On the Human Fascination with the Gross-Out
Why our disgust with bodily injuries is so frequently paired with fascination
The Indiana Jones movies were my favorite movies as a kid. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen them, and still love them as an adult. When I was young, I never could remember which titles went with which stories. I referred to them not by their official subtitles, but by their content — for example, the one where the bad guy pulls out the man’s heart (The Temple of Doom). Perhaps my favorite of movie in the trilogy was the one where the bad guys’ heads explode and melt (Raiders of the Lost Ark).
Those bloody scenes weren’t the reason I watched, but they were some of the most fascinating and memorable parts. Anyone who has seen Raiders of the Lost Ark remembers when the Nazi’s face melts like an ice cream cone on a hot summer day. Those scenes were shocking, and they had me asking all sorts of questions about the human body. Can a face really melt like that? Could someone actually pull your heart right out of your chest? The bodily injuries that were depicted were gory. They caused me to revolt when I saw them. But, at the same time, they made filled me with fascination. Those gory scenes were stirring my morbid curiosity.
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When I talk with people about horror, one of the most common things I hear is something along the lines of, “I find horror interesting, but I just can’t do gore!” It’s a fair concern. The central component of a horror story is usually a monster or killer of some sort. With a monster or killer at the core of the story, it’s likely the audience will witness at least some blood and bodily injuries. After all, blood and bodily injuries are what monsters and killers do best.
Blair Davis and Kial Natale conducted an ambitious
horror movie marathon research study where they documented every second of gore in 100 theatrically-released horror movies between 1998 and 2007. While this study missed the prime slasher era, it did capture the prime “torture porn” era, the face of which included movies like Hostel, Saw, and House of 1000 Corpses.
The average amount of on-screen gore in the sample was a measly four minutes. This number included all instances of gore, including passive scenes that depicted blood on the floor or wall. Active gore — where someone was actively being injured — only averaged around 50 seconds per film. In other words, the average horror movie had a couple of violent scenes and a handful of scenes where those in the movie saw the bloody aftermath of the killer or monster. I’m not sure how this compares to other genres, but certainly there are plenty of action movies and crime dramas with far more than 50 seconds of violence and four minutes of gore.
Death and grievous bodily injuries are the reason we fear the monsters, killers, and other kinds of dangerous predators in the first place.
Although there are some outliers that contain more buckets of blood and severed limbs, the average horror film simply isn’t that gory. In fact, some horror films terrify viewers with basically no gore: The Conjuring, The Blair Witch Project, and Insidious come to mind.
Still, many scary stories have at least a few bloody scenes. These scenes draw out furrowed brows and curled upper lips, signs of the disgust response. Despite these negative feelings, people keep coming back for more. That’s because bodily injuries also elicit fascination, excitement, and intrigue. And, of course, they scare us. But why?
The Three Kinds of Scares in Horror
Master of horror Stephen King argues that there are three kinds of scares when it comes to horror: the Terror, the Horror, and the Gross-Out. Each of these types of scares serves a different purpose and gets a different reaction out of the audience.
The Terror lives in our mind. It’s the feeling of unease we get during the tense build-up in a psychological thriller. According to King, the Terror is often the most powerful of the three scares because of the nearly limitless power of the human imagination to envision the worst. Even the greatest horror writer would have trouble depicting a monster that is more frightening than the monster that the reader’s own mind can conjure up. The Terror is related in some ways to the fear of the unknown, which HP Lovecraft called the oldest and greatest fear of mankind. Our imagination fills the gaps of the unknown with our greatest fears. A good horror writer takes advantage of this, shepherding the mind to its own worst fears without actually showing the mind anything. That’s the Terror.
If the Terror lives in the mind, the Horror lives in the eyes. The Terror is the slow build-up, and the Horror is the jump scare when the monster bursts onto the scene. It’s the manifestation of the dread that the audience has been experiencing. While the Terror relies on the imagination running wild in the face of the unknown, the Horror relies on evolved signals of danger to scare the audience. The sharp claws, big teeth, bladed weapons, physicality, and predatorial nature of monsters and killers tap into evolutionarily old parts of the brain that evolved to help us detect danger. Jason’s big machete mimics large claws that embellish predators’ paws. Leatherface’s massive size signals to our mind that he is a formidable foe. Dracula’s fangs resemble the canine teeth that hang from the mouths of creatures that historically preyed upon us.
Image by Boogeyman13 on Flicker
The Horror works because many aspects of fear are universal. When a horror writer envisions her monster and brings it to life on the page or on the screen, she is creating it based on her intuitions about what will be scary. Fortunately for her, many of these intuitions are shared across the human species. When the horror writer connects with the audience’s evolved triggers of fear through a monstrous antagonist, that’s the Horror.
The final level is the Gross-Out. The Gross-Out lives in the gut; it’s the outcome of the monster’s violence that makes our stomach turn. It’s the torn limbs, the buckets of blood, and the scattered entrails. The visual aspect of the Gross-Out produces disgust, the only level of horror to do so. Although the Gross-Out is disgusting to look at, thinking about the Gross-Out can also produce fear. Seeing bloodied entrails strewn across the floor begs for an answer to the question, “what kind of terrible monster could have done this?” If the monster hasn’t yet appeared in the story, imagining the terrible beast that could have caused the Gross-Out can lead to anxiety-dripping Terror, completing the cycle of horror.
King calls the Terror the highest form of fear that the horror writer can achieve. I’m not one to argue with the master of horror about his craft; King might be right here. However, the Gross-Out can serve as high-octane fuel for the Terror. Severed limbs and pools of blood set the scene for imagining the most dreadful of monsters. Death and grievous bodily injuries are the reason we fear the monsters, killers, and other kinds of dangerous predators in the first place. We evolved to be anxious about a possible predator because predators cause grievous injuries. We evolved to fear the horror of a maniacal killer because killers… kill.
Things that cause death or grievous injuries produce strong selection pressure from an evolutionary perspective. We evolve to navigate those threats because they have a strong impact on our survival and reproduction. One of the best ways to avoid things that cause death or grievous injuries is by detecting them before they detect you. The Gross-Out — those bodily injuries, blood, and other remnants of an attack — signal to us that a dangerous being is out there, and that it isn’t too far away. It’s adaptive to attend to those signals, so feelings of intrigued or curiosity about bodily injuries motivate us to learn more.
The Gross-Out gives us a gauge of how dangerous the threat really is. It serves as a visceral reminder that what we are facing is a force to be reckoned with. The more destroyed the body is, the more terrifyingly powerful the monster appears to be. If I come across a body with a slit throat, I don’t get a clear signal of how big or how powerful the monster is. If I come across a body that’s missing its head, I might be a little more worried. It takes a bit of effort to remove someone’s head. If I come across a body with a smashed head, I’m really going to be worried. Our estimation of how powerful and dangerous a threat might be is directly related to the amount of damage it can do to the body. This is one of the key reasons why bodily injuries demand our attention and arouse our morbid curiosity.