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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Cinema and Television Inspired by Horror Author Richard Matheson

Featured Horror Books Scary Movies and Series

Many of Richard Matheson’s works went from page to screen pretty successfully–perhaps that’s part of the reason why so many people are familiar with work that he originally penned, but are unaware of the source of the story. After such a long career, one might hope that people would come to recognize your name, but it didn’t seem to bother Matheson, who seemed to only write for the love of writing.

The Films Based on Matheson’s Novels

I Am Legend (1954) is Richard Matheson’s most talked-about novel–it was such a success and inspiration to creatives everywhere that it was even adapted to film three separate times. The Last Man On Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and I Am Legend (2007) all wonderful movies in their own right, just never seemed to capture the concept behind the original novel.

The Last Man On Earth (1964)

The Last Man On Earth (1964) Movie Poster

The dark tale of The Last Man On Earth takes place in a post-epidemic nightmare world, where a scientist by the name of Robert Morgan–played by Vincent Price–is the only man immune to a vampire plague which has transformed the entire population on Earth. This vampire society comes to fear Morgan, as he turns into a monster slayer. As a scientist, he studies the plague and ends up being able to cure one of them, by transfusing his blood into her. This upsets the vampire race and they end up killing him for what he has done to Ruth.

The Last Man On Earth on IMDB

The Omega Man (1971)

The Omega Man (1971) Movie Poster

Considered the second adaptation of I Am Legend to film, Charlton Heston plays Robert Neville, a man who is the only recipient of a serum that made him immune to the germ warfare between Russia and China. This caused him to be the only known normal human left alive and he lives in a gaudy, antique-decorated penthouse in Los Angeles where he roams the vacant city by day and fends off bloodthirsty (read: vampire) mutant scavengers. Eventually, Neville comes across a young group of healthy non-vampires, which destroys the idea of him being the last remaining normal human being.

The Omega Man on IMDB

I Am Legend (2007)

I Am Legend (2007) Movie Poster

The third adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, this attempt at the film follows Robert Neville–played by Will Smith–as the last man on Earth struggling to survive and fend off the infected victims of the vampiric plague. He’s a brilliant scientist who is meant to find the cure to a highly contagious superbug–something he is inexplicably immune to, as we find out later in the film. By day, Neville searches high and low for supplies, sends out desperate radio messages with the hope to find other survivors, and by night he hunkers down in his fortress of a home while attempting to find the cure to the virus by using his own blood in experiments on vampires he has captured. The horde of vampires is more intelligent than Neville realizes, however, and they take vengeance upon him after he captures a vampire woman who the alpha vampire is bonded to.

I Am Legend on IMDB

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

The Legend of Hell House (1973) Movie Poster

Adapted from Hell House by Matheson, into a screenplay by Matheson himself, four people with supposed extrasensory powers are hired to spend the weekend in a haunted house in order to gather evidence of the haunting.

The Legend of Hell House on IMDB

Stir of Echoes (1999)

Stir of Echoes (1999) Movie Poster

Tom Witzky lives a fairly normal life, he works in Chicago and lives with his wife and son, not believing in anything out of the ordinary. One night, while at a party, Tom and his sister-in-law, Lisa, get into a verbal debate about psychic communication and the power of hypnosis–he challenges Lisa to hypnotize him, so she does. She plants a post-hypnotic suggestion for Tom to be more open-minded and things begin to happen.

A Stir of Echoes on IMDB

Television Shows Inspired by Matheson

Matheson wrote several screenplays, including sixteen episodes of The Twilight Zone, where he could simply pitch an idea and spur an entire episode.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (2002)

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (1963) Screenshot

A salesman is traveling via plane after a recent nervous breakdown–after being told that he’s recovered from his issues–while flying, he begins to believe he’s seeing a monster climbing on the wing of the plane and damaging the engine. The only problem is, is that he’s the only one who sees it.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet from The Twilight Zone on IMDB



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Cruelest Horror Movie Deaths Of All Time

Scary Movies and Series

Most Gruesome Horror Movie Deaths Of All Time

The many years of motion pictures have given us some serious gems in the horror industry. And given that there are so many horror movies, obviously there are thousands of horror movie death scenes. Some of them are going to be a little boring, while others are extremely intricate. There are weird deaths, scary deaths, realistic deaths and violent deaths.  Some of the horror movie deaths are fast, while others are drawn out and quite long. But what are the cruelest horror movie deaths of them all?  Some horror movie monsters have more kills and some just have extreme kills. Horror Enthusiast has ranked the cruelest horror movie death scenes of all time.

Cruelest Horror Movie Death Scenes Of All Time

These are the cruelest horror movie deaths of all time. They are ranked in order of most cruel to least.

most horrible deaths in horror movies scary text

blank#1 Saw III (2006)

You wake up, there’s a device strapped to your rib cage and you are suspended in the air.  There’s a large jar of acid in front of you and a key that is disintegrating.  A tape tells you that you have 60 seconds to reach into the jar of acid, retain the key and unlock the trap before your rib cage is torn apart.  There are two equal parts of this Saw death scene that make it scary: telling the victim ahead of time what is going to happen to them and that this could really happen in real life.

#2 Hostel: Part II (2007)

The Hostel movies are body horror movies about torture, so it is natural it makes the list at least once, however, this death in particular is horrifying.  Whitney, one of the tourists, is being worked on by a club member who is about to kill her with a powered saw.  He uses the saw on her skull and freaks out when it doesn’t kill her…so someone else has to take over her slaying.  There is a brief bargain over the price, since she has already been tortured by someone else first…but someone finally re-enters to finish the job at a discounted rate.  Part of what makes this death so cruel is the total disregard for the victim as a human life.

#3 Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The monster that is Hannibal Lecter may have been immortalized in 1991 for many reasons, but one of the most memorable scenes of all is his face-eating, flesh-wearing, brutal beating and cannibalistic rampage on the two prison guards keeping him in his cell.  Soon enough, the guards themselves are hung in the cell and Hannibal is enjoying his finest, most favorite meal indeed. Silence of the Lambs may be a little older of a flick, but it still ranks rather high on the list of cruelest horror movie death scenes.

#4 Hostel (2005)

This is the second time a movie from the Hostel franchise makes the list and the scene comes from the first movie in the series.  A character named Josh has his leg drilled purely for the sadistic pleasure of the killer, his Achilles tendons cut, and then as he endures the pain of trying to escape, his throat is viciously slashed.  Most people couldn’t even stand to watch the scene, however, it was absolutely cruel enough to earn itself a rather high spot on the list of cruelest horror movie deaths.

#5 Saw II (2005)

There are a number of cruel deaths in the Saw franchise and especially in the first sequel.  One specific scene details a trap that will instantly kill the victim if he does not retrieve the key and remove the trap within a minute. The only catch is that the key is located behind his eyeball, which has been sewn shut.  The trap itself is a head clamping device that is set to the “open position,” placing many of the huge metal spikes that the victim is about to be impaled by, right in front of his face.  This scene secures the Saw franchise its second spot on the list of cruelest horror movie deaths.

#6 A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master (1988)

Poor Sheila has suffered from asthma her entire life and normally her inhaler is able to keep it in line.  When Freddy decides she’s going to be his next victim, however, the inhaler does her absolutely no good.  This death is extremely painful-looking: Freddy gives her a kiss and sucks all of the life out of her, she is reduced to only shriveled remnants of her former self.  The rotting corpse left behind is only perceived to the real world as the asthma attack that finally killed her.

#7 Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)

Carlos is a hearing impaired kid who is bunking up with a bunch of other troubled teens, also known as the main characters of this installment of the nightmare franchise.  Carlos’ death is very cruel in that it focuses on his hearing impairment. If it weren’t cruel enough that his handicap were exploited, it is by no means an easy death.  It is not quick and takes a couple of minutes.  Basically, Carlos sprouts biological-looking hearing amplifiers which allow Freddy to torture him by dropping pins from above. As the pins fall onto the metal walkways, they create painful audibles which eventually lead to Carlos’ head exploding.

#8 Final Destination 3 (2006)

The Final Destination movies have a lot of death scenes, but most of them are fairly quick deaths…which seems a little less cruel. There is one scene in the third film, however, which is suffered by Ashlyn in a tanning salon.  Unfortunately for Ashlyn, she gets trapped in a tanning bed when the heat dial is coincidentally cranked up…way up!  She dies a horrifying death in one of (what was) America’s latest greatest fads of the movie’s time.  Ashlyn did ensure Final Destination 3 made the list when death decided her number was up, LITERALLY!

blank#9 House of Wax (2005)

The House of Wax released in 2005 is actually a remake of a much older film. In this remake, there is a death scene which is extremely cruel and explains how the entire house of wax people came to be.  Wade, one of the main characters, has his Achilles tendons cut before getting all of his hair shaved off and being “waxed alive.”  The worst part is when he is discovered still alive later on by what would become another victim.  Wade dies a wax statue, presumably of the trauma, though it is never actually shown.  Even if he didn’t end up dying, everyone else in that house did, the same way he would have!

#10 Hostel: Part III (2011)

This is the third time the Hostel franchise has made the list.  In this death scene, a character named Mike is tortured before his face is skinned right off his head. Obviously part of what makes the Hostel death scenes so scary is that they could really happen in real life, however, this particular death is horrible as the skinning occurs while the victim is still alive.  This particular scene seems extremely difficult to stomach and showcases seemingly legitimately psychotic killers which are (fictionally in the movie) “around us in every day life” without our knowledge.

#11 A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: The Dream Warriors (1987)

The Dream Warriors has been often hailed as one of the best movies in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.  One of the death scenes, however, which character Taryn suffers, is extremely cruel.  Taryn is a recovering drug addict. On top of that, she has to deal with being Freddy-stalked in her dreams.  Rough life.  In one of her dreams she loses a fight with Freddy and holes open up in her arms right where she would have “shot up” back when she was using drugs. Freddy has her pinned this way as his fingers are revealed to be needles of junk.  He slams these needles into her arms and injects her, effectively killing her in the real world of a drug overdose.

#12 Alien (1979)

Before there was Life (2017), there was Alien (1979) with Sigourney Weaver and John Hurt.  In one especially easy-to-remember scene, John Hurt’s character suffers a terrifying demise when a miniature alien bursts from within his body.  Of course, the death itself only happens after watching him suffer a horrifying, painful existence, choking included.  Alien is one of the oldest movies and only sci-fi horror to make the list of cruelest horror movie death scenes.

#13 American Psycho (2000)

Patrick Bateman is one crazy psycho, literally running at his victim with a bright, silvery ax and striking him right in the melon. Of course this coming only after he calming chats with his victim and makes a few jokes.  In true psycho fashion, he continues to wail and strike the poor, obviously already dead victim. Patrick then returns to his normal, composed and well-respected behavior as if it never happened.

#14 Jason X (2001)

Jason X is often hailed as one of the dumbest Friday the 13th movies, mostly because the storyline places Jason in a spaceship some many years in the future. Regardless of how poorly the movie may have been received, it was still meant to be a serious horror flick and showcased a really screwed up death scene.  Jason takes a woman’s head and shoves into liquid nitrogen, where it is frozen (and subsequently smashed).

blankHorror Movie Death Scenes Are Getting More Intense!

There is a definite trend forming in the rising cruelty in horror movie deaths.  The classic scares of a simple, stalking slasher or a little paranoia has been far too jaded.  The horror movie enthusiasts of today prefer their movies with a little more gore and a lot of gruesome deaths.  A quick look at the release years of all of the movies for the on-screen deaths ranked above will reveal how much easier it is for a newer movie to achieve a spot on this list.  The newer the horror movie, the more likely it is to have crueler, more gruesome slayings and death scenes.



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