Depictions of the eating of meat in horror films and games have been a major fascination for me for years. As a vegetarian, I may have a different gut reaction to this than most people, but that doesn’t mean that the trope of disturbing carnivorism lacks mainstream “appeal”. The horror genre is alive with stories of slaughter and cannibalism. Think of the Hannibal series, which confuses our sensibilities by conflating the horrors of cannibalism and the luxurious aesthetics of haute cuisine. Think of Little Nightmares, where grotesque meat preparation is both a major theme and part of a few revolting puzzles.
It’s unsurprising that cannibalism is generally frowned upon. What is far more interesting is the ambivalence people seem to have towards meat in general, even if cannibalism is taken out of the equation. Most people eat meat, yet horror films often present the production of meat as savagery, and the eating of it as revolting. Horror hints at a fundamental truth: whether human or animal, we’re all meat. Animal cadavers, often butchered pigs, are a popular prop that illustrates this. Yet most horror media points to this only to shy away from it, lest it add something meaningful or provocative to the discourse. The tenor here is usually “isn’t it terrifying when humans are treated like animals?”, but it stops short of diving deeper into the irony that people’s greatest fear is to be treated the same way people treat animals.
I recently picked up Resident Evil VII, and unsurprisingly, revolting meat and animal cadavers play a rather substantial part in it. It’s no secret that it takes its cues from one of my favourite horror films, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Its remote, dilapidated farm house, its cannibalistic hillbilly family, its chainsaws and meat hooks; they all have their unmistakable echoes in RE VII. These tropes have become icons, and RE VII wears them proudly on its sleeve. And, on the surface at least, it uses them to great effect. RE VII is thrilling, terrifying, gory, revolting, and utterly over the top.
That is to say, it is pretty much exactly what my teenage brain conjured up when I first heard about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Its reputation suggested a sadistic, blood-soaked fever dream of a film. And while this isn’t completely false, when I finally watched it I was completely surprised by its lack of gratuitousness. It was shocking and sickening, yes, but I was also impressed by its restraint and focus. And there’s subtext here that speaks plainly. You might miss it if you don’t pay attention, but it’s not exactly subtle: TCM is about how our inhumane treatment of animals dehumanises us. It’s simple, but something that’s worth saying, and TCM says it surprisingly well.
It’s a consistent theme throughout the film. It is introduced in the very beginning, when the hitchhiker talks about his family (yes, the family) that worked at the slaughterhouse and claims that sledgehammers were better for killing animals than modern methods (“they died better that way”). The point is driven home when Leatherface, more infamous for his chainsaw, kills his first victim, Kirk, with a sledgehammer. What makes the scene so disturbing isn’t merely the extreme physical violence, but the fact that Leatherface doesn’t seem to recognise Kirk as a fellow human being. There’s no apparent passion or sadism behind the murder. He kills Kirk in an efficient, almost offhanded manner. In other words, he treats him precisely like one would an animal in a slaughterhouse. There are many more examples, like Franklin’s speech about the horrors of slaughtering animals, the disturbing farm animal noises, the meat hook and freezer treatment of victims’ bodies, and, of course, the infamous dinner scene. This should be enough to illustrate that quite some care went into this subtext, enough to develop a coherent theme.
The problem with Resident Evil VII (and, to be fair, with much of iterative genre fiction) is that is uses all the iconic tropes without understanding or caring about their subtext. It throws them in haphazardly: a dead pig here, a meat hook there. A short dinner scene with rotting meat of questionable origin before you’re off again driving a car into a regenerating zombie dad. RE VII seems almost proud of its inability to focus. Perhaps I’m being too harsh; it’s mostly a compelling ride after all. But as games like Wolfenstein: The New Order illustrate, camp and substance aren’t necessarily at odds with each other. In fact, it's possible for them to not merely coexist, but to actively complement each other.
It may seem unfair or misguided to harp on about minor details like meat hooks and pig cadavers in a noisy game like RE VII, but keep in mind that it invites close attention to these details by invoking practically every trope associated with TCM, all the while valiantly ignoring the reasons that made those tropes truly terrifying and compelling. Perhaps even more importantly, RE VII’s failure to do the animal trope justice reflects its more general failure to be a good piece of horror. Yes, it’s tense and frightening, but in this case, I’m afraid that’s just not enough.
Despite its bad rap, the horror genre can be a powerful vehicle for social or psychological commentary, and, as TCM proves, this commentary doesn’t have to be overly intellectual or distracting from the bloodshed. To be fair, there’s plenty of films that say just as little as RE VII, but films have always had a strong tradition of horror with some depth. The same hasn’t always been true for games, and still isn’t as far as the mainstream is concerned, even if great indies like Detention, Anatomy or Stories Untold have raised the bar for horror games.