Before I wax philosophic, examine the evidence. Peek at the
pictures that accompany this essay. They are images of DVD covers.
I'm sure they're used as movie posters and more, but in this essay,
I'm mainly concerned with their use as DVD covers on display in
rental places like Blockbuster.
Creepy covers commingle with children's fare in the C
My kids and I frequently tour the aisles at Blockbuster and
browse the new releases. New releases occupy the shelves along the
outer wall. The outer wall flows from one end of the store to the
other; from the front window all the way around until the “Game
Rush” section starts. While the interior aisles organize movies by
genre (“Action,” “Comedy,” “Drama,” “Family”), the new-release
walls include all genres. My kids and I walk the store's perimeter
the way everyone does: gawk, shuffle-shuffle, gawk,
shuffle-shuffle. I call this the “eyeball creep” or the “zombie
scan.” I barely move my legs, but my eyes are in overdrive. What
sets us parents with kids apart from, say, the teens on dates,
though, is that we vary our gawk-shuffle to include the “quick,
cover your eyes” and the “bury your face in my shoulder”
Horror and wholesome hits in the H row.
The horror movie DVDs are included with every other genre of
new-release DVD on Blockbuster's wall. That means Andre the
Butcher chops next to Aquamarine. Cello
accompanies Cheaper by the Dozen 2. The Descent
snuggles up to Dr. Doolittle 3. Harry Potter,
Hoot, Hoodwinked and How to Eat Fried
Worms share real estate with House of Blood,
Heart Stopper, Headspace, Haunted
Highway and The Hills Have Eyes (Unrated). And, yes,
these are the actual arrangements as I saw them and wrote them down
while I was in Blockbuster scanning the walls for jaunty
I'm no censor. I just think it is common sense to separate new
releases by genre. If you separated nothing else, it would at least
make sense to separate the gruesome and grotesque from the
heartwarming and wholesome. Bam. Problem solved.
But Blockbuster doesn't, and it's been this way for as long as
I've had kids. My kids are now 10 and 11. Even today, I tell them
to move quickly past Machined and Maid of Honor,
avoid Pulse and The Pumpkin Karver. When my kids
were younger, I'd just pick them up facing away or do the
gawk-shuffle with my hands covering their eyes. I never thought it
good policy to leave the kids alone with the games or in the
regular “Family” or “Kid” sections, but sometimes, yes, I did that.
I am tall enough to look over the aisles and see them (gawk, kid
check, shuffle-shuffle, gawk, kid check). The threat of Mr. Creepy
Loner accosting my kids was rare and abstract, but the threat of
Mr. Hell and Mr. Jingles scaring the shit out of
them was pretty much right in our faces. Bam. Welcome to three
nights of nightmares on my street.
I've been thinking about this issue for years. I've never known
quite what to say about it. It's one place where graphic design
hits me emotionally, if not ambushes me, and has a real effect on
my behavior. I also know it's not pure design in the way most
professional graphic designers would regard it. I'm sure the
graphic-design teams have strict horror-movie criteria dictated to
them. But the control of film-industry marketers doesn't make these
covers any less Photoshopped and typeset.
For years I just kept hoping Blockbuster would read my mind and
separate genres. Instead, they have moved the children's new
releases to one outer wall, a single shelving unit of Bob the
Builder and Thomas the Tank Engine DVDs measured in a
single gawk-shuffle-shuffle, and then right back to the mélange of
carnage and comedy, action and dismemberment.
Severed shares shelf-space with The Shaggy Dog.
I'm not a prude. I'm disturbed by lacerated bodies, strung up
and gutted, not naked ones, pumped up and thonged. I don't care for
horror flicks, but I don't begrudge the tastes of horror fans. I'm
all for the “free to” half of our civil rights, but I'm also in
favor of the “free from” half. Others are free to watch
Silent Scream. I'd like my kids to be free from
seeing the cover for Severed.
I've often thought that the juxtaposition was on purpose. How
much faster do I thoughtlessly grab the first available
kid-friendly DVD when slaughtered torsos surround it? What else
could explain my renting the latest Tim Allen movie except that I
wanted to protect my kids from seeing the covers for Art of the
Devil II or Satan's Little Helper? “Have you guys
seen The Shaggy Dog? No? Great. Let's get out of
Scary, yet subtle: Psycho.
I'd have less cause for complaint if the graphic designs of
these DVD packages weren't becoming so graphic. Many of today's
thrillers are about gore and torture, not fear and anxiety. Or
maybe they're really about technology, using computer animation to
tear people to shreds in some ironic foreshadowing of a future day
when computers really do tear us to shreds. Today's horror movies
are not subtle glosses on Psycho. Psycho is a
public-service announcement compared to today's viscera porn. The
covers represent this increasingly graphic and brutal trend.
There's nothing suggestive. It's all Disembowelment for
Dummies. The covers show what the movies are about, and more
of today's movies are about reducing people to sushi. Your horror
order is up: people sushi, with a chainsaw. And a meat hook. And a
drill. And a blowtorch. And a needle and thread to sew the pieces
back together and start all over again.
I could make a nuanced argument about how the DVD covers on
Blockbuster's new release wall reflect our dreams back at us, our
hopes and fears given graphic expression in a microcosmic diorama
of America's self-regard. I think, however, that this is bullshit.
I might want to see accidental art, but there is only reckless
marketing. No DVD-rental franchise is trying to make an artistic
statement about the content of America's soul. They are—via the
horror, the horror of excessively graphic design—trying to make me
switch to Netflix.
How does imagery influence terror? Heller asks psychoanalyst Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin to make visual sense of the chaos.
Section: Inspiration -
interview, Voice, social issues
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