‘Gore porn’ might be good for us

By Nicholas Tufnell on August 23rd, 2013

On Thursday morning I woke up, made myself a cup of coffee, checked my Twitter feed and watched 36 people burn to death. I witnessed a woman getting crushed by a horse, a man drowning while trapped in an aeroplane and several individuals jumping off tall buildings with no chance of survival. I finished my coffee, had a croissant and went to work. The horror I’d witnessed less than five minutes previously was already becoming a fading memory.

This is the first time in history that anyone with an internet connection can watch death and violence on demand. What’s more, no one – including myself – seems to care all that much about it. The deaths I described above can all be found in a video on YouTube produced by British Pathé: this is a prestigious production company’s output hosted on a respected mainstream website. Fancy watching a dictator getting hanged? Maybe you’d like to see someone getting shot in the head? Or perhaps you’re more partial to seeing people blown up? Hell, you might as well watch them all, seeing as they’re all a click away on YouTube.

Back in 2001, I used to visit a website called Ogrish, a place that hosted uncensored images and videos of gore, executions and accidents. I was a teenager at the time and this kind of content was still largely unheard of, or at the very least difficult to find. The internet did not permeate our lives then in the way it does today; thus an obscure or unusual niche was still a challenge to locate.

My interest came out out of morbid curiosity and a perhaps predictable teenage compulsion to explore taboo subjects. I didn’t visit the website for long, indeed I can remember very specific details of a particularly disturbing video that I unintentionally watched, thanks to a misleading title, which was not only enough to put me off the website for good, but the memory of it still enters my thoughts every now and then, hitting me with a potent mix of disgust and sadness.

Yet the website, or rather a different incarnation along the same lines, not only still exists, but has spawned various other collections of “gore porn” elsewhere. It sports an impressive following and community of gore and murder enthusiasts.

Ogrish, from the archaic term meaning “ogreish” or “ogre-like” – that is, being like a person who is felt to be particularly cruel, brutish or hideous – was undoubtedly the first easily accessible resource dedicated to acquiring this content. It was established in 2000 with the confrontational tag-line, “Can you handle life?” and lasted six years before its founders attempted to move away from its original provocative approach in favour of building a reputable, hard-hitting and uncensored alternative to mainstream news outlets under the new name LiveLeak, which you’re more likely to have heard of.

LiveLeak is, on the surface, nothing like its predecessor. While it certainly hosts many disturbing and horrific videos and images, they’re presented to the viewer in a far less confrontational manner, with clear warning signs on each page proclaiming that the content may well be disturbing and/or upsetting. But this gentrification of what was once one of the more disgusting and run-down corners of the internet makes for a disturbing contrast.

I worry I’m becoming too desensitised to certain aspects of life that I really ought to be sensitive about.

LiveLeak is not so dissimilar in look and feel to YouTube or the BBC: it looks respectable. This exploitation of a borrowed aesthetic, which implies very different context, seems to be a part of the problem of the normalisation of death and murder, potentially encouraging a detached indifference to something that should surely inspire grief and sadness.

The longer the internet has been around, the more I worry I’m becoming too desensitised to certain aspects of life that I really ought to be sensitive about. I’m not alone: in 2004, Ogrish came under attack by Korean hackers after it published a video of Kim Sun-il’s execution. After the 9/11attacks, many users uploaded videos of individuals jumping from the twin towers, resulting in a huge backlash, online and in the mainstream media, for not respecting the wishes and privacy of the families of the deceased.

In response, many of the qualities that allowed users of Ogrish a voice, which in turn established its own, albeit macabre, “community”, became steadily watered down. At the beginning of 2006, the “Flame/Lame/Hate” section, a place where members could discuss gore freely, was replaced with The Ogrish Zoo, which was closely monitored – too closely monitored for most, creating uproar in the community. The Ogrish Zoo was quickly (it lasted a day) replaced with “The Underground”, a private, members-only group, which was hidden from public view and required a previously established moderator or administrator’s permission for access. On April 21, Ogrish closed the section down entirely.

So where did the community go? It’s hard to be precise, but it certainly didn’t die. Many of the people stayed with the new LiveLeak but many moved to other, even more mainstream websites where paradoxically a more open discussion on murder could be had, so long as no direct links to extreme content were made (so that’s no to beheadings, but yes to hit men shooting women dead in shops.) Reddit, a popular news aggregator, has various pages dedicated to exactly this, under the names of “Morbid Reality”, “Gore”, and “Watch People Die”. Other websites, like Bestgore, host pictures of the “very best” suicides, murders and killings out there, a category that I didn’t even realise could exist.

Not only is there a desire for this content, but it is actively sought out and maintained by a community of people from around the world, despite coming under attack by those who wish to censor such content. These communities and resources are getting larger every year and, in turn, it seems the act of watching people die is steadily losing its ability to shock or disturb as this behaviour seeps into the mainstream and as the shock websites hosting the content become more extreme. This seems ostensibly troubling and, in search of answers, I contacted a regular contributor of gore and death videos to one of the previously mentioned websites.

This is what he said: “Watching people die helps me to value my life. If there’s any chance of a job promotion or there’s a girl at the club or bar that I kind of fancy, then I’m going to go for that promotion, talk to that girl. I’ve seen death. I watch life slip away every day and I’ve realised how precious it is – why would I ever be worried about talking to girls or demanding a pay rise when I could die any second? There are bigger things to worry about and we’d do well to remember that.

“I don’t give a fuck. I watched a kid get run over this morning. One moment he was there the next he was dead. He was probably worried about his pimples, his dorky laugh, his shitty clothes and then all of a sudden, that’s it, lights out. The fact he’s dead isn’t what’s tragic, what’s tragic is he probably wasted so much of his time worrying about pointless shit. I guess at least his death is now helping me to help myself, at least he can offer me (and others) that.

‘I don’t give a fuck. I watched a kid get run over this morning.’

“We live in an endless universe, full of endless stars, endless planets, endless galaxies and we worry about getting the 6.15 train instead of the 6.20 – what the fuck’s with that shit?! We need to stop worrying about that. We’re all going to die – that’s one of the very few facts we can be 100% certain about in life and we need to stop calling it depressing or morbid. People only think it’s fucked up to watch people die because we sweep it under the rug all the time.

“Watching people die has helped with my anxiety. I used to get really anxious about stupid stuff. Now I find it hard to be anxious because I’ve seen some seriously messed up things. What I’m trying to say is, I never realised how lucky I was until I got into gore and murder.

“I don’t know if I’ve been ‘desensitised’ like you’re suggesting. I kind of think that’s a bullshit line anyway. I mean, we all watch porn more than ever and I don’t see any of us having fewer babies because we can’t get our collective dicks up anymore. I think it actually improves society, it’s just more information, isn’t it? Do you really think there’s ever such a thing as too much information? I don’t. I think having as much information as possible and being able to pick and choose is how things should be.

“Anything else is censorship as far as I’m concerned and I’m not down with that – it stunts society’s ability to grow and mature.”

So these images and videos of death are the twenty-first century’s memento mori… at least, that’s what this individual – who wished to remain anonymous – seems to be unwittingly suggesting. It’s compelling and certainly helps me understand his and the wider community’s attitudes more than I did previously. After all, Hamlet contemplating the passing of Yorick cannot fail to cause me to question my own priorities and meagre sadness in life. So too will the medieval ubi sunt and several vanitas paintings, which education exposed me to.

Yet surely it’s just as worthy of the scrutiny I’m placing on the entertainment of our times that we can find online or in the more apparently acceptable contemporary musings in art-house films or the absurdly titled “literary fiction” of some of our greatest writers. Perhaps technology, rather than being instrumental in desensitising us, is providing the conduit for a larger number of people, through which we all as a human race can better accept and understand the inevitability of our own death and the ubiquity of transience, just as technology and entertainment of the past has always done. While I don’t think I could ever celebrate death, I can certainly understand why people think it shouldn’t be feared or considered a taboo subject.

I still have a nagging sensation this is too romanticised: that the true appetite for this destruction comes, at least in part, from a darker place. We are, after all, a culture fighting subjective violence while harbouring and maintaining systemic violence, in turn generating war, murder, famine and other monstrosities. Perhaps this lack of awareness, or our lie to ourselves manifested in our pseudo-activities of “participating” and “doing something” is where elements of the real motivation for acquiring this material originates.

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek wrote about this in his book Violence, stating that: “If one means by violence a radical upheaval of the basic social relations, then, crazy and tasteless as it may sound, the problem with historical monsters who slaughtered millions was that they weren’t violent enough. Sometimes, doing nothing is the most violent thing to do.”

To sit and watch quietly as someone dies then, could be our passive response to the systemic violence from which some individuals (sub)consciously feel they need to remove themselves. Let’s take this further with a recent example: was this not the case eight months ago in New York when a photographer who, instead of helping to save a man that had fallen onto the subway lines, opted to observe and take pictures of the person’s imminent death instead?

The passivity, in both the cameraman and the editors of the New York Post who printed the picture on their front page, could be seen as the opposite of the cowardice that both parties were vehemently accused of (although in either case it was nonetheless tasteless). It could instead be a violent act, enabled by technology, and a response to the claustrophobia of our own systemic violence. This is a reaction to the useless cries of “do something!” “act!” – because, how can we be expected to act in an environment that never truly allows us to do so?

The passive observer acts by not acting and this is true bravery. It is thanks to modern advances in technology – videos, cameras, the internet – that we can now begin to witness a gradual and long overdue upheaval of our fundamental social relations, and it’s not pretty.

These are certainly some bold claims and I seem to be getting no closer to any clear answers – but what I do know for certain is I’m accidentally stumbling on images and videos of dead people or people in the process of dying more frequently than ever and most of us seem alright with that. My grandfather was a fighter pilot, my great-grandfather was a naval captain and I’m a writer, yet I’ve seen more people die than both of them combined and this, to me, is troubling.

I don’t know if this is a maturation of society and our view of death, or a degradation. I don’t know if this is an inevitable fall-out of our own systemic violence, or a natural human compulsion. But I do know this can’t last and in the coming years this violence will either be severely censored or embraced and accepted – and I’m not sure which one of those is worse.