The Appeal of Murder in Style: Aestheticization of Violence, Catharsis Theory and the Paradox of Horror Cinema

From The Grindhouse Cinema Database

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"If any human act evokes the aesthetic experience of the sublime, certainly it is the act of murder ... if murder can be experienced aesthetically, the murderer can in turn be regarded as a kind of artist - a performance artist or anti-artist whose specialty is not creation but destruction." - Joel Black, University of Georgia literature professor

"One of television's greatest contributions is that it brought murder back into the home where it belongs. Seeing a murder on television can be good therapy. It can help work off one's antagonism." - Alfred Hitchcock, director of Psycho, The Birds''

For almost a century, horror cinema has frightened, shocked and disgusted audiences with its portrayal of terrifying monsters, deranged serial killers with a bloodlust for young virgins, and other spooky things that go bump in the night. The question that has been asked for years is: why are these movies so popular? What is it about being scared and having the hair on the back of one's neck stand straight up that keep people coming back for more? As horror movies become more and more socially acceptable in today's culture, it is crucial to look at what makes these films attract mass appeal: plot, characters, tone, or perhaps most importantly, the aestheticization of violence. It is also important to ask: as a result of these films, are there any consequences to being fed a steady diet of severed eyeballs, guts and bloody aerial spray?

The origins of the mainstream horror movie began in the 1930s, with the release of such films as Dracula, Frankenstein 1931 and The Wolf Man (1941). But while these classic Universal movie monsters provided big scares for their audiences, much of the violence was shown off-screen or largely implied. Although the commercial success of these movies was widespread, by the late 1940s the novelty began to wear off. Following the end of World War II, movie producers switched their focus to colossal insects and aliens from outer space. These films "appealed to the public because they vented fears of nuclear war and expressed a general mistrust of science and technology" (12).

The 1950s and 1960s ushered in a new element to horror cinema: color. Curse of Frankenstein (1957) shocked moviegoers with its colorized blood and gore. Herschell Gordon Lewis, known as "the Godfather of Gore," entered uncharted waters with 1963's Blood Feast. The film's main plot revolved around a man who stalks and mutilates beautiful young women. Lewis used the same formula in 2,000 Maniacs, The Gore Gore Girls, Color Me Blood Red and The Wizard of Gore, single-handedly changing the face of horror with his full-color torture and murder scenes, which audiences loved (12).

As the decades passed, horror movies began to feature more and more explicit violence. The 1970s and 1980s delivered The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn Of The Dead, Halloween, Friday The 13th, Lucio Fulci's The Beyond, and countless other gore epics. These movies had two major similarities: they were all huge financial hits, and they all featured impressive special effects involving extreme gore. With recent entries such as the Saw franchise and Hatchet II, it is clear that these movies are still immensely popular in today's culture, and more than half of the aforementioned titles in this paragraph have been remade in the past decade. So why does content that deals with such violent and disturbing subject matter appeal to mainstream audiences? Are there any far-reaching effects - positive or negative - because of this phenomenon?

When attempting to answer this question, it is important to look at the theories surrounding the effect of violence in mass media on society. Some critics say violence serves a "cathartic or dissipating effect ... providing acceptable outlets for anti-social impulses" (3). According to Adrian Martin, these "critics, who have regard - love, even - for violent cinema in its diverse forms ... have developed a ... response to those who decry everything from Taxi Driver to Terminator 2 as dehumanizing, desensitizing cultural influences." They argue that "screen violence is not real violence, and should never be confused with it. Movie violence is fun, spectacle, make-believe; it's dramatic metaphor, or a necessary catharsis akin to that provided by Jacobean theatre; it is generic, pure sensation, pure fantasy. It has its own changing history, its codes, its precise aesthetic uses" (8).

This ideology is very similar to that of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. He supported a useful role for drama and tragedy: a way for people to purge their negative emotions. Aristotle mentions "catharsis" at the end of his Politics, which is the Greek word for "purgation, cleansing, and purification." It is derived from katharein, meaning "to cleanse." Aristotle says that after people listen to music that elicits pity and fear, they "are liable to become possessed" by these negative emotions. Afterwards, these people return to "a normal condition as if they had been medically treated and undergone a purge [catharsis] ... All experience a certain purge and pleasant relief. In the same manner cathartic melodies give innocent joy to men" (5).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some critics see depictions of violence in films as superficial and exploitative. They argue that it causes audience members to become desensitized to brutality, and thereby increases aggressivity. One condemnation of the slasher movie sub-genre (with such films as The Burning, My Bloody Valentine and Slaughter High) is the widely-held view that they single out women for injury and death. For example, a Los Angeles Times film critic claimed that the "brutal victimization of women [is] a recurring and obviously popular theme in such films" (2). During the ABC news show Nightline, correspondent Gail Harris summed up slasher films as "short on plot and long on brutality and violence, much of it sexual, almost all of it directed at women" (11). Film critics Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert also made similar claims on their television program At The Movies.

Slasher films have also been criticized for mixing excessive violence with sex. A New York Times film critic wrote that the violence in slasher films is "usually preceded by some sort of erotic prelude: footage of pretty young bodies in the shower, or teens changing into nighties for the slumber party, or anything that otherwise lulls the audience into a mildly sensual mood" (9). Daniel Linz and Edward Donnerstein have reported that slashers often include the mutilation of women in scenes that include sexual content. Many critics who claim that slasher films often portray sexual assaults believe combining erotic and violent scenes can be a direct cause for viewers, especially males, to associate sex with aggression in their everyday lives (12).

These opinions and beliefs echo the same words as the famous student of Socrates, Plato. He proposed to prohibit poets from his perfect society because Plato worried that their aesthetic ability to create attractive narratives about immoral behavior would corrupt young minds. Plato's writings refer to poetry as a kind of rhetoric, whose "influence is pervasive and often harmful." He believed poetry that was "unregulated by philosophy is a danger to soul and community." He also warned that tragic poetry can produce "a disordered psychic regime or constitution" by inducing "a dream-like, uncritical state in which we lose ourselves in ... sorrow, grief, anger, [and] resentment." In short, Plato argued that "What goes on in the theater, in your home, in your fantasy life, are connected" to what a person does in real life (6).

Lines are clearly drawn in the sand over whether violence portrayed in horror movies has a good or bad effect on its viewers; it seems as though either position comes down to a matter of taste. But is the aestheticization of violence in horror movies a less subjective concept? In regard to cinema, the term is used to explain the depiction of violence in a manner that is "stylistically excessive in a significant and sustained way" so audience members are able to connect references from the "play of images and signs" to artworks, genre conventions, cultural symbols and concepts (1). The way in which violence is aestheticized can be done in a number of ways.

Filmmakers can break up a scene into its components and depict it from different angles, then reassemble the parts. An editor can produce a non-realistic sequence of intercut, edited images, which forces the audience to interpret the images according to a set of semiotic rules. When a film director stages a scene, the audience may consider it less realistic; this is because the scenario is filtered through the filmmaker's sensibilities and the outcome reflects the director's motives. Hence, the lighting, make-up, costumes, acting methods, cutting and soundtrack music selection combine to inform the audience about the filmmaker's intentions (1).

Over time, certain styles and conventions of shooting and editing are standardized within a medium or genre. Some conventions tend to naturalize content and make it seem more real. Other methods - which are quite popular in numerous sub-genres of horror, including the slasher or Giallo - breach convention to create an effect. In movies with aestheticized violence, the "standard realist modes of editing and cinematography are violated in order to specularize the action being played out on the screen;" directors use quick and awkward editing, canted framings, shock cuts and slow motion to emphasize the impacts of bullets or the "spurting of blood" (3).

A perfect example of a highly stylized portrayal of explicit violence is in Italian horror director Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977). The plot of the supernaturally charged giallo (the Italian word for "yellow," used to describe the dustjackets of old pulp detective stories) deals with a coven of witches who control a German dance academy. The opening murder sequence showcases a woman being stabbed repeatedly - including once in the heart, shown in an extremely uncomfortable close-up - then subsequently hanged after her bloodied body crashes through a beautiful stained glass ceiling.

Xavier Mendik, the director of the Cult Film Archive at University College Northampton, describes the movie as "a film that requires contemplation. Its surreal compositions emulate the feel of an artist's canvas, with individual scenes being more aesthetically pleasing than the film as a whole. In characteristic Argento style, [the opening murder] is saturated with primary colors and a near-hysterical soundtrack. Both of these features are so overpowering as to distract the viewer from the gory activities that the scene details. The unnerving force of the scene is once again testament to the director's ability to manipulate every aspect of cinematic technology in his quest to expand the boundaries of horror cinema" (10).

So are these stylistic and artistic elements the reason why horror movies maintain such a firm grasp on moviegoers today, or is it something else completely different altogether? In his book, The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart, Noel Carroll attempts to answer this very question: "Why would anyone be interested in the genre to begin with? Why does the genre persist?" (4). He is puzzled by this, because Carroll says in the ordinary course of affairs, people shun what disgusts them: "We do not, for example, attempt to add some pleasure to a boring afternoon by opening the lid of a steamy trash can in order to savor its unwholesome stew of broken bits of meat, moldering fruits and vegetables, and noxious, unrecognizable clumps, riven thoroughly by all manner of crawling things" (4).

Carroll believes this to be the "paradox of horror." Horror movies obviously attract consumers, but by means of the "expressly repulsive." There is evidence showing the genre is pleasurable to its audience, but it does so by dealing with the sort of things that cause "disquiet, distress and displeasure." The fundamental question then becomes: "Why are horror audiences attracted by what, typically [in everyday life], should [and would] repel them? How can horror audiences find pleasure in what by nature is distressful and unpleasant?" (4).

Jerrold Levinson attempts to summarize Carroll's answers, and provide some of his own insight. Carroll offers everything from author H.P. Lovecraft's belief that horror is valued for the quasi-religious cosmic awe it inspires, to Freudian explanations in terms of surrogate enactment of repressed psychosexual longings, and suggestions of Eaton and Feagin that satisfaction might reside in some sort of controlling meta-response to inherently unpleasant first-order reactions (7). However, Levinson says, "Carroll claims that our main interest and pleasure in horror fiction lies in its narrative structure, rather than directly in the monster's horrific nature or our reaction to that. It is this curiosity, the desire for information, that drives the horror genre" (7). Daniel Shaw supports this statement, saying, "Curiosity is at the heart of most narratives; without the desire to know, the narrative flow would be un-involving" (13).

The nature of horror movies is merely a side effect for Carroll, "a side effect that is paid in order to reap the cognitive rewards of investigation, disclosure, and unmasking, and not the key to a more fundamental explanation of horror's appeal. The monster is interesting, ultimately, only because it fascinates." Levinson believes that while Carroll offers compelling arguments that support their relevance to aesthetic theory, a qualm, "that the account fails to locate the specific appeal of horror tales as opposed to ones of benevolent fantasy or marvelous categorical violation, stubbornly remains" (7). Shaw agrees, saying, "[Carroll] provides an ingenious solution to the paradox, but fails to come to grips with the essence of horror in the process" (13). It appears that this "specific appeal," or the essence of horror, is left to be interpreted by the audience.

Horror cinema aficionados are left to wonder if there are numerous reasons or maybe no reason at all as to why excessively violent films are popular among moviegoers, past and present. Is it because people are impressed by the lighting and camera techniques combined with bloody special effects? Do they need to satisfy their morbid curiosity, and succumb to the fear of the unknown? Or, quite simply, do they just enjoy being scared out of their wits? Whatever the case may be, it is safe to say the horror genre is alive and will remain going strong. Regardless of whether critics think these films act as cathartic devices, or are extremely dangerous and detrimental to society, people will continue to be entertained and disturbed by the appeal of the horror movie.

Written by Shaun Boutwell


  • 1. Aestheticization of violence. Encyclopedia. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC., 2006.
  • 2. Broeske, P.H. Killing is alive and well in Hollywood. Los Angeles Times, p.19-22, Sept. 2, 1984.
  • 3. Bruder, Margaret Ervin. Aestheticizing Violence, or How To Do Things with Style. Film Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington IN.
  • 4. Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart, p.158-160. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1990.
  • 5. Catharsis. Dictionary of the History of Ideas. University of Virginia Library: The Gale Group, 2003.
  • 6. Griswold, Charles. Plato on Rhetoric and Poetry. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2003.
  • 7. Levinson, Jerrold. The Philosophy of Horror, Review. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 49 No. 3, p.253-258, Summer 1991.
  • 8. Martin, Adrian. The Offended Critic: Film Reviewing and Social Commentary. Australian Quarterly, Vol. 72 Issue 2, April-May 2000.
  • 9. Maslin, J. Tired blood claims the horror film as a fresh victim. New York Times, p.15, 23, Nov. 1, 1981.
  • 10. Mendik, Xavier. Dario Argento. Senses of Cinema, November 2003.
  • 11. Meyer, M. Keeping a lid on gore and sex. Video Magazine, p.75-76, March 1988.
  • 12. Sapolsky, Barry S., and Molitor, Fred. Sex and Violence in Slasher Films. Mass Media and Society. Greenwich, CT: Ablex Publishing, 1997.
  • 13. Shaw, Daniel. A Humean Definition of Horror. Film-Philosophy, Vol. 1 No. 4, August 1997.

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