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Is it wrong to enjoy violent horror films?

In this post, Ian Stoner discusses his recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy offering a defence of gory fictions.

I have a soft spot for the slasher films of the 1980s–A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Child’s Play, etc. were nostalgic favorites at movie nights in my college years. At the time, I cheerfully ignored the conservative position, still common in the 1990s, that watching these movies was morally wrong.

Many years later, I watched a few instances of the genre known as the New French Extremity. These films–such as Martyrs, Irréversible, and Haute Tension–left me feeling miserable. I caught myself thinking, “people who have fun watching these brutal movies must be sickos, sadists.” Which is to say that I caught myself thinking the same thing of fans of the New French Extremity as the conservatives of my youth thought of me.

Was I wrong to dismiss the anti-slasher position? Is there some difference between these sub-genres such that I was right judge them differently? After reflection, I have settled on the view I defend in an article in the Journal of Applied Philosophy. (Alternatives: free read-only access or download a pre-print.) I now believe that my suspicion of the New French Extremity was misguided and that depictions of suffering and death could never themselves make a horror film morally wrong to watch.

The argument that has persuaded me is an argument from analogy to unobjectionable narratives in other genres. I especially have in mind tragedies, including plays like The Bacchae and King Lear, and films like Titanic and Schindler’s List. The argument:

  1. There is nothing morally wrong with watching the depictions of suffering and death in tragedies (such as Lear, Titanic, etc.).
  2. The depictions of suffering and death in horror films are relevantly similar to the depictions in tragedies.

Therefore, there is nothing morally wrong with watching the depictions of suffering and death in horror films.

Premise 2 is the controversial one. In the paper I discuss several objections, but in conversations with friends, colleagues, and students, one objection looms much larger than the others. That objection: horror movies and tragedies are not morally similar, because horror movies invite audiences to react with sadistic pleasure to scenes of suffering and death, while tragedies invite audiences to experience painful emotions, in sympathy with the suffering characters, which audiences find enjoyable because of the paradox of tragedy.

I have myself experienced the impulse to posit sadism as the best explanation when faced with a film some people enjoy but I find intensely upsetting–that is the urge I felt when I tried to watch Irréversible. But I am now convinced this impulse is misguided. Consider three fragmentary pieces of evidence that suggest that horror fans, like tragedy fans, paradoxically enjoy painful emotions, not sadistic pleasures.

First, consider the popular image of horror fans attending a new horror film. These fans hope to be so frightened that they jump, so disturbed they have to cover their eyes, so disgusted that they gag; fans are disappointed if the new horror film is too tame to trigger these painful responses.

Second, consider the marketing strategies filmmakers use to promote horror films. They invariably promise painful experiences of fear and disgust, to the extent that movie-branded barf bags remain an occasional promotional gimmick.

Third, consider the features by which revenge-themed films are classified into genres. Revenge films that code revenge killings as moments of satisfaction and exhilaration–that is, as moments of sadistic pleasure–belong to the action genre (think Death Wish and Taken). Revenge films that code revenge killings as moments of fear and disgust belong to the horror genre (think Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave). It isn’t just that horror films don’t typically invite sadistic pleasure; rather, sadistic pleasure conflicts with the aim of horror films, which is to cause feelings of horror.

Fans of tragedy and fans of horror alike seek out primarily painful emotions that they paradoxically enjoy. Neither group appears to cultivate or display sadism, so the objection from sadism fails. If it is OK to enjoy watching tragedies that depict people suffering and dying–and it generally is–then it is OK to watch horror films too.

In thinking through the ethics of horror spectatorship I have come to believe that the taste for horror is best understood on analogy to the taste for amusement park rides. I cannot enjoy the unprotected open air of Ferris wheels, and I cannot enjoy the depictions of violence in Irréversible. I do enjoy the spinning of the teacups, and I do enjoy the depictions of violence in Child’s Play. Your preferences are probably different. We should expect different psychologies and different bodies to react differently to the experiences on offer at amusement parks and movie theaters. These are innocent differences of taste, not of moral decency.

If I’m right, then noticing the widespread moral suspicion of horror films refreshes a lesson we are all liable to forget: it is very easy for us to mistake our own disgust reactions for moral judgments. I venture the guess that nearly all of us have at some point felt the urge to condemn in moral terms people who enjoy a horror film that we found upsetting. It isn’t at all clear that there is any reason for us to form that judgment. That should frighten us all.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.



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1 Comment

  1. Jon Griffin


    Just found this following a scene in the Scream remake that seemed unnecessarily violent and sadistic, looking for other opinions was how I found your article.

    I’ve always regarded horror movies as an easy to enjoy genre, every now and then I go through a phase of watching them before I remember how typically unfulfilling they actually are. Much like a McDonald’s, the idea of one is more appealing than actually eating it, still the asthetic of horror movies and their easy accessibility make them compelling. I am as drawn to the chroma key used as I am any death or torture scenes. I don’t want to signal any supposed moral superiority here, but I find the torture genres too unpleasant and make me feel genuine anxiety, such movies seem not fun, but particularly sadistic and nasty. My own personal take on them is they are not horror movies as much as they are horrible movies and a strange kind of entertainment that seem to appeal to an evil in a person, rather than say an unlikely scenario through which we can safely exorcise built up stress, or much as the analogy goes, enjoy great danger but without any risk i.e Rollercoasters.

    I don’t believe in censorship so its hard to suggest where a line might be, but I do wonder what the affect certain scenes can have on a troubled person, especially if they are transfixed and lust after it – but perhaps this is an assumption that my type of interest in a horror is somehow more healthy than anothers. I might regard Hostel or Irreversible or Wolf Creek as from the minds of disturbed people for disturbed people and unbearable, but maybe it just taps into a particularly neurotic part of my persona.

    The scene that disturbed me in Scream was the brutality of the stabbing of Jenny Ortega in the kitchen of the opening chapter. Perhaps as a father of a daughter I am particularly sensitive to the portrayal of watching a pretty and quite innocent girl being murdered in front of me, not sure if the young me would feel anything and instead relish the anticipation of the next death scene, all the while hoping there might be some nudity or at least some hot actress in her underwear.

    Dunno, maybe it is immoral but it takes maturity to see why, and if that is the case maybe we are letting down our youth by allowing such content to be made without any real objection.

    Kind Regards

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