Horror fans worldwide can always remember a film where a victim has their eye punctured, sliced, popped, gouged or otherwise mutilated…these tend to be the most memorable scenes in any given film. They’re also the most squirm-inducing. We watch them and at the same time, we feel repelled. Whether it’s the sight of a woman being ever-so slowly pulled towards a shard of jagged glass which punctures her eye in Fulci’s Zombi, or someone having their eye slashed with a razor in the surrealist short film, Le Chien Andalou, genre fans and non-genre fans alike tend to remember the eyeball gore long afterwards. Eyeball gore has become a classic motif in horror cinema, and it still used, even in more mainstream films such as Jason X.
There is surely something particular about this horror feature which simultaneously disgusts and compels horror audiences. Other, even gorier effects seem to have less of an impact or at least on a personal level, disgust people less. Eyeball-gore is always a talking-point. There are, it seems, specific anxieties attached to the human eye and to sight, which invest eyeball gore with specific meaning: this, in my opinion, is why eyeball mutilation has become such an important modern horror staple.
Firstly, eyeball gore and the spectacle of severe damage to the eye symbolises a very graphic type of dehumanisation. This is because it shows us a person not only at the mercy of others, but being permanently altered by them in a way that will not just disfigure, but disenfranchise them. The loss of sight in such a visual modern culture as our own means that a person will be less able to participate fully in that culture: in effect, they will lose the ability to ‘look back’ in a world which as built itself upon the importance of appearances and external qualities. Victims in eyeball gore scenes cannot even look back at their captors: they can’t accuse or identify because they can’t look at them. They can’t do even the slightest thing to redress that power balance. Loss of sight and damage to the eye also speaks to our awareness of the importance of the eyes on a cosmetic level. Even in these times of medical breakthrough, and surgery which can repair almost any undesirable physical trait, we are unable to reconstruct the eye. It is something that remains too great a challenge for modern science and yet, the eyes are one element of appearance that remains immediately obvious. If you destroy the eye, it is irreparable, noticeable, disfiguring and ultimately disempowering.
An interesting theory which could be put to use in this examination is the theory of the ‘body gothic’. According to this theory, the human body can be used as a site, where contemporary social anxieties are displayed, or ‘played out’. Often used in literary criticism, deformities, mutilations and disfigurements have been linked to the particular social concerns of the day. The oozing, barely-recognisable forms of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine have been seen as manifestations of anxieties held, at the time of the books’ writing, about degeneration, seriously-held beliefs that the human race was de-evolving and becoming less human. If the ‘body gothic’ is useful in examining horror cinema as well as horror literature, as I think it can, then eyeball mutilation could be the ‘playing out’ of specific and acute modern anxieties.
I believe that the eyeless, defenceless bodies of such films as Flowers of Flesh and Blood and perhaps most notably, The Devil’s Experiment from the Guinea Pig series encapsulate contemporary concerns about our own bodies. Firstly, in many ways the human body has been reduced to nothing more than a mess of component parts. No mystery remains: every inch of our bodies, inside and out, has been mapped. Even on a genetic level, our bodies are understood, categorised and owned by medicine. In some cases, our genes can be ‘read’ and we can be told we will develop a degenerative or fatal disease decades before it happens. If the eyes are the ‘windows to the soul’, then destroy the eye, and you symbolically destroy the mystique of the person. This is a potent reminder that we are no more than the sum of our parts in the modern day, and the general decline in religious belief only attests to this.
Similarly, the spectacle of eyeball gore could remind us that, frequently, we are watched, and we endure the ‘gaze’ of the media, medicine and science, with little or no opportunity to turn that gaze back on the watchers. The violent blinding of victims on-screen could reflect our anxiety and our inability to defeat the constant, subjugating gaze of our cultural institutions. Perhaps this is the true horror of modernity and a reason why we keep returning to the grisly motif of loss of sight, because we both fear it and recognise it in ourselves. We are powerless to look back; we are unable to return judgement, but we have to endure the ‘eye’ of the media being upon us. Victims who have their eyes destroyed are dramatic representations of this condition. However, this creates a dual function. Not only might we recognise the destruction of sight in the eye-gore scenes, but we might also enjoy the opportunity to participate in the process from a more empowered position. Though we may well sympathise with the mutilated victim, so we might enjoy being, for once, in a more dominant position. We could feel glad to be able to see the subjection of a person without being subjugated ourselves: we can feel glad that it ‘isn’t us’, on some level, so that we simultaneously squirm, as well as remain motivated to watch because we enjoy the opportunity to do so.
Eyeball gore is used to great effect in Asian cinema, especially in the horror and exploitation cinema of Japan. The previously-discussed Guinea Pig films originate in that country, and both ‘The Devil’s Experiment’ and ‘Flower of Flesh and Blood’ include graphic scenes of needles through eyeballs, and the dismemberment and eye-gouging of a female victim. Other notable examples of Japanese eyeball gore include ‘Naked Blood’ (a woman combines a love of food with a new-found love of pain by removing her own eye, then eating it) and ‘Evil Dead Trap’ (a TV host is sent footage of a woman being tortured and having her eyeball pierced – it spurts liquid as it is punctured). Eye mutilation seems to be an important facet of Asian cinema as well as in the West – but are any of the issues different?
What is beyond doubt is that the Japanese culture invests the eye rather differently than us in the West. Japanese life is permeated with the importance of etiquette. Hierarchy in society is very important, and age, gender, status and ability dictate one’s social position. Eye-contact is an important part of this daily etiquette: unlike Westerners, prolonged eye-contact is considered rude and it is taught that one’s gaze should rest on the neck or shoulders, not the eyes. Visitors to Japan are often told to reduce eye-contact, as we in the West make a significant amount more than our Japanese counterparts. This practice has historical pedigree: during Samurai days, peasants who dared to look a warrior in the eye would be decapitated. Possibly, eye gore reflects some ingrained social anxieties about eye-contact. If we in the West are concerned by our inability to return ‘the gaze’ of cultural institutions, then, in Japan, perhaps at some level people believe that they shouldn’t return the gaze; to do so might be improper. Japan, as a traditionally homogenous culture, believes that the real source of horror and anxiety is to erode their unique traditions by seeing too much. In Japanese culture, eyes might get gouged because on some level, Japan is anxious not to peer into a world that is somehow dangerous. If this is so, then Japan has some different meanings for eyeball gore compared to us in the West, and this complexity may go some way towards explaining this enduring horror motif and the plethora of meanings attached.