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Chasing Transgressions: Censoring Excess in Exploitative Horror

Ever since the introduction of the Hays Code in 1927, films in the horror genre have fought to remain true to the voice of the genre. The consistency in which film creators have chipped away at those codes since their inception has brought us to where we are today; while movies like Hellraiser (1987) have still had to deal with censorship before they premiered, what is deemed excessive or exploitative is brought to new heights with each film that dares to push the limits.

Fully banned in Kansas…

When Frankenstein (1931) was first released, the local Kansas board banned it for the entire state; thousands of unhappy moviegoers wanted access, so eventually, the board relented. The Kansas board bastardized the movie with so many cuts that it, “would have stripped it of all its horrific elements,” which brought the intervention of the MPDDA and fewer cuts (Petley 132). The film standards that were enforced in the 1930s didn’t take into account the production of the horror genre; after wondering where the line would be drawn for a genre that consistently dug further into the dark, it was decided that:

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.

(Cited in Petley 131)

Those standards wouldn’t last for long. The lines within horror are blurred, humans can be the monsters who don’t refrain from illicit sexual activity, demonic representations within films regularly disrespect the clergy, and have had a tendency to be outspoken on controversial political matters [see Night of the Living Dead (1968)]. Censorship for violent or graphic content was incredibly strict from the inception of the Hays Code until the 1960s when the standards for censorship were relaxed (Petley 130).

With the growing popularity of television sets in the home came tight restrictions for television programs. Televisions made entertainment easily accessible to people in the comfort of their own homes—this created stiff competition for filmmakers. While television standards were stricter, it allowed film production codes to be lowered in order to lure viewers back to the theater with the prospect of seeing something more forbidden. When Hellraiser was first released in 1987, audiences may have been a little shocked at the overt sexualization of pain and violence.

The graphic nature of the gruesome torture scenes cut in between scenes of sexual conquest and that starts within the first fifteen minutes. The mise-en-scène we are given with Julia’s flashback to her affair with her soon-to-be husband’s brother Frank sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Frank appears at the door, confident if not rude and slightly mysterious, drenched from the downpour of rain. He imposes himself upon Julia and we see her in her most innocent and unassuming form—cut to her walking into the third floor attic, a dusty, dingy, room in ill repair, to be alone with her thoughts.

Every inclusion of prop, from the knife that he cuts her nightgown strap with, to the wedding dress he lays her down upon to begin their torrid love affair, is essential to the story. Frank will take what he wants from Julia; having never been with a man who so confidently takes what he desires, Julia falls lustfully into their fervent and passionate, if not taboo, lovemaking. Engaging with Frank atop her pure white gown, sullying her presumable innocent reputation, is at the core of what Hellraiser translates to. Pleasure that feels sinful, Pain that feels pleasurable—two things that, with the Lament Configuration, blend together seamlessly.

The scene continues, cutting from the flashback of the affair to present-day Julia in longing remembrance, and then to her husband as he struggles to move a bed into their home. Frank and Julia climax in the flashback, Julia begins to cry, and Larry cuts himself deeply on a nail protruding from a wall. In these five minutes, we have excess in the taboo sexual act of cheating, the emotional show of Julia’s aching desire for Frank, and the adverse reaction Larry has to his own hand gushing blood. The movie continues on in this manner, unapologetic and all the more entertaining for it—we spend the next few minutes watching the floorboard soak up Larry’s blood and subsequently reconstitute most of Frank’s body.

Pinhead from Hellraiser

Torture Porn and Erotica?

Some people might have found those two scenes to be subversive or even repulsive—some, according to movie critics at the time, found it comical. As if the excess pushed it from a horrifying experience, to a campy overdone joke. I think, when appreciated for the time it was created and given a little benefit of the doubt, it sows the seeds of a completely gratifying horror experience. Any attempt to relate to Julia, one might actually feel sorry for her—she feels as if she’s fallen in love with Frank and that he loves her back. The truth that she doesn’t really take into consideration is that desire and love don’t always coexist; Frank doesn’t actually care about Julia past using her for his own personal gain. We find out later, Frank’s coercive nature leads her to bring back men for him to feed off of and escape hell. Her own selfish desires lead her to assume that once he’s back in his skin (quite literally), they’ll rekindle their love-affair.

Violence and sex have had a tendency to be viewed differently in different countries. Where America has historically fallen back on christian outrage when it comes to depictions of sex (especially premarital sex) on the big screen, violence has been considered more acceptable. Alternatively, as Dumas has noted, countries like Sweden have had the opposite policy (29). People experience an incredible amount of shame and anxiety surrounding their own sexual desires that may or may not be considered taboo within an otherwise moral society—this of course causes an internal conflict for the audience (Dumas 29). What’s more is when Hellraiser’s Pinhead suggests that, “pleasure and pain (are) indistinguishable,” within his realm, it cements the concept of sexualizing brutality.

A certain morbid curiosity has escalated the gory nature of horror films with the release of each new feature. Post 9/11 audiences seemed to be even more desensitized than before—torture porn like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) hit the theaters—horror fans flocked to experience the repulsion and anxiety that comes with watching the suffering of others (Pinedo 345). A world where fear and uncertainty were becoming more commonplace, there became a vaccuum for horror. These gratuitous, taboo, excessive movies gave viewers a space in which we were free to be afraid.

Excess turns exploitative when the horror no longer fits around an underlying story, but instead, a story is made to fit around underlying ideas of violence and repulsion. Like pornography that attempts to have a plot—just look at any motion-picture porn parody—exploitative horror like The Human Centipede (2009), I Spit on Your Grave (2010), A Serbian Film (2010), and Tusk (2014) is simply an excuse to showcase gratuitous violence. These films are still liable to be heavily cut (Petley 146-147) and for good reason.

What is interesting is that such exploitative films are defended regularly, but are they films that need to be defended? A Serbian Film’s subject matter is indefensible, yet there are people who try to reason away the infant rape scene by bringing up that it wasn’t a real infant. Regardless of whether it’s a real infant or not, it’s meant to convey the scene in the most realistic way possible so as to instigate a severe repulsion response. It’s even suggested that “the masochistic and sadistic aspects of the film-viewing experience [implies] that viewers get some form of sexual gratification from these images,” (Pinedo 347) which in the case of A Serbian Film is beyond horrifying.

Horror and sex have a long, intertwined history, the eroticization of depictions of violence is nothing new. However, a horror film’s ability to stimulate viewers sexually, “not only draws their attention, but also primes them to react more strongly to other feelings, such as suspense and fear,” (Pinedo 347). In the end, what is considered exploitative or excessive is dependent upon the audience—there will always be those who object, just like there will always be those who call for more violence, gore, repulsion, and explicit sexual content.

Strong reactions and emotions have historically created experiences fewer people can forget. As an example, who can forget the release of Hostel in 2005, where viewers were not only fleeing the theater, they were reportedly throwing up in their seats. If the saying, “there’s no such thing as bad press,” is true—which it certainly seems to be within the horror genre—then these outrageous claims of such violent repulsion created a more morbidly curious audience.

Works Cited

Dumas, Chris. “Horror and Psychoanalysis: An Introductory Primer.” A Companion to the Horror Film, edited by Harry Benshoff, Wiley-Blackwell, 2017, pp. 21–37.

Petley, Julian. “Horror and the Censors.” A Companion to the Horror Film, edited by Harry Benshoff, Wiley-Blackwell, 2017, pp. 130–147.

Pinedo, Isabel C. “Torture Porn: 21st Century Horror.” A Companion to the Horror Film, edited by Harry Benshoff, Wiley-Blackwell, 2017, pp. 345–61.

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The Horrific Truth of Folklore in Nazi Germany

Horror. It’s the balm that helps to relieve the chronically stressed—but we often forget exactly where the concept of horror began. Horror stories are spun from the fabric of the past, present, and future just like all other literary genres. The Holocaust is one such example of historical horror. The Jewish lottery of birth was arguably the greatest cause for fear within this period in history. Antisemitism and the “Big Lie,” that ran rampant within Nazi Germany is where real-life horror began within the twentieth century.

The Holocaust is what most people think of when the topic of World War II arises. That’s not surprising, since most of the war effort focused on ending Hitler’s atrocities and freeing survivors of concentration camps. By contrast, the political environment through which Nazi ideology was spread is not considered as often. Now you may be wondering, what does Word War II, Nazi Propaganda, and folklore have to do with horror? Well, read on friends.

The Horror of Hate Spun from Propaganda

The Nazi Party established Ministry for Propaganda and Public Enlightenment in March of 1933; Joseph Goebbels was then appointed as Minister of Propaganda and he began to execute Hitler’s vision shortly thereafter. German culture was reshaped through the rewriting of folklore and films; one such film, Jud Süss (1940) was rewritten from the British film made in (1934). The original Jud Süss was adapted from the historical novel of the same name. The original story tells of a Jewish man in the 1700s who helped his people by rising to power; inevitably, his enemies destroyed him. Unlike the propaganda film, the original message was pro-acceptance, with narrative on how meaningless racial distinctions actually are.

The British adaptation is of course more true to the original text than the following Nazi propaganda film, wherein Süss is portrayed as a monstrous villain who ends up sexually assaulting a young Aryan woman while torturing her fiance. The original script, which was revised by Goebbels to, “serve the politics of the state,” brought to life the most notorious and vile anti-Semitic film of the entire regime. As a representative of the most foul anti-Semitic propaganda, the German film Jud Süss has been censored from the general public since 1945, only being made available to scholars and historians.

Censorship and the Removal of External Influence

When reshaping the entire body of a culture’s literature, it makes sense to start with the foundation of a culture’s sense of self—that meant starting with the folk tales, the stories that German peasants most closely identified with. The ensuing power struggle came well before the beginning of the attempted extermination of the Jewish people. The National Socialist (Nazi) Party’s recognition of German Folklore as an “excellent means to educate young and old in the spirit of the new Weltanschauung,” that led to the changing of history. The Weltanschauung, or worldview and philosophical view of life, left no room for new culture or ideals that might challenge the progression of a “pure” master race. The new censorship policy affected “every author, artist, composer, publisher, bookseller, librarian, researcher, and teacher, as well as the general public.” New values and policies would obligate them to uphold these devastating principles (Kamenetsky 1977:168).

The National Socialist German Student’s’ Association which gathered together amongst German University students were some of Goebbels’s’ first allies in this censorship program, beginning in the early Nazi movement of the late 1920s. Middle-class, secular student youths were deeply anti-Semitic and ultra-nationalistic, and after the First World War, they became intensely vocal. Their opposition to the Weimar Republic drove them directly into the National Socialist Party, which provided them a safe community of like-minded politically discontent and hostile peers. On April 6, 1933, the Nazi German Student Association’s Office for Press and Propaganda asserted that they would be taking, “action against the un-German Spirit.” Thus, the Weltanschauung brought, “seemingly spontaneous book-burning ceremonies,” to the public in the early 1930s, as well as, “radical cleansing,” throughout all of the country’s libraries of, “undesirable and so-called ‘decadent’ literature,” (Kamenetsky 1977:168).

The Book Burning at The Bebelplatz in Berlin, Germany (May 10, 1933)
The Book Burning at The Bebelplatz in Berlin, Germany (May 10, 1933)

The Book Burning at the Bebelplats

May 10, 1933, sadly marks the most famous book burning in history. In order to have German society mirror Nazi ideologies, they needed to get rid of any “un-German” intellectual influence. Goebbels attempted to instill those influences within the artistic community and culture. Thus the purge of all cultural organizations whether Jewish or otherwise foreign began.

The Voice of the Peasant

During this time of extreme propaganda, there were new editions of Grimm’s Kinder und Hausmärchen printed, and upon their release, they re-emphasized the importance of a return to the ancient cultures and life of the peasant. It is also said that this endorsed the idea of the peasant being the, “pillar of the state,” and Hitler’s public aversion to decadent city lifestyles, despite his private indulgence in such frivolities he wanted to deny the German people as a means of control. Grimm’s tale of Hansel and Gretel comes to mind when considering this conflicting stance—as a tale where a family is stricken with famine, so much so that the evil stepmother is able to coerce the father into leaving their two children in the woods on their own to starve before being able to find their way back home.

The tenacity of these peasant youths is an image that would have been welcome in Hitler’s Germany, one where they overcome the evil witch, which could have been easily replaced with the image of an “evil Jew,” who was there to consume them, albeit not literally. Hitler was even quoted in 1933 saying, “we know from history that our Volk can exist without cities, yet it is impossible to conceive that it could exist without the peasant!” (Kamenetsky 1977:169)

Upon reflection of this kind of statement, as well as the transformation of, “the innocent folktale … into an ideological weapon,” it is clear that, while Hitler’s assertion of the importance of the peasant, he truly intended to drive most of the German people into poverty while the Nazi Party reaped the benefits. Furthermore, he aimed to brainwash his people, starting with the youngest generation through the tales they would be told in their childhood. “A closer examination of the National Socialist guidelines for educators, librarians, and youth leaders, throws light upon the folktale’s role and function in the Party’s indoctrination program for children and young people.” (Kamenetsky 1977:170)

Rewriting an Entire Culture’s Folklore

Re-education was conducted under the guise of bringing the collective mind of the country and to the nostalgic version of their nation’s past. It was a presumed appeal to the best of times, that is to say Hitler’s idealized version of the best of times. Kamenetsky further states that the purity of German Folklore was of utmost importance to the Aryan agenda and that they made tremendous efforts to isolate and aggrandize traditional German Folklore. As a result, it was the Ministry’s attempt to keep these stories from being muddled and decayed by international influence which meant it, “needed a thorough cleansing process to restore it to its original form and meaning,” (Kamenetsky 1977:172). Professor Strobel, a notable figure in Nazi re-education, made an emphasis on removing any “alien,” elements out and can be quoted as having written the following in 1937:

“The aim of folklore is and remains to give an unfalsified representation of that which is true to the Volk. However, a precondition for such a representation is an understanding of the Weltanschauung which is based upon the principle of the blood and on the right faith in distinguishing that which belongs to our race from that which is alien to it.”

Kamenetsky, 1972:226

Strobel believed it was the folklorist’s responsibility to remove any of these foreign elements that somehow sneaked their way into Nordic-Germanic myths, customs, and rituals in order to propagate folklore that would have been as “purely as possible related to ‘the ancestors,’” (Kamenetsky 1972:226). In this respect, not only did the Reich manipulate folklore to suit their needs, but in effect, they also manipulated history to reflect their own Aryan agendas and policies. Truly, they needed to instigate an image of instability for mixed folklore if they didn’t want anything to taint the otherwise noble and superior race they wished to establish. “If we want to walk safely into the future … then [we] will have to walk upon the firm soil of our folklore,” (Kamenetsky 1972:223).

It is true too, however, that the history of Germany was rife with anti-Semitism even before the beginnings of World War II. Martin Luther’s essay, “Von den Juden und ihren Lügen,” is one of the earliest anti-Semitic sentiments in literature, which dates back to the mid-1500s. This essay featured quotes such as, “into the fire, into the fire with the synagogues! Into the stables with the Jews! … let one drive all … Jews to hard labor … No indulgence, no sympathy for the Jews!” So, as you can see anti-Semitism being propagated through folklore was hardly the first instance of literary hatred for the Jewish people and it’s far from the last, but it was possibly the most damaging of all.

And if that’s not truly horrific, then I don’t know what is.

Works Cited

“Big lie.” Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable, edited by Adrian Room, and Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, Cassell, 2nd edition, 2009. Credo Reference. Accessed 15 Nov. 2020.

“Fortress Europe.” Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable, edited by Adrian Room, and Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, Cassell, 2nd edition, 2009. Credo Reference, http://login.proxy.library.uaf.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/brewermod/fortress_europe/0?institutionId=5478. Accessed 15 Nov. 2020.

“Jew Suss.” Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable, edited by Adrian Room, and Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, Cassell, 2nd edition, 2009. Credo Reference, http://login.proxy.library.uaf.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/brewermod/jew_suss/0?institutionId=5478. Accessed 15 Nov. 2020.

Kamenetsky, Christa. “Folktale and Ideology in the Third Reich.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 90, no. 356, Apr. 1977, pp. 168–178., DOI:10.2307/539697.

Kamenetsky, Christa. “Folklore as a Political Tool in Nazi Germany.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 85, no. 337, July 1972, pp. 221–235., DOI:10.2307/539497.

Mieder, Wolfgang. “Proverbs in Nazi Germany: The Promulgation of Anti-Semitism and Stereotypes Through Folklore.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 95, no. 378, Oct. 1982, pp. 435–464., DOI:10.2307/540750.

“Nuremberg Rally.” Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable, edited by Adrian Room, and Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, Cassell, 2nd edition, 2009. Credo Reference, http://login.proxy.library.uaf.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/brewermod/nuremberg_rally/0?institutionId=5478. Accessed 15 Nov. 2020

Book Burning. (n.d.). Retrieved January 04, 2021, from https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/book-burning. Accessed 3 Jan. 2021