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The Hays Code and Video Nasties: A brief history of censorship in horror

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Aug 28, 2019

This month, Universal Pictures announced that they would be pulling the release of the upcoming satirical thriller The Hunt. This came in the aftermath of two mass shootings which occurred within 13 hours of each other, as well as bad-faith outcry from President Donald Trump, who allegedly claimed the film was made "to inflame and cause chaos." The Hunt, directed by Craig Zobel and co-written by Damon Lindelof, centered on a group of strangers who discover they have been chosen to be hunted by a group of elites. 

It’s unlikely the movie will remain in limbo for long — it will probably end up on a streaming service at some point in the near future — but the furor surrounding The Hunt has further highlighted the insidious issue of censorship in film, particularly within the horror and thriller genre.

The Hays Code

The history of film censorship in the United States and worldwide is almost as old as the medium itself. In the early 1910s, as the distribution of film became ever more popular, several states formed their own censorship boards to judge which films could be shown. In 1915, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, determined that the new medium of moving pictures was "a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit ... not to be regarded, nor intended to be regarded by the Ohio Constitution, we think, as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion." That meant it was not entitled to protections under the first amendment of the United States Constitution. That decision wouldn’t be overturned for another thirty years. In the meantime, Hollywood had to wrestle with the touchy subject of censorship, and then, a man named William Hays entered the scene.

In the '20s, Hollywood faced a number of high-profile scandals that exacerbated concerns the film industry was immoral, especially following the trial of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who was accused of raping a young woman named Virginia Rappe (he was later acquitted). Protest groups, particularly ones associated with the Catholic Church, demanded a return to morality and decency on the big screen. Will H. Hays, the former United States Postmaster General, was tasked with providing a production code that all cinematic releases would adhere to. The Hays Code was a list of general dos, don'ts, and be carefuls, with much of the ire directed towards depictions of sex and violence. A list of things that would not be allowed in pictures included pointed profanity, ridicule of the clergy, "any inference of sex perversion," white slavery, and interracial romance. Violence wasn't explicitly prohibited, but "special care" was advised in its depiction. State boards, however, were free to ban anything they felt was objectionable without guidelines.

Horror was a popular genre in early cinema. Early pre-Code titles happily took advantage of their cinematic freedom, to show gore and lurid sexuality and scenes that upset as much as they thrilled. In the early '30s, horror experienced a major boom in popularity thanks to the Universal monster movies and various studio copycats, yet not even this could stem the threat of censorship. 1931's Frankenstein was one of the year's most profitable movies, but several states demanded that cuts be made to it. Kansas's state board demanded the cutting of 32 scenes, which would have made the already short 71-minute running time around half that length. The two biggest offending issues for censors were one scene where the monster accidentally drowns a young girl and moments where Dr. Frankenstein referred to himself as God (it didn't seem to bother them that the hubris of his God complex is kind of the point of the book).

Oddly, a lot of early horror films under the Code were dealt with in a much more hands-off manner than their realist counterparts. As Thomas Doherty put it: "As long as monsters refrained from illicit sexual activity, respected the clergy, and maintained silence on controversial political matters, they might walk with impunity where bad girls, gangsters, and radicals feared to tread."

Eventually, however, the Code took its toll on the genre. They made their studios a lot of money but drummed up too much controversy to go untouched. This would be a tug-of-war battle for decades to come, even after the Code fell out of fashion in the late 1960s. By that point in time, the tide had turned on audience tastes and the willingness to allow censorship on such a grand scale, especially as films outside of America, like Hammer Horror’s slate and the truly disturbing French classic Eyes Without a Face, made Hollywood seem so frightfully out-of-date.

The Video Nasties

In the United Kingdom, censorship of horror took a very different form in the '70s and '80s. The Obscene Publications Act defined obscenity as that which may "tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see, or hear the matter contained or embodied in it." However, at the time, there was no legislation designed to regulate the growing home video market, and fears began to spread that impressionable young children could be scarred for life by easily accessible horror and erotic movies.

A group called the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association (NVLA, and later renamed Mediawatch-UK) was founded in 1965 by campaigner Mary Whitehouse to "clean up" media. Whitehouse had launched a frighteningly successful campaign against what she saw as entertainment improper for the public. She infamously sued Gay News on the grounds of blasphemous libel because of a poem they published about a Roman centurion having sexual fantasies about Jesus, and pushed for public obscenity charges against the director of the Howard Brenton play The Romans in Britain because of a simulated rape scene (Whitehouse hadn't seen the play, and the lawyer she sent to do so didn't seem to understand that the act was fake). However, it was her campaign against the so-called Video Nasties that linger the longest in the memories of the British public.

Encouraged by several major newspaper campaigns that claimed "High Street Horror is Invading the Home," Margaret Thatcher's Government passed the Video Recordings Act in 1984. The Director of Public Prosecutions published a list of films that had resulted in successful prosecutions and removal from store shelves. The Video Nasties of this infamous list weren't exclusively horror titles, but they did make up the lion's share of the most notable movies. The curious mish-mash of slasher horror, European arthouse, softcore pornography, exploitation, and thoughtful independent cinema became a go-to list for hardcore horror fans looking to stick it to the government. Movies like Cannibal Holocaust, Andy Warhol's Frankenstein, I Spit on Your Grave, and Zombie Flesh Eaters were either edited for release or pulled altogether for many years. Of course, this attempt to make such material inaccessible didn’t make it any less popular. In the '80s, slasher movies became more beloved and profitable than ever.

Nowadays, barring a few notable exceptions, it’s pretty much unheard of for films to be censored in American pop culture. Now and then, a film submitted to the British rating board, the BBFC, will be denied a rating due to unsuitable content, but there’s seldom any accompanying furor. The MPAA's own rating system and often puritanical demands to meet R or PG-13 ratings have been compared to censorship by some film-makers, but for a film to be outright pulled from theaters even after receiving a rating is a much less common occurrence. In many ways, those days are gone, but censorship as a whole has unfortunately not left us. In China, for example, several major releases this year alone were pulled from release due to “technical issues," which has become something of a code for when the government disapproves of a movie’s content. Depictions of queer content are still banned in Russia, among many other countries. In the current age, however, accessibility to previously banned or censored material has never been easier to attain. It’s a small relief from the realization that bad-faith moralizing and political meddling can still play too large a part in dictating what audiences can and cannot consume of their own free will. The biggest concern around The Hunt, as it was with The Interview, is how its removal from our screens comes from political meddling rather than the industry's own metrics. If the threat of the President pinning the blame for systemic violence on a movie becomes commonplace, the fear of censorship will always be around the corner.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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