Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question comes from The A.V. Club TV Editor, Erik Adams:
What scary pop culture will you not engage with based on reputation alone?
Last summer, a friend let me borrow her Playstation VR set so I could experience the astonishing and slightly headache-inducing world of virtual reality, but I balked at trying the one game she loaned me: Resident Evil 7. When I did work myself up to trying it out, I made it as far as looking through the very first doorway before promptly taking off the visor and never returning. All of which is to say I have a hard time with video game horror, more so than film. The participatory nature of games makes everything more immediate. So I know for certain I will never play Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The game came out eight years ago and I’m no closer to giving it a try now than when it was released to an enthusiastic critical response for being so damn scary. What’s it about? I don’t know. What happens in the game that’s so terrible? Not sure, and I’ll never have an answer for you. I got spooked by the DS title Dementium and that game had pixels the size of bricks. There’s no way I’m touching anything more sophisticated.
I’ve used our “25 best horror movies since 2000” list as a go-to guide since we published it in 2015, watching most of the 25 films featured. The number one spot, though, is one I can’t bring myself to view. Mike D’Angelo wrote in the blurb that Audition “is best viewed with zero foreknowledge,” which is probably true. But when I copy edited this list, that line must have piqued my curiosity, because I definitely read a lot of plot details that have stuck with me very vividly considering this was more than two years ago and I didn’t even see these things happen, just read about then on Audition’s Wikipedia page. I won’t repeat here what I read, because maybe if you like horror films you’ll want to check this one out and, as recommended, not know all that much going in.
I’m good on Salò, Or The 120 Days Of Sodom. I ran into a friend probably a decade ago who had just seen it, and his wild-eyed response to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1973 horror film piqued my interest. I’ve always liked arty, cathartic horror, but a few Google searches of the movie, which provided just enough information about its relentless assault of torture, necrophilia, incest, depravity, scatology, and human misery, was enough to sate my curiosity. The darkness it conveys is real and earned, inspired in part by the last days of Mussolini’s regime. A lot of people with very good taste insist that it’s a classic, and right in line with a lot of things I really love. But I’m good on it. Seriously.
After reading critical analysis of the film from A.V. Club staffers past and present, I’ve opted out of seeing either version of Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs. The first half of the 2008 original actually sounds like something I’d enjoy—or rather, could handle—watching, as Lucie grapples with past trauma that may or may not have made its way into the present. And by a co-worker’s account, the 2016 remake eases up on the torture, which suggests that film’s final act might be bearable. But if I couldn’t handle the unrelenting nihilism when Martyrs debuted 10 years ago, I certainly can’t do it now. So Audition will have to remain my horror-movie threshold.
Well, we covered Salò and Martyrs, so let’s hit the trifecta: I’ve had zero interest in seeing A Serbian Film since it first arrived in 2010, at a memorable SXSW premiere where Alamo Drafthouse owner Tim League had audience members snort salt and squeeze lime in their eyes beforehand to get in the spirit. I heard about that stunt while I was actually at the fest, which naturally intrigued me, as did the regional bans, the critical admonitions, and the collective shaming the film attracted everywhere thereafter. And while all of that usually makes me decide I absolutely have to see a thing like that for myself, I’ve long been cured of that through just a superficial, Wikipedia’d familiarity with all its ugliest aspects, which include endless scenes of rape, necrophilia, incest, child molestation, and the telling phrase “newborn porn”—all in service of what sounds like a blunt, yet still barely there political commentary about Slobodan Milošević. I’ll just blow a rail of salt, thanks.
If a film can accurately be described as “torture porn,” I’m out. I can’t get into relentless gore and human depravity/misery, so I knew to avoid some of the recommendations of our old film editor, Scott “Torture Porn” Tobias. (I did watch, however, watch his favorite: Audition, oof.) Not that there was much of a danger of my seeing Eli Roth’s Hostel, but a dozen years later, I still remember the numerous red flags in Scott’s review that told me to stay away. For one, he references Audition three times, noting Roth “studiously replicates [Takashi] Miike’s unblinking depiction of torture.” He also explained that the film “breaks out the surgical tools and does battle with the ratings board,” though all he needed to say was “surgical tools” to send me in the other direction. Hard pass.
I’ve seen all but one of the movies my colleagues have said they’ll always avoid thanks to their sadistic reputations. But there’s one hard limit for me: I will not watch Faces Of Death. It’s very superstitious, but there’s a part of me that’s afraid that if I watch documentary footage of someone actually dying, then they’ll haunt me for all eternity. Like, literally haunt me. (Yeah, I know a good percentage of the clips are faked, but why take the risk?) And even if there aren’t any supernatural repercussions for watching ghoulish mondo compilations—and, to be clear, there probably aren’t—there’s no real suspense or terror to watching a series of grainy clips loosely strung together, unless you count the existential terror of wondering why you’re doing this to yourself.
I’m pulling up the rear, so a lot of items on my “don’t see” list have already been checked off. But here’s one more from the gross-out pile: Get the fuck out of here with The Human Centipede. Doesn’t matter if it’s First Sequence, Full Sequence, or Final Sequence. Doesn’t matter that the titular surgical creation is constructed in such a way that you never actually see the characters defecating into each others’ mouths. Of all the torture-porn titles we’ve cited here, Tom Six’s “100% medically accurate” provocation is the one built solely to abuse its audience, which I understand it does in part by being a tedious, poorly made film. At least there’s supposed to be some larger point to Salò and Martyrs; The Human Centipede is just some asshole flashing a feature-length shit-eating grin.
I will confess to being, if not a fan, than at least mildly appreciative of nearly every film mentioned by my co-workers above. (Well, not Faces Of Death, that’s just garbage.) Martyrs is fantastic. Salò is difficult but a powerful achievement. Hell, I even think parts of The Human Centipede—the first one, mind you, not the junky sequels—are daffily humorous. There’s not really a film I would avoid at this point. So let’s bring this list full circle and return to video games, the medium that best retains the power to scare me silly. For whatever reason, the thing that I will never, ever attempt to play is Slender, the original Slender Man game. When it first came out roughly a decade ago, I was curious enough to check out a quick YouTube video of it (right before going to bed no less, a brilliant move on my part), and the damn thing chilled me to my core. Walking around the woods at night is scary enough without having to worry that there’s something waiting to give you the jump scare of your life. Never will I ever. I will, however, watch goofy reaction videos of other people playing it.