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Essay On Movies Nowadays Are Gory

When Paranormal Activity 3 chalked up record-setting numbers at last weekend’s box office (its $54 million was the most ever for a horror film), Stuart Fischoff wasn’t surprised. “Films like Paranormal Activity 3 have a pre-registered audience just waiting for the latest Hollywood bouquet of blood, sweat, tears, and chills to exquisitely fill our lust for horribly sweet sensations,” says Fischoff, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and senior editor of the online Journal of Media Psychology.

The fact that some people like to be scared out of their wits never ceases to baffle those of us who would as soon see Freddy Krueger slash his way through A Nightmare on Elm Street as we would have surgery without anesthesia. But to masters of the genre, as well as to experts in media psychology, it makes perfect sense. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King described “terror as the finest emotion, and so I will try to terrorize the reader.” What makes it so fine? “One of the major reasons we go to scary movies is to be scared,” says Fischoff. But the scare we crave—and this applies to haunted houses and spooky corn mazes no less than to horror movies—is a safe one. “We know that, in an hour or two, we’re going to walk out whole,” says Fischoff. “We’re not going to have any holes in our head, and our hearts will still be in our bodies.”

But those hearts will likely be pounding a bit harder than if you had just seen, say, Dolphin Tale. And that accounts for a lot of the appeal. “If we have a relatively calm, uneventful lifestyle, we seek out something that’s going to be exciting for us, because our nervous system requires periodic revving, just like a good muscular engine,” says Fischoff. A 1995 study found that the higher people score on a scale that measures sensation-seeking, the more they like horror films. “There are people who have a tremendous need for stimulation and excitement,” says Fischoff. “Horror movies are one of the better ways to get really excited.”

That may explain why horror movies are most popular with younger audiences. Teens and twenty-somethings “are more likely to look for intense experiences,” says John Edward Campbell, an expert in media studies at Temple University. That fades with age, especially as people become more sensitive to their own physiology: middle-aged and older adults tend not to seek out experiences that make their hearts race, and feel that real life is scary enough. (Did we mention foreclosure? Unemployment? Divorce?) They don’t need to get their scares from movies. Or as Fischoff puts it, “Older people have stimulation fatigue. Life’s [real] horrors scare them, or they don’t find them entertaining any more—or interesting.”

One of the more counterintuitive findings in the science of fear is that the stronger the negative emotions (fear, worry, anxiety...) a person reports experiencing during horror films, the more likely he or she is to enjoy the genre. Distress and delight are correlated. “The pleasure comes from the relief that follows,” says Campbell. “It provides a cathartic effect, offering you emotional release and escape from the real world of bills and mortgages and the economy and relationships.”

The catharsis theory is one of several that have been floated over the years to explain the appeal of being scared out of your wits. Freud suggested that horror was appealing because it traffics in “thoughts and feelings that have been repressed by the ego but which seem vaguely familiar,” as a 2004 paper explained. Jung argued that horror touches on primordial images in the collective unconscious. But since there is no evidence that many of us have repressed feelings of drowned children like Freddy marauding through a summer camp in Friday the 13th, let alone that that’s part of our collective unconscious, such psychoanalytic explanations for the appeal of fear have fallen by the wayside.

Instead, scientists suspect that other motivations, besides catharsis, are at work. One comes from the fact that horror movies, even slasher flicks, generally stick to an almost Victorian moral code. You can be pretty sure that the girl who has sex with her boyfriend will wind up dead (as parodied in the Scream movies), as will teenagers who pick up deranged hitchhikers. Horror films thus appeal to people who like predictability and neat ends, hold the ethical relativism: in these movies, there is no question about who the bad guy is. And despite the high and often gory body count, the films tend to have a (relatively) happy ending. “Control lost under the cover of darkness is rediscovered in the light of day; danger posed by things unknown is reduced by increased knowledge and predictability,” explained clinical psychologist Glenn Walters of Kutztown University in that 2004 paper (written when he worked at a federal prison in Minersville, Pa.)

He suggests that the appeal to teenagers also goes beyond thrill-seeking and catharsis. Horror movies help young people learn to manage terror. “They can either succumb [to frightening images] or learn to manage,” he argues. “By learning to suppress feelings and display mastery or cling to others in a dependent ploy for protection, a person learns to cope with another aspect of his or her environment, a skill that may be useful in dealing with more than just horror pictures.” That may explain another oddity of the genre: horror movies are popular date films. “Teenage boys enjoyed a horror film significantly more when the female companion... expressed fright, whereas teenage girls enjoyed the film more when the male companion... showed a sense of mastery and control,” Walters argued.

Perhaps most fundamentally, horror films are popular because they speak to the basic human condition of existential fear, the knowledge that we are all doomed (albeit not as messily as Jason’s or Freddy’s victims). By sitting through a fictional depiction of that fact—even if the movie’s victims slough their mortal coil in a more sensational way than most of us, God willing, will—we face our greatest fear.

Yet when people are asked to name their top 25 favorite films, horror almost never makes the cut, Fischoff and colleagues found. (The Godfather, Star Wars, Casablanca, and The Sound of Music jostle for room at the top; the closest the horror genre comes is an occasional appearance by Ghost, which is more romantic than scary.) “Horror is almost no one’s favorite genre,” says Fischoff. The two horror films named by the most people, Nightmare on Elm Street and The Exorcist, each got only six mentions from the 560 people surveyed. People 50 and older almost never name a horror film as one of their 25 favorites (0.2 percent of this group’s top 25 lists include a horror movie). But the genre accounts for only 3.2 percent of the top films named by people 13 to 25, and 2.3 percent of those named by those 26 to 49. (For whatever it’s worth, the ethnic group that names the most horror films to its top 25 lists is Latinos.)

Why is horror less popular than other genres? “Generally, people anticipate feeling entertained and feeling good when they leave a movie,” explains Fischoff. But while horror films excite and arouse, they “often leave people feeling nervous and unsettled,” despite any catharsis. “This is not a state which leads to fond memories.” As anyone with nightmares after Nightmare can attest.

Michael Winterbottom's new film, The Killer Inside Me, has achieved a certain notoriety for its rapt attention to the murder of its female leads. It's particularly the death of a prostitute, Joyce, played by Jessica Alba, which has divided viewers. The murder hardly came as a surprise to me, given that when I went to see the film I had already read a couple of interviews with Winterbottom and a couple of assessments of the film, but even so, I was almost overwhelmed during the scene. It's tough watching a woman whimpering "Why?" as her eye is punched out of place and her bones crunch.

I had been struck, in the articles on Winterbottom I had already read, by the fact that at first he didn't seem to think there was anything particularly unusual about this avid lingering on a heroine's physical destruction. He said to one interviewer: "I've been a little surprised that people have found it so hard to watch the two main violent scenes ... I don't think they are that visually graphic compared to other films." It's true that his film's explicit violence is not unique. Yes, if you go to see The Killer Inside Me you will be exposed to the spectacle of a woman being punched to death, with lingering shots of her bruised face. You will also see another heroine, Amy, played by Kate Hudson, killed in a similar way, and hear her struggling for breath as she slowly dies on the floor. Yet it is unlikely to be the first time that many viewers have sat through such scenes.

Violence has long been a staple of mainstream film-making, and filmgoers have been shuddering over the murders of women for generations, from Psycho to American Psycho. But over the past few years, violence against women, in particular, has become ever more forensically detailed. No wonder Winterbottom didn't expect his film to cause outrage. It is not the first time this year that I have found myself feeling sickened by the flayed female flesh presented by a mainstream film. When I went to see The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I found myself wondering why it is that our entertainment seems to rely so much on the fascinated depiction of women's scarred and bruised bodies. The assumption is now – and it seems to be correct – that audiences are happy to watch their heroines being beaten and gagged, and to stare at explicitly rendered photographs of women cut and splayed and killed.

This is not just the staple of films that play to selected audiences. Mainstream television dramas now often choose to centre on plots that rely on the depiction of women's corpses and the process of their deaths. The most recent episode of Luther, the primetime BBC police drama, started with a murderer leaning over the corpse of a woman and went on to present his previous and subsequent violence in detail. Television drama cannot go as far as cinema into the grosser particulars, but it shares much of the same aesthetic. This is not a marginal part of our entertainment.

Winterbottom is quick to remind his interviewers that his film does not condone the violence it shows. Indeed, those films and television dramas that centre on violence against women usually foreground a straightforward moral framework in which murderers and rapists are seen as evil and perverted and must be punished. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo goes even further, in providing a redemptive narrative by showing an active and intelligent female taking revenge on the men who kill or inflict violence on women. Yet it is still inescapable that so much of the emotional energy of these films and dramas centre on women's pain, and the extensive shots of corpses and battered flesh are a constant counterpoint to the condemnation of their treatment.

Perhaps in response to the criticism he has been receiving, Winterbottom has suggested that the more graphic such violence becomes, the more moral it is. Indeed, at the screening I went to, Winterbottom took questions after the film, and when I asked him why it was that his film chose to show such detailed violence, he replied: "It's more moral to make it unwatchable." But this response does not bear much interrogation; what I find unwatchable the man beside me may find hilarious. Indeed, one writer told Winterbottom, in Interview magazine: "At my screening, I think I was smiling for most of the time."

And when I thought back about The Killer Inside Me, the idea that it was providing a moral message about violence against women began to look absurd. The narrative may not explicitly condone murderous violence, but it suggests that it is the seedbed of true love. Not long into the movie, our hero goes to seek out the prostitute, Joyce. He is a baby-faced sheriff named Lou, played by Casey Affleck, and he goes to see her in order to warn her away from the town. It's all going badly between them until she loses her temper with him, and slaps him. Infuriated, he takes off his belt, pushes her on to a bed, and beats her bare buttocks until she turns to him, embraces him and falls in love. This is, the film leaves us in no doubt, a real love, an undying love, an unconditional love that can survive even attempted murder.

This suggestion that violence will engender the most tender and lasting love is a facet of this film that has received less attention than the graphic nature of the murders, and yet it is more troubling. What's more, it's a repeated motif. Lou makes not one, but two women, fall unconditionally in love with him, and his relationship with the good girl, Amy, takes exactly the same form as his relationship with Joyce, the bad girl: he pushes her around, she adores him. Even at the moment of her death at his hands, she reaches piteously towards him.

For many years, feminists have been trying to unpick the myths that encourage men to believe that women love violent men, and yet in our mainstream culture now those myths are sloshing around, unquestioned. Some of the films and books that have repeated this yoking of love and violence in recent years could hardly be further from Winterbottom's 18-rated film. The Twilight books and movies work in an entirely different register, and while there is a lot of fun for teenage girls in their dreamy world, many commentators have picked up on their troubling equation of violence and love. Throughout the books the heroine, Bella, is aware of the fact that her vampire lover can hardly control the violence that is an inextricable part of his desire for her. And after three long books, when they finally consummate their love, she wakes the next morning ready to take pride in her body's extensive bruising. "I stared at my naked body in the full-length mirror ... There was a faint shadow across one of my cheekbones, and my lips were a little swollen, but other than that, my face was fine. The rest of me was decorated with patches of blue and purple ... Of course, these were just developing. I'd look even worse tomorrow."

The Twilight books are fantasies that I would be reluctant to take too seriously, but nevertheless they reminded me how easy it is to slip into the mistaken belief that bruises are a sign of great love. Such beliefs may be held more widely than we like to imagine: I was struck by an interview with Alba in which she seemed to be buying into it on behalf of her character in The Killer Inside Me. "It really is the most tragic of love stories ... she is always egging him on and provoking him."

I don't want to shut down any kind of film-making, nor do I want to prevent storytellers from exploring the interconnections of love and death, which have underpinned much great art. But the ways that our current culture is exploring sex and violence feel increasingly claustrophobic. This is not just down to what we see, but what we don't see. The Killer Inside Me is adapted from a 1952 book written by Jim Thompson, that tells the tale of a psychopath from the psychopath's point of view, and so it adopts an inevitably narrow and skewed viewpoint. Yet the way that the film denies much life to the women even before they are killed does not just reveal fidelity to the source material; it also brings into focus a characteristic of our contemporary culture. Although noir films of the past had any number of murdered women in them, in the ones that we remember, those women had character, had intelligence, had dreams of their own before those were snuffed out. But the heroines of this film have almost nothing except pretty underwear and bruised flesh.

And this is a real part of the problem; that while we are seeing so many women as victims in our films and our dramas, we seem to be seeing fewer women as active heroes. Why would talented and admired actors like Hudson and Alba take roles in which they are reduced to being only bodies, seen first sexually and then sadistically, if there were a full range of intriguing roles available to them?

Similarly, a drama series such as Luther comes at a time when there are few drama shows on primetime television that show women being intelligent, complex and energetic. While there are any number of parts for women who are ready to play prostitutes and victims, there are few that are prepared to show them as active heroes. Recently I sat down with a fortysomething actress who is a British household name, and a female writer who has successfully written drama for British television. Both were separately lamenting the shift in television and film culture that was preventing them from developing the kind of strong and complicated roles that they believed were available to women in the past. It is in this context that the rise of drama and cinema that foregrounds women as victims has to be seen.

But maybe we should not be entirely downhearted. Although this particular film is so troubling in its depiction of women, when I look at its reception so far, I feel almost heartened. I am hardly the only person to have questioned its disturbing aspectsMany viewers are waking up to the fact that the repetition of certain patterns of violence is not the sign of an edgy dramatic vision, but rather the sign of a tedious old misogyny, and that it's time for directors to find their thrills elsewhere.

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