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Real Terror Through Cinema: The Sublime in Cannibal Holocaust

14 minutes to read
Gideon De Pan

The sublime has been a force of attraction in art for a long time. While horror cinema often allows us to feel the sublime from a safe distance, the Italian-American horror film Cannibal Holocaust deviates from the usual promise between the film and its audience. This paper looks into the sublime experience of Cannibal Holocaust.

Cannibal Holocaust and the Sublime

As theorist Terry Eagleton writes, horror cinema is one of the portals to experience the sublime, an experience that is at the same time terrible but also invigorating (Eagleton, 2005). By experiencing the sublime, we can experience that which is greater than us. We can be impressed by the overwhelming natural power of the hurricane, the infinity of space, or the vastness of the oceans. Through the sublime, we feel threatened but also alive. Of course, witnessing a hurricane firsthand is dangerous, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate it from a distance. As such, we need art to witness these awesome forces (Eagleton, 2005). 

Horror cinema is one of the ways to feel the sublime by feeling threatened from a safe distance. As film scholar Donald L. Anderson writes, horror films promise the audience that violence is fictional (Anderson, 2013). As viewers, we like to experience the invigorating adrenaline kicks that horror movies inspire in us. We want to feel scared, shocked, and terrified- yet also safe. We need to be certain that the scenarios were fictional, and that our fun did not come at the expense of real violence. That our experience of the sublime did not come at the cost of another’s suffering. 

Within the Italian-American horror film Cannibal Holocaust (Deodato, 1980), this promise stands for about eighteen minutes. The film tells the story of an anthropologist who goes looking for a missing film crew within the Amazon rainforest. The crew was filming a documentary about cannibal tribes but were never heard from again. With this premise, some violence is to be expected. However, after eighteen minutes a living coati is slashed open with a large knife. As Anderson accurately points out, Cannibal Holocaust does not think much of the promise between the horror film and its audience. Within Cannibal Holocaust, part of the viewer’s delight might come at the expense of another’s suffering. 

We need to be certain that the scenarios were fictional. That our fun did not come at the expense of real violence. That our experience of the sublime did not come at the cost of another’s suffering

The question is what this inclusion of real violence has done to the sublime experience. Is there simply terror in watching Cannibal Holocaust, or can viewers still feel pleased while watching the film? In the following article, I will delve into Cannibal Holocaust's status as a sublime object. In order to do that, I will combine theories about the sublime with analyses of horror cinema in order to answer the following question: What impact does the inclusion of real animal cruelty have on Cannibal Holocaust’s ability to deliver a sublime experience? By answering this question, I hope to add to the discussion surrounding horror films and the sublime by discussing how the inclusion of real terror might still lead to a sublime experience. 

The Sublime Sensation

Philosopher Edmund Burke described the sublime as those things which completely overwhelm our senses (Gutenberg, 2005). Upon encountering objects and phenomena that are sublime, our minds try to understand what we are sensing, yet there is no definitive answer. While this might conjure up positive connotations in the minds of the uninitiated, Burke describes the sublime as something both positive and negative: "Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling’’ (Burke, 2005).

Burke associates the sublime with terror, as this feeling tends to arise whenever a person cannot understand what they are sensing. And yet, experiencing terror can also be pleasurable. Burke writes how being confronted with terror from a safe distance can remind people of the fact that certain concepts and deeds are not present in their lives, or make people feel subjected to forces that are greater than them (Burke, 2005; Shaw, 2006).

Theorist Philip Shaw accurately compares Burke’s description of pleasurable terror to bungee jumping: the elastic chord ensures the jumper’s safety, yet the jump is not unlike a suicidal dive, thus this person is at the same time close to death, but also safe from it (Shaw, 2006, p. 74). For Burke, this shielding from actual danger and pain is what makes these experiences sublime, as they conjure up positive emotions while at the same time also mimicking danger (Gutenberg, 2005). If a person is actually at risk of dying, there is nothing positive about the activity. 

The Sublime in Art

Terry Eagleton further expands on Burke’s idea of the sublime by explicitly linking it to the experience of art. Through art, we can look at that which we cannot fully comprehend. 

By experiencing these sensations through works of art, the audience can at the same time remain at a safe distance from danger, but also experience the sublime feeling of being in danger: "The sublime allows us to blend a joy in our cartoon-like unkillability with the contrary pleasures of being decentred and dissolved’’ (Eagleton, 2005). By confronting those forces we are subjected to, such as pain, danger, and death through art, the audience can experience terror. Yet, they can also experience positive emotions by confronting terror in this indirect way. Through the sublime, an audience can overcome terror because they can safely experience this sensation and its effects. Eagleton contrasts this indirect experience of terror with experiencing real terror, such as a terrorist attack. When experiencing a terrorist attack, there is nothing between the person and the source of terror. The experience would not be sublime because there is no pleasure felt, as the experience ‘’ceases to be second-hand’’ (Eagleton, 2005). 

One such genre through which an audience can experience this close encounter is horror, which Eagleton describes as a masochistic mixture of pain and pleasure, masochistic because the viewers derive pleasure from usually negative emotions such as tension and fear by seeing others in danger. Usually, the danger depicted in horror is entirely fictional, as film scholar Donald L. Anderson writes of horror films: "No one died; no one was murdered, raped or disemboweled while I felt rush after rush of adrenaline. After watching a horror film I have confronted my fears and the film has made good on its promise’’ (Anderson, 2013). This promise makes horror films a fitting way to experience the sublime through art, as the viewer can be sure that they are not seeing actual terror, but a fictional version of it. 

It is noteworthy that Eagleton depends on the viewer being able to notice the difference between real and fictional terror. Yet, for those who do not know the difference between these categories, terror can be real, even if it is not experienced first-hand. Think of children who can be legitimately terrified by horror movies because they appear real to them. This makes experiencing sublime terror through art a case of being able to recognize the difference between reality and fiction. 

The remains of the film crew.

Mixing reality and fiction

As Anderson writes, within Cannibal Holocaust the line between real and fictional horror has become blurred. The gruesome fate that befalls the human characters is staged, yet the film also shows real terror through the murder of real animals. The film expects the viewer to derive pleasure from experiencing these different types of violence in the same adrenaline-fueled way, despite the fact that the movie breaches the previously mentioned promise by harming living creatures (Anderson, 2013). This broken promise gives the viewer a second-hand experience of terror. Their pleasurable feeling of suspense and danger has now come at the expense of real terror.

However, Anderson also states that, while the deaths of real animals confront the viewer with non-fictional terror, this terror can still be considered a part of the film. He writes that these real deaths have become not unlike Jean Baudrillard’s idea of the ‘’event image’’, a depiction of an event that can be replayed and reproduced, losing its connection to the original event (Anderson, 2013). Instead of showing the deaths as real, Cannibal Holocaust places these events alongside the deaths of the movie’s fictional characters. This means that these events are cut loose from their original context, the killing of animals, and fit to be part of the narrative: "The event of death is archived, replayed, reterritorialized as significatory narrative material and always from that point on is becoming something other than death’’ (Anderson, 2013, p. 115). Anderson calls this process cinematic absorption, a means by which a movie can recontextualize images from outside its fictional world to have a new meaning inside the film's world.

The question is then what this recontextualization might do for Cannibal Holocaust’s status as a sublime artwork. While there is certainly merit to the idea that the movie repackages real death as a part of its fictional world, this does cover up the fact that the audience is confronted with real second-hand terror. I will answer the question in the following analysis. First, I will introduce the film and give a short summary, after which I will discuss how the film can still deliver a sublime experience, despite its depictions of real terror.

Adapting real terror

At first glance, Cannibal Holocaust can be considered a sublime film, as the movie’s fictional narrative offers the viewer enough distance through which to experience strong feelings of terror, without anyone being actually harmed.

Cannibal Holocaust is an Italian-American horror film released in 1980. The film tells the story of a group of young documentary makers who venture into the Amazon rainforest to make a documentary about the alleged cannibalism practiced by certain tribes. After the crew goes missing, anthropologist Harold Monroe helms a search party. After befriending one of the tribes, Monroe is shown the skeletal remains of the film crew, enmeshed with their camera equipment. The shocked anthropologist takes the equipment back to New York, where he agrees to help arrange a broadcast of the crew’s footage. Upon viewing the footage prior to the broadcast, Monroe discovers that the film crew grossly mistreated the local wildlife and tribespeople in order to stage sensational images. The footage shows how the film crew dismembered a living turtle, shot a native man in the leg, forced several natives to be burned alive in a burning hut, and killed the village’s livestock. The last film roll shows how the crew raped a young girl, who was later killed by her tribe for losing her virginity. After the crew filmed her impaled body, the tribe takes revenge on them. The fictional filmmakers are brutalized, dismembered, raped, and eaten in retaliation for their actions.

 At first glance, Cannibal Holocaust offers the viewer images of murder, mutilation, rape, and cannibalism, as some other horror films might do. As Burke describes, actual encounters with terror would make us feel subject to the terrible thing, as our minds are so preoccupied with terror that we cannot stop and contemplate what we are seeing (Gutenberg, 2005). Yet through the distance afforded by fiction, the viewer can still feel pleasure in terror. As such, the audience can experience terror and death, while also feeling like they overcome those feelings (Eagleton, 2005). Through watching Cannibal Holocaust, the viewer can experience the thrills of danger and pain, while keeping a distance between the film’s depiction of violence against humans. 

Several of the crew members after one of them shot a living pig.

Anything Can Be Terrible

However, I wonder if horror films can automatically be considered sublime if they give the viewer a safe way to experience terror. As Burke and Eagleton also point out, assigning something the status of terror or sublime depends on the distance a person can take from what they are seeing.

For Eagleton, real terror cannot be sublime, as it is personally experienced and the audience has no safe distance to this variety of terror (Eagleton, 2005, p. 43-44). In this Eagleton follows Burke, who states that: "When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible’’ (ibid). However, the question is what exactly counts as ‘’too nearly’’. For children, the terror of horror films might not be experienced as sublime, but as actual terror. Not because a horror film poses any real danger to children, but because they cannot differentiate between real and fictional terror. Real terror does not have to be as extreme as the sight of a ‘’bomb in a crowded bus station’’ (Eagleton, 2005, p. 43), actual terror can even be real if it is only experienced as such. Eagleton places too much trust in the individual person’s ability to see the difference between reality and fiction. Terror being fictional does not automatically make violence sublime, the audience needs to be able to recognize it as fictional. If a person experiences sublime terror as real terror, then the negative sensations can be considered potentially harmful. 

This is closely tied to Burke’s idea that terror can only be pleasurable if experienced from certain distances (Gutenberg, 2005). If one cannot find a distance between himself whatever he considers terrible, anything can become terrible, or if one can find a distance, anything can become sublime. Experiencing the sublime is a constant negotiation process between the person experiencing terror and that which is terrible. Eagleton is correct when he quotes Kant in saying that "sublime eruptions such as the French revolution could be admired as long as they were aestheticized, contemplated from a secure distance’’ (Eagleton, 2005), seeing something as terror or sublime terror depends on the amount of distance a person can take from whatever is happening. 

Within the confines of Cannibal Holocaust this means that the graphic depictions of fictional violent acts do not automatically deliver a sublime experience. In order for the film to be enjoyable the viewer needs to be able to discern fiction from reality. But unlike other horror films, the movie leaves it to the audience to make the distinction between reality and fiction within its narrative. 

Negotiating The Sublime Status

As established by Anderson the film obscures the line between fiction and reality by depicting the murder of real animals right alongside the deaths of the movie’s fictional characters. By doing so, both real and fictional terror have become equated within the film’s fictional narrative. This makes experiencing the sublime in Cannibal Holocaust a question about if the audience can, or is willing to discern the movie’s real terror from sublime terror. 

As previously stated, Cannibal Holocaust features several scenes in which real animals are killed. At different points in the narrative, the viewers are exposed to the murder of a coati, turtle, tarantula, squirrel monkey, and pig. With this, the terror within the movie continually shifts from sublime terror by seeing fictional characters in danger, to seeing depictions of real terror happening to animals. With this, Cannibal Holocaust indeed breaks the "horror movie promise’’ that Anderson describes, as the audience’s pleasurable feeling of danger has come at the expense of actual suffering (Anderson, 2013). However, the question is what this does for the possibility of the film being seen as sublime.  

As Anderson aptly writes, the scenes of real violence in Cannibal Holocaust shatter the illusion that all the violence in the film is fictional. The boundary between fictional and real terror is laid bare to the audience (Anderson, 2013). Within a discussion of the film as being sublime, this could mean that the film does not deliver a sublime experience, as it turns out the terror depicted within the film is real. Seeing the film continually cross the boundary between real and fictional terror would mean that the viewer has to continually negotiate whether the scenes of real terror press too near. 

Then again, within the confines of the film itself, with no outside knowledge, the fictional and real deaths are portrayed equally. The film does not outright state that animal cruelty is real and the other violence is fake: through cinematic absorption, it can treat this real violence as part of the film’s narrative. In this way, the movie asks the audience to take the same distance from the animal deaths, as they would to the deaths of the human characters. However, it is up to the individual whether both types of terror can be equally valuable. 

The success of the film’s attempt at cinematic absorption is ultimately up to the person watching Cannibal Holocaust. Is the audience willing to distance itself from real terror enough so that animal cruelty can become part of the film’s sublime experience? Can they derive pleasure from a movie that equates both real terror and sublime terror? A movie that breaks the promise of the horror film, yet offers a secondary experience of pain, danger, and death that most horror films do not offer. 

Is the audience willing to distance itself from real terror enough so that the animal cruelty can become part of the film’s sublime experience?

Through its equation of both real and fictional violence, Cannibal Holocaust points out to the audience that the sublime experience is dependent on the distance between them and the terror they are watching. When considering the murder of real animals an example of real terror, the audience is incapable of having a sublime experience because the violence has become too real. However, if they go along with the movie’s equation of both real and fictional terror, the viewers can have a sublime experience, as they experience the violence as a part of the narrative. 

Going beyond reality?

Cannibal Holocaust is a film that mixes both real and fictional terror. Throughout most of the film, the audience can experience second-hand terror by watching the violent deaths of fictional characters. This makes the deaths of the human characters in the film prime examples of how an audience can safely experience otherwise negative sensations such as danger and death, without being harmed. In this way, the audience can have an experience of sublime terror. 

However, the film’s depiction of actual violence complicates this matter, as it confronts the audience with footage of real terror via the killing of animals. While the movie integrates these real deaths into its fictional narrative, the fact remains that it has crossed a boundary that most horror films do not cross. Suddenly, it is unsure whether the viewer can experience Cannibal Holocaust’s terror as sublime. For those that are unwilling to go along with the film’s attempt at recontextualizing real terror, there is no sublime experience. Yet, those that are willing to see the animal deaths as part of the film’s fictional narrative, have a sublime experience of terror that might go beyond those of more conventional horror films. 



Anderson, D. (2013). How the horror film broke its promise: Hyperreal horror and Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust. Horror Studies, 4(1), 109-125. 

Burke, E. (2005). The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, Vol. I. (of 12). Project Gutenberg. 

Deodato, Ruggero. (Director). (1980). Cannibal Holocaust [Film]. Grindhouse Releasings.

Eagleton, T. (2005). Holy Terror. Oxford University Press. 

Shaw, P. (2006). The Sublime. Taylor and Francis ltd.