Politics and the Rise of the Ultra-Violent Horror Film in the 2000s



“Horror films don’t create fear, they release it.”

-Wes Craven


     Catharsis through entertainment is a uniquely human practice. We are the only species that intentionally create drama as a method of release. Stemming from the Greek word katharsis, it means “purgation” or “cleansing.” This idea was expounded upon by Greek philosopher Aristotle in his great work on drama, Poetics. In it, he asserts that the sole purpose of drama itself is to arouse emotions in the audience (specifically pity and fear), and purge these emotions, thus making the viewers emotionally stronger. If we are to follow this thread of logic, then the more intense the emotions the drama raises, the greater feeling of catharsis the audience is left with; and the more stressed an audience is the more intense the art has to be to arouse emotion.


     The horror film may be the best contemporary example of art we flock to for catharsis. Present since the silent film era, it’s clear that Americans have an insatiable appetite to see the thrilling and macabre on the silver screen. But a genre that relies so heavily on shock has the burden of having to constantly push forward and show more violence, sex, and depravity. For this reason, each decade of horror films has usually far superseded the violence portrayed in the years that came before it. But sometimes the trend is defied. Sometimes there is an inexplicable jump in the level of filmic debauchery. Seemingly out of nowhere a new crop of young filmmakers rise out of the ground, shake up a tired industry, and grab the throats of uneasy audiences. This perfectly describes the cinematic atmosphere of the 2000s. Between witnessing the greatest terror attack on American soil live on TV and millions losing their homes, jobs and life savings in the Great Recession, America saw a renaissance of the ultra-violence and extremely-transgressive horror film that crossed all lines previously established or thought to exist. So outrageous were this new crop of films that their creators were dubbed the ‘splat pack’, and the films they made categorized as ‘torture-porn’. Why, at this specific moment in history were these films not only being made, but being consumed feverishly by audiences? What does this say about the creators of the films? The audiences? The culture the art was incubated in? The renaissance of extreme horror films in the 2000s was a direct result of the nation’s unease in the political and economic climate of the time.


     Before the landscape was transformed in the noughts, the decade prior was largely a doldrum for envelope-pushing violence from the horror genre. In actuality, most of the violence on screen during the 90s came from outside the horror genre. Quentin Tarantino started his career with Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), David Fincher made a name for himself with Seven (1995) and Fight Club (1999), and Martin Scorsese amped the gore in his signature crime movies with Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). But at the time most parent groups and lobbyists were focused on video games. In 1993, the United States Governmental Affairs and Judiciary Senate committees held the first congressional hearings to discuss violence in video games. Titles like the bloody 16-bit tournament fighter Mortal Kombat, and the interactive movie-game Night Trap excited fans and angered dissenters alike.


     But while other genres and mediums were taking the spotlight, the horror genre fell asleep at the wheel during the 90s. The only highlights that reached phenomenon levels being Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), and The Blair Witch Project (1999). While Scream was violent for its time, it was played more for comedy than shock. What really connected with audiences was the meta-aspects of the script, pulling hard from the post-modern sensibilities of the 90s, highlighted in the biggest show at the time, Seinfeld. Film critic Roger Ebert noted the film’s deconstructionist nature in his review at the time: “The characters in Scream are in a horror film and because they’ve seen so many horror films, they know what to do, and what not to do.” He continues, “Is the violence defused by the ironic way the film uses it and comments on it? For me, it was” (Ebert). So while Scream did go on to more sequels and great success, it’s heart was always a loving deconstruction of the genre, not an honest attempt to push the envelope.


     On the other hand, The Blair Witch Project serves as more of a lightning-in-a-bottle-one-off-experiment than any definitive statement on the culture of the time. One of the first to use a found-footage aesthetic through a first-person POV through its entire run-time, it convinced audiences that it was not a film, but a real-life documentary. In conjunction with a first-of-it’s kind marketing campaign that heavily utilized the internet, the film was really an exercise in utilizing new technology and techniques as avenues to tell an engrossing story. According to Brett Sporich of the Los Angeles Business Journal, “Ever since The Blair Witch Project virtually created what is now known as viral marketing for feature films, thousands of filmmakers and producers have been trying to duplicate its grass-roots success” (Sporich). But while many tried, Blair Witch didn’t usher in a new era of innovative horror films like many thought. Even the film’s own sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000), buckled under its own weight and heavily underperformed at the box office. No, it would seem that audiences would have to wait a few more years for a proper movement to start in the horror film genre.


     By many accounts, the person to break the seal of violent horror movies of the 2000s was Eli Roth. In 1996, while working as Howard Stern’s assistant, Roth wrote the first drafts of what would become Cabin Fever (2002). Financed privately for only $1.5 million, Cabin Fever centers around a group of kids who rent out a remote cabin in the woods, only to contract a horrendous flesh eating disease and violently murder each other. On the surface, the concept doesn’t sound like anything all that new or groundbreaking, and even Roth himself would go on to top it with his next film, but at the time it was just the shot in the arm that the genre needed. Michael Rechtshaffen summed it up best in the opening to his 2003 review of the film for the Hollywood Reporter:


The bottom line — The gore’s the merrier in this uneven homage to the golden age of splatter pictures. A playful ode to the horror films of the late ’70s and early ‘80s, Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever proudly wears its influences on its blood soaked sleeve. But while fans of the genre will appreciate the allusions to the earlier works of Sam Raimi, Wes Craven, John Carpenter and, most prominently, Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), this is one fright flick that ultimately coaxes more titters than jitters. (Rechtshaffen)


     Although a little rough around the edges, Cabin Fever satiated audiences with lots of comedy, abundant nudity, and above all gore the likes of which hadn’t been seen before. The most memorable scene featuring a female character, not knowing she’s contracted the flesh-eating disease, shaving her legs; Only to have the razor peel her skin right off. Scenes like this immediately captured the attention of buyers and distributors, leading Cabin Fever to sell to Lionsgate at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival for $3.5 million, the biggest sale at the festival that year. Roth credits not only the caliber of the film with the sale, but also that the buying market was very scarce that year. The film went into production just a few short months after the September 11th attacks, a time when many other productions had halted, many producers thinking that such a tragic event would snuff audiences’ appetite for new films, especially in the horror and thriller genre. But Roth’s gamble to stick through production even in an uncertain time paid off. Cabin Fever went on to become Lionsgate’s highest-grossing film of the year. According to financial tracking sites, it pulled in over $35 million worldwide (Box Office Mojo).


     Seven short months later, Lionsgate films followed up Cabin Fever with the release of the long-awaited directorial debut of Rob Zombie. Zombie had made a name for himself as the frontman of the legendary heavy/industrial metal band White Zombie, and when the band split in 1998, he seemed to effortlessly transition into an even more successful solo career. After creating a successful haunted house attraction that reinvigorated Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, Zombie pitched an idea to the studio of what would become House of 1000 Corpses (2003). The film takes place in 1977, and centers around a group of four friends traveling the country writing a book about off-beat roadside attractions. In search of a particularly peculiar urban legend, they fall prey to a sadistic family of hillbilly serial killers. Compared to Roth’s Cabin Fever, House of 1000 Corpses takes further steps not only in terms of gore and depravity, but pays homage to the films of the seventies that inspired it. Although it was released after Roth’s debut, Corpses was actually filmed well before, beginning in May 2000. The film was originally set to be distributed by Universal, but after seeing a rough cut the studio giant shelved the film, fearing it would receive an NC-17 rating. Eventually, Zombie was able to purchase the rights himself, and later strike a distribution deal with Lionsgate. Upon release, the film was by no means a smash hit, but quickly recouped its production budget and became a fan favorite. Zombie and Lionsgate quickly began work on a follow-up starring the same redneck family, The Devil’s Rejects (2005). Both of Zombie’s films not only continued the trend of brutality started by Roth, but served as a resurgence of so-called ‘hillbilly horror’, a sub-genre not seen in the mainstream since 70s releases like Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).


     With the stage set by fresh filmmakers like Roth and Zombie, it was only a matter of time before this new wave of transgressive horror films went mainstream. That happened in a big way in October 2004, with the release of James Wan’s Saw. Shot for only $1.5 million, the film would go on to gross far more than any of its contemporaries. Writer Mark Bernard elaborates on the success of the Saw series in his 2014 book, “Selling the Splat Pack”:


While Roth’s and Zombie’s films have been successes for Lionsgate – especially on DVD – the seven Saw films (released between 2004 and 2010) have grossed over $750 million dollars in box office returns, this formidable figure does not even take into account DVD and other video sales. Indeed, the Saw films are the closest of all Splat Pack films to the realm of the Hollywood blockbuster. (Bernard 142)


     But before all the sequels and success, Saw was just an incredibly well made debut by Aussie’s James Wan (director) and Leigh Whannel (writer and actor). In the film, two men awake chained up adjacent to each other in a dilapidated bathroom. Realizing they’re in a twisted game designed by infamous serial killer Jigsaw, they must escape by mutilating themselves and killing each other. The conceit of the film totally captured American audiences. The motivation for Jigsaw’s killings being that his victims had been doing wrong and were taking for granted an aspect of their lives. But they were always given a way out, usually through a painful sadistic act they were to perform on themselves. It’s incredibly interesting that this concept would strike such a chord, at a time when many Americans (especially a young, movie going crowd) felt guilt for living in a country engaged in a violent war on terror. While Saw definitely evoked these feelings, it was all subtext to a tightly written crime thriller plot. In his next film, Eli Roth, with producing help from Quentin Tarantino, would take his political feelings to the forefront, making it impossible to ignore.


     Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) is a film expressly about torture. In it, two American friends backpacking across Europe hear of a hostel in Slovakia full of beautiful women who will sleep with any American guy. Travelling there, they find themselves kidnapped and sold into a secret business that allows the wealthy elite to pay exorbitant amounts to torture and kill them. Chicago-based film critic Dominick Suzanne-Mayer explores the implications of the premise in an article on the film’s tenth anniversary:


In the case of Hostel, we grappled with an idea that people always had in the backs of their minds but never really had to engage with: the rest of the world hating us. The events of 9/11 blew that open, and for all the films of that fallout that engaged with it some way, none was blunter than Roth’s. (Suzanne-Mayer)


     For the first time, we had characters being tortured and killed expressly because they were American. This idea is further reinforced in the text, as the characters find out the shadow business charges $5,000 to kill a Russian, $10,000 for a European, and $25,000 for an American. Supposedly, Roth got the idea when a friend showed him a website for a so-called ‘murder vacation’ in Thailand. While that story may be false or the website a prank, other aspects of the film call directly upon real-world events. When our lead character Paxton is kidnapped, he gets a look in multiple torture rooms and catches glimpses of all the disturbed ways the other victims are being violated. Chained up and often naked and covered in blood and other substances, these frames bear a striking resemblance to the images leaked from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in late 2003. While more films in this extreme movement were made, Hostel represents a sort of apex, bringing both gore and political themes in horror movies to a height.


     Now knowing the core films of the movement, it’s easy to see just how alike they are. For example, each one borrows heavily from 70s horror counterparts. Kevin J. Wetmore explores the phenomenon of bleak endings in his book “Post 9/11 Horror in American Cinema” He states that horror films of the 70s and 80s had a trend of offering hope in the end. He cites The Exorcist (1973) and Jaws (1975), wherein Regan MacNeil is successfully exorcised, and Chief Brody can blow up the shark. But many films from the 2000s end with most, if not all of the main cast dying (Wetmore). Just looking at our brief few examples it’s easy to spot this trend. The entire cast of Cabin Fever is ousted by the end. House of 1000 Corpses sees all the young protagonists die but one, only for her to end up right back in the hands of the villains. Saw ends similarly, with every character besides Jigsaw either killed or maimed and left to die. And lastly, Hostel does see one protagonist escape, but he has failed to make any dent in the operations of the secret society running the torture ring.


     Entertainment was only a reflection of the calamity of the 2000s. Both politically and economically, the decade proved to be tumultuous. Through the aforementioned war on terror, September 11th attacks, disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina, and imminent economic collapse, many Americans didn’t need to go to the movies to be terrified. As one of the biggest cultural events of the last century, the effects of the September 11th attacks can not be overstated. Not only the dire physical and emotional impact on those directly involved, but the effects on all Americans through repeated exposure by the media. Writers Larisa Epatko and Laura Santhanam note how news channels handled the footage of the attacks: “On television, networks looped footage of the collapsing Twin Towers until public outcry demanded greater sensitivity to trauma” (Epatko and Santhanam). This continued subjection to such horrific images no doubt shaped the American mindset. As Jason Middleton explains in his essay entitled “The Subject of Torture: Regarding the Pain of Americans in Hostel”, the revelation of such images, and other reports of prisoners being wrongfully detained and abused, put the idea of torture front and center in the American mind (Middleton).


     After the attacks, many media companies thought the answer was to ban media they thought would upset the public. Clear Channel, the nation’s largest owner of radio stations, banned over 150 songs from playing on air. Beyond radio, many films were cancelled, pushed back, or re-edited to accomodate for public taste after the attack. For example, Sam Raimi’s Spiderman (2002) had the twin towers completely edited out, even though they had appeared prominently in the film’s trailer. Overall, the attacks led to a very quiet and dampened entertainment landscape for the year to follow.


     Throughout cinematic history, many well known horror films have incorporated social themes. Some purposely woven in by the authors, and some make their way in through cultural osmosis. Such as Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Candyman (1992) tackling racism, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 and 1978) reflecting Cold War anxieties, and films that reflected gay panic and fears of the AIDS epidemic, such as A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985).


     Just as the films of the noughts reflect anxieties about the war on terror and America’s place in the world, many films of the 70s were a reaction to the Vietnam war and distrust of the government stemming from Watergate. It’s also telling that nearly all of the ‘splat-pack’ films cite the same 70s horror films among their major influences. Examining the films horror directors of the 2000s drew so heavily from can lend even greater context to their work.


     Possibly the greatest single influence on the films of the splat pack is Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). The film follows a group of five friends as they fall prey to a family of cannibalistic psychopaths in rural Texas. Author Tony Magistrale believes the film was one of the first to successfully use horror as social commentary. “Texas forced filmmakers out of the confines of the Victorian Gothic novel and opened the possibilities for viewing horror as a vehicle for articulating twentieth-century pessimism” (Magistrale 153). While Chainsaw raged against the Vietnam war, the filmmakers of the 2000s adopted this same method and means to make films that raged against American involvement in the Middle East.


     This reflection works on many levels, as the politics of the 70s mirrored those of the 00s in more ways than one. In both decades, America was at war for somewhat unclear reasons. Both decades saw oil crises and economic woes. Both decades saw Republicans in office, Nixon and Ford in the 70s and George W. Bush for two terms in the 00s. Both had prosperous times beforehand. The 60s and 90s were both periods of strong economic growth and expansion, but the 70s and 00s saw Americans feel helpless and betrayed by their government. The ideas of strong families and stable lives were shattered as many lost their jobs or were sent off to war. If both decades saw Americans feeling the same things, it stands to reason that the art that came out of each year would have a similar feel as well.


     In the 2000s, studios saw the success of the films of the splat pack, which were mostly independent productions, and wanted to cash in on it themselves. As Hollywood is one to do, they looked for IP that they already owned and could remake. Whether they did it consciously or not, they picked almost exclusively 70s films to remake. The trend began with none other than a remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003. But it continued down the line, remaking most of the notable 70s releases that inspired the splat pack, some of whom would even direct the remakes. There was Dawn of the Dead (2004), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Halloween (2007) (directed by Rob Zombie), and The Last House on the Left (2009). The time a studio decides to remake a film is extremely relevant. With all the IP these major studios owned, they could have remade any number of films in their catalogue. But they chose these specific films because just as they spoke to fears of Vietnam when they were released, that could be easily transferred to fears of the war on terror by then-contemporary audiences. The same holds true with invasion films. They’re typically told in times when an audience would be receptive to such a narrative. Larisa Epatko and Laura Santhanam examine this phenomenon as it relates to War of the Worlds, in a PBS article:


Orson Welles caused panic in the streets with his 1938 radio version of “War of the Worlds” which conveyed a Martian invasion as if it were actual news at a time when the nation was jittery about the threat of fascism and Nazi Germany. A popular 1953 film version traded on U.S. Cold War worries over the spread of communism in the nuclear age. The modern-day touchstones of fear are clear in Spielberg’s film (Epatko and Santhanam). Since the 70s and 00s were so similar, studios were using the same films to speak to similar societal fears, thirty years apart.


     In any art, whether it be music, film, dance, painting, etc., nothing is exactly as it seems. Critic and video essayist Lindsay Ellis notes:


Aliens in fiction are never just aliens. Just as monsters in fiction are never just monsters. There is the literal function within the narrative, of course, but then there is that layer of metaphor, of significance to the culture that the work is being presented to. A significance that may not be obvious to either the author or the audience until sometime later. (Ellis)


     Whether a film is a small drama piece or a disturbing slasher, it can’t help but be a product of its time. While many horror films of the 2000s can be viewed as disturbing and exciting ninety-minute romps, closer examination reveals the pains of a culture struggling to react to tough times. No art exists in isolation, and by looking at movements and seeing what a culture responded to at specific times, we can see how they felt. By doing this, we can inform both historical studies and the art of the future.



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