Growing up in my house was pretty gross. If I wasn’t drive-by farting on my older sister every chance I could get, then my stepsisters were popping each other’s zits for fun. Even my stepmother would get that weird glint in her eye when someone got a splinter or a cut and she got the chance to play doctor.
Looking back I wonder what the hell was wrong with us, but then I remember that it wasn’t just us. In school, kids were having burping contests and I was thoroughly impressed that one of my friends could fart on command (still impressed as an adult). It turns out everyone is pretty gross—it’s just a sign of being alive. Humans are nasty, and we used to see all that grossness reflected in our games, our TV shows, our movies, and our culture (Ren and Stimpy anyone? Aaahh!!! Real Monsters? Garbage Pail Kids?).
Almost every day there was something gross in pop culture I could torture my siblings with, but it didn’t last. Now we see crazy graphic violence regularly. It adds a level of “realism” and mortal urgency that we don’t get anywhere else, but the gross-out humor of the ‘90s is gone. Inflamed pimples and drippy snot wads are still considered gross, but in video games, film and beyond violence and gore have taken center stage to become the new norm. What’s offensive has changed, and I take offense to that.
I remember when the first Mortal Kombat game released and I could only play it at my mom’s house. My dad would freak if he saw those fatalities, but mom was cool with it as long as I knew it was fake. She felt the same way about horror movies, and mostly because that level of gore was rare. I guess they thought that the fake version would be enough like the real version to cause issues for me, but that just begs the question of why we let gore became prominent at all.
When it broke though, it was like a storm of blood and guts. Mortal Kombat was every parent’s nightmare and many people just couldn’t handle the sight of it because of how uncomfortable it made them feel and how it might influence their children. Little did my mom know that Mortal Kombat was just the beginning—that it would usher in an era of pop culture bloodlust that the industry would capitalize on for generations to come. The entertainment market would ditch the harmless and gross bodily function horrors and embrace the taboo of violence completely.
Back then I didn’t partake as much in Mortal Kombat’s gore. Instead I was enjoying the exact same reactions to other gross games that didn’t include the removal of ribcages.
My favorite was Earthworm Jim, a ridiculous game about a Bruce Campbell wannabe—a literal earthworm—who wears a robot suit to fight a badguy named “Queen Slug-For-A-Butt.” It was crass and gross and as a kid I ate that silly stuff up. I laughed my way through warp toilets and hitting bosses so hard that they puked up fish. It didn’t make much sense, but it was fun, and even moreso when others were around. I remember playing one of the final levels, where you have to fight your way through some giant creature’s intestinal tract, and my sister just watching with a scrunched face the whole time. It was the visual equivalent of a bad smell, the kind you just have to share so you can enjoy watching someone else suffer too.
Another great one was Boogerman, a game for which there was no defense. You played a superhero who fights using burps, farts and boogers against the nastiest puss-filled creatures you could imagine. You could eat a chili pepper and fly with your flaming farts. I loved it. Something about embracing the bodily functions and the sickness of all those grotesquely inspired enemies had my friends and I hooked—probably because nobody else around us could endure it as much as we could.
We were strong-stomached and we bragged about it, but there was never a time when we could just shrug it off as ineffective. Gross was still gross. And we could do those things, farting and burping, without our parents worrying about us hurting ourselves or others.
There were TV shows at the time that inspired the same reactions—Ren and Stimpy, Rocco’s Modern Life, etc. (even Earthworm Jim got his own show). These shows were beyond nasty—I’m talking puke and earwax and anything else in nature that could test your gag reflex. We loved them for their lack of boundaries. The Garbage Pail Kids—which featured Cabbage Patch-like drawings of kids covered in zits, snot, cysts, toe-jam, bloated veins, you name it—were a huge hit because they were a challenge to even look at. You were a strong and even super-human kid if you could endure some of those images. You’re still strong if you can endure them today!
Now, the entire gross-out genre seems dead. Indie games like Super Meatboy and The Binding of Isaac have some pretty gross bits, and survival horror games sometimes push the limits, but for the most part our culture changed to just doing straight up gore. I’m not against gore by any means (my favorite horror flick is Hellraiser), but with so many games doing it and all other media embracing it there’s just not the same reaction anymore.
These days when someone pulls off that badass fatality in Mortal Kombat where Scorpion burns a hole in his opponent’s chest and then slices their freakin’ face off, most people don’t even wince. We’ve oversaturated the market with games like Manhunt and even the latest Doom (which I adore) so much that gore isn’t even a gimmick anymore. We all know and understand like I did at a young age that it’s all just fake. For gamers and fans it’s just another day in the digital park, even with graphics that look hyper-realistic.
Gore is most effective because it hits us on a mortal level—a visual reminder that our lives are fragile and our inner workings are soft and squishy—something we lose connection to the more we see it. But do snot and puss and farts not serve the same purpose? It’s a harmless aesthetic I sincerely miss. Here’s hoping we get it back, so we can watch everyone squirm the way they used to.
Imagine the constitution it would take to play Boogerman made with the Unreal Engine! Where is that kind of gross game in our violence-loving world?
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