Have you ever noticed that killers in horror movies almost never use guns? They wield knives, machetes, axes, spears, harpoons, pitchforks, chainsaws, meathooks, finger-blades, chains, ropes, tree branches, human bones, sledgehammers, scythes, drills, scissors, cleavers, forks, corkscrews, nails, glass shards, skewers, razor wire, wood chippers, claws, teeth, talons, beaks, proboscises, acid, electrical wires, workout equipment, stakes, cans of soda, flying knife spheres, psychic powers… and, very occasionally, ears of corn. But why not guns?
I recall, back in the glory days of my VHS-renting youth, endlessly perusing the horror section at my local video store, marveling at the glorious VHS box art promising scene after scene of tantalizing horror (which the tapes inside could never truly fulfill). I saw monsters and murder weapons aplenty… but it was incredibly rare that I saw a revolver or pistol of any sort. The cover for SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT PART 2 was the film that made me suddenly realize: It’s the only “proper” horror film I had yet seen to feature a handgun prominently in its promotional art. None have featured a bazooka or machine gun.
Why is that? Why don’t horror filmmakers hand out more guns?
Arguments could be made, perhaps, that films like PREDATOR and ALIENS are horror movies, and both of those films feature many prominent guns — some of them rather large. But horror fans usually include those films — at best — in a Venn diagram that overlaps action and horror. ALIEN is a horror film; ALIENS is action through-and-through. Indeed, the inclusion of guns is pretty much what makes ALIENS an action film. Had the characters been unarmed, and less prepared to face the film’s monsters, then it would be a horror film… arguably.
Yet there are many, many, many feature films in the world to feature death-by-gunshot.
I have probably been witness to tens of thousands of on-screen murders in my life, having seen innumerable people get gunned down by soldiers and killers… and yet I have trouble thinking of an instance where the intent of these deaths was dread and horror (beyond the “War is Hell” existentialist type).
Why are guns seemingly antithetical to pure horror cinema?
The most obvious answer to this question is that of the visceral, of course. Guns are designed to be range weapons that can take a life from across a room — or even across a vast field. They still leave their victims just as dead as a noose or a knife, and the death may be just as gory, but there lacks a certain sense of intimacy. There is a sense of cold calculation to the gun that is lacking in a knife; using it to kill requires a face-to-face encounter with the intended victim, who will likely be all the more terrified — in many instances, they get to look their executioner in the face as the life drains from them. This is a visceral thing we can all relate to; we can’t necessarily know how it feels to be instantly offed by a far-off assassin, but we can imagine a brute — one standing right next to us — driving an icepick into our lungs.
What’s more… there’s blood.
We’ve all bled at one point or another, so when we see blood on screen, we have an immediate visceral reaction. A bullet hole bleeds, of course — some filmmakers have even affected big splashes of blood following a gunshot, as if humans were filled with pressurized blood balloons — but a bullet hole doesn’t bleed quite like a jugular vein opened by a straight razor. We see the blood gushing, and we think of death… of pain.
But beyond the visceral, there are some cultural concepts surrouding guns that keeps them out of the realm of horror.
One of those might be that they are too real. Recent studies have found that gun ownership is dropping in the U.S. (although when one collects guns, one tends to go far with it.), but guns are still a fairly familiar sight in many households across the US. Many people feel that gun ownership is a necessity “to protect themselves” from a criminal element, and others live in neighborhoods where shootings are common. Many fear guns, whereas others feel they are a needed appliance… and some people just accept them as a part of everyday violence.
One of the many functions of a horror film is a means to deal with our extreme fears in a safe environment; we can look at death and cogitate rather than run for our lives, or we can even laugh it off. Horror films can be fun, after all. Seeing a gun on screen is just a reflection of something we already know to be dangerous; it’s not unlocking anything deep-seated or profound. It’s just a depiction of reality.
Also, guns are military devices; the government issues them to soldiers, who carry them into dangerous areas, ready to fire at a moment’s notice. In military operations, guns are very much a necessity, and military personnel are often encouraged to see their weapons as valuable tools rather than instruments of horror. Ditto for the police department, who use sidearms as a matter of course. When a gun is fired in a military or police situation, it’s a way to kill, yes… but ideally within a complex, order-keeping situation inflicted by an order-keeping force.
To many, the gun is seen as a tool of order rather than of chaos. A horror movie stabbing is a chaotic thing — it’s messy, and it’s brutal. A lot of the American consciousness does not see guns as messy murder machines; indeed, they are often viewed as implements of the opposite. Even if we support gun control, or fear guns in general, I think we, as Americans, inherently understand — even if we don’t condone — this mindset.
Additionally, blunt hand weapons imply a level of intentional brutality that is not communicated by a gun. A gun death can be accidental — indeed, many are killed by accidental handgun discharges every year — whereas it takes resolve to swing an axe into someone’s chest, and the person (or undead lunatic) with enough gumption to do this is far scarier than someone who shoots you from far away. If someone shoots you from a distance, they just need you cleared from their field of battle. If Jason Voorhees bisects you with a blade, he is doing it because, on some level, he hates you and wants you dead. You are not an intellectual exercise to Jason — you are the victim of killer instinct.
This poses the question: Can guns be made scary?
I suppose anything can be scary (well, maybe not ears of corn), but given the cultural baggage and visceral reactions we have to guns, it would take a particular set of circumstances. The gun in SAW II, for instance — the one that fired automatically through a door’s peephole — was plenty scary, although this was likely because a person wasn’t actually there to pull the trigger. The guns in ROBOCOP were scary, but mostly because of the horrible violence done to poor Officer Murphy.
The way to make guns scary, then, is to let the audience see, up close, the actual blood and gore they can produce. A killer holding you down and shooting your arms, shoulders, eyes, and then head… yeah, that’s a horror movie kill, not an action movie kill. Guns, especially in action movies, have been made too clean, too tool-like. To reiterate, horror movies are messy — they require actual violence and blood that we can see on an intimate level — and messy gunshots may be the way to do that.