In Voice: AIGA Journal of Design, novelist David Barringer writes about the difficulties of taking his kids to Blockbuster, where straight-to-DVD horror movies with titles like Mr. Hell and The Pumpkin Karver share space on the new-release shelf with PG-rated major studio releases. Despite his best efforts, Barringer has been unable to prevent his young children from glimpsing the gory images on these DVD covers. As a result, he's suffered through "nights of nightmares on my street."
Though Barringer probably completed his article before the horrific recent shootings at Virginia Tech, his sentiments are in line with criticism that has been levelled at the horror genre in the wake of the massacre. Among others, filmmaker Eli Roth and his studio, Lionsgate, have drawn heat for not delaying the June release of the ultraviolent Hostel: Part II, which depicts the bloody torture and murder of college students.
Like most Americans who object to the escalating level of violence in pop culture, Barringer is quick to point out his aversion to censorship. Rather than a ban on horror, he advocates genre segregation. At his most thought-provoking, however, he almost hits on the compelling commercial reasons for the genre-integrated displays, writing:
"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.'"
Any working designer knows the rationale behind the explicit images on these DVD covers. Companies manufacture these DVDs to get noticed on stuffed chain-store shelves. They're all competing for the attention of horror fans, who aren't exactly entertainment-starved these days.
The covers are plenty nightmarish on their own, but close proximity to family-friendly fare increases their effect incalculably. Horror imagery has a familiar color scheme in which blood red, black, and pallid-flesh gray figure heavily. An entire wall of scary movies might strike the eye more as a wash of unpleasant color than a gallery of transgressive goodies. The details of each gore-soaked cover stand out, however, when positioned next to the bright blues, pinks, and yellows with which family films are advertised.
The visual shorthand that designers employ to compete for attention at Blockbuster and other megastores precludes subtlety or suggestion; it aspires to a flamboyant familiarity. Devoid of individual identity, the images only take on personality when contrasted with one another. So Chucky, the mutants of The Hills Have Eyes and that scary clown guy from Saw will likely continue to appear among the smiling heroes of bloodless Hollywood films. And parents will continue to squirm...That is, until their children are old enough to enjoy Severed.