A friend of mine once explained that she didn’t watch horror movies because the daily news was already horrific enough for her. While I obviously don’t agree with that sentiment, her opinion is entirely valid, and there’s no reason to disrespect those who don’t share in our gruesome tastes. That being said, her statement can be regarded as a symptom of a long-standing issue in the world of blood, gore, and frights.
After all, in a society as frustratingly violent as our own, it’s only natural that some would question the need for disturbing imagery in media. Popular culture has seeped into nearly every aspect of modern life, so you can’t blame people for feeling a little apprehensive about the possible side-effects of this weird relationship. With these social anxieties in mind, we horror fans are faced with an exceedingly pertinent question regarding our beloved genre: Can Horror Movies Go Too Far?
People have been arguing over the limits of violence in media since media was barely old enough to shave, and these arguments will likely continue into the distant future. One recurring thread in this everlasting debate is the unjustified depiction of horror films, books, games and other media as scapegoats for seemingly inexplicable acts of real-world violence. For some people, it seems that the genre has already crossed the line.
This rather unfair treatment of scary movies and the like isn’t anything new, with even the incredibly popular Universal Monster movies facing heavy censorship back in the day, but the discussion resurges seasonally like an undead slasher villain, usually in light of recent tragedies. Admittedly, this problem has become less prevalent with the rise of the internet, but it hasn’t exactly disappeared, and nearly every big horror filmmaker has had to deal with these issues at some point in their lives.
The late Wes Craven was unfortunate enough to be in the spotlight of such controversy more than once in his legendary career, facing heavy criticism for pushing the limits of horror with his work. An early example of this is his terrifying 1972 thriller, The Last House on the Left. Many accused Craven of glorifying the incredibly realistic violent acts depicted in the picture, deeming it particularly offensive towards women. This led to the film, which was ironically well-received by most critics, being banned/censored in several countries.
The Scream movies, which aren’t even that explicit when compared to most other slasher films, were also targeted due to a series of alleged copy-cat murders inspired by the Ghostface killer. While the public eye will always desperately try to find an easy-to-digest motive behind these unfortunate incidents, it’s quite obvious that the Scream franchise’s involvement in these crimes was tangential at best (which is also what the legal system declared nearly every time horror movies have been blamed for real-world crime).
Of course, the horror genre is far from the only form of media affected by these controversies, and several other big-name directors have also dealt with their own fair share of criticism. Quentin Tarantino is one of my favorite examples, as it’s always amusing to watch him passionately defend his use of violence when faced with some of the most annoying critics that the industry has to offer. In his case, however, the exaggerated use of blood and guts has since been accepted as its own style of neo-grindhouse filmmaking. When it comes to public perception of the genre as a whole, horror is still somewhat marginalized, despite countless examples of mainstream financial success.
This contradictory relationship with the genre is even stranger when you consider that, during most of their history, scary movies have actually been reinforcing traditional societal values. Hell, even the most disturbing haunted house movies still make a point of honoring family and religious tradition. I’m not even going to begin to dissect the not-so-subtle puritanical subtext of most classic slasher films.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been any particularly subversive horror flicks in the past, as many filmmakers have attempted to question what is and isn’t acceptable on the big screen. Movies like the August Underground trilogy routinely challenge our perception of brutality in fiction, sometimes feeling more akin to a snuff film than a traditional horror movie. The artistic merit of some of these more extreme productions may be questionable at times, but they certainly have a right to exist. This is especially true when these cinematic limits are pushed in order to make a point.
One of the best examples of this would be Srđan Spasojević’s A Serbian Film, which uses its brutality as a storytelling device, provided you can make it to the bitter end. Personally, I think the film is masterfully directed, with several layers of well-crafted metaphors and social commentary, but I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed watching it. Nevertheless, in cases like this, maybe that’s the point, and I don’t have to necessarily like the movie in order to appreciate it.
Not every film needs to please mainstream audiences, and absolutely no one is forced to like these movies. At the end of the day, horror is just one genre within several art forms, and artists should be free to explore even the darkest aspects of human experience. Social responsibility shouldn’t really be on a filmmaker’s mind when trying to craft an enjoyable/meaningful story, as that doesn’t factor in on whether or not a movie is actually good.
Naturally, the horror genre would certainly benefit from more nuanced and purposeful depictions of violence and depravity, but it doesn’t really owe us anything. Not only that, but audiences aren’t wrong for enjoying some of the more savage examples of filmmaking. People have been entertained by the macabre and grotesque since the age of the first fairy tales, and there’s no real reason to stop now. Any horror fanatic can vouch for the genre’s positive impact on their life, so maybe it’s time to accept that great things can come from dreadful places.
In the end, I don’t think it’s possible for horror movies to go too far. The horror genre as a whole is defined by its willingness to break boundaries and go where other genres won’t, so why limit that progress? While there truly is no accounting for taste, and there’s no guarantee that extremely sadistic films will actually be good, I feel that humanity is better off having the option to watch some amazingly trashy works of art every once in a while.