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Crazed Commentary: Horror and Social Conflict

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[Ed. Note: The following piece contains spoilers for MARTYRS (2008) and THE PURGE. If you would rather not be spoiled, this is your chance to turn back and check out the films.]

The French Extremist film MARTYRS (2008) ends with the visually brutal flaying of the lead character, Lucie. Her bright red body, its outermost layer now beefy red muscle, houses eyes that are wide with wonder. In her last moments alive, she’s seeing what her wealthy tormentors desperately wanted her to; what comes after death.

For anyone that’s not a die-hard gore fan, Pascal Laugier’s MARTYRS may be, let’s just say, “uncomfortable” to watch. But anyone who can make it through MARTYRS will never forget it. It’s impossible to come away from this film not wondering about the power differences that exist between the ultra-rich and everyone else. With its unapologetic grotesqueries, I feel MARTYRS, and horror films in general, are capable of addressing real life issues with an honesty-through-exaggeration approach unique to the genre. On a scale of one to ten in regards to its grotesque content, MARTYRS’ torture scenes land around 20, but the film is one which designates the horror genre as a forum for valuable discussion.

The non-horror fans I know would argue that movies don’t need to be “gross” to deliver a message. But maybe the mass accumulation of shock and depravity that MARTYRS’ ending scene is made of generates a power that less drastic scenes could not. The incrediblygraphic violence creates an unrest of the deepness level, prompting the viewer to feel immensely. Maybe we can say that the most effective way to portray the atrocities that surround, let’s say, classism in actual life is to compare it to, or portray it as, a young woman being skinned alive. Maybe we can only begin to feel the horror of something like oppression within a movie by watching an over the top, ultra disgusting torture style execution.

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Not that unspeakably graphic gore is horror’s only strength-  it’s just one of the muscles that horror can flex. Another strength of horror is that it’s not confined by visual cordiality. Horror doesn’t sit daintily across the table from you, sipping tea with pinky finger extended, being careful not to offend your delicate sensibilities. It’s unfiltered, extreme approach to issues quite nicely slices through all the surrounding fluff, it’s uninhibited honesty bringing us straight to the heart of moral issues.

Horror isn’t afraid to explore the worst scenario. It’s willingness to not be limited in the subject matter it explores grants the horror genre an incredible fluidity. There are no parameters with subject matter in horror, allowing plot lines to expand and form with unrestricted creativity. In THE PURGE, that creativity paints a bleak portrait of futuristic American society, where all crime is legal on one night of every year- “purge” night. Maybe projection of legalized murder in our country is over the top, but it’s an intriguing and eye opening concept- especially for horror fans. The film’s rigorous portrayal of things like poverty and again, classism, demands our attention.

THE PURGE also showcases horror’s ability to encourage positive action. In THE PURGE, the child of an upper class family, Charlie Sandin, deactivates his mansion’s security system to provide sanctuary for a stranger. A horror film like THE PURGE can emphasize an act of kindness by placing its characters in extreme situations. On “purge” night, the streets are filled with crazed butcherers dead set on slaughtering their fellow human beings. Charlie’s act of kindness achieves a more solid score with us because to help another human being, he has to risk letting those butcherers into his own house. THE PURGE demonstrates how horror can dramatize human acts of goodness to show us the value in them. We appreciate Charlie saving the stranger because we get to experience the crazed killers that assault the house. We come to value Charlie’s acts more because we see the costly price he has to pay for them.

Horror brings us into the fire. The subject matter isn’t made to be light and airy, to quickly drift away from us once the TV is turned off. Horror is made to imprint itself upon us, to impress its content onto us like a burn mark, whether that mark is made through fear or shock. Horror is inherently memorable, making it an invaluable arena for moral issues. The power and force of the genre allows horror to construct a platform for the ideas that we feel need a louder voice.

About the author
Lexi Harrington
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