A look into the gore horror genre

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In a nutshell

  • The gore genre is a subgenre within the horror genre
  • Gore in film can be an effective tool to make your audience feel immersed
  • Gory films often stick with people long after they watch them

Horror movies are subjective. Ask any horror fan out there what their favorite scary movie is and their answers will vary. What is scary to someone may seem tame to another. This can also be said about the sub-genre gore. Horror fans have their own opinions about gore. What constitutes gore? Should there be more, or should the filmmakers leave things unseen? Gore is in the eye of the beholder. Regardless of the horror community’s opinions, gore in horror movies go hand in hand in many cases. In fact, many horror films would feel almost naked without it.

What is gore in horror?

 When it comes to gore in horror movies, every horror fan has their own concept and definition of what constitutes gore. Gore refers to extreme violence that shocks an audience. In film, gore is displayed with imagery of blood, injuries to the flesh or bones and even cannibalism.

Gore has many definitions. A few examples include; the shedding of blood that results in murder, coagulated blood from a wound and a wound caused by piercing from a sharp object. However, in all these instances, they all lead to the same result, blood — and lots of it. One simply can’t have gore without blood. Think Carrie at prom. 

But no matter what defines gore or the gore horror genre, the feeling it’s supposed to make people feel is the same. It is supposed to make you squirm in your seats. You feel uncomfortable, and that’s because your body naturally puts you in the character’s shoes. Gore in horror is an effective way to immerse audiences into films, making them feel the pain of the characters on screen subconsciously. The Saw franchise utilizes this natural human reaction in every one of its films. We imagine ourselves in the traps and wince when the characters fail to escape and meet their ends.

Image from “Saw III” (2006). Image courtesy: Lions Gate Entertainment

Key characteristics of gore

Every movie genre has specific characteristics and tropes that tend to appear when making such films. Gore horror movies are no different; they have a standard formula to them. One of the genre’s classic tropes goes as follows: teens are in some secluded area (they are on vacation in a secluded area, their car breaks down, etc.), have sex at some point and get eventually killed by a film’s killer. Most zombie films would fall into the gore horror category as well. George A. Romero’s work founded many characteristics of the gore horror genre today.

Another key characteristic of gore in horror is the attack on the human body. This includes mutilation, zombification, mutation, diseases and more. Think of any physical changes that occur with the body. For example, when a character goes through a transformation that leads to becoming another thing or creature like a werewolf or zombie. Body horror, which is considered a sub-genre within itself, focuses on the limitations the human body can stand. Body horror and gore horror are often paired together.

Origins of gore in horror movies

Mainstream horror movies are not light in the gore factor. In fact, a lot of today’s horror movies are very open with their gore. But in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, gore was considered taboo. The idea of flesh being torn apart and the splattering of blood was too much for the audience to handle.

The gore horror genre has its roots in French Grand Guignol theatre. This theater focused on delivering realistic violence and carnage for those who watched. D. W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” (1916) was the first film to include gore, which featured two onscreen decapitations, a spear going through a shoulder’s chest and a few wounds with blood. Since then, it’s grown into the popular subgenre we know today, being pushed forward by the work of Alfred Hitchcock and Hammer Film Productions, which made films such as “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957) and “Horror of Dracula” (1958)

Horror of Dracula
Image from “Horror of Dracula” (1958). Image courtesy: Rank Film Distributors and Universal-International

The gore horror genre in practice

Film

There are certain horror movies that automatically come to mind when thinking of gore.

One of the prime examples of gore in horror is the horror classic “The Last House on the Left” (1972). The film is directed by horror icon Wes Craven, whose filmography includes several horror classics such as “A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), “The People Under The Stairs and Scream” (1991). Craven’s first film is considered by many to be one of his most disturbing films in cinema. The marketing for “The Last House on the Left” didn’t shy away from its gore. It purposely made it clear what the audience was in for when they purchased tickets to see the movie that they would see carnage. The poster warned of the carnage, warning to avoid fainting and to repeat to yourself: “It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie.”

“The Last House on the Left” is a prime example of gore horror. It contains many disturbing scenes that stick with people long after the movie concludes. For instance, after a girl is murdered in the film, the camera stays fixed on the scene. It lingers on the criminals playing with the blood, creating a quite disturbing image.

Television

While gore in movies is endless, television shows are a whole other ordeal. Most TV shows that air on premium networks like HBO, Showtime and AMC tend to be more open with images of gore and amp up their gore factor. Lately, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are following suit. In other words, television has been opening its doors to gore enthusiasts for a while now. 

Gore and zombies go together like peanut butter and jelly. “The Walking Dead” first premiered back in 2010, and it follows various survivors of a zombie apocalypse. It’s rooted in realism and uses gore often. In fact, it’s one of its selling points. Every episode leaves viewers wondering whether their favorite characters will be torn apart by the undead or killed by malicious people also trying to survive.

Scene from “The Walking Dead” season one (2010). Image courtesy: AMC

Spilling into other genres

Gore horror isn’t just tied to slasher films or even the horror genre. There are plenty of movies that use elements of gore horror. Take “The Silence of the Lambs,” for example. The film mixes the various elements from the thriller and horror genres to create a sense of tension and outright disgust and terror. Hannibal Lecter is one of the stars of the film, and there are various points in the film he eats the body parts of humans. While the film isn’t what you would call an outright gore fest, it has moments of gore in it.

Gore: a necessary element in the horror genre

Gore has a long history in the horror genre. It’s also a polarizing genre as well. Some love the gore and violence, and others find it to be too much and much prefer the unseen, like in the analog horror genre.

However, when gore is done effectively, it can add to audiences’ immersion in cinema and television. Gore, and the pain associated with it, is hard to ignore, whether it’s in a massive blockbuster horror film or a local campy horror film. In fact, it’s the draw from many horror fans to go see a film they might not have checked out otherwise because it makes them squirm. Gore will always be a part of the horror genre and be an effective tool in the cinema to make the audience feel the characters’ pain and make a lasting impression long after.