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Why are we all so damn obsessed with death game TV?

Squid Game, the Netflix phenomenon—which has since become the most-streamed series of all time on the platform and has boosted Korean media stocks a whopping 50 per cent—has definitely got the world turning heads… Without giving away too many spoilers, the plot involves a scene where individuals are kidnapped and forced to play a series of games to win prize money—if they lose, they die. The ‘death game’ concept adopted by many other series, from The Hunger Games trilogy to Alice in Borderland, has had a significant rise in popularity over the last decade or so. But why are we so drawn to the hellish dystopian landscapes—the fictional scenario of characters placed into a game which is literally: sink or swim; kill or be killed?

Why do people love death game TV?

There’s something strangely gripping about the scenario of human beings being stripped down to their primal instincts—void of social inhibitions. In essence, it is the ‘what if’ which is fun to fantasize about. People like to imagine themselves as winners—reasoning their way through the borderline of unfair puzzles and impossible situations. But let’s be realistic, games have losers—and with the survival rate of Squid Game being 1 in 456, would you take your chances?

Within the death game genre, there is usually one particular trope that draws in the viewers: the main character is usually just an average person. In Alice in Borderland, Ryōhei Arisu is just a normal guy—it’s an aspect that makes him actually quite endearing. He’s not particularly strong and struggles to apply himself in the real world—the main character is void of Hollywood perfectionism, which gives him a level of relatability, the ‘I could be that guy’ feeling. Seong Gi-hun, the gambling-addicted father who is the lead star of Squid Game is the same: he isn’t particularly impressive and only makes clever moves when it counts. People love to root for the underdog, and the storytelling of these shows have tapped into that.

But what about the science?

Okay, so that might be stating the obvious, but what about all the psychological research explaining why we’re all so obsessed with death game TV? Surprisingly, when digging for details, I was left empty-handed. Indeed, there is a wealth of information on why we’re drawn to the horror genre but not specifically the death game genre. Researchers, if you’re reading this, you know what to do—the world needs to know…

Luckily, there are a few points we can draw on to explain why Squid Game has made such an impact over the last month. Research in the Journal of Media Psychology found that people watched horror movies for three reasons: tension, relevance and unrealism. For some, tension from the shock and thrill of a horror or thriller movie can be an entire experience of its own. Others are drawn to the relevance—as mentioned earlier—with specific characters the viewer can relate to in a dystopian universe. For others, horror can be a satisfying experience of ‘unrealism’—the enjoyment of knowing, for a fact, that it’s all fake anyway. 

To put it simply, it’s complicated. “There are different experiences people have while watching horror movies,” Doctor Katherine Brownlowe, an assistant professor in the departments of neurology and psychiatry at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, told Bustle in an interview. “Some people enjoy the gore, some people like being startled, and some people love the sheer escapism it offers.”

‘It’s nothing sexual for me’: inside the fractionalised community of gore fans

Despite the clear attraction ‘shock sites’ have received on the internet since their first appearance towards the second half of the first decade of the 2000s, few people have examined viewers’ relationships to the real-life images of death and gore they contain. Most of us know of platforms like BestGore and TheYNC, yet mentioning gore enthusiasts—or worse even, speaking to them directly about where their out-of-the-ordinary ‘hobby’ might come from—is frowned upon to say the least, and seen as taboo by the majority of the online community.

Why would you want to hear what an individual who likes watching gruesome car accidents videos has to say for himself, right? Who in their right mind enjoys seeing pictures of what happens to the unlucky ones who somehow got on the wrong side of a Colombian cartel?

Those are fair queries but it is through this type of questioning that misconceptions start developing. Sure, some gore enthusiasts can be identified as psychotics, psychopaths, and sociopaths—just take a look at the infamous Luka Magnotta and other (serial) murderers who were first introduced to killing through animal cruelty. That being said, when it comes to the real-life gore community, like most things in life, it’s not all black and white.

Following that thought, I decided to reach out to some members of the community in order to get their own point of view on exactly what attracts them to the content shock sites have to offer. And let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. In February 2021, I managed to speak to one user on Reddit, TangerineTragedies, who kindly shared their insight into the grim world of gore. But let’s be honest, speaking to one single person won’t exactly help me sway people’s opinion on gore enthusiasts. So I decided to find another one. It took more than six months, and surprisingly, they found me.

During this research, I also discovered one of the few studies done on the gore community. This specific one, titled Online spectatorship of death and dying: Pleasure, purpose and community in BestGore.com, was published in 2017, and analysed 8 videos, 35 photographs, and 600 user-generated comments on one of, if not the most popular gore content sharing platform, which recently got shutdown. From trauma, relief, as well as outright discrimination and racism to pure curiosity and a need to criticise systems of power that perpetuate suffering, here is an inside look into some of the many reasons gore content’s fractionalised community continues to thrive.

My anonymous interviewee, who we decided together to name Smoke, is 17 and currently lives in Florida, US. When profiling him, Smoke shared that he identifies as male but was assigned female at birth (AFAB), also adding that he works “a minimum wage job in fast food.”

Smoke enjoys real-life gore content—duh—as well as gore art such as drawn pictures of gore, “not necessarily photos or sculptures.” “When I hear the word ‘gore’ I think of real videos taken at tragic scenes, with blood and things that make most people squeamish. I also think of gore art, which I think is a fascinating genre! I would say I consume those types of gore weekly or sometimes daily,” he told me.

Like many other members of the gore community, Smoke used to frequently visit the Canadian-owned platform BestGore before its closure in 2021. Although gone for now, the website’s landing page currently reads, “Just when the caterpillar thought its world was over, it turned into a butterfly!”

Other than that, Smoke shared he now goes on “Reddit and surprisingly Instagram. I also use GoreGrish, but not as much as the first two.” If you’d like to see what content we’re talking about here (at your own risk), Smoke shared a short list of some of his go-to subreddits and Instagram pages: r/medizzy, r/eyeblech, r/NSFL, @c0rpsed, @ugly.sketch, and @sinnykitt.

Interestingly, when it comes to different types of gore content and the reactions they can receive from members of the community online, such as in the comments section of platforms like BestGore, GoreGrish, LiveLeak or TheYNC, a distinct hierarchy comes into play. Although all the images shared on these websites are taboo in relation to what is considered normal in Western society, some tend to upset people more than others.

In Film and television after 9/11, a collection of essays covering the effect of the 11 September 2001 New York terrorist attacks on subsequent film and television productions, Mikita Brottman wrote The Fascination of the Abomination: the Censored Images of 9/11 in which she recalls the backlash against one video that set images of bodies leaping from the World Trade Center to the song ‘Free Falling’ by Tom Petty. Similarly, Canadian murderer Luka Magnotta was eventually arrested because he enraged (rightly so) a group of internet users for posting videos of him killing kittens on BestGore.

Many academics have previously noted that fans of gore content tend to value its aural and visual registers for connoting realism and authenticity. As proved by Brottman however, even among users of shock sites, some content offends—and perhaps shocks—more than others. This clearly indicates that not all gore enthusiasts are the same, and not all can ‘handle’ the same amount of gruesome.

“There is definitely a community of people who enjoy animal content specifically. Some view it as a fetish. I have seen videos of women in heels stepping on puppies and baby animals. The worst one was when they shoved the heel into the eye of a baby dog. I feel there is a line between human gore and animal gore, since I believe animals cannot do wrong. They have no morals, so technically anything they do is neither good nor bad. But honestly, I cannot bring myself to view any harm to animals. I am a massive animal lover and it would send me into a very dark spiral if I were to see anything like it again,” Smoke told me.

This is where the whole idea of building a resistance comes into play. When speaking about how he first got introduced to gore content, Smoke shared, “Through Mortal Kombat fatality scenes. Ironically, at first, I was scared of them and had to cover my eyes. But then I actively sought them out on YouTube. I also had my fair share of looking at surgeries on YouTube. Then came BestGore, which I think I found while looking up ‘why do people like gore?’ and was sucked into it. After that, I slowly found all of the other resources I now use to watch gore.”

While the reasons cited in research on why viewers seek shocking content are manifold, one in particular seems to jump out in most cases: the presumed affective and bodily responses experienced at the moment of viewing. I obviously had to ask Smoke if he enjoys watching this type of content, to which he answered positively, “Not because I like people dying, but because of morbid curiosity maybe. I’ve always liked watching surgeries and medical gore, and sometimes it just doesn’t suffice. It’s nothing sexual for me, it’s just interesting how our bodies work, and how so much is going on while I’m sitting at home.”

Smoke went on to compare it to that feeling many of us—me and him included—get when watching pimple-popping videos. “It’s satisfying in a nasty way. Lots of people look down on gore-watchers because they think it’s inhumane to get enjoyment out of suffering. But it’s already taped, and the people are either alive or dead. I am simply consuming it, not donating or actively participating in this type of content.”

In reality, very few members of the community liken gore content to pornography and treat the act of looking as inherently fetishistic. Some might find the suffering of a subject stimulating, pleasurable or hilarious, but unlike conventional pornography, arousal here is derived from shock, revulsion, fear, and even terror—not titillation.

Others might use gore content as a way to harm themselves. “As viewers watch others suffer, they themselves suffer. Their sense of safety is breached as their sense of vulnerability is magnified,” reads the first research mentioned above.

The third and last common spectatorial profile is when viewers express a duty or desire to see what mainstream media has hidden or even whitewashed. Looking at such content then becomes a way to strengthen one’s anti-censorship discourses. Oh, and let’s not forget viewers who simply want to numb their mind prior to the horrors of combat or gruesome surgeries.

If it wasn’t already, it’s probably now become clear to you that the gore community is fairly wide and made of many different types of people, who are here for varied reasons. Yet, despite its impressive size in numbers and like many other communities born on the dark fringes of the internet, it is everything but united.

“When I think of the community, I think of words like dodgy, men, slurs, and generally negative traits. Although once in a while there’s a glimmer of humanity, for example on a post about a botched trans-bottom surgery, while there were transphobic comments, there were also some people saying nice things. Like ‘I hope they got it fixed’ and stuff. So while the majority of it is bad, there are still some good people in there,” Smoke told me.

When speaking to my mysterious friend, I couldn’t help but wonder whether, if he had all the time in the world, he would spend most of it watching gore content. So I asked him. “Honestly, if I had an endless feed of gore I could go through like on TikTok I would be obsessed—probably to a point where it’s not healthy. I have noticed that I have sprees of watching it, and when that happens it’s most likely because I’m feeling more depressed or unmotivated. The only thing that mainly stops me, specifically on Reddit, is when I find I looked through the daily content already and I’m watching repeats of things I’ve already seen. I have tried to stop myself from going on specific sites for gore, because that’s when I can’t easily stop looking through them since there is so much more content than on Reddit or Instagram. I am pretty confident that I can stop myself if I find it to be an unhealthy amount spent on my phone, or I can feel it’s affecting my mental health a lot more negatively.”

Not to be mistaken though, Smoke has many other interests, such as digital art, cross-stitching, crocheting, sewing, and painting. “I play guitar and violin as well,” he added. Sometimes he fosters kittens “because they are just too cute to resist!” He also enjoys anime and cartoons. “I think I am pretty kid-like even though my age isn’t.”

“Even though gore is seen as a taboo, the people who watch it still have lives and it isn’t as black and white as it seems. Even the people who say terrible things, maybe they just haven’t found security in themselves, and lash out. I definitely don’t think people should actively support watching gore, but if they know someone who likes it, they shouldn’t be treated differently just because of that fact. Everyone’s different, and whether you can handle graphic videos or not doesn’t make you better or worse than others.”