The Art of “Unsee”-ing

Mark West, horror writer and a regular commenter here (as well as the contributor of the very first guest-blog on these pages), posted the following some time ago on his own blog, Strange Tales. I thought it appropriate in light of the last two blogs I’ve written (Why Horror? & Why Cheap isn’t so Cheerful…). As usual, I would like to hear from other people on this topic, so please leave your comments!!

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I write horror, so I obviously enjoy the genre and I take a lot of enjoyment from it as a consumer – reading and films and some glorious soundtracks – and, in general, I don’t like censorship. I understand its importance, of course, because I have a little boy who’s almost five and very inquisitive and would love to read Daddy’s Fangoria. He knows about horror, because I’ve told him things that I’ve read and seen in a way that he might understand, but he’s never watched anything scary nor have I read anything particularly scary. He needs to be protected, but I’m an adult and I don’t want other adults telling me what I should and shouldn’t watch. So I have a little dilemma on that area.

I tend to self-censor, based on the concept that you can’t “unsee” something. I love horror in all its form – having said that, I’m not a big fan of the ‘torture-porn’ sub-genre, because I think it’s lazy and nasty to no purpose and Eli Roth is a rubbish film-maker – but I’m also very aware that it’s not real. Stephen King once wrote about the zipper on the monsters back and though we don’t get that so much anymore, I can tell latex and most people can spot CGI without too much trouble at all. Horror is about taking you away – certainly, it points you at things you find uncomfortable and, especially with books, prods at it until either you or the character breaks – and in films, it’s make-believe. It can scare you, often it can terrify you, a lot of the time it’ll make you groan with its ineptness but at the end of the day, the actors washed themselves off, Rick Baker packed away his make-up bag and everyone went home.

“Unsee”-ing is much harder if what you’re watching is actually happening and to real people. When I was at school, I loved history in the 5th year because it was ‘modern’ and focussed from about 1939 onwards. I vividly remember one Spring afternoon when sat in the little AV theatre at Montsaye and watched Stevens’ colour footage of the liberation of Auschwitz and I can still see the bulldozer and its terrible load. For VietNam, the images of Kim Phuc running and the Vietnamese man being executed are still lodged there, as is the footage of the burning monks (which makes the Rage Against The Machine album difficult for me to look at ). I feel uncomfortable watching this stuff because – and I must stress, our history teacher wasn’t trying to entertain us – it’s real people, whose lives are threatened or irrevocably altered or ended by the act I’m watching.

Later, two incidents I saw on the news stuck with me too. I was watching the BBC 9 o’clock news with the folks and there was a report from South Africa which, at the time, was still heavily in the grip of apartheid. The footage was in a football stadium and showed a fat black man, wearing a white shirt, running from one side to the other (ie, towards the camera). As he ran, people stepped in his way and he tried to run around them and I assumed they were punching him, but as he got closer to the camera, I noticed his shirt was changing colour. And that the men who were punching him had knives in their hands.

Later still (in 1988), my Mum & I were watching the lunchtime news and saw live the awful moment when those SAS officers drove into the path of a Republican funeral. I remember watching the crowd swarm around their car and the taxi that blocked their escape route, before the feed died and I was able to process how awful it would be to be in that situation. Real people, real problems, with literally life-and-death decisions to be made.

Those things weren’t entertainment, dreamed up and written or filmed for my enjoyment, they were real-life. And I can’t unsee them (and some of them have been in my head for more than a quarter of a century).

What’s prompted this was a discussion I had on Facebook with my friends Gary McMahon and Chris Teague. There’s a new film about called “A Serbian Film” and if you don’t like the idea or concept of extreme cinema, you have already read too much and I would advise you against further investigations. I first heard about this film a couple of months ago and as someone who believes that art should push against the envelope, I read up on the story – the précis and some early reviews – and I’ve decided it’s not for me. There’s one particular sequence that, as a father, I don’t think I could ever tolerate and it’s the inability to “unsee” that pushes me to make that decision – I can’t have that kind of imagery on my mind for the next 25 plus years. Chris is not going to watch it, but Gary is still torn, though he knows that in doing so, he might inflict something awful upon himself.

The ironic thing is, for all our discussion and my comments about censorship above, I can’t see the film getting any kind of major release – there aren’t too many companies who’d be willing to touch something that extreme and those that would don’t have the logistics to get it out to a wide audience. Do I think it should have been made? I’m not sure of the motives, but it certainly doesn’t read as exploitation for the sake of it so yes, if they’re making a point, they shouldn’t be stopped. But will I ever watch it? No. What I can see in my mind from what I’ve read is bad enough, I don’t want to be able to see the images.

So can you watch things that you know will frighten you to the core, even knowing that you’ll never be able to “unsee” them?

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What Mark is saying here ties in neatly to the central thesis of Thursday’s blog – the idea that humanity itself is far crueller and more violent than any “make-believe” story or film could ever be. Plus, we have the capacity, as thinking adults, to be able to decide for ourselves what it is we watch or read, and how far along the road we want to travel. Like Mark, I have a problem with censorship (and also recognise that it’s a double-edged sword), and that I firmly believe in the right of every individual to determine for themselves whether they want to watch a particularly violent film, or choose instead to something completely innocuous. No-one should dictate what it’s ‘safe’ to read or see to anybody, bearing in mind, of course, Mark’s very pertinent remarks about protecting children. The latter is a very essential responsibility. It’s very likely, however, that this debate will stretch on and on, and will never find a satisfastory resolution.

Many thanks to Mark for permission to reproduce this!!

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5 Responses to “The Art of “Unsee”-ing”

  1. Paul Bradshaw Says:

    I don’t think it’s only about protecting children but about protecting the vulnerable also.

  2. Yes, indeed…. I agree with you, Paul, and it’s something I should have mentioned when I wrote this….

  3. One night, eight years ago, while I was in the middle of a bad episode of depression, I had, for some reason, decided that I should expose myself to as much horrific imagery as possible. I did so, for eight straight hours. I watched executions, murders, killings of criminals by police, and combat deaths. If it was homocide and recorded, I watched it.

    I felt numb for the whole next week.

    I can still hear that young Russian man that was beheaded. It lives in my nightmares.

    Why I did this, I really don’t know…

  4. Don Booch Says:

    I had a point to my last post, but it was drowned out by the emotion.

    The point was tnat I agreed from the standpoint of having seen things I wish I could unsee, however, I think that personal experience, combined with taste, and creativity, makes for a good read.

    I am a sci-fi writer, primarily, and I like to paint my scenarios with harsh reality, but, I use discretion when I deal with macabre elements.

  5. I think that boundaries should be pushed, we would not have the science or technology that we have today were it not for people doing exactly that. But it needs clear explanation. I mean you pick up a book called ‘the magic toyshop’ – if you have never heard of the author, or don’t ready the synopsis you may dismiss it as a childrens book … god forbid.

    Personally, I am a big girl, I could not watch the video of Steve Irwins death, nor could I watch Sadam’s final moments. But then I understand why it was important for the latter to be recorded. I am not living on mars.

    I watch the news and still wonder that they are showing dead bodies (think Haiti coverage) during breakfast transmission…. a few years ago this would not have happened but its okay. I can say that I don’t think I have read anything that has shocked me because its new and novel. Because the news is so much more explicit.. or am I older and ‘get it’ ? The only reason I am struggling to finish a book at the moment is that it graphically protrays dog fighting in the american south and animal cruelty really causes me pain.

    There are some things that you can’t unsee.. or unhear…. stuck in teh middle playing in Res Dogs… the music and image entwined.. or a german WW2 propaganda movie… very harrowing and thank god not widly available which I viewed during my uni course… there was a song my mother used to sing that will never, ever be just something to remind me of childhood.

    But we can’t just cover ourselves in cotton wool and lock the front door. Although locking doors is a good idea. We have to use the grey matter, seperate what is likely, and what is extreme and censor ourselves!

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