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 History of Slasher Movies

Featured Scary Movies and Series

Slashers are some of the most prominent films in the horror genre, and tend to be some of the most fun, self-aware and unabashedly violent films around. You can credit vintage flicks such as Psycho or Peeping Tom for laying the groundwork for the slasher genre, and 1974’s Black Christmas for first bringing all the elements together into what is undeniably a “slasher movie”. However, horror’s most energetic and mischievous sub-genre has a rich history behind it, which extends much further than a few standout motion pictures.

The Checklist

To begin, slasher films are made up of a few mandatory components:
A killer, usually masked and often on a path of blind revenge for some past tragedy.

The Slasher’s Victims

A group of youngsters, usually hormone driven and stupid, to be stalked by the killer. These can range from a group of schoolmates, to campers and counselors in a woodland retreat, and sometimes even a street-worth of families if Michael Myers gets involved.

One of these youngsters, primarily a girl, who abstains from the sinful behaviour of the rest and ends up being the last alive, sometimes defeating the killer. Slashers have always had a reputation of misogyny, and the idea of frequent ‘final girls’ portrayed and strong female leads is the best argument against this. Friday 13th: part 2 (1981)’s Ginny Field and A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Nancy Thompson are two great examples of women who overcome insurmountable odds to bring the fight straight back to their respective monstrous antagonists.
These particular tropes have become almost ritualistic to slasher movies, and it would be hard to call any film a slasher without the inclusion of all of them.

The Setting

The Cabin in the Woods (2011) Movie Poster
The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

An isolated setting, such as a campsite or cabin in the woods.
Buckets of blood and shock-value violence. While not all slashers are b-movies, and vice versa, a gritty excess in blood and gore can commonly be found in both.

The Mood

A crude, sometimes low-brow sense of humour, particularly in the 80s when the genre began to parody itself and grow exponentially because of it.

The Villain

Michael Meyers in a mask from Halloween Slasher film
Michael Myers masked slasher

The powerful masked villain is the most recognizable trait of the slasher genre, and we have Germany in the late 50s and 60s to thank for that. Based on the works of British novelist Edgar Wallace, Germany’s Krimi films (short for “kriminalfilm,” or “crime film”) focus mainly on these elusive antagonists, considering them important enough to frequently use them as the film’s title. Face of the Frog (1959) and Creature with the Blue Hand (1967) are prime examples of these. The stock cast archetypes found in slashers were also present in these pictures, in their more primitive forms. They usually include female protagonists, a group of victims to be systematically picked off, an officer on the case who is central to the plot and even a comic relief character. With all of these features, and of course the inclusion of some shock violence to spice up the proceedings, krimi films were some of the earliest artistic works laying the foundations for the slasher genre.

One type of early slasher that was directly influenced by krimi pics were Italian giallo films. Giallos often focus on a murder investigation featuring a masked killer, but they dial up the gore and sexuality to obscene degrees, carving themselves a distinct niche in the horror genre.

The Roots of Slasher Films

Blood and Black Lace 1964 Movie Poster from the original slasher film featuring two women and a skeleton hand with a knife in it

For all of its features, Mario Bava’s foundation-laying masterpiece Blood and Black Lace (1964) is as close to the first true slasher as an analysis could find. A mysterious killer in a huge black coat and hat stalks a group of female models while wearing a stocking over their face, creating an unsettling, featureless figure. This immediately iconic image burned an imprint into the giallo genre and its contemporaries.

The 1960s had only just begun when the UK was given two of the most legendary and influential releases in slasher history. For starters, Michael Powell’s controversial Peeping Tom shocked and confused audiences with its lurid sexual content and bizarre plot involving a serial killer documentarian who dispatches women using a knife stuck to his tripod, and films the results. While some see the thoughtfulness and understanding of human impulse and nature in Powell’s flick, others merely write it off as ridiculous proto-slasher voyeurism. Whatever your opinion, this is a chilling look into the psychology of a serial killer, with textured character exploration, heaps of satirical wit and a sense of colour use that still dazzles to this day.

Then came the big one. Psycho’s impact on audiences had Alfred Hitchcock’s storytelling and filmmaking mastery to thank, along with fantastic performances from Anthony Perkins

(Norman Bates) and Janet Leigh (Marion Crane). Perkins is especially unsettling as early-slasher Bates, delivering a performance that has been replicated (or attempted to be) to this day. Psycho is as effective today as it was in 1960, with its infamous shower scene accompanied by dissonant stabbing piano keys being one of the most recognisable images in horror today. Just try and say the word psycho in a crowd of horror fans without someone going “ree! ree! ree!” and stabbing the air.

“The calls are coming from inside the house!” We’ve all heard it before. Hopefully not in real life, though the number of scary stories and urban legends that climax with this unnerving statement are beyond counting. Black Christmas (1974), which was insipidly remade in 2006, boasts a status of being the first on-screen usage of the term. Not only this, it is the proud owner of a number of conventions which have been repeated in slashers to this day. Predating John Carpenter’s legendary Halloween (1978) by four years, it used many elements that Carpenter later employed, such as frequent POV shots from the killer’s perspective. Black Christmas was also integral in solidifying the misunderstood ‘final girl’ trope that has been worshipped by slashers to this day, with Jessica Bradford (Olivia Hussey) as one of the most resourceful and well-realised of them all.

John Carpenters Halloween Slasher Horror movie poster with a pumpkin and a knife

John Carpenter’s Halloween is often considered to be the first “true” slasher in terms of tying all of the components of the slasher checklist together. Black Christmas director Bob Clark was actually telling Carpenter his idea of a sequel when he gave him the idea, inadvertently or not, for a slasher all of his own, one that would secure itself in the annals of horror legend. Clark’s idea was simply this: A psychopath would escape from an asylum around the Halloween holiday and begin terrorising the surrounding area. From this Michael Myers was born, otherwise known as ‘The Shape’, one of the more terrifying and restless of killers. One who kills (mostly) without prejudice, and with great aplomb. Halloween is of course a descendant of Black Christmas, though Carpenter’s flick stands on its own merits, and could be argued as being by far the more well-known of the two (even though a slew of sequels could be to blame for that). Carpenter plays on a very real fear in modern society, one of being attacked in your own home. Without clear motivation for any of his kills, excluding the fact that Michael and Laurie Strode (portrayed by Jamie Lee Curtis, the daughter of Psycho star Janet Leigh) were later made siblings, Michael seems to kill at complete random, which is one of the most universally terrifying concepts when properly considered.

Leather face Texas chainsaw massacre slasher movie scene of a man being sawed in half

It’s sometimes hard to believe The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) even made it to the world of mainstream cinematic horror, as it remains to this day one of the more shockingly brutal, nihilistic and frequently hard-watching of slasher films. Tobe Hooper came along and redefined fright films forever with this monster. Based on the exploits of real-life serial killer and body-part handyman Ed Gein, Texas Chainsaw pushed the idea of a masked killer with a devastating signature weapon to new heights, creating one of the most infamous and universally terrifying killers in fiction, Leatherface. While the sequels made a blundering, almost lovable idiot of the man, the original shows him in all his ignorantly brutal glory. I won’t spoil anything for those who haven’t subjected themselves to Hooper’s masochistic classic, though the chainsaw wielding giant’s first appearance still sends chills down my spine. While Texas Chainsaw was one of the first to use the ‘Final Girl’ trope to such obvious effect, it will always be the relentless ferocity of the brain-damaged hulk Leatherface that defines the timeless greatness of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

While many directors still try to capture the classic slasher feel in their own unique way, many have taken the genre to more comedic and self-referential territory. Wes Craven’s worldwide hit Scream (1996) acted as a meta analysis of all slashers, constantly referencing the classics while being original enough in itself to secure a place alongside them. The Wayans brothers took things a step further with Scary Movie (2000) where they played meta on meta and turned Scream and many other horror movies into a flat out ridiculous comedy. Both of these franchises have dropped dramatically in quality over many, many sequels though the potency of both originals cannot be ignored. Some manage to work laughs in between the blood in different ways, one prime example being Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010) where two lovable hillbilly brothers are mistaken for killers when a group of camping teens begin dying around them in ridiculous accidents. Happy Death Day (2017) and its direct sequel combine slashers with the consistently growing “groundhog day” subgenre to hilarious effect, while The Cabin in the Woods (2011) tries to create lore to explain literally every other horror movie in existence. As people’s love for slashers grow and expand, so do the ideas contributing towards the genre, though even the rawest, crudest and most ludicrous of these movies will alway hold a place in the hearts of the morbid.



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