Venus and Mars

Why do we like horror? For that matter, why is pornography obscene in our culture whereas bloodshed on film is not?

If you want to hear a theory about the difference between the obscenity of sex versus violence, I think I can tie it into a theory about the allure of horror.

Call this the ‘Play theory of Plays’. Drama is linked to the behavior of children and young animals when they practice grown-up behaviors. Kitten play at hunting and fighting because they will hunt and fight as cats; children, in a more sophisticated way, play at being what they will be. Little boys as cowboys and soldiers fight mock battles, little girls mother dolls. As if they are trying out a suit of clothing, they put themselves in their imagination in the scene where their emotions ar suited: boys want to know what it feels like to be brave and kill an enemy, girls want to know what it feels like to love a child. (I would not have used such stereotypic examples, except that my own children match this stereotype.)

Likewise with drama. I have been lucky enough never to have been in war or disaster, or in a situation involving real terror, supernatural or otherwise. Plays, books, movies, can show me what it is like, let me put on another man’s clothing for an hour. Everyone is at least a little curious about what it is like to meet a ghost, and most men would like to think they would not be cowards if confronted by an ax-murderer. Go to a movie, try on the clothing, and see.

The play takes on an educational aspect, or if done badly, a preachiness, when it attempts not just to portray, but to instruct. But this instructional aspect cannot be edited out of any but the most shallow of stories. Whether you like it or not, human beings are moralizing creatures, and the audience will carry away a moral to the story. The moral of Casablanca: the troubles of two people do not amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but if you don’t do the honorable thing, you will come to hate yourself in time. The moral of Spiderman: with great power comes great responsibility, and so on.

Now, there is a difference between sex and bloodshed and its role in the imagination, and also its role in the morals of stories. Simply put, human nature makes it easy to teach courage and honor when it comes to bloodshed, and hard to teach romance and, well, patience, when it comes to sex.

Some might wish it were not the case, but reality is reality: and the reality is that we men have a natural inclination to lust after bloodshed and slay the enemy in combat, we delight in it. To teach courage is therefore not so difficult a task: the real task is to teach honor, which acts as a check on courage. That’s why movies showing bloodshed are not obscene, provided the bloodstained heroes let the fallen bad guy rise to his feet again, or return his dropped weapon to him.

Sex, on the other hand, is an area where reason and nature are at odds. Reason tells us not to exploit women, and nature inclines us to bed and abandon as many young nymphs as possible. For this reason, bloodshed is (and has always been) a public matter, in duels and in war, and the public display of it is not regarded as obscene: sex, on the other hand, must be mysterious, surrounded by allure and romance, or else it loses its allure, and becomes a cheap commercial product, and sex is no longer the adventure of the honeymoon, but the purchase of harlotry.

The imagination plays into making the honeymoon an adventure. If plays stimulate the imagination with too many exaggerated depictions of sex, the reality seems flat, and romance is robbed of its sacrosanct character. Overexposure dulls the nerve. Violence is the opposite. Movie violence does not prepare the young soldier for the true horror of combat, but if it did, this would be a benefit, not a loss.

That is why porn is obscene, whereas violence is merely tasteless.