Why do we watch films that are designed to make us uncomfortable? Not every film needs to offer a pleasant viewing experience, and plenty of great art comes from pain and suffering, but there’s an entire sub-genre of films that is explicitly created to cause negative reactions. Why do people enjoy something that’s intentionally unenjoyable? And what’s the artistic impetus to create it?
I have a similar question regarding horror movies, because I’m a big baby who doesn’t like being scared. “Scared” is an unpleasant emotion, and it’s one that I don’t like experiencing in real life. Why would I pay to experience it? Why would anyone pay to be “shocked,” as is the goal of “shock cinema”? The simplest answer is that people aren’t scared or shocked by these movies, and they derive pleasure from them in different ways. Maybe the disgusting sexual violence in A Serbian Film is so over-the-top that they find it funny, or maybe they’re interested in the political subtext of that film.
I think there’s an appeal to viewing “shocking” imagery in a safe context, especially in our relatively prudish society. The knowledge that it’s all fake offers the viewer permission to indulge in the taboo. Any concern about the psychological implications of enjoying the film can be brushed aside because “it’s only a movie.” The guilt one might feel after watching a video of someone being killed by a truck isn’t present when they watch something even more brutal in a movie. Is this how our brains are designed to work, evolutionarily? Surely the caveman part of the brain can’t make a meaningful distinction between seeing someone get killed in real life and seeing a hyper-realistic fake killing in a movie. This ability seems to be entirely cultural. We learn to distinguish reality from fantasy pretty early on in our development, right around the time we learn about “right” and “wrong” in the most rudimentary sense. If someone is predisposed to enjoy shocking imagery, then “shock cinema” offers exactly that, free of any ethical dilemma.
That’s not at all a judgment of people who enjoy these films. As long as it makes you happy and it doesn’t hurt anyone, I don’t care what kind of movies you watch. I still find it difficult to understand the appeal, but watching the trailer for Wetlands got me thinking. I don’t think the appeal is the content of the films. I think it’s the feeling associated with having watched them. You see the Wetlands trailer and think, “Wow, that looks disgusting! I’ve got to see how disgusting it is for myself!” It’s not about wanting to be shocked; it’s about wanting to see if a movie can shock you. It’s more curiosity than anything else.
Now we come to the question of artistic impetus. If people see these movies for the reasons listed above, what reason do filmmakers have for making them? Obviously there’s a not-insignificant market for them, but what audience do the filmmakers think they’re working for? Most likely, this question never goes through their heads, because they know that making a film with a ton of gore will bring that audience to the box office. The “why” of it never enters the equation.
I feel strange writing about why people enjoy shock cinema, because I really, really don’t. I don’t want to misrepresent or disparage anyone’s taste, but I also find it hard to voluntarily subject myself to a film that’s designed to make me sick. I don’t need films to make me feel good, and I’m even okay with films that make me queasy, as long as there’s a valid artistic purpose behind it. Queasiness for the sake of queasiness isn’t something I’m on board with. That said, I applaud those with the fortitude to watch these films and get something out of them. It’s not something I’ll ever be able to do.