Gore, Faces, and the Conundrum of Censorship

A brief look at the history of visual repulsion

Gore, Faces, and the Conundrum of Censorship
Martha Is Dead. Source: Shacknews.

In 1932 Tod Browning released the horror film Freaks, a box office disaster destroying his career. It is the only MGM film ever pulled before completing its domestic US engagements and was banned in the UK for 30 years. Why? Well, for one, it risked depicting sideshow performers as sympathetic individuals instead of abnormalities. Two, the movie included acts of grotesque violence. It was a film that was seen as transgressive in its time but progressive in retrospect. There were contemporary reports of viewers not only running out of theaters but becoming ill or outright fainting.

Source: DualShockers.

The movie's 90-minute runtime was cut to just over an hour with unfavorable audience responses. The removed footage includes the circus entertainers attacking a woman vulnerable on the ground and the castration of another character. These acts of violence are among the most notable pieces of lost footage in film history. All the same, the ending to Freaks remains to be central to the zeitgeist of horror film culture. Expertly shot and acted, Hercules, the strong man, is reduced to crawling in the mud, now on even ground with the people he once looked down upon.

This month (February 2022), the newly released psychological horror game Martha is Dead was part of a similar controversy, this time in the realm of video games. The drama is over a scene where the player removes the face from a corpse and then wears it like a mask. Something so metal and edgy, you might cut your face off Final Destination style if you aren’t careful. The PS4 and PS5 now censor the scene.

Source: YouTube.

First, I agree that the scene is in bad taste. When I watched the clip from Martha is Dead, I winced and then laughed. It was ridiculous and over-the-top entertainment. This scene is purposefully alarming and by no means am I defending it on the merit of artistry. I am, however, protecting an uncensored world with appropriate content ratings. I am also supporting those who enjoy horror and have a morbid curiosity. Besides, removed faces are a very familiar scene for horror fans and the macabre. What pushes the envelope today may fall flat, but it could help in broadening the horizons for some future work.

Before Peter Jackson directed The Lord of The Rings, he led multiple horror films. It's a fantastic thing for someone to go from producing depravity about flesh-eating aliens (Bad Taste) and sleazy sideshow puppets (Meet the Feebles) to adapting the likes of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Would you give a comedy horror director 250 million dollars to attempt his dream project if you were a movie executive? I'm not sure I would, but if you drop down the iron curtain of censorship, then maybe we don't get a Lord of the Rings.

The idea of censoring gore feels a bit silly when violence is very much a part of our lives. Death is violent, but so is birth! There is nothing wrong with coming to terms with bodily function. Visual art has depicted unabashed human violence for centuries. Caravaggio's "Judith Beheading Holofernes" is a beautiful and horrendous example. Caravaggio perfectly captures the victim's fear and vulnerability, his face, and body twisting with those tense last impulses. It is a visceral painting predating modern horror films by nearly 500 years. Famous writer and 19th-century critic John Ruskin called Caravaggio's work "horror, and ugliness."

A more contemporary and direct comparison is with the 1960 French horror film Eyes Without a Face. An infamous scene depicts a mad doctor surgically removing a woman's face. Watching it now, it appears chuckle-worthy as the actors peel, what looks like, a slice of deli meat from the patient's face. It is the horror of bologna on full display. It might look hilarious to us now, but could you imagine the initial reactions to this film in 1960? Contemporary French news magazine L'Express commented that viewers were "dropping like flies" during the heterografting scene.

Judith Beheading Holofernes. Source: Wikipedia.

We see faces removed, degloved, peeled, scalped, slashed, torn, and bitten off in films again and again and again. From horror films like Re-Animators and Poltergeist to action flicks like Face/Off. So what makes a face removal scene such a big deal here? The interactivity? The association of games with young people? Sony has subsequently censored the game in the PS4 and PS5 versions for "extreme violence and sexual dialog."

I took a trip down south once and the road to hell is paved with signs that say, “We must protect the children”. I agree a child should not be playing games like Grand Theft Auto, Martha is Dead or other titles with mature themes. A kid deserves to experience the innocence of childhood, but that responsibility should fall primarily on parents and communities, not legal bodies and rating boards. It's good that we have a maturity rating system; it's what helps protect both children and mature content. But, a censor in the hands of the wrong individuals quickly becomes a bludgeon.

After the controversial United States Congressional Hearing about violence in video games centering on Mortal Kombat in 1992. German lawmakers in 1994 confiscated all copies of the game from the German market for violating code 131 of the country's penal code, which "prohibits the showing of gruesome violence against humans." Yikes, talk about ironic…

Mortal Kombat. Source: Reddit.

Ratings like NC-17 and AO are considered commercial suicide as most retail establishments won't be bothered to stock entertainment with these labels. At the same time, it also nearly guarantees these movies and games cult-like status in the process. Instantly becoming discussed, rarer, and put among the company of other banned and harshly labelled works of fiction. At this junction, society does not need to be slapping these labels on media willy-nilly. With modern parental controls and accessible info at a fingertip, there's no excuse — except that kids are curious.

There's a point where censorship almost becomes useless. People are going to seek out what people want to see. If we aren't censoring things for children and young, malleable minds, who are we protecting?


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