The final scene of “It Hurts Me Too”, the third episode of True Blood’s third season, depicts some of the most horrific violence I have ever seen on screen. In the scene, Bill, the vampire antihero played by Stephen Moyer, has been arguing with Lorena, played by Mariana Klaveno, who is his ‘sire’—the vampire who made him a vampire. Lorena has manipulated Bill in an attempt to rekindle their romantic relationship, in part by attempting to have Bill’s current girlfriend killed.
After Bill tells Lorena that he will never love her, the two kiss before Bill pushes Lorena down onto his bed and begins to penetrate her. Bill is on top, Lorena is on her back. The aggression and intensity of the sex builds until Bill grabs Lorena’s head, twisting it around 180 degrees. He does this slowly and deliberately, and accompanying a shot which visually leaves nothing to the imagination is the sound of the bones in Lorena’s neck snapping. Next, a long shot shows Bill continuing while Lorena’s head is twisted completely around, facing the floor. The next shot is from below her, of her face. Apparently still alive, blood bubbles up out of her mouth as she says: “I still love you.” Bill keeps at it until the credits roll.
When I first watched the episode I wasn’t sure how to react. Once I had dealt with the initial shock of viewing the scene I began to realise that for me, the show had crossed a line. I was not OK with what I had seen. Curious to know whether others might have reacted in the same way, I looked online. The internet was indeed buzzing with comments about the episode, most agreeing that the scene was shocking and leaving it at that. There were exceptions—one reviewer wrote that she would not continue to watch True Blood—but for the most part discussion seemed to indicate that my reaction was particularly extreme. But if I say I thought the scene crossed a line, what does that mean? What is the ‘line’? Can we say that any depiction of violence more graphic than a given standard is somehow unacceptable?
The scene in True Blood is certainly not the only violence that I have ever found disturbing, so here I feel it necessary to clarify that beyond finding the scene disturbing, I found it unacceptable. It made me angry. I have never thought of myself as having a low tolerance for violence—there are scenes in films for example that are perhaps ‘more’ violent that I haven’t had a problem with. Therefore, it seems necessary to explore the idea that problematic depictions of violence in popular culture are a function of more than simply the level of the violence depicted. The question that True Blood ultimately raises is: why is some violence OK and some not? A good place to start finding an answer is with other depictions of violence in popular culture.
Gus van Sant’s film Elephant tends to provoke strong reactions. The film depicts a massacre carried out by two students at a fictional American high school. Any film dealing with the topic of high school shootings is bound to be upsetting; however, the disturbing nature of Elephant’s violence is compounded by the film’s structure and tone. The first half of the film plays like a naturalistic high school drama, with long, unmoving camera shots and without nondiegetic music. When the shooting begins around halfway through, the tone of the film doesn’t change at all—the violence is contextualised within the pre-established naturalism of the first half of the film. The film’s structure changes our perception of its violence—it is completely unexpected and therefore more shocking. Tonally, the film’s refusal to submit to the kind of quick camera movements and dramatic music that we often associate with violence or action in film renders the violence more upsetting, as it is taking place in a world which continues to feel realistic.
In Elephant, the violence itself is not particularly graphic. We see gunshots and blood, but we certainly don’t get the level of gore that adorns a David Cronenberg film. So then while it may be a factor, the extent to which a depiction of violence is graphic is not the only thing which determines how disturbing it is.
Although I found Elephant very upsetting, I believe, however, that it is an incredibly intelligent film and its violence is used to great effect. It confronts the audience in a way that makes it impossible not to talk about the film, and interrogates the often simplistic moral discourse that circulates in the media after events such as high school shootings. The film’s violence demands that we examine not just the potential causes of these events, but the question of who benefits from the search for a singular cause. This depiction of violence is political—I find it difficult to make the same argument for True Blood.
So we are left with the proposition that True Blood’s violence is shocking for the sake of being shocking. I do not think this is in itself illegitimate. Horror is an entire genre that seeks to shock us, and I count some horror films among my favourite films of all time. One example is the Australian horror film Wolf Creek, which I find both fantastic and completely terrifying. The film follows three backpackers who end up stranded in the middle of the Australian outback. They are aided by a hunter who lives alone in the area, but soon reveals himself to be a psychopath. Despite being widely considered one of the scariest films in recent years, most of the film is not particularly graphic in its violence. There are exceptions—a few moments are sickening—but the film’s success lies in making the violence unexpected.
Employing a similar device to Elephant, the first section of Wolf Creek is largely violence-free, and feels more like a road movie than horror. When the violence does come it is horrifying because it seems so at odds with the rest of the film. Of course, while Elephant is making a political statement, Wolf Creek simply wants to scare the pants off us, which it does. Again, it is important to separate the question of whether or not violence is graphic or shocking from whether or not it is acceptable, and I would argue that the film’s violence is not gratuitous beyond its dramatic function—it is there to scare us rather than disgust us.
Films like the hugely popular Saw and Hostel series are a different matter, and I can’t say that I’m a fan. Both series involve characters being put through situations of horribly graphic violence, the narrative justifications for which are so inane as to be hardly worth mentioning. This is violence to be experienced as violence, and perhaps something akin to pornography in that sense. While I find these films unwatchable I would not argue against their existence. They are advertised as what they are. We know what we’re getting ourselves in for when we sit down to watch them.
Perhaps the same could be said for True Blood. It is a horror series after all, and there is certainly precedent in the show for graphic violence—for example, every time a vampire dies in the show they vomit blood for a while and then explode, leaving behind a mess of viscera. It’s disgusting. Where in the case of Saw and Hostel this gets a little murkier is when the violence of these films shifts from simply being gratuitous to being gratuitous and misogynist.
Hostel: Part II is particularly illustrative. The victims of the film’s violence are almost exclusively women, and the torture scenes—one of which is banned in a number of countries—have disturbingly sexual overtones. While no actual rape is depicted, the sexualised nature of this violence renders the fact almost irrelevant—we are watching men commit acts of sexual violence against women. Sexual violence committed by men against women happens in the world. It is a problem, and its depiction as a means to shock us for the sake of cheap thrills is part of that problem. In the absence of a political argument for Hostel: Part II, I would argue that even its status as a horror film does not defend its use of this kind of violence. For me the film, like True Blood, crosses a line.
In order to thoroughly interrogate depictions of violence in popular culture we must examine not just how graphic the violence is and its intended effect, but its context in both the world of the narrative and the world we live in. Misogynistic violence is certainly not the only violence which is problematic in this sense—the same argument could be made for any violence which is used as a tool of vilification against marginalised groups, be they racial minorities, sexual minorities, religious minorities or others.