“We’re drawn to and fascinated by horror because the genre reminds us that we have both outsides and insides, skin and guts, eyes and gray matter, ideas and appetites.”
We each watch horror films for our own peculiar, sometimes perverse, reasons. Many of them I’m not sure I want to watch, but I do. And, sometimes, I promise myself never to watch certain of these films again, but usually I do, and several times. Why, as a culture, do we watch horror films with such rabidity? Why do otherwise seemingly normal people make these films in the first place? And why have I chosen to make a life for myself out of writing about them? People generally cock their heads oddly and squint their eyes in mild disbelief when I tell them that this is what I do — when I tell them that it is essentially my job to sit around watching these films one after another. In the main, it is not a subject that bores many people. They either enjoy talking about being scared by horror films, or they enjoy talking about why they don’t like being scared by horror films. I enjoy both sorts of conversations.
When I tell people about my work, they almost immediately assume that I don’t get scared by horror films anymore — that I’ve become immune to their effects, perhaps because I’ve watched so many or because I’m able to use my knowledge of the genre to rationalize my fear away. The truth is that neither of these things is true. I’m, in fact, utterly squeamish when it comes to watching or reading horror. I scream frequently, and not in a light, non-committal way; my screams are loud and guttural, emanating from the pit of my stomach and rattling in my lungs, windpipe, throat, and mouth. For many of the people that watch horror films with me, my screams are scarier than anything in the film, as they tend to come at unexpected moments. I often find myself unintentionally clutching the person next to me, and, in a few rare cases, I’ve even begged out loud to be taken home. I would go so far as to say I do not enjoy being scared, and I’m even less comfortable with feelings of disgust or repulsion, but I find these feelings important, even necessary. And so I watch, not as much because I want to, but because I need to.
Susan Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others, “It seems that the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked” (41). I’m particularly interested in her use of the word “appetite” here, which suggests that we hunger for images of horror on some basic biological level, the same way we hunger for food, water, sex, or sleep. It’s a common argument that we’re drawn to horror because of something violent in our nature, and yet I find this dismissive. Many of us do turn to images of horror for a vicarious thrill that releases pent-up aggression, but I think it’s decidedly more complicated than just that, and so does Sontag. Certainly, we eat because we’re hungry, but we also eat because there is pleasure in the act of eating itself, because eating is a social activity, because we’re told by advertisers that eating their specific food products will fulfill us on some deeper level. We watch horror films for many of the same reasons; however, we often fail to fully devour images of horror, fail to approach them with any (analytical or critical) voraciousness, fail even to let them approach us, sitting back instead in passive amusement or reprobation.
In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke argues that pleasure in the horrific is dependent upon our distance from it: “I am convinced we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others . . . Terror is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close . . . This is not an unmixed delight, but blended with no small uneasiness” (92-93). Burke is not suggesting that we delight in terror only when it is observed from afar. Rather, there is a sweet spot, a certain distance, not too near and not too far, at which terror instills pleasure in us. Terror must “press close” but not “too” close. Pleasure in horror must come pre-mixed with a simultaneous “uneasiness.” As with Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject, our desire and pleasure in looking is amplified by our simultaneous urge to look away. Each instance of turning away, though, is followed by an even more desperate turning toward. There is little drama in the act of looking at a comforting image; it lulls us into an almost purely passive spectatorial position. Looking at something horrific, on the other hand, is a far more dynamic affair, throwing our eyes, heads, and sometimes even our arms about in a much more engaged sort of dance. Many horror films never achieve this precise mix of pleasure and uneasiness.
I’ve seen horror films that pressed too close, like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). The experience of watching that film is, for me, too upsetting. I want to like it on an intellectual level, but my body doesn’t allow me to. Other films, like the Saw series (2004-2009), don’t press close enough. I don’t enjoy the horrors I see onscreen in these films, because they are too emotionally vacant (i.e., about the abstract mechanics of violence and not the real effects). They simultaneously show too much and not enough — too much gore, not enough person.1 I feel visually assaulted but not genuinely disturbed or unsettled. A film like David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), which hides many of its grosser horrors from view, has more impact, because it engages the viewer both emotionally and physically, drawing us in, but just enough. When we learn that Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) has been decapitated and her head put into a UPS box, we find ourselves simultaneously wanting to see inside the box and ready to run from the theater if we do. The film is all the more savvy for not showing us the head, not stooping to the level of the gratuitous close-up, relying instead on our imagination and the close relationships we’ve developed with the film’s characters.
The smartest and most successful horror films ask important questions about what it is to put bodies onscreen, what it is to be excited by those bodies, and what it is to be excited by those bodies being dismantled. We are drawn to images of distressed and dismembered bodies, because they help us cope with the fact that we’ve become alienated from our own bodies. Skin is permeable, and by this I mean two things: that the body can be cut into pieces, sexy chunks which are more easily objectified; and that the body can be deconstructed, its cohesiveness and singularity thrown into question. In the former, the body is made more manageable, whereas in the later, the body becomes indiscreet and therefore less manageable. The least interesting horror films focus only on the former, putting the body on parade in moments of pleasure and distress; the best horror films focus on both but especially the latter, upsetting our sense of what bodies are, how they work, and what they mean.
In Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach asks the question, “Can the dead be aesthetically pleasing?” (72). Certainly, mortuaries pose, dress, and make an utter spectacle of dead flesh. In The American Way of Death Revisited, Jessica Mitford describes the funeral industry, and its restorative artists, as a “full-fledged burlesque” (149). I would argue that the pleasure we take in looking at slashed and dismembered bodies is more curious and investigative than the mystified and passive gaze we take toward the intact but hollow flesh of the embalmed cadaver. A close-up of a woman’s breasts, sans head, might be pleasing to one viewer, because it elicits a sexual response, launching a desire to see beyond what the frame allows. A shot of mangled flesh might engage another viewer on an entirely different level, because it disrupts conventions of the body, revealing as fragmented what we otherwise take to be whole. Both of these images can be aesthetic, depending on their context. Many viewers make the mistake of describing as gratuitous anything that upsets them or their moral sensibilities. While many horror films are gratuitous, there are more aesthetic, more intellectual, pleasures to be found in the genre. The best films of the genre are not merely gratuitous but use their images to comment on our culture’s objectification of abused (and sexualized) flesh.
In “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Linda Williams discusses at length the physicality of our engagement with what she calls the “gross” genres (melodrama, pornography, and horror). She describes “the spectacle of a body caught in the grip of intense sensation or emotion” (703). For Williams, one of the exemplary features of a horror film is its ability to force the spectator to imitate the feelings or physical reactions of the characters onscreen. Hence, in a horror film, when the characters in the film scream, we scream. She relates this also to the genres of melodrama and porn. In melodrama, we cry when they cry. In porn, we get sexually aroused when they get sexually aroused. “The success of these genres,” Williams writes, “is often measured by the degree to which the audience sensation mimics what is seen on the screen . . . What seems to bracket these particular genres from others is an apparent lack of proper esthetic distance, a sense of over-involvement in sensation and emotion” (704-705). Williams suggests, like Burke, that there is a certain distance at which the emulation of sensation occurs. There is an ideal vantage point for horror, not a lack of distance altogether but a lack of “proper esthetic” distance. To be properly scared, at least in the way that produces concomitant pleasure, we must feel safe but not too safe — we must have room to reflect on what we see, but must not be allowed too much room. The best horror films reveal something to (or about) us, something that changes who we are on a fundamental level, something that may not be immediately apparent to us, something that festers.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs works in just this way, violently forcing us to reconsider who we are and why we watch.2 There are few acts of explicit violence shown onscreen. In fact, the film never explicitly frames even a single act of violence. For those that do happen onscreen (Hannibal assaulting the two police officers, for example), the point of violent contact is always just outside the frame. Still, the film is about violence, about bodies, about what happens to bodies when they’re beaten, cut, shot, or brutalized. More specifically, The Silence of the Lambs is about our desire as an audience to see violence. The film flirts with the viewer in the opening scenes with camera shots that move quickly across photographs of murder victims and with provocative descriptions of hideous acts, such as Hannibal’s famous line about eating a census-taker’s liver with “some fava beans and a nice chianti.” We very quickly find ourselves wanting to hear more, wanting to see more. The fact that we don’t see more for most of the film makes the flirtation that much more effective. And, when we do see glimpses of violence, we feel, like Clarice herself, “scared at first, then exhilarated.”
The Silence of the Lambs is filled with shots of characters looking directly into the camera, directly acknowledging the fact that we are in the audience looking back at them. Throughout the film, characters look at pictures, at televisions, at bodies, during flashbacks, during funerals, during autopsies, through glass, through bars, through bottles, through the windows of a helicopter, down into a well, through night-vision goggles, etc. The film is about spectatorship, about what happens when we see, about the dangers of seeing, and especially about why (and what) we want to see. For most of the film, we see Hannibal through a glass wall that functions much like the film screen. We can see through it but are seemingly safe from the danger that lurks on the other side. In addition to being about what we see, the film is also about what we can’t (or don’t want to) see. In the climax, Clarice is in complete darkness and must defeat Buffalo Bill while unable to see. We are also, in a sense, blinded throughout much of the film, not privy to the many acts of violence that occur, continuously subject to a camera that cuts away just as we are about to see something happen.
On the other hand, we do see copious images throughout the film depicting the aftermaths of violence. The forensic examination of a cadaver about a third of the way through the film is a particularly harrowing example. While the scene offers a fairly graphic look at a murdered body, it is all the more powerful for what it doesn’t show. Toward the beginning of the scene, there is an extreme close-up of a black body bag being slowly unzipped. The sound of the zipper is exaggerated and slowed to the point of being almost excruciating. In the opening moments, we see both Clarice and fellow agent Jack Crawford putting menthol gel on their upper lips. Even though we can’t smell the overpowering odor in the room, the white marks on their lips serve as a constant reminder of it, of the smell of decayed flesh. Every time we see the white marks, we are forced to imagine the smell ourselves. It’s an interesting irony, because the menthol gel obscures the smell for Clarice and Jack, but its constant visual presence makes the imagined smell even more salient to us. The scene is so powerful, more powerful than most of the imitations of it in recent television and cinema, because it appeals directly to multiple senses. We aren’t just looking but also hearing and smelling.
The body itself is withheld from view for over two and half minutes of the scene. And when we do see the body, we see it in pieces, an edge of skin, a muddy arm, the side of a torso, five mutilated fingers, a blurry shoulder, the bridge of a nose, a gaping mouth forced open by gloved hands. The shots are coyly framed, begging us to wonder what else lies just outside their view. The incessant snap of a Polaroid camera suggests that these framings are peculiarly photographic. This is what (and how) a camera sees. It dissects the body, portioning it into explicable bits. This is an arm. This is a mouth. This is a face. The body as whole and cohesive seems to lie outside the (or at least this) camera’s purview.
All the while the body is being examined, we get a narrative account of it from Clarice, who begins by speaking into a tape recorder, then turns to the other examiners in the room, and finally appears to shift her attention to us, the audience. Her descriptions are careful and nuanced, but also creative and idiosyncratic, suggesting that she perceives more than just what her eyes see. For her, there isn’t just a body on the table; there’s a story, and one she seems to almost enjoy telling. The fascination in her voice is carefully modulated over the course of the scene, suggesting that the more she sees, the more she wants to see. The money shot, so to speak, is delivered nearly five minutes into the scene when the body is turned over. Finally, we see a medium-shot with the entirety of the body in the frame. The body is splayed out face down on an examination table, naked, covered in dirt and debris, with two large triangular pieces of skin removed from the back. The skin is a muted pink, mottled with large patches of bruising and abrasions. The flesh where the skin was removed looks puffy, as though curdled or boiled. Its coloring is splotchy, and there are streaks of dried blood in the creases surrounding the wounds. There was certainly a careful attention to detail on the part of the filmmakers in the “dressing” of this cadaver.
Still, we never see the body unobstructed; Clarice steps into the frame blocking the wounds, and another examiner hovers over the body at her right, obscuring our view of the head. The shot lasts just over ten seconds before the camera tilts, the body falling out of the frame, and then almost immediately cuts to another scene. Again, we are left wanting more. We want a camera that lingers, one that doesn’t let go. We want to relish what we’re seeing, want a camera that undresses the body, showing us all its curves and crevices. We want a camera that lets us inside. The Silence of the Lambs invites our desires but frustrates them; this sequence calls attention to our fascination with violence, even as it fails to truly excite, cutting away from the money shot just before we’ve had time to fully appreciate it. Subsequent imitations of this scene in film and television (we see a similar scene repeated every week on CSI) have been more willing to show us mutilated bodies unobstructed, and both their outsides and their insides (as with CSI‘s frequent reenactments of instruments penetrating bodies). However, in so unabashedly giving us the goods, a television show like CSI fails to implicate us in our desire to see those goods. We see the severed head dripping with gore, feel momentarily upset by it, but don’t pause to consider why we wanted to see the head in the first place. The Silence of the Lambs hesitates in the moment just before we’ve gotten our fix and then leaves us there, ashamed and bewildered.3
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
While I have mentioned the difficulty I have with watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I appreciate the way the film offers second-order commentary on its own genre. When Sally is tortured at the end of the film, there are only two acts of explicit violence: the tip of Sally’s finger is cut with a small blade, and we see several glancing blows as grandpa unsuccessfully attempts to bludgeon Sally to death with a hammer. Still, the scene is grueling both physically and emotionally, with its jittery camera, extreme close-ups, shrill screaming, power tools in symphony on the soundtrack, and especially in the way that it engages our imagination. Because we don’t see much, we’re forced to wonder — and forced to question our own fascination with what we see and don’t see happening to Sally onscreen. With recent so-called “torture-porn,” on the other hand, we watch, experience an immediate visceral reaction, and then are quickly let off the hook once the film is over. We leave the theater commenting on the audacity of the violent spectacles we’ve witnessed, but we rarely pause to consider the implications of what we’ve seen. The set-pieces in most torture porn are so elaborate (and increasingly so as the genre evolves) that we couldn’t possibly imagine them. We wait passively and allow the film to unleash its horrors upon us; much of the horror of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is something we unleash upon ourselves.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre opens with a series of grisly stills intercut with the glaring light of a strobe flash. On the soundtrack, we hear digging, bones breaking, a man’s breath, grunts of exertion, the ruffling of a plastic garbage bag as meaty chunks are dropped into it, and the sound of a photographic exposure, shrill and drawn-out as though each of the images we see are burning themselves into our retina. The flashes and abstractly gory images that follow are fleeting, onscreen for less than a second each before they fade to black, not long enough for us to fully comprehend their content. Instead, they work their way obscurely into our imagination where they fester: rotting fingers with pointy chalk-white nails, liquefying skin and the gummy remains of an eyeball, crooked teeth with a gelatin-like substance where the lips should be. The images come faster and faster as the gravediggers work sounds increasingly vigorous. Next we see the curve of a brow bone with transparent orangeish skin and a smattering of hair blurred at the edge of the frame, followed immediately by the image of a petrified face almost smiling in profile. Our eyes dart about the screen, attempting to take in the brief and sudden frames. We feel startled by the sharp sound of the exposure and physically recoil at the bright flashes, but the images come so fast that we don’t have time to register disgust or awe.
Each image is gooey but also mundane, an image of the body as thing, the body as a subject for photographs but not a particularly captivating subject. The framings feel accidental, as though the camera fumbles about in the dark, falls into place, snaps a frame with the flash illuminating whatever happens to be in front of the lens, then randomly reframes, snaps again, catching muted, indiscriminate bits. Each still is a haphazard cut, just like the literal cuts through flesh and bone that we hear on the soundtrack. The body is chopped up out of convenience and necessity. A body in pieces is both easier to transport in bags and fits better into photographic frames. There is no intrinsic value — no artistic value — in the camera’s framings, only instrumental value. The content of the images is less important than what they do to us. And when we finally see the moving image of the gravedigger’s finished project, several bodies situated on a post and assembled into an odd totem, there is nothing aesthetically pleasing about his handiwork or the framing of it. The newscaster, whose voice we hear on the soundtrack, calls the figure a “grisly work of art,” but his delivery is dispassionate and monotone. The cobbled-together bodies look gross and absurd, nothing like “art.”
Whereas a film like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) forces a contemplative engagement with its images, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is about the ruder aesthetics of the genre. The cinematography in Hooper’s film relies on purposefully dull, desaturated, and often poorly lit images, in stark contrast to the more vivid and architectural framings we see in Halloween. While both Carpenter and Hooper make careful choices about the composition of individual shots, the results are quite different. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is revolting to look at, and the film lures its viewer into gazing at the various frames with sick fascination. Halloween, on the other hand, is a marvel to look at, with nearly every frame being something you could imagine on a gallery wall. The colors in Carpenter’s film are rich, the lighting is bold, and the use of anamorphic format makes the environment of each frame feel truly expansive, as though there is always more to see in every image. By contrast, the frames in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre feel busy, claustrophobic, and at times downright ugly (albeit intentionally so). While the two films use very different methods, they both comment on our desire to look, our fascination with the repugnancy and occasional beauty of dead flesh and bodies in pain.
The differences in how the two films are lit serve as a striking example of their dissimilar cinematographic strategies. Christian Metz describes two types of vision in “Identification, Mirror”: “All vision consists of a double movement: projective (the ‘sweeping’ searchlight) and introjective: consciousness as a sensitive recording surface (as a screen)” (804).4 In Carpenter’s Halloween, the lighting approximates (or facilitates) Metz’s introjective gaze, piercing the viewer as it reveals little pools of horror. We see what we’re only barely conscious of, what we try to deny but know already to be true. We aren’t surprised to see a looming face in the shadows, only by when and where it suddenly appears. The lighting invites us to interrogate the frames and even to impose ourselves upon them. On the other hand, the lighting in Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre imitates (or facilitates) Metz’s projective gaze, fumbling around chaotically, framing its horrors by sheer accident. We see what we randomly happen upon, what our eye glancingly discovers. The film encourages but then frustrates intellectual engagement. The horror in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a blunt sort of trauma, whereas in Halloween it’s a more penetrating one. The former bruises the skin, whereas the latter gets beneath it. One shocks; the other bewilders.
Early in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, we see shots of cows juxtaposed with Franklin’s enthusiastic narrative describing the various methods used in the slaughtering of cattle: “They bash ’em in the head with a big sledgehammer. It usually wouldn’t kill ’em on the first wick. I mean, they’d start squealing and freaking out and everything, and then they’d have to come up and bash ’em three or four times. And, then, sometimes it wouldn’t kill ’em. I mean they’d skin ’em sometimes before they were even dead.” Ultimately, all of the characters are killed as though they are cattle, either hit on the head with a sledgehammer, cut up with a chainsaw, or impaled on a meat hook. After one of the victims, Kirk, is struck several times with a sledgehammer, his legs spasm vigorously, echoing Franklin’s earlier description of the struggling half-dead cows. Another victim, Pam, is found still partially alive in a freezer. And, eventually, all of Leatherface’s victims are probably skinned and used for meat in the human barbecue the characters themselves eat in one of the film’s first scenes.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre engages us more on a sensory level than on an intellectual one. We are assaulted by flashes of light, frantic camera movements, and a cacophony of wild sounds (e.g., the music, which alternates between ear-splitting screeches and low-pitched drones, Leatherface’s feigned pig-noises, lots of shouting and screaming, and the incessant buzz of the titular chainsaw). It isn’t necessarily the content of the images that upsets us but the way they are frenetically cobbled together. We feel exhausted by the end, unsure of exactly what we’ve just seen. The film waves its arms, wildly asking us to look, and then wonders why we do.
* * *
The body in pieces is an aesthetic object, but it’s also a philosophical one, upsetting and reconfiguring our sense of who we are as individuals, who we are as spectators, who we are as humans. The body in pieces reminds us that we are not just 1s and 0s, not just appendages to our many machines; we are flesh, lively and ecstatic, solid but not too solid. Horror films, and especially the slasher sub-genre, deconstruct the perceived integrity of the human body. The best horror directors understand that bodies do not always obey the artificial limits imposed upon them by culture. The best horror directors understand that our bodies are not distinct from the ones we see onscreen. When we’re not cut up on camera, we’re cut up by the camera. We’re framed and reframed by the image, the screen, the theatrical space. We’re drawn to and fascinated by horror because the genre reminds us, more than any other, that we have both outsides and insides, skin and guts, eyes and gray matter, ideas and appetites. There are bodies being torn apart onscreen, but the wondrous power of horror is its ability to remind us that there are also bodies in the audience, bodies in our living rooms, bodies seeing, bodies hearing, bodies breathing, bodies screaming.
Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful. New York: Penguin, 1998.
Clover, Carol. Men, Women, and Chainsaws. London: BFI Publishing, 1992.
Jancovich, Marc. “Genre Classifications and Cultural Distinctions in the Mediation of The Silence of the Lambs.” Horror: The Film Reader. Ed. Marc Jancovich. Routledge: New York, 2002.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
Metz, Christian. “Identification, Mirror.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Mitford, Jessica. The American Way of Death Revisited. New York: Vintage, 2000.
Roach, Mary. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. New York: Norton, 2003.
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador: New York, 2003.
Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
- This is akin to close-up shots of genitals in pornography, which divorce the acts and the “naughty bits” from the people involved. We may get a vicarious charge from these images, but the narrative thrust that leads to a deeper sense of identification is lost. In Saw and its sequels, many of the climactic shots are also close-ups — of metal piercing skin, blood oozing, innards being exposed, etc., thus the genre being called “torture porn.” [↩]
- In “Genre Classifications and Cultural Distinctions in the Mediation of The Silence of the Lambs,” Marc Jancovich cites numerous articles that clearly resist associating The Silence of the Lambs with the horror genre, a resistance that primarily seems to extend from a desire to police the boundaries of high and low cultures. The argument goes: if horror films are considered low culture, then an Oscar-winning film like The Silence of the Lambs must be something other than horror. However, both the film’s style and content align it most assuredly (and even self-consciously) with the horror genre: a moody camera, floating about the world as though it might happen upon something horrific at any moment, explicit scenes of body horror such as Hannibal wearing the skin of a police officer as a makeshift mask, and a resourceful heroine who hews closely to the conventions of Carol Clover’s Final Girl, described in Men, Women, and Chainsaws as “abject terror personified” (35). [↩]
- Our shame is made all the more powerful by the fact that, for much of the film, we are put in the position of rooting for Hannibal. No matter how grotesque his acts of violence, they are also heroic. Ridley Scott exaggerates this further in the sequel, Hannibal (2001), where Hannibal becomes the titular protagonist. [↩]
- Metz continues, “There are two cones in the auditorium: one ending on the screen and starting both in the projection box and in the spectator’s vision insofar as it is projective, and one starting from the screen and ‘deposited’ in the spectator’s perception insofar as it is introjective (on the retina, a second screen)” (805). As described here, projective vision feels collaborative, with its images being created by both the viewer’s brain and the camera/projector apparatus. Projective vision is a more intellectual sort of seeing. On the other hand, introjective vision, as described here, feels almost violent, with the word “deposited” suggesting that meaning is forcibly inserted into the viewer, that our intellectual engagement with an image is undone by its more immediately physical effect. For Metz, every act of seeing involves both of these processes; however, each viewer and each image might privilege one sort of vision over the other. [↩]