On April 5, 2013, the remake of Evil Dead was released in theatres, and it became the top-grossing feature that weekend. Devin Faraci, writer and editor for Badass Digest, wrote the following statement in his review for the remake:
… this is certainly one of the most relentlessly bloody major releases ever… It feels like ‘Walking Dead’ fallout; in a world where zombies munch guts in prime time, how does a ‘transgressive’ horror film keep up? The answer is to pump up the Karo syrup, and it seems as though the MPAA is willing to accept that our culture has come to this gore-soaked point.
His observance is accurate by stating we are now a culture that accepts this level of shock and awe, but inaccurately credits the horror series “The Walking Dead” as being responsible for pushing the envelope to a point where Evil Dead had to take it to the next level. In fact, both are simply key steps in the evolution of modern art, especially cinema. This has been in the works for some time.
Artists have always looked for ways to push envelope of their craft, and filmmakers are no different. But pushing the envelope only worked when audiences were ready to be pushed. The “obstinate audience” theory describes an audience as an active participant in media consumption, wherein they select which messages to pay attention to; if they don’t like what they see, they don’t participate. This was the case for the longest time, where we, the mass audiences, would not overly consume media that would test our own limits of gratification, and thus not be desensitized by it.
That is not to say that there have not been attempts to test those limits. There have been many. Artists have always found ways to shock their audience, whether they are showing a urinal in an art gallery or performing simulated oral sex as part of a concert. Though there are some attempts of performing such acts for mass consumption, most often these shocking acts were more transgressive; they were not interested in building an audience, but instead making a statement. The shock was a mere side effect to the art, and the majority of audiences were not ready for such a big jolt in our own personal limits, because we had not had an experience that would prepare us for it.
As we have become a more media sensitive society, we find ourselves having more instant access to media that would constantly push our limits of gratification, but not forcing it to levels of personal anguish. Each time those limits were reached, our need for instant gratification forced us to push the limits further. This seed was planted into our collective subconscious, only needing a significant collective experience which would break our own personal boundaries of what we limit our desired consumption to. We were a society that could only handle so much, and though there was a certain gratification in pushing our own limits, we were collectively not ready for more. It all changed when that collective experience became the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
The images of planes crashing into office towers and workers jumping to their deaths were true images of horror, and they were genuinely shocking. The sheer volume and instant accessibility of those images multiplied the jolt, and because they were so accessible it created a collective shocking experience of global proportions; we found that though we may not have physically been in New York at the time, we felt as though we experienced the attack first hand.
It was the one singular event that pushed our own personal limits of shock and gratification to a new level, whether we wanted it or not. We could suddenly handle more shock and horror, and it did not take long for film audiences to want more.
Within a few short years, we were seeing drastic changes in entertainment that tested our limits. A police procedural with extreme close ups of dead bodies and open wounds became the top show on television (“CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”). New French extremity films (Haute tension, Irréversible) and Asian extreme films (Oldboy, Ichi the Killer) were suddenly finding audiences in North America, which prompted North American filmmakers to up the ante in their cinematic violence (Kill Bill, Sin City, The Passion of the Christ). Television shows that were particularly depraved became more popular (“Family Guy”), and of course, we began to see these levels of depravity in cinema (Cabin Fever, House of 1000 Corpses, The Hills Have Eyes, Team America: World Police, The Brown Bunny). Lest we forget the rise of torture horror after the release of Saw, or the release of such tasteless features as The Human Centipede or A Serbian Film.
As each film and each television show pushed the envelope, it would escalate into new films and shows pushing the envelope further, just to capture the interest of mass audiences. This is the foundation of what I call Aghastist Art, or in this case Aghastist Entertainment: art intended to shock for mass consumption.
As mentioned before, art that shocked was not the primary intent, merely a side effect, but in Aghastist Art the shock IS the art, and more importantly it is the selling point. We wanted more from our entertainment — we wanted instant gratification — and the only way producers and content providers could continue to build an audience was to give us exactly what we wanted. And when they gave us more, the only way others could compete was to go beyond that. It is escalation and entertainment at its finest and most shameless.
So it should be no surprise that Evil Dead was the top-grossing feature in its opening weekend. Studios have been looking for ways to fill theatre seats with the horror genre, a notoriously tough genre to produce and to make pleasing to all audiences. When you have an increase of blood, gore and intensity appearing not only in horror films, but even comedies and dramas, not to mention in popular television series, and you have a mass audience that has been shocked to their limits multiple times, it is only logical that the producers had to raise the bar if they wanted to capture the interest of mass audiences.
“The Walking Dead”, probably the bloodiest show ever on television, became the most watched show in its time slot and did raise that bar for Evil Dead, but that bar was raised by many other features and televisions shows prior. “The Walking Dead” was simply a step in Aghastist Cinema, as is Evil Dead. What comes after that might be genuinely shocking.
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