In the latest installment of The New Cult Canon (a feature you should be reading regularly at The A.V. Club), Scott Tobias examines the grisly French horror film Inside, and questions how viewers gauge what is "too far" when it comes to representations of violence and death in movies. He notes how often people are repelled by the visceral depiction of individual deaths in horror films, but shrug off the far greater lethality implicit in end-of-the-world blockbusters from the Michael Bay or Roald Emmerich mold. Writes Scott:
As a rule, I’m reluctant to draw any hard lines on what horrors are beyond representation, because I recognize how subjective that can be. For example, I find the trailer for 2012 far sicker in its bloodless apocalypse fetishization than anything I’ve ever seen in “torture porn” genre, but clearly that opinion isn’t shared by the legions who gave a pass to the former while routinely turning up their noses at the latter.
Which is completely logical, when you stop and think about it for half a minute. The combined body count of the Saw franchise is but a minute fraction of the death toll claimed in just one sequence of Independence Day, a lighthearted popcorn flick better remembered for Bill Pullman's bad-ass quasi-Patton moment than for gleefully positing the obliteration of dozens of major cities—and, along with them, tens of millions of human lives. It brings to mind the infamous quip attributed to Josef Stalin: "One death is a tragedy. One million deaths is a statistic."
Because the deaths in 2012 or Independence Day or what have you go largely unseen, it's easy to rationalize them away. They might as well be numbers on a ledger. But watching the central casting machete fodder in Saw or Hostel (or the far more intense horror films on which Scott is an expert and of which I am petrified), it's easy and natural to sympathize with the victim, to imagine ourselves in their newly-lungless place.
More than that, I think there's something else at work in our preference for apocalyptic demise. Being skewered into cheesecloth by a methodical sadist or a lumbering chainsaw delivery vehicle is (besides being awfully painful) a fairly unglamorous way to go. It's just so blasé, so quotidian.
Armageddon, on the other hand, would earn you some serious bragging rights in the Great Beyond. Perishing in the last throes of humanity's existence would have to feel sort of like an accomplishment: I made it to the end. I know how this story wraps up, and I stayed through the credits. Not for me the hollow mortality of my ancestors, the humble realization that after I'm gone the world will continue as though I'd never been here. No one who came before me can say they had access to the whole of human endeavor, to the pinnacle of our technology and the most cherished ancient literature and the latest new episode of Jersey Shore - but I can. Suck on that, Shakespeare.
It appeals to the same innate arrogance which convinces people that they're exceptional because of the land they were born in, or that they were created in the image of an almighty deity, or which simply makes it hard to fathom that the world once existed without you in it and one day will again. We all know we're going to die anyway. Why not go out as part of Generation Omega, the last graduating class of Planet Earth?