As the talented Soska Sisters face an insidious form of artistic silencing, we explore the twisted censorship of horror, media, and the social narrative.
Who watches the Watchmen? Since the dawn of time, there has been a consistent chronicle of what we’re supposed to say, watch, and how we’re supposed to seek out our truths. In the modern age, one might think it would be easier to find the accurate depiction of a story. But who actually controls the media? And why, in 2019, would we see prominent artists kicked off a platform just for sharing their voice?
Since its beginnings, horror has always been a provocative film genre. The prospect of films being created solely to terrify their audience certainly causes viewers to question the motives behind a filmmaker’s decision to make such dangerous, thought-provoking art.
Fear is commonly due to things we, as human beings, do not fully understand or comprehend. For some, it is the fear of the unknown that keeps them up at night. For others, the thought that someone could choose to break into your home, stalk, or murder you and your entire family is enough to make your hair stand on end. Religious folks throughout history have commonly cited a healthy fear of demons and spiritual possession, or the damnation of their immortal soul by evil.
Aliens are currently on trend, and have been at different points throughout time. Though shows like Stranger Things and recent events surrounding groups of individuals gearing up to raid Area 51 have launched them back into the forefront of our collective narrative — bringing fear of the ‘other’, once again, to the forefront of our society.
Art, generally speaking, is a dangerous medium.
Any iteration of art – whether it be film, painting, sculpture, or music – draws in the people of any given culture, country, or time and makes them think and question, sometimes in ways that can be contrary to the scripted narrative of the societal status quo.
From this, the notion that a society could start to question their governing forces and “think for themselves” is the root of censorship; if you aren’t willing to devour what the writers of our society wish us to, you become the problem.
Where do we see censorship in our society?
“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.” – Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States
Sometimes, it’s as simple as a film or book being banned or restricted, either by schools or even on a larger scale when distribution companies won’t deliver the materials for mass consumption. Other times, a governing body such as the MPAA restricts who can view the material in theaters, if a theater can even carry the material, or if a project can even be released at all.
We also sometimes see censorship in redacted content in an article or existing work. Recently, Netflix decided to remove a scene from an early season of their original show, 13 Reasons Why, because it included a scene which shows a young girl’s suicide.
Initially, the scene in question was left to stand with ample warnings issued about the show’s content and viewer discretion encouraged. Now, after much discussion throughout social media that claims this show’s content might be encouraging to young people who are contemplating suicide or even glamorizing the act, Netflix and the show’s creator, Brian Yorkey, came to a mutual decision after considering research that has been done surrounding teen suicide and the effects of media consumption on young viewers, to pull the scene.
Of course, as is the state of permanence within the Internet, nothing is gone forever. People who still want to see the scene, perhaps even more so than they did before the show’s censorship, could easily do so by spending very little time searching or by obtaining a physical copy of the show that has already been released with the full content.
Censorship is certainly not just an American phenomenon.
All over the world, movies and television shows have been banned or edited before being released to audiences for some reason or another.
Some banned movies that might come as a surprise include the Back to the Future trilogy in China due to the country’s decision to ban movies and television shows that portray time travel, as their government believes this content to be “frivolous.”
ET was released in Scandinavian countries (Norway, Finland, and Sweden) with the limitation that children under the age of 12 could not attend, even with adult or legal guardian supervision. The reason for this? The film portrays adults as “enemies of children.” The Exorcist was banned in the UK for 11 years, with officials going as far as to have physical copies pulled off shelves to limit purchases and further consumption of the film. This ban was only released in 1999, after the content was deemed to “no longer have the same impact” as it once did.
The UK has a lengthy history of banning horror films in general, which caused films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, The Human Centipede II, and Cannibal Holocaust to join The Exorcist in forbidden infamy. While these films are available now, some releases required snippets of the film to be removed completely before they could be released to audiences.
Some famously banned films in parts of the United States include 1915’s The Birth of a Nation for its depictions of racist content and the Ku Klux Klan and John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, which depicted drag performer Divine eating actual dog feces, along with explicit violence, sexual content, and animal cruelty. Another classic horror film, Tod Browning’s Freaks, suffered a 25-minute edit by MGM studios before its release, but eventually still got pulled from circulation entirely.
By and large, the United States has a better track record than other countries for banning films and other media, likely due to our freedom of speech laws and the ability for creators to freely present content independently. However, with the popularity of social media and boundary-pushing awareness with emerging and existing artists, censorship is becoming increasingly prevalent in our modern society.
Censorship is a beast that takes many forms.
While many people would praise companies like Netflix for cracking down on their content and limiting what teenagers and children specifically have access to, I am a firm believer that art is meant to be distributed freely to consumers. Rather, I believe warnings should be placed in kind so parents and individuals can make decisions about what they’d like to view on a case by case, individualized basis.
Recently, Netflix has made the decision to cut back on tobacco depictions in their original programming. This initiative came after the most recent season of Stranger Things premiered on July 4th and subsequent studies concluded that 100% of the show’s episodes depicted tobacco use. Though Stranger Things is beloved by audiences of all ages, the main characters of the show are teenagers. And therefore, a chunk of the audience are within that age bracket.
Some might argue that, due to the show’s setting in the 1980s when tobacco wasn’t as widely regarded as harmful, the depiction is accurate or even timely. But many viewers, likely those with children who might come to idolize or admire the characters who are smoking, might be concerned that the use of tobacco could be glamorized when viewed through an adolescent lens.
This is a situation where it could be argued that censorship is a positive thing, because some want to limit what children and teens see on TV and prevent them from seeing dangerous behaviors as positive or even glamorous. However, green-lighting some forms of censorship is a slippery slope that can result in redacted footage, excessive scrutiny by authoritarian figures who are deemed to “know best”, or even a stricter rating system in the future that could restrict content for adult audiences and even harm filmmakers who aren’t supported by big studio money during their quests to find distribution for independent films.
American sociologist Barry Glassner popularized a theory regarding a “culture of fear”.
He explored how that culture might be used to incite fear that could then, in turn, achieve emotional bias by the general public in the workplace, politics, or even through the media narrative itself. Some might know this term as “fear mongering.”
Fear is a powerful motivator, and when we, as a population are afraid of something, we might end up saying or doing things that go against our core beliefs in an attempt to assuage these fears or fight against whatever could be perceived as a danger to us, our children, or our society and way of life on the whole.
Previous to Glassner’s work, George Gerbner and his colleagues correlated a link between this “culture of fear” and how media consumption led to an overall increase in society’s fear of crime in the 1960s. Since the 1960s, the way we consume and devour media has increased on a daily basis, with it being nearly impossible to even go an entire day without seeing some headline or another. Many of these headlines are notorious for depicting violence, crime, and other stories that could contribute to a continued creation of the “culture of fear” that Glassner theorized.
Censorship then could easily allow for those in charge of media sources – news, social media, and other platforms – to pick and choose what we, the consumer, see and even influence how we feel about such material.
Simply put, if they want us to fear something, more often than not, we will. It’s no secret that horrific stories get attention from our modern society as the “outrage” culture of modern times is becoming consistently more prevalent when we all fight each other for likes, shares, and comments. At the end of the day, news media controls what we share and what we scroll past based on what ultimately has the most interesting story.
Like we’ve seen with scrutiny of the horror genre in the past, fear is a powerful tool that has been used by artists within the genre to tell a tale and keep audiences at the edge of their seat. We know this is a lucrative field. And since many of us are glued to social media on a daily basis, we’ve become all too easily manipulated by the fear that those in power want to cultivate within us. Therefore, censorship becomes just another tool to limit and carefully select what we can consume and how we can consume it.
“The people will believe what the media tells them they believe.” – George Orwell, writer of 1984.
As many of us who are fans in the horror community have realized over the years, much of what we can consume comes down to who has the money and power.
For example, big-budget studio films tend to get more hype, press, trailer releases, and television spots. It’s hard to escape their advertising campaigns. This is not necessarily because they’re better. Independent film is on the rise both in popularity and accessibility, but censorship continually proves to be a threat to our free media when the voices of independen