One aspect of Rob Zombie we can all agree on is that his music and films aren't for everyone. The images of killing and ultra-violence shown in his slasher films are graphic, grotesque, sordid, and often misogynistic. Zombie portrays the bogeyman/woman, the evil monster, and the deranged clown—archetypal characters inducing archetypal fear, killing in unimaginably wrong ways. In House of 1000 Corpses, the lead killer cuts off the face of a man, wears it like a mask, and kisses the dead man's tied-up daughter on the mouth, saying, "Who's your daddy?" Zombie fans love it. They like it bloody and wrong. They want violence. But is it ever too wrong? Is there a point where society becomes too numb to violence? Better in a film than in reality, right?
Rob Zombie is a highly intelligent man. He's sold more than 15 million albums of his psycho industrial-grooved metal, and he's grossed more than $150 million as the writer/director of six feature films. Zombie's longtime wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, has been cast as a killer in his movies. Curiously, or not, Zombie is an "ethical vegetarian" and does work for a charity called Puppy Rescue Mission, helping dogs taken in by soldiers on their tours of duty. Not exactly facets of a man who's derailing society.
For his next film, titled 31, Zombie is crowdsourcing the funding so he can give fans more of what they want. The plot involves abducted people needing to kill each other in a place called Murder World to survive. An Alex Horley art department sketch depicts a woman whose top is torn off running for her life from a clown-monster. Another image shows the woman nearly nude, lying dead or unconscious at the feet of some clowns who are holding a severed head, a whip, a spiked bat, and a bloody chain saw. Is it art? Is it fun? Is it doing damage to society's collective unconscious? It depends on who you talk to. So I talked to Rob Zombie. Then I met with a Washington State–licensed clinical psychologist with a PhD who specializes in child psychology in her private practice.
Do you think you're promoting rape culture by depicting women the way you often do?
Rob Zombie: I think I'm making films with graphic content. Women play the role of killer in my movies as well.
Do you think you're glorifying murder and psychotic behavior?
No. I think I'm showing characters doing stuff that's really sick and wrong. If you want to see murder and psychotic behavior, look at Israel and Palestine. Look at what any number of governments do to innocent people every day. That's some killing.
What would you say to a woman who has been violently raped and is offended or negatively affected by your dead cheerleader images in House of 1000 Corpses? Or someone who sees your Halloween rape scene and thinks you're trivializing rape?
I say I'm sorry. Rape is tragic. It's not something I depicted lightly. It's not my intention to cause people pain. In the Halloween scene, Michael Myers kills the rapists, you know. Parts of the world are ugly and brutal. Parts of my movies pull from that ugliness and brutality. People who like my movies tend to like darker things. You also have to make the distinction between fiction and reality.
So what do you say to the people who get sucked too deeply into all the violence—the Adam Lanzas or the James Holmeses who can't make the distinction between the real world and movies?
I'd say I wish those people had been in better situations with their mental health. Killing people is wrong. Mental instability and firearms have the potential to cause much suffering and loss. If people can't make the distinction between films and real life, I'm not sure that's my fault.
Or what about your films being therapeutic? Where viewers get aggression out vicariously through your characters. From this perspective, you're not adding to the violence in society, you're helping massage it out of people in a healthy way.
Now, massage I can get down with. Where's my massage [laughs]? If people can get aggression out by watching the films, that's a good thing. There's enough aggression out there. Use my movies as a punching bag if you need to. If you like them, great. If not, that's okay, too. I aim to entertain my fans, and I'm thankful they're there. Hopefully they'll like the one about the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team I want to do. Not as much death in that one. But we'll have some blood for 'em.
Is it better to confront violent images, such as the ones in Rob Zombie films, and bring them out into consciousness? By forbidding something, don't we just make it more interesting?
Psychologist P. Landers: It's certainly good to have conversations about things, but a rape victim suffering from PTSD probably isn't going to get the entertainment value out of a Rob Zombie film. With his images of violence and killing, there's some emotional numbing that happens to the audience—it's a symptom of post-traumatic stress. Some people shut down emotionally around trauma. It happens to people playing violent video games as well. Repeated graphic violence can make people less sensitive. We don't want a society of people who are emotionally numb. Unfortunately, in some ways, that's where we're headed. Obviously, Mr. Zombie isn't making Barbie cartoons for young girls. It comes down to parenting. The P-word. It can be dangerous for kids whose psyches are still developing to see this type of stuff—kids whose impulse control is still being formed. Children do a lot of modeling and mimicking. Ashley Montagu did interesting work around aggression with his book The Nature of Human Aggression. Are we born aggressive, or is it a learned trait?
When I watched House of 1000 Corpses, I couldn't wait for Rainn Wilson's character to get killed. And man, does he ever get killed. I was scared and disgusted, but it was fun. I found myself cheering for the bad guy. It was a release, in a way.
Fear and excitement are close in the brain—they cause similar physiological responses. If you know you're in a safe environment, the fight-or-flight triggering of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine can be highly enjoyable. I play a game with some of the younger kids I work with called Go Away Monster. They put their hand in a bag and pull out various puzzle pieces. One is the monster. There's a 4-year-old girl who loves getting the monster. She has so much fun being scared. Rob Zombie would probably really like Go Away Monster [laughs].