Over the years I’ve seen this notion repeated: that a Good Horror movie has to have gore.
I don’t believe this.
In fact, I believe gore have very little to do with Horror.
Don’t misunderstand me. There is a place for the old ultra violence in the subgenre. Some films, in fact, would not have the same impact without blood and guts. Dawn of the Dead (1978) no doubt could have been filmed with a certain subtly and nuance, suggesting its bleak world rather than all but reveling in it. It might have even held a great deal of power. But it’s doubtful that it would hold the same power. In showing straight out the nightmarish situation that the characters face, that situation is made all too real for the viewer.
However, compare it if you will with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Here is a movie that a viewer would naturally assume had blood and guts covering the screen. And yet there is no gore. If the IMDb is to be believed, director Tobe Hooper went out his way to tone the film down, shooting for a PG rating. It got an R and is regarded by some (this writer included) as one of the best Horror Films ever made.
Gore and violence, it would seem, are but a spice in Horror’s broth. Like humor or, perhaps, even sex and nudity, it can add to the taster when the right amount and quality is added. Flavor is determined by the viewer, whether it is too much, not enough, or just right.
Now if gore isn’t a necessary part of Horror, what is? What makes a good Horror tale?
The goal of any Horror story, whether the movies or prose or what have you, is to disturb, to frighten, to terrify. It is the promise of going too far, of experiencing something that you really don’t want to experience. It is watching someone you care about on the verge of that oh so nasty experience, knowing it’s about to happen, and being unable to warn them. Horror is traveling where you are not safe, where you might not come back the same shape or size.
The makers of Horror films need to either be able to take the viewers to these terrible places or at the very least be able to misguide the viewer enough to think he or she is there. They need to be able to hide what is coming, to surprise. They need to have characters the viewer has an interest in (thought not necessarily rooting for).
Horror doesn’t have to be realistic, but it helps.
In the end, what movies like Dawn of the Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre have in common is that they do these things. They take the characters (and the viewer) to some place horrific. They have characters the viewer doesn’t want harmed. And while the viewer exits both films unharmed in theory, there are moments that linger. Moments that prove the viewer has returned no longer quite the same as he or she left…