Goretober: does science justify your favorite horror scenes?

Lucille DiNaro – Business Manager

Moviegoers find solace in the fact that horror movies are exaggerated depictions of real life. Even the most gruesome, horrific scenes aren’t too scary because viewers know that it’s just Hollywood. In the pursuit of good, old-fashioned Halloween fun, I’d like to prove that the opposite is true. Filmmakers most grotesque horror scenes—your worst nightmares—are absolutely plausible. Under the right circumstances, of course.

“Oldboy” Chan-wook Park, 2003

This neo-noir action film is not shy when it comes to blood and gore, but the final few scenes elicited a visceral reaction many viewers were not ready for. As an act of both repentance and loyalty to his captor of fifteen years, protagonist Oh Dae-su maniacally cuts off his own tongue with nothing more than a pair of scissors and a purple handkerchief.

The ceremonial tongue cutting of Dae-su has deep seated roots in history. Elinguation, the cutting out of the tongue as punishment, was a common torture method carried out as early as 1700 CE, most often against individuals accused of slander.

The primary concern this scene poses on Dae-su’s life is the possible severance of the lingual artery, which originates from the external carotid artery, a major artery of the head and neck. Improper coagulation of blood in the case of a lingual artery hemorrhage can result in a fatal obstruction of the upper airway. Historically, elinguation overwhelmingly resulted in death.  

The observable evidence in the movie is hard to depict, and there is conflicting literature as to whether Oh Dae-su would make it out alive. While proper pressurization of the wound and a bit of luck would keep Dae-su alive, it is extremely improbable.

“Saw II” Darren Lynn Bousman, 2005

The infamous Jigsaw has presented moviegoers with over a decade of gore, but one trap in this particular film has stuck out as one of the more disturbing scenes in the franchise. Amanda Young, one of Jigsaw’s victims, is thrown into a pit of hundreds of used hypodermic syringes and is given two minutes to sift through the pile for a single key.

During this process, Amanda subjects herself to dozens of needlestick injuries, leaving her at risk for HIV, hepatitis C and severe infection. These bloodborne diseases are indeed deadly but pose no immediate threat in this scenario. Needlestick injuries are common in the medical field and are routinely treated without serious consequences. In the film, it is assumed that these needles contain trace amounts of heroin. However, mere punctures would not allow for the drug to significantly affect her.

Much to the disdain of trypanophobes, Amanda successfully finds the key located deep within the needlestack and manages to survive through four more Saw films. Although this scene is visually damaging, it is highly unlikely that Amanda would suffer from anything more than psychological shock.

“Gerald’s Game” Mike Flanagan, 2017

This Netflix release left viewers reeling with disgust as Jessie Burlingame escaped a pair of handcuffs by degloving herself with nothing more than a shard of glass. Despite the gruesome nature of this scene, not only does science support Jessie’s escape, but also suggests that she could have a full recovery.

The injury Jessie inflicted upon herself is commonly seen in road traffic incidents, conveyor belt  and ring avulsion injuries. Oftentimes all vital structures in the hand–digital nerves, digital vessels, flexor tendons and lumbrical muscles–are unaffected. Viability of the hand after this injury depends primarily on the ability to preserve as much skin structure as possible and to provide an adequate skin cover.

Many people who experience this injury leave with the musculoskeletal unit of the hand completely intact, which is why Jessie was able to move her naked hand normally and escape captivity. Vascularization of the skin through arterial or venous anastomosis could allow Jessie to live as though the incident never even occurred. Unfortunately for viewers, this scene is as close to reality as it gets.