Cross-cultural disgust:
some problems in the analysis of contemporary horror cinema

by Chuck Kleinhans

Part one: notes on cross-cultural disgust


This essay[1][open endnotes in new window] explores some key issues surrounding the status of contemporary horror films and their critical analysis. I speak tentatively rather than exhaustively and authoritatively because I am still working with the ideas, but also because I see the creative and critical field as in process, changing, and contingent. In the past two issues of Jump Cut (JC 49 and 50) as well as this one, we ran a group of articles on horror films.[2] The essays arrived independently but when published together showed a new sophistication and complexity in discussing the genre and its political implications. I was also aware of new critical writing on horror, books and articles, and the vogue for East Asian horror (and new Hollywood adaptations of these films to a Euro-North American market and sensibility). For the Jump Cut section in issue 49, I contributed an analysis of Fruit Chan’s Hong Kong film Dumplings[3], which began with my fascination with Chan’s body of work and an admiration for this particular film as a political allegory of contemporary transnational capitalism. The film involves eating dumplings made of fetuses as a rejuvenating treatment. When I finished the article, I realized that I had many notes about additional issues to deal with, such as the fetus images, abortion, cannibalism, and disgust in relation to horror, but these seemed to wander off from focusing on the film. This essay returns to those issues. Usually I try to write and like to read carefully organized and crafted essays that develop a systematic argument. That’s all well and good; it helps readers understand and critique my efforts, and it forces me to clarify what I think. But I intend this piece to be different. I want it to be more exploratory.

Cross cultural analysis is important, especially in a time when many people invoke “globalization” as a slogan without thinking through the contradictions and complications of the term and the concept. Globalization, or more accurately, neo-imperialism can only be adequately understood by analyzing power, especially the power differential between those who introduce, control, and change things, and those who have to adapt to that process. Here I want to explore some of those issues in a way that hopefully can indicate the complexity involved. I also think that horror as a moving image genre is changing (once again) and the conceptual machinery to understand it is also in flux. It is a fluid field at the moment, and I want to so some justice to that and respect it. And related, the newly developing discussion of the senses and emotions in media analysis, in my specific case here, disgust and abjection, needs space to develop.

I don’t think I have all the answers, but I think I have some idea of what the key questions are that we have to ask to get to another level of analysis. So, what I’ll try to do is provide a path or trail, but one which allows for sidetracks, scenic overviews, rest stops, and curious detours, and probably a few dead ends. This is a first installment in a series considering these issues.

1: Taste across cultures

"Cultural exchange starts with misunderstanding. We are not afraid of misunderstanding."
—Tatsumi Hijikata, founder of Bhutto art[4]

An apocryphal story: A wealthy Western couple enters an Asian restaurant (somewhere in Asia, or in Chinatown, etc.) with their pet dog. Seated, they ask the waiter to feed the dog a meal in the kitchen while they dine. After dinner they want to retrieve the pet only to find out they have just eaten it.

The joke relies on the known East/West cultural difference that in some Asian cultures eating dog is accepted, while in the West it is prohibited by custom, if not law. The story can be told with slightly different spins: a communications confusion (mutual, or a translation problem by the waiter); a matter of class and cultural ignorance (and a joke on the couple); the subaltern’s revenge; etc.

I’ve found that discussions which touch on these cultural differences are sometimes awkward between Asians and Westerners, or resolved only with humorous remarks at best and denial at worst. Typically, East Asians know that dog meat is available and consumed in some venues in China, South Korea, and the Philippines; yet they also know that this is considered disgusting by most Western people who tend to think of dogs as companion animals.[5] Yet there are Asian films which deal with the topic, such as Dog Food (Azucena, d. Carlos Siguion-Reyna, Philippines, 1999) which depicts the friendship of a dog-meat vendor and a teen female dog-lover. Recently I wrote an analysis of Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s Address Unknown (2001), which prominently features a dog butcher in its allegorical depiction of Korean society which touches on some of these issues.[6]

The dog butcher negotiates with a small town restaurant owner, c. 1970 South Korea in Address Unknown.

Recently my home state of Illinois passed legislation, after lobbying by horse lovers, to end the slaughter of horses for meat (for human consumption or animal feed) at the one remaining U.S. slaughterhouse that handles horses (the meat was usually shipped overseas or turned into dogfood). Yet, in France horsemeat is common, with its own specialty butcher shops. And in the 70s and 80s it was quite common to find horsemeat in some of the Latino groceries in my Northwest side Chicago neighborhood. (Not identified as such, at least to Anglos, but the fat-free flesh, bright red color, and taste was a dead give-away).

Parisian chevaline (horsemeat butcher shop)

I’ve had conversations with Asians and Asian-American immigrants who deny that dogs are eaten in their home country, while allowing it does happen in other countries. Talking about this with a colleague from Karachi, Pakistan, he said it was common lore in his city that whenever a ship from China docked in the port, dogs seemed to disappear. A web search easily turns up examples of tourists blogging about finding dog meat served in Taipei, Beijing, or Seoul, usually after a bit of a search. I’ve had people from those same places also tell me that indeed it is eaten in their nation of origin, often with a wry acknowledgement that knowing this shocks most Westerners. And I’ve also had other people from those same places declare it never happens, it is outlawed, it was a custom in the distant past, it might occur in backward rural areas but not in cities, etc.

2: Images: seen and unseen

One of my basic points about shocking images is that everyone draws the line differently and even in their own history changes with experience, emotional, and intellectual development. As someone who has worked my whole adult life with image material I have the capacity to be detached, for the most part, from images that would be alarming or repulsive or disgusting to many others. That I can accept, but there is a second effect which is judging in my own writing about these issues with how much to show, knowing that some actual or potential readers will simply not want to see these images.

Intellectually, I would argue that you couldn’t understand an image unless you see it. A prose description does not suffice. But this article contains three sets of images that I know many would find very disturbing. The first is a set of three Internet images of a Chinese woman killing a kitten with her high heel shoes. The first two images set up the scene: attractive young woman holding a kitten. The third one shows the spike of a heel crushing the animal’s head, face on. The very first image was published in some Western newspapers. Obviously editors found one innocuous image enough to accompany the story. (Typically, newspaper editors self-censor on the basis that their paper may be brought into the home or school and thus readily seen by children.) The third image, crushing the skull, was found on the Internet where editorial standards are relaxed to nearly non-existent. The second set of images covers the rape/murder of a waitress in the Hong Kong horror film, The Untold Story, and the third set depicts the murder of a family: parents and children in the same film.

One way of thinking of this is to use conventional and commonplace categories to ask if an image is “gratuitous” or “justified.” Gratuitous images presumably don’t need to be there; they go beyond what is needed to tell the story, dramatize the scene, explain what is happening. Yet behind that commonsense assumption is the idea that action and character are more important than spectacle, showing. It’s the old Aristotelian aesthetics. Similarly, to argue from the idea that an image is “justified” by the topic or the author’s intent, is to assume that there is a good reason, and that usually means a “higher” reason for an image: one justified as “art,” or “historical importance,” or “educational purpose,” or some such explanation.

In writing my article on Dumplings, I was quite sure that the explicit images of abortion and cutting up dead fetuses for food were necessary: the film’s social/political statement, its allegory, justified the means. In discussing the rape/murder and the murder of children in The Untold Story (detailed later in this essay) I also thought that the images I chose were necessary to have a clear understanding of the film’s tenor. I chose not to include what I consider even more disgusting shots that appear in the film because while they pass by very quickly in the film (that is they are clearly readable, but immediately superceded), as framegrabs online, they linger and the image becomes more disturbing when one can view it in isolation and at length. But I also know that what I have shown here is too much for some readers. I want to respect that, since this essay explores that very question of the relativity of disgust. So, I’ll revert to the now-commonplace label used on unrated DVDs in the U.S. as well as in broadcast and cable television: “Viewer Discretion Is Advised,” or “May Not Be Suitable For Younger or More Sensitive Viewers.” You’ll have to open the images in a separate window with an extra mouse click.

On the Internet we can witness Western attitudes to Asian treatment of domestic animals: for example, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) shows a clandestine video that claims to document a Chinese dog and cat fur market.[7] And Beijing has a wild animal park which includes live feeding: visitors can purchase a chicken to toss to the lions. In 2006 Chinese authorities were reported as intensively investigating an Internet video that purported to show a young woman crushing a kitten to death with her high heel shoes.[8]

Internet-circulated images of Chinese kitten killer




[Click here to view final image of killing kitten ]

For exotic eccentricity, the (London) Times carries a story, “China’s penis restaurant,” on an upscale Beijing place that offers the male organ (yak, water buffalo, goat, dog, bull) as well as more mundane terrapin leg and chicken feet.[9] While these examples play into Western Orientalist beliefs about cruelty and exoticism in East Asia, it also reveals a more fundamental knowledge that cultures in fact do draw boundaries differently, including in behavior and cuisine.

This is a kind of practical knowledge that one finds within modern mixed societies without reading anthropologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss on the raw and the cooked or Mary Douglas on purity and pollution. In my upbringing within the clan, on the German side blood sausage and on the Swedish side lutefisk[10] provoked amused discussions especially in front of the children. As an adult, some seafood I’ve been offered (e.g., sea cucumber), and some organ meats (brains) seemed beyond my own comfort zone.[11] In Sandinista Nicaragua, stopping at a roadside restaurant, my host asked what meat was on the menu for the mid-day meal, and was told that only cow’s udder was available. He shook his head, seeing this as sad evidence of the effect of the U.S. embargo and U.S. sponsored Contra war on ordinary life. We had rice, beans, and tortillas instead.

In English, the term disgust stems from the sense of taste which is tied up with food and orality. As such it easily links to the experience of horror via the emotion of fear. This is perhaps most easily demonstrated with the example of the U.S. primetime TV show Fear Factor (2001-2006), which challenged contestants to accomplish various physical stunts such as bungee jumping and experiencing various creepy things (in a box with spiders, etc.). One of the favorite events on this show (which had a very high rating among children) had contestants eat something disgusting. A list of the “grossest stunts” on Fear Factor emphasizes those that involve ingestion and includes: a “pizza” of cow bile, coagulated blood paste, rancid cheese, topped with worms and fish eyes; buffalo testicles; large live spiders; cow eyeballs; horse rectum; worms; slugs. Such gross stunts are often the subject for jokes, as in the cable channel E!’s snarky TV clips show, The Soup, which recently highlighted an episode of the reality show Man vs. Wild which shows the host, wildlife adventurer “Bear” Grylls, manually searching through wild bear scat and demonstrating that large pieces of undigested food in the waste can be washed off and then eaten. On the face of it, it seems everyone would agree this was disgusting. Except that obviously Grylls himself thinks it is acceptable behavior, seemingly offering the rationale that if you were lost and starving in the wilderness you could search ursine poop for edible sustenance. Survival wisdom becomes the excuse for bizarre and revolting behavior.

Celebrity chef/writer Anthony Bourdain has sampled cuisines around the world on his cable TV shows A Cook’s Tour (Food Network) and No Reservations (The Travel Channel). While presenting himself as a Romantic hero adventurer, Bourdain tempers the imperial visitor to the exotic Other theme by self-mocking his persona and genuinely appreciating his hosts in their own terms. In one episode he meets tribal people in Nambia and goes on a hunt that ends in eating warthog rectum. Always the adventurer, Bourdain tries it, but reports it was very repulsive. At the same time, he clearly respects the local hunters as valiantly pursuing self-sufficiency in the face of an incredibly hard life.

The point being that the cultural difference always exists along a line of power differential. That cannot be erased, even by “going native;” however recognizing power difference as present prevents obscuring the implications. Of course the difference can be held up for ridicule or dismissal of the Other rather than just a fact of cultural variety. Specific examples always have to be assessed along an axis ranging from cultural relativism to cultural elitism and racism. While food anthropologists might be considered the most progressive in this regard, food journalists can manage the issue as well. Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods (Travel Channel) eats his way around the globe highlighting the most unusual local dishes (such as worms and insects) which he enthusiastically consumes on camera. The emphasis is on his delight at finding curious cuisine and consuming it with gusto, rather than the “yuck” of Fear Factor.[12] But beyond the novelty of new cuisine, and educating one’s palate, lies a web of ethics and ideology. Taste isn’t simply in the mouth, it’s in the mind.

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