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The Art of Repulsion

Adam Wallace

Jul 3, 2023

What compels one to watch a film they know they'll hate?

The tenth movie in the SAW film series, SAW X,  is slated for release in theatres October 27th, 2023. As a franchise, the SAW films have grossed over a billion dollars worldwide and is the fifth highest grossing horror franchise of all time, despite being dubbed “Torture Porn” by mainstream media. It begs the question, why watch a film whose main selling point is how violent and gory it is? Films like Terrifier, Human Centipede, Martyrs, Hostel, etc. What could possibly be the appeal to watch such things? It’s a question that deserves exploring, and I believe I know the answer: Survival.

Many of my earliest memories of interacting with horror films stem from video rental store visitations as a child in the early 2000s. Our local video store, Crazy Mikes, was visited by an average of probably thrice a week, giving me plenty of time to wander and reflect on the DVD covers. To the direct left of the entrance to Crazy Mikes was a simulacrum of pure evil to childhood me: the horror section, the DVD covers of which were always pushing the boundaries between acceptable for public display and violent obscenity. Covers for films such as Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension (2003), Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005) and any/all of the SAW films polluted my naive mind during rest and would sometimes seep into my dreams, turning them into nightmares. What got to me specifically about these covers is how violent and gory they were; that’s what caused my nightmares. It wasn’t ghosts, it wasn’t demonic entities, it was gore. And it’s because, even as a child, I knew that ghosts and demons weren’t real. But blood, guts, violence, gore, etc. Those were real, and I knew that. That’s what terrified me. 

Around the 8th grade or so, my friends at the time began to get into watching horror movies. I was apprehensive at first, but as someone that was at the mercy of peer pressure, I would basically do anything my other friends wanted to. However, I would always manage to steer our group towards watching something that had less potential to be gory or violent in order to spare myself from confronting my childhood fears. We would usually spend our weekend nights scouring Netflix for whatever horror films we hadn’t seen. Over the months, we’d work our way through the Paranormal Activity films, the Blair Witch Project, Insidious, Dead Silence, etc. But there was a certain series of films I couldn’t divert my eager friends from marathoning one weekend, and that series was SAW. Although the DVD covers still shook me, the fact remained that I was a child and ultimately at the mercy of my friends' decisions. 

I’ll never forget seeing my friend lift his sleepy head, see SAW III was over, and put on SAW IV and immediately fall back asleep. The scream-laiden, flesh-crunching audio to SAW IV didn’t put me into a somnolent mood.

We made it through five SAW movies one weekend, and it shook me up for a solid week. But by the next weekend, I found myself back on solid footing. The visual of Donnie Wahlberg’s head being crushed by two blocks of ice began to slowly leave my mind, and my sleep was okay again. I was becoming desensitized to violence and gore, which in the internet age could often be hard to differentiate from growing up itself. 

By the time the following Friday came around again and I knew we’d be finishing the SAW films, I didn’t feel the same dread I had before. I still felt dread, but it was a new kind of dread. It was like the anxiety you experience as your cart slowly pulls up the first hill of the rollercoaster. You’re so ready to get off the ride that you can’t believe you agreed to get on in the first place. And then, once you finally pull back into the station and get off, you feel light. You feel alive. 

Now, at 23 years old, I’ve seen all the SAW films probably around 3 times each, and the only one that I think is any good is the first one. So why watch these films I don’t like?

Because of the satisfaction I feel from knowing I have overcome a fear. Everytime I watch one of these films that aligns with what scared me as a child, I feel something that no other movie can make me feel. Regardless of how different I am now from when I was a child, I still remember what that fear felt like, and I get to relive the overcoming of that fear every time I see one of these films. 

When truly distilled, I believe that the appeal of these horror films is not the films themselves but rather the act of surviving the viewing of the film. “Survival” of  a film might sound odd. Of course you’re going to survive — what — you’re just going to drop dead from watching a movie? But when put into the context of overcoming fear, there’s no other way to put it. When I was a child, I think if someone took one of the SAW movies off that Crazy Mikes shelf and forced me to watch it à la Clockwork Orange, I would have panicked to the point of hysteria. Little me would have been convinced of my impending death caused by pure fear. So while survival might sound hyperbolic, it is the right word.  

All films offer an intimate exploration of emotions, some positive, some negative. But what these films offer is a battleground. A two hour confrontation of our deepest subconscious repulsions — a forceful look into the gory and dread that can shadow our thoughts. Through this confrontation, ultimately what these films truly give us, is the gift of survival, and through that the appreciation of what it feels like to be alive.

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