If the horror genre is all about exploiting viewers’ fears of death and violence, it stands to reason that horror filmmakers need to find more sensational ways to do so. Bloody violence or gore is a physical manifestation of this fear that serves an important role in some horror movies as long as it has direction, but when gore lacks direction, its inclusion can make a movie feel lazy and reliant on shock factor. The sensationalization of death and gore in horror is disturbing not only because of any negative psychological effects on viewers but because of its over-saturation due to a lack of originality within the genre.
When opponents of gore discuss its presence in film, they tend to bring up the potential psychological harm it can have on audiences — but this reasoning is merely speculative. One of the largest critics of gore in horror is Gianluca Di Muzio, who argued in his 2006 paper in the “International Journal of Applied Philosophy,” “The Immorality of Horror Films,” that it is unethical to engage with “slasher” and “gorefest” movies either as an artist or consumer. His argument focuses on the effects gore has on our ability to “react compassionately to the sight of human victimization.” While Di Muzio’s argument is compelling and similar thought processes have played into mainstream pro-censorship arguments, there is limited evidence that engaging with gore has negative long term effects on our ability to react with “compassion.”
Although the psychological effect argument against gore may be weaker, excessive gore can still hinder a movie by reducing it to a dimensionless and unoriginal gorefest. Instead of reinvigorating the horror genre with new ideas, innovative design (not more CGI), or new perspectives — especially during a time where remakes of classic movies are very popular — creators have opted for shock value, anticipating a squeamishly profitable audience. “Tusk” (2014) epitomizes this tactic, in a disturbing story following podcaster Wallace Bryton as he is tortured and mutilated by a man hoping to turn him into a walrus. The film lacks meaning and attempts (and fails) to make up for it with gory scenes.
It is important to note that gore is not necessary to make a compelling and horrifying story. There are several examples of great horror movies with little to no gore. From classics like “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) to more recent films such as “Midsommar” (2019) these films are able to evoke fear by manipulating our deepest fears through carefully curated innuendo and imagery designed to horrify without the overt gratuitous gore. Sympathetic and relatable characters are also essential vehicles for this genre to be effective. One of the most disturbing parts of “Midsommar” is Dani’s humanity, which makes her empathetic to the audience. Once this connection is established, suspense is created not by giving everything to the audience, but by meticulously withholding key information and revealing it, if at all, precisely at the right moment for maximum impact.
The score, too, must be a living breathing part of the film that is synchronized with the plot. In “Rosemary’s Baby”, the unsettling soundtrack sets the tone for the movie. The variations in music playing during the serene versus more hectic moments are subtle but powerful. The cinematography must capture the chilling essence of the story with each frame. The cinematography in “Midsommar” served to effectively subvert the fear-of-the-dark trope with brightly colored aesthetics and visuals that make the viewer feel like they have nowhere to hide.
Too much gore can detract from either the scariness or the watchability of a movie. The “Final Destination“ franchise, for example, includes five movies that consist of people dying violent deaths in dramatic fashion. The level of violence becomes comical because it is so over-the-top. Characters' deaths range from dying in a tanning bed to being impaled by a ladder. The concept of the movie is enough to frighten any viewer, but the manner, number, and graphic nature of the deaths give the movie a more humorous tone, which is great if you’re watching “Scary Movie,” but can hurt the film if you’re looking to be scared. On the other end of the spectrum, movies like “The Human Centipede“ series can feature too much graphic footage for even the biggest gore enthusiast. The characters endure such disgusting torture sequences that it is hard not to feel like a sadistic voyeur.
Horror movies are often predicated on the idea of otherness and demonizing people based on their perceived differences, and because of its symbolic usage, gore can feel particularly pointed against certain groups. It is hard not to draw a parallel between viewers’ desensitization to the harming of marginalized people in film and in real life.
In “The Hills Have Eyes,” for example, the “monsters” in the movie are all physically impaired due to nuclear testing. Their physical differences are played up for horror, and they engage in grotesque acts to disturb viewers. This type of “gore” is ableist, as it relies on viewers being made uncomfortable by the appearance of the villains — before they even commit any acts of violence.
In addition to ableism in horror, extreme acts of violence against people of color where their race is mentioned can alienate viewers of color. In “The Human Centipede (First Sequence),” the only Japanese character is not only tortured by the antagonist, he is also called racist names, and, being the front of the centipede, forced to eat dog food. The unnecessary racism adds nothing to the movie, while making the gore feel more like a hate crime, resulting in an incredibly uncomfortable watch.
When gore is done well, though, it can really elevate the movie. In “Get Out,” Jordan Peele is selective with his goriness and he does not rely on gore to instill fear in viewers. He does so through impeccable storytelling, a chilling atmosphere, and unsettling characters. The goriest scene of the movie is brief, but it happens at one of the most revelatory points in the film and serves to underscore the horror the audience only assumed was transpiring but finally witnessed on screen.
As horror continues to progress as a genre with more stories from creators with diverse perspectives, hopefully gore will be incorporated into films in a more tasteful way. The genre certainly doesn’t need gore, but when done with care, the genre can greatly benefit from it.