Gore as an Emotional Device

This is going to be FILLED with spoilers.

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The late Oberyn Martell represented righteous anger, rebellion and justice in a story marked by oppression and fear.

Although I consider myself a big fan of horror movies, I can’t stomach the senseless use of gory images. I don’t find blood-spattering funny, and I don’t enjoy watching death scenes that are meant to feel vindictive or cathartic. In filmmaking, using gore as a narrative device is a dangerous choice. Depending on the context, a gory scene (especially a death scene) can appeal to either the best or the worst nature in an audience. When it fails, a movie can end up in anonymous oblivion, joining the ranks of forgettable gore-porn and torture-porn films. When it succeeds, though…those are the scenes that stay with you. I’m always impressed with (and harrowed by) the choice to not only kill off a like-able character, but to absolutely mangle them in their last moments. What motivates scenes like this?

Let’s start with Oberyn Martell.

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I watched this episode with my roommates, and we all reacted EXACTLY the way Oberyn’s wife (lover?) did.

What makes Game of Thrones great is the undulating web of variables that informs every character’s actions. In any given scene, multiple issues are at play. In the case of Oberyn Martell’s gory death at the hands of The Mountain, the scene had been masterfully crafted to deliver an absolutely devastating blow to audience and characters alike.

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I’m not including a gif here, because it’s honestly too disturbing.

If Oberyn had succeeded in his battle against The Mountain, a ruthless (and gigantic) killing machine working for the most powerful and sociopathic family in Westeros, we would have seen the release of fan-favorite Tyrion Lannister, and we would have finally been able to celebrate a “good” character getting what he needed. Oberyn lost his final fight to the man who raped and murdered his sister, nieces and nephews. What’s more, he died publicly, in front of the woman who loved him (pictured in the harrowing gif above), shaming not only Tyrion and his dead family, but the far-off land he had traveled from. Oberyn represented a culture yet untouched by the Lannisters’ greed, and in the end we watched The Mountain knock his teeth out and crush his skull with bare hands until it popped.

I thought about that scene non-stop after watching it. Any friend of mine who had been watching Game of Thrones was in a stormy, depressed mood for weeks. Oberyn didn’t just die horribly; his death proved that chaos reigns in Westeros. The gods are unforgiving in George R. R. Martin’s fiction, and sometimes they are downright cruel.

Speaking of cruel, the decimation of Noah on last week’s The Walking Dead is still lingering in my mind. In a move that seems smarter than those in earlier seasons, the show killed off the youngest member of the zombie-apocalypse survivors by pressing him up against a glass window.

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This is the least-disturbing still I could find; seconds later we get a close-up shot as Noah’s face is torn apart from the inside out. A zombie grabs a hold of his jaw and tears it off as he screams.

In this way, the show orchestrated a death scene in which the audience was forced to watch Noah die horrifically while watching his friend Glenn experiencing the horror through the glass. Screens upon screens, and we were all helpless.

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Again, my reaction to this episode looked a lot like Glenn’s reaction to Noah’s death.

These scenes, although visually and emotionally brutal, work because the writers had previously afforded great respect and sensitivity to each character. Both Oberyn and Noah represented inherent goodness in a chaotic environment, so their deaths represented larger themes in both Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead: put frankly, sometimes terrible things happen to good people.

Once I asked myself to recall instances of emotionally-resonant gore, I was surprised at how quickly examples came to me. Anyone who says they didn’t cry at the end of the 1986 The Fly, for example, is lying. The death of Brundlefly is the final nail in the film’s proverbial coffin: Jeff Goldblum’s scientific prowess fails, the promise of his relationship with Geena Davis’ character dies, and Geena Davis’ character, having to deliver the final blow by shooting Brundlefly out of his misery, will be irrevocably damaged by what occurred in Goldblum’s lab. No one gets out unscathed.

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The Fly transcends typical 1980s American horror tropes because, at its core, it’s a touching, sensual love story. (Believe it or not.)

I greatly admire works like The Fly because they attempt to horrify audiences on more than a visceral (that’s a viscera pun, kind of) level. To operate on both a gore-centered and emotional, genuine narrative level is extremely difficult, but I believe it’s a goal worth pursuing. Although 2011’s The Thing was nowhere near as successful or interesting as its 1982 counterpart, the scene where Adam is slowly killed (through painful absorption) hit me right in the gut.

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The film’s protagonist, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, fails in her attempt to save Adam (played by the very cute Eric Christian Olsen). This gives Winstead’s character more texture as the film goes on (she now feels guilty and has lost a friend to a grave mistake), and Adam’s gruesome fate demonstrates 1) what the monster is capable of and 2) how attached we’ve already become to the film’s main characters.

I’ll link to Adam’s death scene here, because honestly, I don’t want it on my blog. It is FREAKY.

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The death of grandfather Hee-bong in 2006’s Korean monster movie The Host is a perfect example of well-used gory detail. We don’t see Hee-bong die, but more disturbingly, we hear his skull smack the pavement as the monster whips him down to his death. This moment occurs just after Hee-bong’s son, Gang-du, realizes he has miscounted how many bullets were left in his father’s gun. Effectively, Gang-du sentences his own father to death by way of his own stupidity, the trait which his father has been railing on the entire movie. The audience has been waiting in the first half of the film for Gang-du to succeed and redeem himself. With the sound of bone hitting the ground, we realize that some things are unavoidable; some of us don’t come out ahead in horror narratives, and the resulting loss can be heartbreaking.

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2 thoughts on “Gore as an Emotional Device

  1. grotesque ground

    “Anyone who says they didn’t cry at the end of the 1986 The Fly, for example, is lying.” – exactly!
    I also dislike gore which is used just for the sake of it. As everything in cinema, it should have a meaning or stress something.
    Also, your analysis of Oberyn Martell’s death was very good. I don’t watch the series, but I read the books. Martin is very cruel to his readers – all beloved characters can die and they often do.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Thanks so much for reading! I read the books too, but I’d recommend the series if you don’t mind some changes to the story.

      Reply

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