This article is part of our ongoing series, 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Outrage and hysteria have been associated with the human race for centuries, so it’s no surprise that horror movies have felt the brunt of it throughout the years. The genre’s intention to disturb and unsettle viewers means that some movies will naturally offend some people who don’t appreciate these sensibilities, and Satan forbid those filmmakers who criticize religious and/or political ideologies with their efforts as well.
There’s been lots of hysteria in response to horror movies throughout the years, and it’s arrived in several forms. Narrowing this list down to 10 films was a difficult task, but the Boo Crew — Chris Coffel, Valerie Ettenhofer, Anna Swanson, Brad Gullickson, Rob Hunter, Meg Shields, Jacob Trussell and myself — managed to select a bunch of films that caused a ruckus for a variety of reasons. Enjoy, and please remember that these are only movies.
The Devils (1971)
The Devils was a brick throw that made a lot of ruling class squares so uncomfortable that until recently, it was impossible to get your sacrilegious mitts on a full cut. Directed by glitterhound and grandmaster of transgression Ken Russell, The Devils is based on the very real 17th-century shenanigans that befell Loudun, a French town where well-worn religious politics got out of hand and spiraled into hysterical possessions, Church-sanctioned enema torture, and the scapegoating of a priest too groovy for his own good. Despite (or perhaps because of) being based on historical record, Russell’s nuntastic masterpiece drew immediate ire from the catholic church. This, despite hefty interference from censorship boards who doled out ‘X’ ratings in exchange for the elimination of several of the film’s wilder moments (notably: an orgy atop a wooden effigy of Christ crucified and a mother superior masturbating with a charred tibia). Banned by the Vatican, awarded a rare zero-star rating from Roger Ebert, and widely reviled as distasteful, irreverent trash, The Devils is so much more than the sensational scenes it is often reduced to. The film is a timeless warning about how those in power can pervert reality at the expense of those who oppose them. No wonder the censors got hot and bothered. (Meg Shields)
The Exorcist (1973)
Where to begin with the outrage that The Exorcist caused? Perhaps with the angiography scene in which a needle is inserted into Regan’s (Linda Blair) neck and squirts blood halfway across the room? While medical professionals praised the accuracy, audiences reacted to the procedure with revulsion, but those in the theater who couldn’t handle a simple flesh wound had no idea what was in store for them. Take, for example, the infamous crucifix masturbation scene or the shocking body horror as Regan contorts every which way while possessed. The responses to the film’s content ranged from audience members fainting to a reported incident of a woman miscarrying while watching. Some claim theater bathrooms were inundated with vomit during and after screenings, others report that ambulances were on-call to deal with woozy cinema patrons. In some areas, the film was banned out of fear that it would corrupt the young viewers so eager to watch it. During the video nasties censorship of the 80s in the UK, copies of the film were withdrawn from public consumption and it was not allowed to have a home video release until 1999. Despite all the outcry, the film managed to garner an R rating instead of an X rating that surely would have left it dead on arrival in American cinemas. With an R rating, the film was relatively accessible and audiences ate it up. The Exorcist broke box office records and is to this day one of the most successful horror films ever made. Regan’s antics may have driven viewers to hysteria, but it drove them into theater seats first. (Anna Swanson)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
“There will be a brief intermission before the shrieking resumes,” a writer named Sarah Henry announced in a ‘70s issue of the Ottawa Citizen, describing the scene in which so-called “morality detectives” apparently came to a Canadian theater and pulled The Texas Chain Saw Massacre from the drive-in’s programming slate. They weren’t the only ones up in arms about the cannibalistic hillbilly Texans who made a mean case for giving up meat in Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic. Upon its release, the low-budget film was met with outrage nearly as often as acclaim, and ran into trouble with the MPAA, British Board of Film Censors, and international distributors for its brutality. Ultimately, it became a hit, even while several nations banned it, and for good reason: besides being a hell of a good time, Massacre is the American proto-slasher, an innovative film — for both its genre and the medium as a whole — in a dozen different ways. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
As a middle schooler, after I worked up the courage and survived my first watch of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the next film on my “This Movie Is Dangerous, So I Must Watch” list was Pier Paolo Pasolini‘s Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom. In the days before the internet, you learned about these nasty perversions of cinema through scattered magazine clippings and the dire warnings from your friends who supposedly exposed themselves to such gruesome delights ahead of you (but they were often caught to be lying). Saló maintains its intoxicating reputation because the film decimated the minds of that first batch of lucky audiences, and it was marked by the murder of Pasolini three weeks prior to the film’s release. Its critics dismissed its commentary on fascistic corruption, choosing to focus exclusively on the gauntlet of violence exhibited upon the kidnapping and torture of its teenage protagonists. And, oh yeah, let’s not forget the circle of feces. After premiering in France, the film was nearly blocked from screening in Italy, forced to take a limited release in the States, and remained banned in several countries around the world. All of this is to say, “Yo, you gotta check this shit out.” Again, emphasis on the shit. Such handwringing protests always guarantee more eyes on the object of derision. My middle schooler self really didn’t understand what he saw in Saló, but he knew he saw it. Victory. (Brad Gullickson)
Sometimes the outrage comes to you, and sometimes… well, sometimes the outrage requires a little tweaking. The filmmakers behind this low budget exploitation picture saw their film (then named Slaughter) barely released and then buried before they went on with their lives. A few years later, though, a wily producer stripped their credits, added a newly-shot ending showing a woman being brutally murdered, and re-released it under the catchy title Snuff. A real murder! Caught on film! People picketed theaters showing the movie which in turn drew news coverage and increased interest and ticket sales. And those picketers? They were hired by that very same wily producer to protest his own film. Genius. The truth was eventually discovered, but that didn’t stop a New York District Attorney from opening an investigation that wasn’t closed until the film’s supposed victim identified herself as being very much alive. Unlike some of the films on this list, the movie isn’t any good, but it’d be rude not to acknowledge the masterful manipulation and manufactured controversy surrounding its release. (Rob Hunter)