Carnage for Kids

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 section.

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” maneuvers.

Horror and wholesome hits in the H row.

Horror movies.

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 juxtapositions.

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 here.”

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.