The Horror! or, Modern Film and the Roman Empire

20 Jul

I wish I could tell you it was a good morning, but as of this writing it’s 9:45 on Monday and I just got back from two days’ worth of baby showers. I’m nursing a slight hangover and the horrendously sub-par gyro dinner I had last night is conspiring with the Coronas and the rye in the dark corners of my stomach, in preparation for a violent uprising. I’m halfway though my shitty corner-store coffee and it’s not improving matters – in fact, I’m reasonably sure the coffee is clandestinely providing the rebellious contents of my guts with black-market armaments. In short, showing up to my quarters at the Compound this morning is not nearly as enjoyable as several thousand other things I might be doing right now. And since I’m such a generous guy, I’m going to share a little piece of my radiating hostility with you, my valued readers. To warm up your rage organs, I give you this. Watch it all the way through:

There. Now you and I should be on the same page, fury-wise; or at least in the same book. So let’s get started, shall we?

Like I said, I spent most of the weekend at baby showers. I’m told it’s not traditional for men to be invited to these functions, but my expectant friends got around that old saw – one couple relegated their male guests to the backyard, playing games of horseshoes fueled by booze and barbecue, and the other couple are so fundamentally non-traditional they simply didn’t care. Both functions were learning experiences for me: I learned I’m a terrible horseshoe player, and I learned there’s really a lot that goes into preparing for a birth and the subsequent eighteen-year jail term known as “parenthood”.

stressed parents

People ask me why I don’t want kids. I now have fodder for a laundry list of answers. Most of them have to do with financial responsibility, but an equal number have to do with poo. I hate poo and I don’t want to deal with any but my own. Ever.


But all the rigmarole got me thinking about the generation yet-to-be. In the next ten years I’m going to end up a surrogate uncle to what I can only imagine will be a veritable legion of ankle-biters, rug rats and sundry terrible toddlers. It’s an exciting prospect because it excuses me from the responsibility of having children of my own, and it means I get to pass on my considerable knowledge and life experience to a younger generation. It also means I get to menace my adopted nieces’ potential boyfriends further down the line – I’m most looking forward to that, I think.


The state of the world concerns me, though. I’ve talked about parenting in other posts and how often people drop the ball when it comes to looking out for their children. I’m not terribly concerned about my friends becoming parents, because I have the utmost confidence in their ability to offset my terrible influence on their kids.

children drinking booze

But there’s only so much you can do to stem the flow of the river Culture. Everywhere I look these days, I see decadence and desensitization on a scale matched historically only by the final days of the Roman Empire. I’m hardly the first person to make this comparison, but I think it bears repeating.


I had a conversation with my father this weekend that got me thinking about the parallels between modern civilization and those before ours that were crushed under the weight of their apathy, overconsumption and corruption. Now, for those of you who think I’m cynical or overly critical of the world at large, you can credit (or blame) my dad. His lifelong commentary on our culture of bullshit took the spark of my own natural cynicism and fanned it into the literary brushfire it is today (a brushfire that pales before the active volcano that is his eloquently-phrased disgust with just about everything).

alex james dad

I’ll tell him you send your thanks.

Anyway, the conversation started, as most of our interactions do, with a lively debate – this time about the state of modern film. My dad’s a bit of an enigma when it comes to cinema. Some of his favourite movies of all time are high-end think pieces featuring outstanding acting and writing, but the older he gets the more he just wants to have the opportunity to turn off his brain for a while and be entertained (the highlight of our mutual viewing pleasure last year was Frank Miller’s 300).


My dad’s over fifty, so the generation gap between us is considerable. When he was young, the “horror” genre was associated with great filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, who were masters of suspense and suggestion – very little of the violence portrayed in his films was ever shown on screen (as in the famous shower scene from Psycho). It was all psychological: despite the visual medium’s proclivity towards making your imagination lazy (because all the images are right in front of you and require no real dissection) Hitchcock’s films allowed the viewer’s imagination to fill in the particularly nasty blank spots – which, according to my father, was very effective. A lot of people had difficulty showering for years after that film hit theaters.


Fast forward fifty years. It’s now 2009, and absolutely nothing is left to the imagination anymore. My generation grew up on the somewhat-campy but always-gory slasher films of the mid-1980s – Friday the 13th, Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street being the most commonly known. I wasn’t allowed to watch a lot of that stuff growing up because I had a pretty active imagination (I had nightmares for weeks after reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula when I was about eight) and my mother was afraid I’d internalize the images and go into cardiac arrest every time I saw a goalie afterwards. So I was woefully unprepared when I watched my first slasher film (Jason Goes To Hell) at a sixth-grade birthday party. Growing up with a critical eye and with Socrates for a father, I was well aware of the difference between reality and fiction, so the concept of a seven foot tall, unkillable mutant with a machete never rang true to me. But I couldn’t get past the intense violence of it all – was it absolutely necessary for us to see a woman get a signpost rammed into her back and out between her (albeit exposed and quite shapely) breasts? I’m not a prude now and I wasn’t then, but watching the Voorhees kid shove a man’s face into a greasy-spoon fryer kind of turned my stomach.

But I’ll admit I might have been unusual, having been so sheltered from media violence as a child (I wasn’t even allowed to watch G.I. Joe growing up!). So I asked my friend and pop-culture go-to guy Brent Chittenden over at Two Assholes Talking About Nerd Stuff for his take on the situation. This is a guy, for reference, who absolutely loves those gory, cheesy horror flicks I’ve been talking about, and yet he’s reasonably stable and, to my knowledge, doesn’t own a cabin in the woods full of body parts. Why not?

brent chittenden two assholes talking about nerd stuff

You posed the question of why, despite the fact that I love violent films and my parents let me watch them at a very young age (for the record I remember seeing the original My Bloody Valentine on video with my cousin Julie when she babysat my sister and I.  I was probably 7), I didn’t turn out to be a murderous psychopath or have social issues.

Once again a multipart answer.

1. Parents. I had parents who loved me, cared for me and took an interest in what I read, listened to and watched. When my grandmother snuck me into Terminator 2 while it was in theaters (I was just under the age mark at that point), my parents knew about it. I also grew up with a number of people who had guns and other hunting implements. I was raised to know that violence with a gun or a machete can do serious harm to someone. I was raised to know how to properly handle weapons or that punching someone in the face is not an acceptable form of behaviour. I was also raised with the idea that movies are not real. They are fantasy. Real life, you suffer many more consequences for your actions.

2. The gore and the violence. I am a true believer in the fact that violence in film should be realistic and gory. Why? Because even though it can be cartoony and ridiculous at the very least when some one gets stabbed, they should bleed. Let’s take X-Men 2 as an example. There are tons of moments where Wolverine is running around and stabbing people with his claws but there is no blood and gore. For all intents and purposes, when those army guys hit the ground, they might as well be sleeping, because that’s all a kid’s going to see. You can make that connection in your mind with blood. You know when you’re bleeding, 9 times out of 10, you are hurt, probably in some form of pain. When there isn’t blood, it’s harder to make that connection. Same with gunshots. Gunshots are not pretty, they are not cute little goreless holes. You get hit with a 12 gauge shotgun at close range it will damn near cut you in half. You see guys in a movie get shot but yet they stand up and they’re not even bleeding: it’s as if there are no consequences to shooting someone.”

Okay, I can feel this. To recap, Brent’s parents raised him to know the difference between reality and fiction – good thing. His insistence on gore stems from the fact that it brings home the point: if you hit your little brother in the face with a ball-peen hammer, his nose is going to crack open like a ripe watermelon. On some level I agree with him – in a roundabout way, the inclusion of realistic violence in these films serves as a reminder that real violence has real consequences. And since it’s couched in an unrealistic scenario (i.e. a child molester who dons a set of razor gloves and kills unwary teenagers in their dreams) it’s relatively easy to separate the movie world from the real one.

freddy krueger

But with the exception of a dry spot in the early 90s where gore was seriously cut back (according to Brent, this was the result of studios going after that lucrative PG13 demographic as well as pressure from parents’ groups to get rid of on-screen violence), slasher film violence has gotten progressively bigger, more gruesome and most importantly more realistic.

Think about it this way. Let’s start with our earlier example, Psycho. Fairly realistic scenario (the bad guy was a regular dude with serious mommy issues), stylization focusing on suspense and catering to imagination (very little on-screen violence). Then we move to Friday the 13th (whichever one starred the masked Jason who would become the recurring villain): totally unrealistic scenario (the bad guy was some kind of reincarnated killing machine who really took umbrage with premarital sex), stylization focusing on “BOO” moments and inventive death scenes (a lot of on-screen violence). However, a lot of the 13th series was written pretty campily, the violence was comparatively rapid, featuring shock-value “hatchet to the face” style murders, and again, the whole scenario was patently unbelievable because there’s no such thing as monsters – or at least not the kind of monster Jason was supposed to represent.

jason voorhees friday 13th

Now let’s take a film like Saw or Hostel. You could argue the scenarios are unrealistic, because contrary to internet gossip there have been no reported cases of tourists being kidnapped and murdered in high-class torture dungeons, nor have any serial killers (to my knowledge) built ridiculous Rube Goldberg-esque death traps for their victims to fall into. However, in both cases the “bad guys” are regular humans (particularly in Hostel) and as unlikely as a Jigsaw-style killing spree might be, it could conceivably be done – far more realistic than the unkillable super-monsters of the 80s. The stylization focuses more and more on visceral, extremely graphic violence that is captured in high-definition and drawn out over minutes rather than seconds, and in a lot of ways (especially in the Saw series) becomes the focal point of the plot. Yes, people went to see 13th to watch hapless teenagers get slaughtered, but Jason wasn’t tying them to overly elaborate torture devices and slowly blowtorching their faces off. He was more of a pragmatist in that respect – body count over style. Nowadays people go to these films specifically to see that kind of violence. The buzz I heard about Hostel always revolved around “oh man, remember that bit where the guy drilled into that dude’s leg?” or “remember when he cut the guy’s Achilles tendon?” That’s what people were going to see – no more, no less.


It’s not about being scared anymore – it’s about being grossed out. People left theaters after Psycho looking over their shoulders all the way home, because the movie scared them. People leave Saw talking about their favourite murder scenes. You can argue that everyone in this day and age is well aware that movies are fake, so the desensitization that allows them to ingest this kind of brutal imagery can be justified. But objectively, what kind of culture are we living in where watching a guy get his head ripped apart by some kind of Lovecraftian horror device is considered viable entertainment?

saw torture device

Look, I’m not suggesting that we ban these films. We live in a democracy, and if that’s what you want to see, it’s your right to do so. I’m also not a prude – I think violence is an integral part of some cinema, and I’m a genuine fan of some of it. What bugs me is when I have conversations like the one I had with my father, and I realize just how depraved our tastes have gotten in the last half-century. In my estimation it doesn’t bode well – especially when our kids are being raised on this ultimately-pointless and potentially damaging “entertainment”. My dad hearkens it to the Roman Empire – after they got bored watching the gladiators they just started throwing people into the ring with a bunch of hungry lions, all the while gorging themselves on too much food and liquor and fucking everything that would stand still long enough to get mounted. Sound like any cultures you might know?

united states versus rome

I guess that standing on the cusp of uncle-hood makes me think a little differently about the media we take in every day. It’s one thing to expose yourself to this kind of crap – we all do it, one way or another. But we’re talking about the future here – an entire generation of kids who will have enough to deal with between rising tuition prices, global warming and an economy in the shitter without being force-fed pornographic violence in lieu of entertainment.

And I’ll be damned if my nieces and nephews are going to get exposed to anything like Hostel until they’re old enough to make the decision for themselves, and their parents and I have had time to teach them the difference between reality and fiction, right and wrong, and the finer points of blowtorching somebody’s face. Because I might be a bad influence, but I refuse to be a bad uncle.

alex james state of affairs

3 Responses to “The Horror! or, Modern Film and the Roman Empire”

  1. jimfairthorne July 20, 2009 at 8:55 PM #

    that’s the freakiest fuckin photo i’ve ever seen of you.

  2. Michelle July 27, 2009 at 7:34 PM #

    I agree with a lot of what you said here–my parents restricted my TV watching until I was old enough to understand and my kids first of all aren’t going to be allowed to watch a lot of TV and what they do watch will be age-appropriate. The more I think about parenting the more I think I’m going to be fairly strict, huh…

  3. Thiago Lima Taffo July 29, 2011 at 1:03 PM #

    I have genuinely agreed with all you said. It’s not about not having violence in the media, but how and when that is exposed to children. Also, why old entertainment doesn’t seem to work anymore? People seem to look for hardcore entartainment more and more, each day, looking in the movies for the stuff that a real, non-psychopathic life can give us. Has person-to-person interaction lost it’s way and the only P2P that works is the one for downloading ilegal content?

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