Horror and Censorship

As horror fans, we tend to see the words “Unrated” and “Uncensored” quite often, plastered luridly across DVD covers and occasionally book covers as well.  These two phrases are amazing marketing gimmicks, and when we see them, they draw our attention.  How often when browsing a retail establishment selling DVDs or a video store (the few that still remain) do you stop and pick up the “Unrated” version a film over the “Rated” version? Typically I pick up the “Unrated” version because we’ve been conditioned to believe that “Unrated” means there we’ll see something that was too much for the rated version.

Here’s a handy bit of info, just because a film says “Unrated” doesn’t necessarily   mean the film has anything special in it, it just means that the film makers didn’t bother to submit the film to the MPAA for a rating. It’s a crafty bit of marketing, and I know I’ve fallen victim to a terrible horror film because I was suckered in by the “Unrated” label.


But “Uncensored” is a much more powerful label, and is the topic of this article.  Quick, name another genre that runs into as much trouble with censorship as the horror genre.  The only other genre I can think of that tends to get slapped down by the vicious hand of censorship aside from horror is comedy.  Now when I refer to censorship, I don’t just mean the American MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), but any and all groups that see it as their duty to “protect” us as viewers and readers from what they consider to be “obscene” or “lurid” works.


Back in 2005, Mick Garris and Showtime brought us Masters of Horror, a series of 13 one hour horror films by legendary horror directors. The series was, in my opinion and in the opinions of many, very hit or miss.  However, only one episode never made it to air, Takashi Miike’s Imprint.


Miike is a well known name to horror aficionados, most being introduced to his work through the action film ICHI the Killer or the disturbing Audition (he also directed the original One Missed Call).  Anyone familiar with Miike knows that to watch one of his films is to stare directly into the face of pure depraved madness.  To put it bluntly, Miike is a director without limits and is unafraid to attack his audiences with everything at his disposal to horrify and disturb the viewer.


So, what was it that Showtime objected to? What was it that made them decide to shelve the episode, and later release it on DVD?


Incest, torture, murder, primitive abortion, implied molestation, spousal abuse, and several shots of aborted children floating down a river. Horrifying, yes, disturbing, to some I’m sure. Deserving of half-hearted censorship? Hardly.

I’m not going to spend the time reviewing Imprint now, but the quick and dirty review is this: It was ok, the special effects were great but the story suffered from the same problem that most of the Masters of Horror series struggled with, which was attempting to cram an entire horror story into an hour’s running time.


Now I understand that some who are reading this will probably say that all of those things that I mentioned above being in the film are all things that not everyone would want to see, and I can respect that, but I don’t see why we need someone else to decide for us what we should or should not see.


Recently I read Jack Ketchum’s Offseason, a fast paced splatter filled novel that proudly stated on its front cover “The Authors Uncut, Uncensored Version!” At the end of the novel, Ketchum recounts the troubles he had getting Offseason published, going back and forth with the novel’s original publisher over the many edits that they wanted before they would publish the book.


Offseason is a novel about a cannibal family living in a cave off the coast of Maine and one terrible night that a group of New Yorkers spend after encountering the cannibals. Its chock full of bloody descriptions of death and dismemberment, as well as violence against men, women and children.


Was there anything in the novel that I felt should have been removed because it went too far? Not at all, and if there had been, I could have easily put the book down and not finished reading it. Ketchum wrote Offseason the way he wanted, telling the story the way he felt it should be told. If you read the Wikipedia article about Imprint, it includes references to an interview where Miike said “I thought that I was right up to the limit of what American television would tolerate. As I was making the film I kept checking to make sure that I wasn’t going over the line, but I evidently misestimated.”

In Miike’s case, I can at least understand why Showtime would want to pull the episode, fearing that the episode might cause some outrage, though I suspect that it was more of a marketing gimmick to sell more copies of the film when they decided to release it on DVD.


In Ketchum’s case, I completely disagree with his original publisher, and frankly call bullshit on them for telling him to change his work. All artists, whether they are writers, musicians, painters or filmmakers, shouldn’t be forced to alter their work simply to appease the masses for fear of offending someone.


I feel this is especially true with regard to Horror, both in literature and in film, as by its very nature, is meant to upset its audience. Horror literature and films are the one safe place we as a society can exorcise our demons and nightmares and when the lights come up or the books is done, we can go back to our lives knowing that no matter how shitty our lives may seem, at least we don’t have to deal with cannibals in Maine, or giant irradiated monsters, or undead psychopaths wearing a hockey mask and swinging a machete.

Having said that, do I think that all horror is right for everyone? No, of course not, and I don’t expect everyone to enjoy the same types of horror that I enjoy.  For some, Friday the 13th is enough for them to have nightmares for weeks, and for others it’s just a fun way to kill an hour and a half, but  whether or not to experience that horror, is subjective and personal.


To be perfectly blunt, I find it insulting that anyone can stand up and say that a film or novel should be changed/outright banned because its content is “Too Extreme”. How can you honestly say to someone that a work of fiction “Goes too far” simply because it involves graphic depictions of violence or physical/sexual abuse when you can turn on the news any day of the week and hear about death and molestation and real trauma? Or better yet, you can simply turn your computer on, swing on over to Google and within minutes (make sure to turn off Safe Search, of course) find images and video of real atrocity? How are the actions of fictional people, the tortures and torments and deaths of people who don’t exist worse than seeing the real thing reported every day on television or the Internet?


Of course, some will argue that “Violent multimedia causes violence”, to which I again call a resounding Bullshit. Reading a Stephen King (or Clive Barker or Poppy Z Brite or Jack Ketchum, etc) novel isn’t going to turn you into an axe wielding maniac.  Watching Hostel, or Saw, or Cannibal Holocaust isn’t going to turn you into a raving maniac either, and to even attempt to justify censorship with that argument is an insult to the intelligence of every human being with the ability to form cognizant thoughts for themselves.


I’d like to leave you with this last bit to think about. Remember it the next time you hear about horror novel or film being heavily censored because of content:



[hawr-er, hor-] noun

1. An overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting; a shuddering fear: to shrink back from a mutilated corpse in horror.

2. Anything that causes such a feeling: killing, looting, and other horrors of war.




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