The Human Centipede (2010)

The 2010 After Dark Toronto Horror Film Festival was brought to a close by a screening of the most talked-about horror film of the year. Sitting in the packed Bloor Cinema, a crowd of sick minds braced itself for a lesson in the disgusting, a tutorial on the depraved. Choking on our own mental vomit, festering in our own gut wrenching shock, those of us lucky enough to have a seat in the historic sold-out theater witnessed The Human Centipede (Six & Six, 2010).  In this lovely Dutch film, we follow three hapless tourists as they are kidnapped by a deranged German surgeon who is determined to create the world's first siamese triplet. By surgically connecting the helpless victims, mouth to anus, and training them to perform depraved acts -- including fetching his morning newspaper from the front lawn -- the surgeon proves his creative genius and relishes in his over-nourished vanity. Enough said. 

The hype generated by this film is proportionate to its ability to shock and disgust. The thought of the deranged doctor's siamesse triplet, for very primal and visceral reasons, is excruciating torture for anyone who has an ounce of dignity and a pound of self preservation. As you might be able to guess, this movie capitalizes on at least one very basic aversion. Indeed, the aversion to human feces appears to develop quite readily in infancy. Brain structures such as the insula (a cortical region tucked deep within the temporal lobe; see Calder et al., 2000) seem to be critical for interpreting and experiencing feelings of disgust in response to social signals -- for example, the contorted face of the 'second-position' as she gulps a big load of ---). In The Human Centipede there is no shortage of opportunities to exercise the insula's response to these social signals of disgust, and, quite frankly, we feel that this film could serve as the basis for a neuropsychological test designed to probe this brain region's activity. 

Check out The Human Centipede at:

Calder, AJ., Keane, J., Manes, F., Antoun, N., & Young, AW. (2000). Impaired recognition and experience of disgust following brain injury. Nature Neurosceince, 3, 11, 1077-1078.
Six, T., & Six, I. (Producers), Six, T. (Director). (2010). The Huamn Centipede [Motion picture]. Netherlands: IFC Films.


I Spit On Your Grave – Day of the Woman (1978) / I Spit On Your Grave - Unrated (2010)

The editors had the opportunity to take in some festival horror at the 2010 Toronto After Dark Film Festival. One of this year's highlights was the remake of I Spit on Your Grave (Zarchi & Zbeda, 1978; Hansen & Hertzberg, 2010). Falling under the 'rape and revenge' sub-genre of exploitation/horror, both versions of this controversial film test the viewer's endurance for brutal and malicious violence, each beginning with a detailed and horrific rape scene that lasts no less than 40 minutes. But there are rewards for those that make it through the sordid ensemble of painful and nightmarish images, as we watch our heroine (Sarah Butler reprising Camille Keaton's original role as Jennifer Hills) exact a calculated and immensely satisfying revenge against her assailants. 

Whether she is doling out pampering facials with bubbling lye, moisturizing her assailant's eyes with fish guts, or hosting dinner parties with the guests’ own genitals as the main course, we are left hauntingly satisfied with our protagonist’s vicious and merciless revenge. But how could such a thing be satisfying? This is a controversial film for obvious reasons, but our shared experience as sympathizers with the victim shows us something bizarre about human evolution. Experimentally, it has been shown that individuals will punish defectors in a group, a demonstration of what has been called 'altruistic punishment'. In such studies, group members will readily punish cheats, defectors, and tyrants at a great cost to themselves, though they receive no immediate personal benefit (usually these studies involve money or food; see Fehr & Gachter, 2002). That is, revenge is prevalent in human society. In social groups, the presence of altruistic punishers provides strong incentive for even the most villainous to cooperate with the group. 

We are not trying to suggest that the severity of the plot of I Spit On Your Grave reflects in any way the trivialities of human behavioural experiments in economics, but our satisfaction at the carefully exacted revenge in the film does hint at a very powerful human tendency: the tendency to desire and seek revenge, even at cost to oneself.  After watching I Spit On Your Grave, we can leave with a feeling that justice has been served, knowing that the horrid acts of the maniacal perpetrators have been adequately countered with a punishment that tastes a bit like rotting rat carcass. 

Check out I Spit On Your Grave - Day of the Woman (1978) here:

Check out I Spit On your Grave (2010) here:

Feher, E. & Gachter, S. (2002). Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature, 415, 10, 137-140.
Hansem, L., & Hertzberg, P. (Producers). Monroe, SR. (Director). (2010). I Spit On Your Grave [Motion picture]. USA: Anchor Bay Entertainment. 
Zarchi, M., & Zbeda, J. (Producers), Zarchi, M. (Director). (1978). I Spit On Your Grave [Motion picture]. Canada: Cinemagic.

Cold Prey (2006) & Ice Spiders (2007)

There is something terrifying about the remoteness of an uninhabited mountain range, where human tracks are scarce and well off the cell phone coverage maps. Yet, they remain inevitably attractive locales to vacationing extreme snowboarders, and of course, covert military science agencies. This is obviously why the team behind Cold Prey (Sundland & Lyngner, 2006) selected the Jotunheimen mountain region in south Norway as the setting of their blood feast, in which we follow a group of young snowboarders in pursuit of fresh powder and the ultimate rush. However, the thrill hunters become the hunted as they are pursued and killed one by one by a madman, somehow surviving in the secluded mountains, in a revenge-fueled rage. Here, we are faced with the classic terrors of a raging madman, hell-bent on mercilessly ripping apart the nubile bodies of our helpless protagonists. This award-winning film is an excellent, though rather humourless, example of the power of a formulaic slasher to excite our spines and raise our neck-hairs.

The mystery and terror of secluded mountain regions, too, must have been the motivation for the setting of Ice Spiders (Colichman et al., 2007), in which a military experiment in genetic mutation goes awry and a group of hapless snowboarders are faced with monstrous -- and colourful! --  computer-generated spiders hunting and eating the flesh of unsuspecting vacationers. A battle with the spiders is ‘heroically’ championed by a washed-up skier who shows everybody, especially the rigid scientists, that sometimes you just have to think with your guts and ignore all that is reasonable and logical. 

In addition to the shared setting, these two films both conjure strong emotions in their viewers, but for different reasons. To understand how a film is capable of inducing such emotions, we must visit the scheme by Russell (1980) (provided below), which maps human emotions in two dimensions using a continuum of arousal (aroused --> not aroused) and pleasantness (pleasant --> unpleasant) to define various emotional states. Cold Prey is a smart, effective, slasher, able to thrill and terrorize the viewer. The music, pace, and atmosphere are all arousing enough, and combined with ruthless slaughter, they are unpleasant enough to actually induce fear. Ice Spiders, on the other hand, is hardly arousing but it is chock-full of unpleasant stimulation -- all the gore is in broad daylight, the dialogue seems like it was written by a kid at bible camp, and the spiders look terrible, but not in the intended sense. This combination makes the viewer disgusted with themselves at best for continuing to watch, and most definitely saddened by the antics unfolding. These two films are certainly not alone in their abilities to induce a change in the emotional state of the viewer, but together they illustrate the importance of coordinating the arousing stimulation in creating an effective horrific experience.

Check out Cold Prey at: 

Check out Ice Spiders at:

Colichman, P., Hess, A., Hess, S., Jarchow, SP., & Rosenthal, JR. (Producers), & Takacs, T. (Director). (2007). Ice Spiders [Motion picture]. USA: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. 
Russell, JA. (1980). A circumplex model of affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 1161-1178. 
Sundland, M., & Lyngner, M. (Producers), Uthaug, R. (Director). (2006). Cold Prey [Motion picture]. Norway: SF Norge AS. 


The Brain Machine (aka Grey Matter) (1977)

Committed to a scientific experiment of a mysterious purpose and subjected to strange free-association psychological tests, four strangers are haunted as they slowly rediscover their heinous pasts. Horrific memories return to each of the unsuspecting volunteers as they lie in electrical impulse-sending devices that look shockingly and threateningly like reclining lawn chairs. The climax of the film sees the hapless research subjects surrounded by walls caked with horrid wallpaper that are slowly and assuredly closing in as a group of military personal hijack a scientist's experiment with a new top-secret machine that extracts the 'truth' from peoples' brains. The four strangers, having had their terrible pasts unveiled, kill themselves and each other as the military ruthlessly continues to probe their brains, ignoring the merciful pleas of the unsuspecting and benevolent scientist. 

Despite the TV-style acting, the overuse of strange and apparently meaningless establishing shots, and the fact that the boom mic makes a special guest appearance in a number of scenes, The Brain Machine (Burnham, 1977) has a lot to offer. Somewhere under the inexplicable dialogue, the confusing cuts between seemingly unrelated scenes, and the fact that, as a viewer, we really have no idea what the original purpose of the experiment was, there is a gem of an idea here that is surprisingly precocious. 

What if you could tell the truth by the activity of a person's brain? This idea has broken out of the realm of science fiction in recent years; ‘brain reading’ experiments have been underway for some time. Some scientists have used advancements in electroencephalography (EEG) to probe whether individuals possess guilty knowledge (e.g. can you tell whether a defendant has seen a murder weapon before by measuring EEG?; e.g. see Farwell & Donchin, 1991). Functional magnetic resonance imaging has also been used for ‘mind reading’. By showing people a number of images of objects and measuring brain activity throughout, the patterns of activity observed have then been used to predict which object a person is thinking of when none is present on the screen (see Kay et al., 2008). Though some scientists are claiming these tests are highly accurate, the peer-reviewing academic jury is still out. Regardless, with this type of truth-from-brainwave research currently underway, we are left wondering whether The Brain Machine stands as a prophecy warning us of a government's resolve to control its citizens by forcing the truth, or simply a B-rated sci-fi flick that gives us the opportunity to watch the Dukes of Hazard's Rosco Purvis Coltrane (i.e. James Best) in a starring role. Either way, even though you might want to keep it a secret, we recommend grabbing a comfortable, electricity-free lawn-chair, sitting back , and allowing The Brain Machine to challenge you to discover the truth -- about its value!

Check out The Brain Machine (1977) at:

Learn more about 'mind reading' at:

Burnham, SC. (Producers),Houck Jr., JN. (Director). (1977). The Brain Machine [Motion picture]. USA: Howco Productions Inc.. 
Farwell, LA., & Donchin, E. (1991). The truth will out: Interrogative polygraphy (“Lie Detection”)  with even-related brain potentials. Psychophysiology, 28, 5, 531-547.
Kay, K.N., Naselaris, T., Prenger, R.J., & Gallant, J.L. (2008). Identifying natural images from human brain activity. Nature, 452, 352-355.

The Tingler (1959)

Passionate, sincere, and selfless Dr. Warren Chapin has spent his life trying to understand one of the oldest, most prominent, and most mysterious of human emotions: Fear. Working from his lab, meticulously experimenting on various mammals, perpetually failing to identify the source of this bizarre and ubiquitous phenomenon, Dr. Chapin all but gives up his pursuit. Then one day he discovers that violent screaming is instrumental in releasing a person's 'fear tensions', and concludes that the answer to his question lies in a simple experiment: What happens when a person cannot scream? The answer? Well, potentially, death. More precisely, the parasitic slug/centipede-like organism (i.e., the ‘tingler’) that lives undetected at the base of the human spine grows when its host is aroused. This organism is paralyzed by the frightened screams of the person it inhabits. If a person is unable to scream, the tingler grows out of control and terror ensues. That is obvious.

The Tingler (Castle, 1959) is a fantastic piece of science fiction/horror, using a fancifully imaginative basis for its plot. The film is adorable, and Vincent Price gives a delightful performance as our charming and mistrustful protagonist. For our purposes, however, The Tingler also stands as a testament to the inaccessibility of brain science mid-century, and helps expose (in a somewhat exaggerated manner) the advancements of modern neuropsychology. We now know that the processing of fear in the human brain relies heavily (though by no means exclusively) on the workings of a small almond-shaped nucleus called the amygdala; patients with damage to this brain structure show deficits in both interpreting and experiencing fear (see Calder, Lawrence & Young, 2001). But even in light of our current knowledge about the brain, the idea of a vicious, mindless, spine-dwelling parasite remains charming, and is certainly more in line with the phenomenology of fear and our intuitions about it. After all, we do feel tingles when we are highly aroused, and slimy, squiggly parasites are much more frightening than almonds.

Check out The Tingler at: 

Calder, AJ., Lawrence, AD., & Young, AW. (2001). The neuropsychology of fear and loathing. Nature, 2, 353-363.
Castle, W. (Producers), Castle, W.. (Director). (1959). The Tingler [Motion picture]. USA: Columbia Pictures. 

An Introduction to Goretical Stimulation

In film, 'horror' is a term that has generally been used to denote films of a 'lesser genera'; subclass schlock filled with uninteresting, pointless, cheap tricks capitalizing on base aversions. Here at Goretical Stimulation, we hope to demonstrate that horror films can teach us something unique about ourselves, our brains, and our fascination with things that make us squirm, weep, and cower.