solace in our escapism in this pain we see as beautiful and terrifying all at once. Overarchingly, gore tends to reinforce the idea that good triumphs evil—at least that is our hope in watching splatter films.The extremes tend to pull us to center: we tolerate (even enjoy) watching someone or something get completely obliterated, so long as something is built back up in the end. In this way we experience tragedy and mutilation on screen similarly to how we deal with it in real life: we look for hope. If artful productions can use gore to advance their plot toward a purposeful resolution then we can stomach it. If not, Hollywood still makes billions of dollars on blonde girls getting their throats cut open anyway. I guess either sphere can still bleed green, it’s just a matter of which we’re willing to sink our teeth into.
Jordan Szymanski, Staff Writer, is a sophomore Writing for Film, Television, and Emerging Media who is sick of the Saw franchise.