Tonight, something inside me changed.
Those of you who’ve read my fiction know that I often employ gore in my stories. Characters are regularly decapitated, eaten, or thrown off buildings. And my upcoming novel, Defragmenting Daniel: The Organ Scrubber, is a gore fest. I’ve never seen a problem with treating my characters this way. A movie I saw tonight, however, has made me think twice.
Tonight, I watched Hardcore Henry.
Hardcore Henry is an adrenaline-fueled bloodbath about a soldier who’s brought back to life with a mash of human and cybernetic parts. But before Henry has a chance to enjoy his new life, an evil scientist hunts Henry down to obtain his technology. The movie is an unrelenting catalog of the ways Henry annihilates the mercenaries pursuing him. [For the record, there are no spoilers in this review, so it won’t diminish your experience if you intend to watch the movie].
To get a disturbingly visceral sense of the gore in Hardcore Henry, watch the movie’s opening credits:
Yup. Hectic. I found myself cringing in my seat. And the rest of the film is no softer. As I was watched on, I got to thinking: is showing this level of gore tasteful?
There are two popular views on gore in films and literature. Some feel that it’s awful, unnecessary, boring, and (at it’s worst) immoral garbage – call these the Conservatives. On the other hand, Gore Lovers feel quite the opposite – it’s fun, often witty, and entertaining.
While I watched Hardcore Henry, I vacillated quite uncomfortably between these two positions. I’m not sure this was the intention of the director – I have a feeling Ilya Naishuller belongs firmly to the Gore Lovers group. And I thought I did too. But while I watched knives pierce throats in slow motion, with every serration of the blade captured in high definition as it shreds the flesh of its victim, something didn’t sit quite right with me.
By the time I’d arrived home, I was in fierce debate with Mrs. Werbeloff about the Philosophy of Gore. And I’ll dive into that debate with you in a moment. But first, tell me your view:
I’m going to take a look at arguments for both the Conservative and Gore Loving and positions, and argue you that neither position is defensible. But what is particularly troubling is that I don’t think the Sometimes position works either.
One of the most obvious arguments offered by Conservatives is that the use of gore in fiction disrespects, or degrades, the human body. “How can you enjoy watching this?” they ask. Living, breathing persons inhabit human bodies. Each is a distinct individual with feelings, a family, and a history all their own. Slashing their bodies for entertainment is infantile, unnecessary, and perhaps, immoral. It shows no respect for the individual’s dignity, and indeed, for the dignity of human bodies in general.
This argument, however, is problematic. For one, we think that degrading or ignoring the needs of human bodies is, at least some of the time, a good thing. Almost all religions include traditions that consciously subvert the needs of the body in favor of the mind, or soul. Buddhist monks renounce pleasures of the flesh to achieve enlightenment. Historically, Catholics used self-flagellation as a tool for purification of the soul. And Jews fast on Yom Kippur to atone for their sins.
In addition, it seems like some movies and films use gore in a way that’s bizarrely aesthetically pleasing. In some of the best films made – The Fly, Re-Animator, and Kill Bill – you can’t help but gawp with equal parts admiration and horror at just how much blood is used, and how (for want of a better word) beautiful the result is. In Kill Bill I, over 41 people die, and 450 gallons of blood were spilled in Kill Bill volumes I and II. And it’s glorious. The bloodbath is delicious, and incredibly satisfying to watch. But most importantly, by the end of the film you can’t help but feel that the human body has taken on new meaning.
In at least some gore movies, the body becomes a temple. A place of worship for something chilling. Something awesome.
Alright, so the argument from the dignity of the body won’t cut it. But the Conservative has a second argument up her sleeve. Some Conservatives argue that gory films glorify some of the worst kinds of trauma. I was once driving on the highway, and watched the car in front of me clip the back wheel of a garbage truck. Three men sitting on the back were flung off the top of the vehicle as it flipped twice. One of the men landed underneath the truck. One landed beside my car. Before I could do anything he’d bled to death in front of me, his blood boiling on the tar.
A decade later, I still feel a chill pass through me when I drive past that spot. Is it right, is it good art, is it necessary, to use the fragility of the body for entertainment purposes, given the seriousness of the trauma associated with violent bodily harm? People died in that crash. And many others have witnessed far worse acts of bodily gore in real life than I have. When they watch a gory movie, they may be triggered into remembering the ghastliness of those events. It seems that filmmakers and writers who produce gory entertainment are glorifying what for some is a vicious trauma.
This argument has gained traction recently in liberal arts college campuses in the US and the UK. Books and films that might be found disturbing to victims (or survivors) of trauma are either removed from the syllabi, or included as optional reads with ‘trigger warnings’ inserted. “If you’ve been a victim of x trauma, you might find this difficult to read.”
The problem, however, with trigger warnings is that their inclusion shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the responsibility of persons for their emotions. My emotions occur inside me, and so, my emotions are my responsibility. (This is not to say that I have complete control over my emotions – Mrs. Werbeloff will attest to the fact that I’m often at the mercy of my feelings).
Taking the position that fiction producers should create trigger warnings to protect my emotions implies that others are responsible for my emotions. And this seems fundamentally mistaken to me.
Sure, others can influence my emotions, and in some cases can force me to feel certain feelings. A victim of brainwashing or rape might be forced to feel a certain way, but this is only because in these situations the victim is unable to remove herself from the influence of the perpetrator. In these limited cases, the perpetrator does seem responsible for the emotions felt by the victim. But in the case of a film or book, the viewer or reader is able to stop watching or reading at any time. The reader isn’t victim to the book. Indeed, the reader needn’t have picked up the book to begin with. There is no coercion on the part of the director or writer.
I’ve argued that the arguments for the Conservative position are unconvincing. Does that mean that we have a green light for including as much gore as we like in films and books? Are the Gore Lovers correct?
No, I don’t think so. And here’s why.
Think for a moment about gory snuff films (snuff films are recordings of actual murders of actual people). My intuition is that enjoying these sorts of films is deeply problematic. It would be difficult to construct an argument for the value of these sorts of movies, except maybe to solve a crime. But so far as entertainment goes, I think you’ll agree that snuff films are bad morally and aesthetically.
So where does this leave us? Well, it seems like the only position we can take now is that including gore in fiction is tasteful sometimes, but not always. This position, however, raises a difficult question:
How do we know exactly when gore is appropriate? The gore in The Fly, Re-Animator, and Kill Bill seems tasteful to me. But others might disagree. What principle can we provide for when gore is appropriate, and when it isn’t?
This requires lots more discussion, and I don’t have space to do that here. But this is one possibility: we might think that gore is tasteful when it’s used by writers or directors as a means to a greater end. Gore in Schindler’s List, for example, is used to highlight the atrocities of the Nazi regime. On this position, using gore purely for gore’s sake is tasteless. But tasteful, provided it serves a greater purpose.
The problem with this position is that it’s overly restrictive. Almost no gory movies today use gore in such a serious way. Only movies intent on social commentary would be able to include gore and be deemed tasteful. But must every movie include social commentary? Watch the phenomenal Bridge Scene from Deadpool. Do you think that’s in bad taste? I don’t. But it involves gore for gore’s sake.
So, where do we stand now? The Conservative position is too strong. The Gore Lovers position is too weak to exclude snuff films. And the Sometimes position is vague. Maybe there is no fact of the matter about what is tasteful? Maybe taste, after all, is purely in the mouth of the consumer.
What are your thoughts? Tell me in the comments section below what your favorite/least favorite gory films are. And do you think gore can be tasteful?
About the Author
Human. Male. From an obscure planet in the Milky Way Galaxy. Sci-fi novelist with a PhD in philosophy. Likes chocolates, Labradors, and zombies (not necessarily in that order). Werbeloff spends his days constructing thought experiments, while trying to muster enough guilt to go to the gym.
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