Saw X and the unsubtle art of the splatter movie barf bag

saw x barf bag
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One of horror cinema’s enduring gimmicks, the barf bag has been around for at least 60 years – and is now being used to help promote this autumn’s Saw X.

“Warning: Saw X is a film not to be taken lightly. Vomit or cry. The choice is yours.” 

So reads the blurb splashed across a paper bag given to critics and horror fans who’ve been to advance screenings of the upcoming horror sequel, Saw X. With its lurid red ink, range of clashing typefaces and shabby printing, it’s the latest in a long line of movie barf bags – a curiously persistent marketing gimmick that has been around for decades. In fact, the barf bag – or ‘vomit bag’ as it’s sometimes called – is as old as the splatter horror genre itself.

In 1963, director Herschell Gordon Lewis made Blood Feast, a low-budget horror flick that quickly became infamous for its unusually graphic scenes of gore and dismemberment. Tongues were ripped out, the tops of heads were lopped off, legs were sliced through… Blood Feast was arguably the unholy ancestor of Saw and claret-soaked movies like it.

saw x barf bag

Our own Maria Lattila’s Saw X barf bag. Credit: Maria Lattila.

Almost as eye-catching as the film’s boundary-pushing splatter was its marketing – most prominently the barf bags that were given away ahead of some screenings. It appears that the earliest Blood Feast bags had “You may need this when you see Blood Feast” emblazoned across them, though much later ones, like those printed by video rental firm Movies Unlimited in 1982, read “Spill your guts out!!”

After 1963, the barf bag popped up now and again as a promotional item for horror movies, particularly in the United States. Almost all of them carried mock warnings to the viewer about what they were about to see, but were really designed to advertise a film’s horror credentials. The bag for the 1970 horror Mark Of The Devil proudly claimed that the movie was, “Guaranteed to upset your stomach.”

“This vomit bag and the price of one admission will enable you to see… the first film rated V for violence,” the bag’s copy ran. “Positively the most horrifying film ever made!”

Lucio Fulci’s Lovecraftian horror The Beyond (1981) was accompanied by a barf bag aimed at those with “stomach distress”, while the infamous Cannibal Ferox’s bag echoed that of Mark Of The Devil’s with its “Guaranteed to upset your stomach” line.

Interestingly, Saw X’s barf bag appears to base its design on the one handed out during screenings of When The Screaming Stops, a 1973 horror film originally released in Spain as The Loreley’s Grasp. The typography is markedly similar, though its wording is arguably funnier – “Do not re-use,” a line at the bottom of the bag reads.

That tongue-in-cheek addition highlights the knowing silliness behind the barf bag. Unlike the bags provided on airlines, where nausea and sickness is genuinely common, barf bags are as much a gimmick as scratch-and-sniff cards, trouser-rumbling Sensurround, flying plastic skeletons, or anything else dreamed up by the master of the form, director William Castle.

This isn’t to say that movies don’t make people ill from time to time. In 2016, director Julia Ducournau’s coming-of-age cannibal film Raw was said to be so disturbing that some viewers were physically ill; at the Toronto Film Festival, someone called an ambulance when the movie “became too much for a couple of patrons.”

The person who broke that story to The Hollywood Reporter, though? One Ryan Werner, who was behind the film’s marketing at the festival.

Director Julia Docournau's barf bag epic, Raw.

Director Julia Ducournau’s Raw – barf bag-worthy? Credit: Petit Film, Wild Bunch.

Again, there’s no doubt that art can have a visceral effect on its viewer, but the people who generally talk the most loudly about a film’s vomit-inducing nastiness appear to be those who are trying to sell it. For her part, Ducournau downplayed Raw’s ability to make people throw up. “At film festivals, people tend to see a lot of movies during the day and they don’t eat enough,” she told the BBC, “so when you go to a Midnight Madness screening you have to expect this kind of thing… It’s a shame for my work because some people are going to think this movie is too hard core for them and they won’t be able to handle it.”

Despite Ducournau’s more reasoned explanation, the media picked up the ‘vomit-inducing’ story and ran with it. By the time Raw got a wider release in 2017, outlets were reporting that certain cinemas were handing out – you guessed it – barf bags to their customers.

Last year, meanwhile, the cinema release of director Damien Leone’s splatter sequel Terrifier 2 was accompanied by barf bags, also modelled on those from the 1960s and 70s. “Warning,” they read, “this vomit bag is being provided due to the extreme violence and excessive gore of this feature.”

Then, in a familiar aside: “Do not re-use.”

By now, the barf bag has taken on a new dimension thanks to social media. The early weeks of Terrifier 2’s release were joined by a number of tweets from cinema-goers stating that either they or their friend had passed out or thrown up during a screening of the film. “Watching Terrifier 2 [and] my friend just threw up and then passed out,” one sample tweet read from last October. “I’ve counted five walk outs so far. I’m loving it.”

There’s an element of theatre to all these stories of shock, fainting and vomit – reading the tweets about Terrifier 2, and there’s a clear sense of pride among those who consider themselves hardcore horror fans, who stand apart from the unprepared ‘innocent movie-goers’ who’ve found themselves nauseated by the experience.

It’s cinema as a dare, or cinema as an extra spicy curry. Is your constitution strong enough to withstand the heat?

The humble barf bag feeds into that almost childlike glee – which is probably why they still pop up ahead of screenings today, and will likely continue to appear as long as splatter films are shown in cinemas.

Saw X is out in UK cinemas on 29 September.

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