Why we can't look away from gore in horror movies

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A few years ago, over a Halloween weekend, I binged watched the Saw franchise. I'm a sucker for a good horror movie, but I've typically stuck with supernatural and science fiction – shying away from slasher films and those where the grisly scenes could have been plucked from reality. The Saw films, which revolve around the "Jigsaw Killer," who traps and tortures his victims with "games" that test their will to survive, left me emotionally wrecked. The gory death scenes, and moments leading up to the offing of endless vulnerable characters, are among some of the grisliest I've ever seen.

Call me a lightweight, but digging out your own eyeball or having your head mutilated by a spring-loaded, spike-laden helmet is a pretty gruesome, and f***ed up, choice. Yet, I couldn't look away. I wanted to hide my eyes, to protect my virgin senses from the fictional carnage and bloodshed, but it didn't happen. I stared, in anticipation, as each twisted second passed. After, I questioned my morality. Did I have some hidden serial killer tendencies? Was my moral compass broken? Turns out, according to experts, I'm not the next Charles Manson. In fact, I'm perfectly normal.

When we watch horror films, we're rubbernecked with morbid curiosity in the same way we are paradoxically drawn to the scene of a car crash or celebrity scandal. "It's a normal part of human character to have both sadistic and, the other side of the coin, masochistic interests," says Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and author of The Power of Different: The Difference Between Disorder and Genius. Usually, she explains, these interests are sublimated. In psychology, sublimation is a defense mechanism where socially unacceptable impulses or idealizations are unconsciously transformed into socially acceptable actions or behaviors. To get a taste of the macabre, some people go into law enforcement or become surgeons. Others watch hours of make-believe killings.

Caleb Wilde, a sixth-generation mortician and author of Confessions of a Funeral Director, draws a connection between sex and death. He says both represent the least transcendent aspects of our being, the most animalistic underpinnings of who we are. Both have been shamed, to one degree or another, especially in the West. With death, akin to sex and pornography, it's the shaming that makes us look at the blood and gore. "I think that when we shame death, or when we fear it or when we don't involve it in our lives, our reaction can be to look for this 'pornography of death,'" Wilde says.

Horror movies are an easy way to approach death, being touched by it only a little, but not being totally involved. "Horror movies can be disturbing, but it's not the actual thing," says Wilde. "It's not my loved one, it's not me, it's fictional, it's something we can do vicariously to approach our fears."

Dan Sellers, an independent filmmaker and owner of Wreak Havoc Productions, believes people are drawn to horror films because there's a great entertainment value in experiencing fear, but in a controlled environment. "I think blood and gore have an attraction that's fairly primal, in that we all have the capacity to bleed, but it's not necessarily something people see on a regular basis," he explains.

Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear and author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, agrees with Sellers on the primal nature of morbid curiosity and says the tension between attraction and repulsion has been the topic of great thinkers for centuries. "In Plato's Republic, Socrates even tells a story of Leontius, who tried to cover his eyes when he saw the bodies of the dead after an execution, but couldn't help himself and looked anyway."

We've evolved to have a negativity bias, which means we will focus first, and pay more attention to, things that are perceived to be scary or threatening. And death is at the top of the list.

"Perhaps seeing mangled limbs, decomposing body parts, and blood baths in that controlled movie-going experience provides some weird level of comfort, disguised as excitement," says Sellers. He hints toward the excitation transfer theory, which experts often use to explain our attraction to scary movies. Our heart rates, blood pressure, and respiration increase when viewing a frightening film. This physiological arousal lingers after a movie ends. People tend to subconsciously associate this intense physical reaction as a rush of excitement. That "disguised excitement," as Sellers called it, is frequently what keeps people hooked on scary movies.

Kerr believes there can be benefits from viewing the macabre, but it depends on several factors: whether we are voluntarily choosing to view the material (did we purchase tickets to a movie or someplace like the Mutter Museum?), and if we can we stop engaging with the material at will (no one is forcing you to watch). "Depending on the context, this [horror movies] can help people confront some challenging ideas like their own mortality, or even help them understand and empathize with others, really tapping into the value and vulnerability of human life."

But how much gore is too much? "Unfortunately, there's no easy go-to answer," says Kerr." "The point at which it becomes bad or dangerous depends on the individual, their motivations, the purpose the viewing is serving, and so on."

Saltz says the person concerned with where to draw the line is not the person to worry about. "The person for whom repetitive viewing of gore is going to be a problem isn't really concerned about a line," she explains. "This leans toward the sociopathic, in the sense that they are lacking somewhat in empathy and lacking somewhat in the self-control needed for following rules." These sadistic rulebreakers, like serial killer, Charles Manson, or fictional murderer, Jigsaw, derive pleasure from causing other people pain.

And, yes, even horror filmmakers believe there is a line in how far the gore should go. "There have been some horror films that have crossed the line and are just too gory or too violent and those are films that disturb more than frighten or excite," says Peter Paul Basler, a Swiss-American director and producer. He cites the first episode of season seven of The Walking Dead, which killed off two main characters in an extremely gory way and sparked outrage with fans and watchdog groups.

"I think if filmmaking is done right, than perhaps it's okay to be fixated on the gory scenes because those are the scenes that pay off the building suspense," Sellers says. The infamous shower scene in Psycho, which is a well-known and celebrated scene, is a perfect example. "It's so powerful because of all the suspense that leads to it, and as for the murder itself, and the gore, it's as much about what you don't see as what you're shown," he adds.