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[Editor's Note: This essay is part one of two. Read part two here.]

Two of the most important aspects of any Horror genre-film for dedicated fans (as well as most other people, even if they don't realize it) are what we call the Gross-Out and Creep-Out Factors. Most of us see Horror-related movies because they give us a visual narrative which exposes us to abjection and terror of various kinds. Those of us who care about plots, characters, interesting stories, and good special effects are probably a little more picky than others, but what unites all of us who like Horror films is the titillation offered by a film's capacity to frighten us and gross us out.

We offer a public service for fans of the Horror genre—we've devised scales to evaluate both the level of creepiness and gross-out in films. It is a kind of short hand, devised so that we may all better measure films in terms of their ability to fulfill the promises of the genre. The creation of this scale grows out of our own frustration with Hollywood's penchant for misleading advertising campaigns. The motivation of people in marketing departments of movie companies is to get you into the theater, not to faithfully represent the text or genre of the film in question (it certainly isn't about quality, but that is another matter entirely). Movie reviewers aren't much help on this score, either; their job is to evaluate quality, not let you know if a film can fulfill the genre-specific expectations of a fan base. The scale we offer here (and the one we offer in our forthcoming article on the Creep-Out Factor), is a rough, rule of thumb approach which can help fans cut through the hype. Think of all the money and time you'll save by sacrificing someone in your social circle to see a film you're unsure you want to see. We can hear it now: "Yeah, it was gross, maybe a 7 or 8 on the Gross-Out Scale. I mean, it wasn't a 10—it wasn't Land of the Dead gross or anything."

That said, we think it important to point out that we don't take sides on which factor is more important to the genre. Certainly, some movies will tilt more in the direction of gross-out, some will score higher on creepiness; our task is to give scales for evaluation, not to suggest that a Horror film should do more of one or the other. (Be honest—don't you think a good Horror movie accomplishes both? Do you only like Linda Blair's projectile vommiting scene in the original Exorcist film because it's a total gross-out, or do you like it in conjunction with the fact that it probably scared the shit out of you?) This particular article's focus is on calculating the Gross-Out Scale, to be followed soon by our piece dedicated to explaining the Creep-Out Scale.

The Realness Factor

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Before discussing how the Gross-Out Scale works, we must first offer a few words on the Realness Factor, or the level of believability a film gives us. Actually, it's not so much about believability as it is about exceeding the concept of reality altogether. We have in mind here something akin to the Baudrillardean notions of hyperreality (something which simulates the real and goes a step beyond it—"more real than real," things which amplify extant realities, such as humans with super powers), or virtuality (something completely simulated, a new kind of reality which can rival the already-real and replace it—in this genre, one might think of vampire clones passing as humans). Believability is the bare minimum here; a Horror film's capacity to exceed normality is a strong motivating factor for watching it. If a Horror film fails to gross you out or scare you because you aren't seduced by its presentation, why watch it? The Realness Factor is simple: the gross-out or the creep-out must be able to pass as believable in the context of the narrative, it should have some physical, emotional, or psychological affect on the viewer, and it should attempt a step beyond the bounds of everyday reality. If the special effects aren't that special, or the acting is more repulsive than the various gross-outs in the film, it fails on Realness. In fact, we would argue that failure on Realness can detract from a movie's overall level of creepiness or gross-out. For example, if your monsters are a bit muppetty or totally CGI and don't look good in certain scenes, how do you expect to scare us? Or if your guts look too rubbery or CGI, how do you expect to activate our gag reflexes? Even contemporary camp-Horror films try to offer credible gross-outs and creep-outs (just look at the Scream films or Shaun of the Dead), so we have the right to expect that all those working in the genre maintain a minimum standard of believability, and that those who are trying to excel push us just past our accepted notions of the real.

Gross-Out Factors

To be certain, everyone evaluates what grosses them out individually. Key to judging a good gross-out is assessing whether or not it is able to evoke a certain kind of revulsion which is tied to exposure to abjection. Academic literature is replete with those who theorize abjection in various ways (two variations being the thought of Georges Bataille and Julia Kristeva). In short, our scale allows you put a number on the unease (or dis-ease) you experience when watching a film which presents you with that which cannot be reconciled to life. Below we describe it in some of its particulars; the main point being that abjection is the negative side of sublimity, that which must be excluded and avoided for the safety of the individual body/consciousness. What we hope to accomplish here is to provide a scale that most connoisseurs of the Horror genre find relevant to the way they understand filmic representations of abjection. To that end, we have developed a scale that goes from -10 to 10 on what qualifies as a gross-out on both micro and macro levels (maybe we'd say a particular film, such as The Howling, has an overall Gross-Out factor of 2, but because of the particularly revolting werewolf changeover scene, the film rates a 5). In the end, a film's rating on the Gross-Out scale is determined by both quality and quantity.

Before giving a breakdown of where certain films fall on the Gross-Out scale, we think it's a good idea to define what factors must be taken into consideration when assigning an overall number. There are many ways to divide this up, but it all boils down to the body (all puns and obvious subtexts aside, please). Let's face it, bodies can be quite gross. Taken to certain special-effects extremes, even Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts can be absolutely revolting when reduced to their individual severed parts. So, we'd say that bodies have at least four distinct Gross-Out zones that can be used to evaluate where a film fits on our scale.

First, guts. No matter how you slice it, guts are always gross (and, of course, the higher the Realness Factor, the more repulsive the overall effect will be), whether attached to a body or not, showing them at all has potential for a high number on the scale. Second is blood. We all have to come to grips with it at some point, and in and of itself it may not seem that disgusting, but when you've got a significant portion of someone else's on your clothes or when you've slipped in a pool of it or you see it splattered on a wall, it's got a pretty high Gross-Out factor. Third, bodily fluids (especially those which are excreted). Though certainly anything that comes out of your genitals or ass has a pretty high Gross-Out factor, even worse (probably the most revolting of all) is puke. Whereas we all have to reconcile ourselves to the former category because it's something we must contend with in our daily lives, nobody wants to deal with vomit. And fourth, probably the most disconcerting category, are body parts (specifically, outer parts—though it rates higher on the Gross-Out scale if blood/inner parts are attached). This category is probably the grossest, because it includes deformations of the skin (sores, lesions, bodily infestations), severed heads, limbs, torsos, digits, and skin by itself.

As sickening as the divisible human body is by itself, it can be so much worse. A good gross-out usually involves either a person/creature who is odd and/or disgusting or a revolting act [1] or both. On the gross person/creature side, we would argue that there are at least five types: ugly people, vile animals, people who do gross things, aliens, and zombies. With ugly people we don't mean simply unattractive (beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that), we are talking about individuals with at least two of the following qualities: bad teeth (oddly spaced, crooked, missing, or rotten are the best examples); repulsive skin situations (excessive or extremely large pimples, scales, pock marks, huge moles—especially those with hair, wild deformations, etc.); or people who are unkempt, unclean, or incontinent. In the vile animals category, we include all vermin (especially roaches and rodents), deformed animals, and creatures who look like they are either entirely, or at least part, monster. People who do gross things has a wide application. In this classification, we include people who are somehow cannibalistic—all flesh eaters, gut gobblers, and blood suckers are included. Also, people who murder others for sport, such as serial killers, are included. As a rule, aliens don't have to be gross; the SF genre is replete with examples of friendly, cuddly, intelligent, and even sexy extraterrestrials. We're talking about mean-spirited creatures either met in space or who come here to earth who are usually (but not always) gross looking, and who often see humans (or parts of us) as a food source. Finally, there are zombies. Some of you may disagree with us, but we would argue that these are the grossest creatures of all—they are dead and rotting; they are always ugly looking; they often feed on human brains—and they don't mind cracking a skull like nut to get at the tasty goodness inside; and you just know by looking at them that they have a stench fit for chemical warfare.

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As to revolting acts, we argue that there are at least four categories: killing/torture/maiming, infestations/infections, eating parts of or entire humans and/or other animals, and spewing forth disgusting fluids. In the Horror genre, one finds examples of those who commit these acts in combination with others, but one also finds obsessives dedicated to honing one particular skill. For example, monsters/monstery people, such as the otherworldly ones found in the films Predator or Alien, [2] and the more terrestrial-based varieties such as zombies and werewolves, [3] often kill for sustenance (or in the case of Predator, for sport), but they don't always eat the whole body (as we all know, zombies often have a predilection for brains, but werewolves seem less particular). Supernatural beings, such as the Devil, various demons, vampires, pissed-off ghosts, mummies, Freddy, and Jason are not always concerned with killing humans for food, but are rather more concerned with possession of souls, world domination, revenge, and murdering/torturing/maiming for the fun of it (except vampires, of course, who kill for both food and sport). Viruses and vermin [4] kill out of hunger, but they also may find the human body a good host, and thus are fond of causing infestations and infections. And there are those wackos (serial killers and torturers such as in the Scream films, Se7en, and of course Michael Myers), folks who see the human body as a site for their own form of performance art. In short, one has the right to expect slashings, blood sucking, stabbings, beheadings, gut gobbling, flesh eating/tearing, acid blood/saliva, rotting/diseased flesh, and splatterings of all kinds in order to have a first rate gross-out.

Horror genre filmmakers are usually quite inventive about how their various creatures deliver the aforementioned gross-outs. We divide this into two categories: the preter/supernatural kind and tools-of-the-trade variety. As to the former, one finds fangs, claws, supernatural strength, and various harmful fluids. In the latter case, one sees an entire cornucopia of destructive instruments: knives (especially butcher knives, Michael Myers's favorite toys), machetes, knife-hands (as one sees with Freddy), axes, saws (especially chainsaws—just ask Leatherface), meathooks, hammers, and swords, but also shovels, medical equipment, scissors, and even garbage disposals. Usually, anything sharp or blunt and metal-based can bring a pretty good gross-out.

In conjunction with these implements of gross-out, are the sounds which accompany them. On this score, we have in mind bone crushing or smashing; blood splattering or sucking; gut spillage, gobbling, nibbling, or sucking; all flesh ripping, tearing, or slicing sounds; munching, crunching, or chomping on bones or guts; that awful squishy skin removal sound; and any sound which accompanies the release of bodily fluids (intentional or unintentional). As with all other things on the Gross-Out scale, the more over-the-top the sound, the more disgusting the final effect will be.

In addition to the things that help accomplish a good gross-out, are things which can detract from it. As we have already mentioned, failing on Realness can spoil a good gross-out. Though bad acting is one of the largest contributing factors to failing on Realness, it can sometimes enhance the viewers' enjoyment level—if someone is not giving a good performance or if you find the individual actor unlikable for some reason, you might actually relish watching the person die in a hideous way, as long as the person can present terror effectively (two of our favorites: Jerry O'Connell dying crucifixion-style in Scream 2, and the stabbing death of Jenny McCarthy in Scream 3). Poor production values, such as bad special effects and crappy cinematography, can really ruin a Horror film, but especially shoddy editing can make a film unwatchable (if you cut away from the gross-out too soon or scenes don't follow logically, you get negative points on the scale). Probably the worst way filmmakers can wreck the viewers' investment in a gross-out is to present it in the context of sadism so obvious that one feels like one is watching a snuff film. We expect Horror genre filmmakers to be clever in the ways they gross us out, so giving us exactly what we expect can make us avoid your movie—after all, a large part of the power of abjection derives from its ability to surprise and disturb you.

Applying the Gross-Out Scale

Since we are describing an art, not a science, we do not pretend to be wholly objective or perfectly consistent in the application of our rules. Most chefs can bake cookies, but not every recipe will suit every palate. We endeavor to be as judicious as possible, but we realize that our schema will not please everyone. That said, what follows are our subjective evaluations of where certain films fit on the Gross-Out Scale:

Every set of integers has its apex on the positive side. In this case, 10 is the total gross-out. It represents the best of the best. Though the small group of films able to rate this high may change membership over time (and we admit our small list is not exhaustive), we put forth six films which exemplify a maximum gross-out. These movies get a 10 because they are well-made films overall, have high quality gross-outs and a sufficient number of them, score high on Realness, and present good special effects (though some have better acting and production values than others). They are: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Land of the Dead (see a pattern here?), Alien, Hellraiser, and what we would argue is the grossest film of all, Se7en (this film gets extra points for being able to gross you out by only showing you the cardboard box which contains Gwyneth Paltrow's severed head—hey, sometimes what you don't see is grosser than what you do see).

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High on the scale but not deserving of a 10, what we call super gross-outs, are those which fall in the area of 8 and 9. They usually have some great gross-outs, but maybe they don't have a sufficient number of them, some of the situations don't really work or occasionally look silly (we know lots of people worship at the altar of CGI these days, but it's no substitute for good make-up and well-timed cut-aways), are not edited as well as other films (maybe they cut away from the gross-out before you get a chance to see enough of it, or they linger too long), or have other distracting features which compromise your investment in the gross-outs. Among the 9s, we include: the first Friday the 13th film, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, Ghost Ship, 13 Ghosts, Shaun of the Dead, Cabin Fever, and the Final Destination films. Good examples of 8 are The Exorcist (for those crucifix and barf scenes), Resident Evil (some good gross-outs, but the camera often cuts away from the action too quickly), Scream 2 (it has a lot of gross-outs, but it's a sequel, so we saw most of it in the first one—probably this one gets an 8.5 just because they go that extra mile to show you more), Child's Play/Bride of Chucky and the first Jeepers Creepers film (like the Final Destination films, they get extra points for being extremely inventive) and Silence of the Lambs (the emphasis in the Hannibal Lecter films is on the creep-out—they give some good gross-outs, but they are secondary functions of the films' overall purpose).

Rating in the 5 to 7 range, which we call good gross-outs, are films that either have a few really good scenes, or many that are good, but don't approach the greatness seen in the aforementioned movies. Carrie is a prime example of a mid-range gross-out: a couple of scenes which are pretty disgusting (pig's blood, crushing Betty Buckley against the wall), but since the film's emphasis is on the creepy side of Horror, the gross-outs are incidental. Other examples include Poltergeist, a film which could have been truly gross but was hampered by some silly-looking scenes (example: the scene where the guy is supposed to think he's tearing his face off but really looks like he's removing the work of a bad ghost make-up artist who glued a bunch of latex to his face as a mean joke); Amityville Horror, which simply wasn't gross enough; and House of Wax, which despite a few good gross-outs (particularly Paris Hilton getting stabbed in head), was too predictable and stupid to rate above a 5.

There is also a wide range of films which are either simply bad or that make sincere attempts at good gross-outs, but fail for whatever reason. These movies we place in the 1 to 4 category, bad to mediocre gross-outs, and they comprise most of the straight-to-video releases, things one finds on cable stations after 10:00 pm, and theatrically-released flops you feel actually robbed you of your admission price. Queen of the Damned, for example.

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Our scale does encompass zero and negative integers. Some things can be so boring as to turn you off of a gross-out, or can be such bad films as to move into negative numbers. As to zero, one finds such silly films as Exorcist II and Alien 3. Rounding out some of the negative numbers, one finds such bad examples as Halloween 3, Friday the 13th: Jason Takes Manhattan, Freddy vs. Jason, and Jaws 3 and Jaws 4. Perhaps the worst film ever to come out of the Horror genre (and it is only for ironic reasons that this cinematic trash finds itself included here at all), a movie we give our lowest rating of -10 on the Gross-Out scale, is Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Why is it here? It deals with supernatural situations, the Devil and his minions are actual characters, and it attempts to gross you out, if only to get you to agree with Mel Gibson's bizarre cosmology. Aside from the anti-semitism, bad acting, terrible accents, ridiculous plot lines, and the legion other reasons to dislike this film, there is the fact that its obvious sadism seems like some creepy Christian-themed snuff film aimed at activating your feelings of religious guilt but disallowing investment in a good gross-out. For our money, the biggest offense this film offers to the Horror genre (aside from being silly) is the fact that it attempts to rob all but the seriously sadistic among us of a good gross-out.

Some of our favorite gross-outs:

  • The scene in which the sleazy lawyer in 13 Ghosts is sliced in half by sliding glass doors.
  • The laser-slicing scene in Resident Evil, particularly the part where the team leader is cut criss-cross into much smaller pieces. The floating bodies in the sealed room are also a nice touch.
  • The death by hook and chain scene in Ghost Ship.
  • Nearly all the individual death scenes in both Final Destination films, particularly in Final Destination 2, where the teenager is smashed by a falling wall of glass and the stoner is sliced into sections by an errant segment of barbed wire fence.
  • The constant, worsening gross-out in An American Werewolf in London, wherein Griffin Dunne's slashed and torn but animated body decomposes before our eyes over the course of the film.
  • The scene in Shaun of the Dead where zombies rip the intestines out of a man while he is still alive.
  • Zombies biting the tongue out of the mouth of a living person and tearing another person's hand in half in Land of the Dead.
  • Among the best gross-out scenes on record: The proto-alien bursting from John Hurt's chest in Alien.
  • And, of course, nearly every disturbing frame of Se7en.

Conclusion

As fans of the Horror movie genre, we've got messages for both the filmmakers and the other viewers. First, the filmmakers. We actually want you to gross us out, so please take your time, spend some money, and most of all, put some thought behind what you're giving us. To the other Horror fans we would simply ask that you not encourage filmmakers to give us bad films. Look, we'll watch almost anything in this genre so we're not casting aspersions on personal taste. All we're saying is that sometimes it's best to wait and see stuff on the Sci Fi Channel instead of paying to see it in the theater.

Notes:

[1] Many things fall into this category (as will be detailed later), but for now, simply recall the killer(s) in the first Scream film—when Drew Barrymore asks him what he wants, he simply replies, "To see what your insides look like." This is a revolting suggestion, one which becomes even more disgusting later when the killer gets his way.

[2] It must be noted that the creatures in the Alien series of films are nearly as revolting as zombies—even the cruel aliens from the Predator films feel the need to contain them, as was seen in last year's Alien vs. Predator. The Alien-type space monsters constitute a quadruple gross-out: in addition to eating humans, they are an insectoid-kind of ugly, they salivate heavily and have acid blood, and they infest humans in order to reproduce. The only thing they lack is evidence of a particularly offensive odor.

[3] Depending on the film, werewolves could qualify as either monsters or as supernatural beings. If lycanthropy is framed by the movie as a disease, the werewolf is a monster, if it is posed as the result of a curse, the werewolf is a supernatural being (the same rule applies to vampires).

[4] In the Virus category, we put any bacteriological or virological element which turns good flesh bad or makes otherwise solid guts break down into a disgusting liquid form (the nasty ebola-like virus in Outbreak, the flesh-eating bacteria of Cabin Fever, or any of a number of imitators of the straight-to-video variety, for example). In the Vermin category, we place all rodents and insects. Examples would include Willard's friends and those pesky scarabs from the Mummy films.

Read part two of this essay.




Dr. Deems D. Morrione is a writer and scholar who studies political/cultural theory/philosophy and American Popular Culture; he has an article coming out in issue #63 of Cultural Critique.
Robert Morrione is an actor and writer in Southern California. They operate a website dedicated to sardonically analyzing the complexities of how Hollywood functions, hollywoodlistwatchers.com.
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