Why Are We Obsessed with Onscreen Bloodletting?
A Brief History of Gore, Splatter, and the Art of Fake Blood
Faith is made religion only through ritual. Metaphysical pacts must leak into the physical space. We must prove ourselves to our gods through word and deed. But how do we Abrahams prove this deference to our deities? We must be willing to sacrifice our sons, let their blood. Of course, there are other minor rituals. We count the beads on our rosaries. We wash certain parts of our bodies before worship. We face our prayer mats in the right direction. We give up specific foods at particular times of the year. We bow our heads to speak to the heavens. These acts prove devotion too, of course, but rare is the god who doesn’t ask for more—rare is the god who doesn’t ask for violence. Whether the slashing of a bull’s gullet, the raising of a human heart to the sun, or the slaughtering of an only begotten son, the spectacle of splatter is the blood that runs through the veins of religion.
Even in our seemingly innocent rituals—when we eat and drink to cleanse ourselves of our sins, for example—we must imagine the bread as body, the wine as blood. We must be minor cannibals, keeping the sacrifice ever-present, safeguarding the continuity of bloodletting.
“What is existence?” asks Zé do Caixão (aka Coffin Joe), an avowedly atheist horror villain, in the opening of José Mojica Marins’ At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul. He then answers his own question, staring directly into the camera: “It is the continuity of blood.” By “the continuity of blood,” Coffin Joe means the continuation of the species through childbirth—the immortality offered by the preservation of one’s own bloodline. His goal—throughout At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, its two sequels, and the various other films that feature the character—is to find the perfect mate with whom he can sire his superior offspring. In his attempts to achieve this continuity of blood, he maintains another continuity though: the continuity of bloodletting, by murdering countless men and women who stand in his way.
As religion had done long before it, the horror genre safeguards this continuity of bloodletting, even in an age of atheism. Thus, the horror film is a ritual without a religion. We can think of the genre as embodied by a line from Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby, Kill: “It’s a chain of bloodshed that there’s no use trying to break.” The horror film enacts the same bloodletting rites that we have been partaking in for centuries, but these are done to appease ourselves now, rather than for our invisible friends. Of course, in a way, this bloodletting was always to appease ourselves rather than some supernatural overseer. There was always a more menacing undercurrent—our want for blood wasn’t created by religion, merely co-opted and intensified by it.
While we need no longer converse with the gods, those invisible friends of old, each of us must inevitably converse with our own shadow—that dark silhouette which occults and is occulted. We can try to avoid this tenebra, but it stalks us like a serial killer, an envoy appearing on behalf of that always-already-terror. In our shadow is all shadow, for our shadow simultaneously reveals and conceals the shadows of what Eugene Thacker, in his three-volume Horror of Philosophy, called the “occulted world.” These shadows are a presence without substance, or a presence which implies a substance we can’t comprehend. They reveal an unrevealableness, for we can only really know our own terror, our own darkness, our own suffering. Only one shadow takes our shape. “Each person remains with his own suffering,” philosopher Emil Cioran wrote, “which he believes absolute and unlimited.”
In his On the Heights of Despair, Cioran imagined a world where a man’s face would adequately express his suffering: “Nobody would dare look at himself in the mirror, because a grotesque, tragic image would mix in the contours of his face with stains and traces of blood, wounds which cannot be healed, and unstoppable streams of tears.” The horror film acts as a clouded mirror. It allows us to look into our own wounded and blood-stained faces but through a fog of screens and lenses. Viewing the cinematic violence enables us to stand in our own shadows, to wallow in the miseries of the human condition (which is always and only our own condition), to court our own dark impulses (without fully giving ourselves over to them), to tickle the lacerated flesh of that always-already-terror. It allows us a muddled glimpse of “our hidden wounds open.” It succeeds, in its own way, at “making of us a bloody eruption forever,” as Cioran dreamed, but instead of making of us a bloody eruption forever in our own faces, the horror film does this through refracted images, grotesque and tragic.
The horror genre, then, acts as Aristotelian release, catharsis, purgation. Like the ghosts in Antonio Margheriti and Sergio Corbucci’s Castle of Blood, we say to the victims in the horror films we watch, “Your blood will be our life!” We live through their vicarious sacrifice. The theater becomes our Golgotha. With the lights down, we experience a crucifixion darkness. These men and women murdered on the screen are our martyred messiahs. We watch them die with a sense of shock and awe—feigned shock perhaps, but the awe is real, and voluptuous.
“I would experience a kind of voluptuous awe,” Cioran admitted, “if I could see a volcano of blood, eruptions as red as fire and as burning as despair, burst into the midst of the comfortable and superficial harmony of everyday life.” The horror film’s volcano of blood fills us with this voluptuous awe as it bursts into the midst of the comfortable and superficial harmony of the theater. We watch horror films for this thrill—the promise of volcanic eruptions of the occulted world into our seemingly safe spaces. “We are daring the nightmare,” in the words of Stephen King. We seek terror because we want to test our luck, to peek over the cliff into the abyss. We enjoy the proximity to danger, even if there is little danger of actual bloodshed in the theater (barring an active shooter or, if you’re in Times Square, bedbugs).
Thus, we go see these films for the same reason we ride on rollercoasters or jump out of airplanes. We like to face our fears and to fear our faces, but most of us prefer to do so with a safety net, a parachute, a seat belt, a screen acting as a wall between us and the horror. When we feel relatively safe, the showdown with that volcano of blood can be exhilarating. But even if it offers a degree of thrill and awe, why do we partake in this ritual? Mustn’t there be something more to it? Why would anyone choose to succumb to this particular terror? How could we possibly benefit from sitting in the dark, staring into a silver screen, and seeing our faces erupt in a volcano of blood?
The answer lies in the image of that clouded mirror. Our attraction to the darkness of the horror film is due to our own internal darkness. We like to stare into the abyss not merely to tempt a darkness from outside of us, but because we know we have that abyss within us as well. King admitted that we watch “to re-establish our feelings of essential normality.” Yes, we have darkness inside of us, but the horror film reminds us that this bit of darkness within us is commonplace, something we share with our brethren, not something which distinguishes us, making us different, dangerous, or dirty. “If we share a brotherhood of man,” King wrote, “then we also share an insanity of man.” Also, and perhaps more importantly, when faced with the pitch black abyss of the horror film, our inner darknesses seem small by comparison. Thus, the horror film reconfirms for many of us our fundamental lightness, our basic decency (even if this lightness and decency are mere illusions).
These films not only help us come to terms with ourselves, but with our world. Director Wes Craven saw modern horror films as “simply post-traumatic nightmares of a world that has seen more horror than it can handle alone.” In answer to the question of “Why do people pay good money to go into a theater and to be terrified by a movie?” he claimed, “They don’t. They’re already terrified by real life. What they go into that theater for is to have the terror of real life marshaled into some sort of order, so it can be dealt with. The chaos is caged for a few hours in a graspable narrative.” Horror films give us something tangible: images of victims and villains and corpses and blood. Horrible images, but tangible, recognizable, understandable images. These images attempt to realize the always-already-terror—that foundational darkness that precedes all things, that occulted world that is fundamentally un-understandable—and, in finding close approximations, they simultaneously fill us with terror and also make the terror of the real world somehow more palatable. The spectacle of splatter is a sort of blood transfusion. We are sustained by the horror film because it gives a language to better understand our own horror. If we say to the victims of violence on screen, “Your blood will be our life,” then they respond to us by paraphrasing Béla Lugosi as the count in Tod Browning’s Dracula: “My blood now flows through your veins.”
Yet for how crucial blood is to our existence, few of us actually enjoy the sight of blood. We often turn away from it when it intrudes upon our lives. And in horror films, blood intrudes often—it leaks, it drips, it spurts, it splatters. The only thing in a horror film that runs more than victims is their blood. Most of us watch against our better judgment, through our fingers, faces half-turned away. Blood makes us cringe, yet we crave it. We are often disappointed by a bloodless horror film. We go home hungry. We are vampires—some of us more reluctantly so than others—sustained by filmic bloodletting.
Our relationship with theatrical blood has shifted over the last century. Some form of stage blood has existed ever since actors first took to the stage to perform. But in 1897, with the opening of the famous French Grand Guignol theater in Paris, stage blood began to be taken more seriously as an important part of the theatrical experience. Grand Guignol specialized in graphic horror shows, so they needed quality stage blood, as blood was perhaps the most important character to continuously appear on the Grand Guignol stage. The Grand Guignol blood recipe, though a secret concoction, is generally believed to have been a mix of glycerine (an odorless, sweet liquid with a syrupy consistency) and carmine (a bright red pigment obtained by boiling certain scale insects, such as the cochineal, in an ammonia or sodium carbonate solution). It is said that Charles Nonon, the theater’s last director in the 1960s, personally mixed nine different shades of blood daily.
The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 kept most representations of blood off the American screen for much of the first half of the 20th century. When there was a bit of blood, black-and-white films often used chocolate syrup. Alfred Hitchcock used this in his 1960 horror masterpiece Psycho, utilizing the new plastic squeeze bottle to squirt Bosco brand syrup to create splatters. Bosco chocolate syrup was also used later in the decade in George A. Romero’s iconic Night of the Living Dead. As color films grew in popularity, from the 30s to the 60s, a need for some Grand Guignol-style red stage blood became apparent. The Hammer horror films of the late 50s and early 60s became some of the first color films to really specialize in over-the-top gore. They used a stage blood created by retired pharmacist John Tynegate, who named the mixture after a street in London: Kensington Gore. Later, in the 70s, make-up artist Dick Smith developed what became the standard recipe for Hollywood blood, which uses corn syrup as its base, while working on films like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.
Over the years, our ability to make fake blood seem more and more realistic has only grown, but realistic stage blood is not always what a director might want. Not all movies call for the same blood mixture, so the texture, viscosity, and hue of stage blood has become multiform. The blood that spurts from the neck of a Yakuza boss after his decapitation in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill is different from the blood that drips from Anton Chigurh’s boot in the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men which is different from the blood that erupts from Glen Lantz’s bed in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street which is different from the blood that soaks Dario Argento’s Suspiria in deep red.
There’s a classic Hollywood anecdote about Martin Scorsese facing a potential X rating for his film Taxi Driver because of the bloody finale. The stage blood in the scene was some of the most lifelike ever used up until that point. Because of this, the MPAA threatened an X rating, so Scorsese offered to desaturate the color in that final sanguine showdown. The MPAA approved, giving him the R rating he needed to satisfy the studio. But Scorsese got the last laugh—he contends that the scene is even more disconcerting with the muted palette.
In Jean-Luc Godard’s film Pierrot Le Fou, the director went in the opposite direction, with cartoonishly bright red stage blood—which, in its own way, discomfits as much if not more than some of the more realistic stage bloods we see in other films. A critic for Cahiers du Cinéma asked Godard why there was so much blood in Pierrot Le Fou, and the director famously responded, “Not blood, red.” While technically true that what we see in the film is red rather than blood, this misses the point entirely. It’s not the color red that makes us cringe—for we cringe at the chocolate syrup squirted in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, yet we don’t cringe at falling leaves, regardless of their crimson color. Stop signs, firetrucks, and apples don’t rub us the wrong way; neither do Dorothy’s ruby red slippers in Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz. It’s the bloodiness of the blood—the fact that we think of the substance on screen as blood, even while we know it is not—that disconcerts us. It’s the release of something meant to be private and internal into the external shared space, the acknowledgment of something seen that should have remained concealed.
The color and consistency of the stage blood isn’t all that important; what’s important is the affect it produces in the viewer—the texture we feel inside, rather than the texture of the stage blood itself. It doesn’t matter if the blood is realistic or stylized, if it’s in black-and-white or Technicolor, if it’s made of chocolate syrup, tomato ketchup, or red paint; what matters is that the ritual continues. We want the blood’s occulted reality to intrude while we eat our popcorn from the seeming safety of our theater seat. We need the vicarious bloodletting. We crave cinematic bloodshed.
“They will say that I have shed innocent blood,” the titular villain of Bernard Rose’s Candyman admits, “What’s blood for if not for shedding?”