I hope I’m never murdered. A common sentiment, to be sure, but its one I’m having more often thanks to the spate of police procedurals on TV. I turned to my parents and expressed this sentiment out loud during a recent episode of CSI: Miami. See, our heroes needed to know what kind of weapon was used to crack the skull of our murder victim. And, in order to do that, they needed to see exactly how the skull was fractured. The coroner then severed the murder victim’s head, dropped it in a pot of water, and proceeded to boil off all the flesh. Of course, we didn’t actually see the head get severed and dropped into the water. What we saw on screen was one character enter the room, see the pot of water, and make a comment like, “Making soup?” The coroner then lifted out the severed head with the flesh half-boiled off and presented the explanation I just gave to you. Needles to say, it was rather disgusting.
I’ve always had a bit of a weak constitution when it comes to gore in films and television. I think it all goes back to when I was 10 years old and I saw RoboCop. For those who don’t remember, there’s that scene in the beginning where Officer Murphy – the man who would be cyborg – is tortured and killed by the villains. The hold down Officer Murphy, and, with a shotgun, blow off Murphy’s right hand, leaving a bloody stump complete with fracture bone sticking out and twitching tendons dangling loose. It was a bit more than my 10-year old mind could handle.
Flash forward to the present day. I used some of my Christmas money to get the 2-disc super-special edition of Sin City. Sin City is a film I really enjoy, from its very stylized look to its over-the-top dialogue that borders on ridiculousness. And, it is also very, very gory. I was watching the scene where Miho proceeds to dismember, decapitate and just plain slaughter Jackie Boy and his gang when my mother walked into the room. At the now-classic end of that scene where Miho slices open Jackie Boy’s neck and her face is hit with a spray of blood and she doesn’t blink, my mother looked at me and said, “Gee, this sure doesn’t seem like your kind of movie.”
So I’ve been thinking recently about the use of gore and how it’s used in films. How can I enjoy movies like Sin City and Kill Bill, where people are killed in incredibly violent and bloody ways, but I sill get squeamish when I watch the latest episode of CSI and I’m presented with yet another incredibly graphic autopsy scene? More than that, how have I changed over these years? How have I grown away from being that 10-year old who was traumatized by RoboCop?
I’ve raised this question with several friends in the past. Their response is generally the same. “Oh, you must have had a very conservative upbringing. Obviously, not a lot of R-rated movies were rented in your house.” That’s not true. Lots or R-rated movies were rented in this house. They just weren’t horror films. The R-rated movies I watched growing up were raunchy comedies like Slap Shot and Porky’s. While some parents tolerated their children watching Jason Voorhees dismember young campers, my parents tolerated me watching the kind of films where a pair of naked breasts were a punch line. And it’s also not that there was a zero-tolerance policy on horror movies. My parents were never into them and didn’t rent them, and it rubbed off on me. So there.
As I reflect on it, I think a large degree of it has to do with how the gore itself is presented. Case in point, CSI. The program prides itself on being a realistic depiction of the methods used by real forensic scientists. (Although, the characters constant use of technology that’s only on the verge of being invented has many people calling the show science-fiction, but that’s another column.) As part of that realism, they try to present gore in a very realistic way. When they do one of their dramatic special effects shots showing a person’s heart shrivelling up because of the poison that killed him, that’s all for real. Well, not real as in they really killed a guy just to make TV, real in that that’s what would really happen.
Meanwhile, over at the movies, we have gore being portrayed in a very unrealistic way. Sin City adds a rather cartoonish flair to the dismemberment and decapitation. In Kill Bill Vol. 1, as the Bride slices and dices the Crazy 88s, the flying limbs and spraying blood are almost negated by the sheer audacity of the scene. Because of its unrealistic manner, it doesn’t gross us out as much.
So it all goes back to that moviemaking term of “suspension of disbelief.” In movies such as Sin City, with a high dose of suspension of disbelief, we shrug off the gore. In TV shows where the suspension of disbelief is kept to a minimum, we grow uneasy.
I’m sure that’s how it works in horror movies, too. (And why I screamed like a little girl watching The Ring.) In horror movies, the director wants to create that sense of unease to help build the tension and deliver bigger scares. So, they naturally try to keep the depiction of gore realistic. Although, to this date, I have to watch any of the classic, 1980s slasher films, so I don’t know how realistic the gore is.
But this still doesn’t answer the trend of how gore is getting more and more prevalent on TV. CSI started it, and in the wake of spin-offs and rip-offs, everyone’s been duplicating it. Crime shows now are in this massive situation of one-upmanship as they try to show us more and more disgusting things about the human body. Eyeballs in jars, flesh being melted off faces, and bloody stumps that make that 20-year old scene in RoboCop seem tame. And it’s all on primetime TV. I’m certain that it’s going to be a while before this fad wears off, and in the meantime, we’re just going to get more and more desensitized to realistic gore…and thus gore in real life.
Look, I just don’t want anyone to have to get their flesh boiled off their faces so the cops can catch their killer, OK? And it wouldn’t hurt you to turn off CSI and switch over to a good rerun of The Beverly Hillbillies.