The student newspaper of Clark University

The Scarlet

The student newspaper of Clark University

The Scarlet

The student newspaper of Clark University

The Scarlet

Murder on the dance floor: in defense of gross movies


TW: brief mentions of suicide, sexual themes, gross

“Saltburn” is a modern gothic film in which terror and pleasure entwine and every character is deeply flawed to the point of the viewer’s disgust. It uses motifs of insects and pests, bodily fluids and sex to tell the story of an arrogant, wealthy family and an obsessive voyeur. Like all media containing repulsive imagery, many people write off important scenes as cheap shock value. I am writing this article not only in defense of “Saltburn,” but of all gross media and those who enjoy it.

If you found yourself confused by the grotesque and sexual scenes, here’s a breakdown of the meaning behind them:

The Bath

In what is one of the most talked-up scenes from the film, Oliver – our protagonist and voyeur – watches as Felix Catton, the object of his obsession (and resident of the titular English estate, Saltburn) masturbates in the bathtub. After Felix leaves, Oliver enters and slurps at the drain in an attempt to swallow Felix’s semen. I link this scene to Felix telling Oliver about the bed of King Henry. which is said to still have his semen in the sheets. The Cattons did not wash King Henry’s sheets for the same reason Oliver desperately wants to taste Felix’s semen; it is the seed from someone with generational wealth that he desperately wants. It is the seed of someone with power.

“I’m a Vampire”

Here, Oliver meets Venicia Catton in the courtyard and declares himself a vampire before ingesting Venicia’s menstrual blood. Oliver is excited at the prospect of feeding off the blood of a Catton, and that’s what he does. He is a vampire, but not in the traditional sense. He sucks his victims dry until there is nothing left. Also of note: Oliver gives Venicia the blade she later uses to spill her own blood. The blood motif also brings the term “bluebloods” to mind, referring to those with generational wealth, like the Cattons. 

Do The Worm!

Looking over the fresh grave of Felix Catton, Oliver sobs and falls to his knees. Then he takes off his pants and throws himself to the ground, grinding into the dirt. As he humps Felix’s grave, writhing around in the earth, Oliver takes on the appearance of a worm. Earthworms are decomposers; they feed off waste. Oliver literally and figuratively feeds off the waste of the Catton family. By his scheme to kill off each member, and by ingesting their bodily fluids, Oliver literally feeds on the family’s refuse. He is compared to a pest multiple times. Sir James calls him a spider as Oliver weaves an intricate web of lies and traps his victims in the center, and Venicia calls him a moth. She spells it out plainly: Oliver is quiet and unassuming but attracted to shiny things, like her family. The insect symbolism continues as Oliver acts as a fly on the wall in the Saltburn mansion, always around the corner listening for information he can use in his plans. Some of Venicia’s final words to Oliver are that he “ate [Felix] whole.” Many people saw this as a reference to cannibalism, but I found that this reinforced the decomposer motif. Oliver kills Felix yet stays in Saltburn, replacing him in the eyes of Elspeth (the family matriarch), but not getting so lucky with the others who view him as a pest. 

The pest motif also feeds the voyeuristic nature of the film and Oliver himself: scenes are shot through mirrors and windows and Oliver consistently watches people both in sexual and non-sexual scenarios. He is a voyeur for wealth in general, analyzing the way the wealthy act and developing his psychosexual attraction towards the family and the estate.

Naked Time

The last minutes of the movie show Oliver fully nude dancing victoriously through the mansion. The nudity here is tied to his confession to Elspeth, now the last living Catton, and his plans being fully revealed before he kills her. It represents honesty, as the charade is finally over after years of carefully-calculated planning. He then winds up an ornate music box with a moving puppet for each member of the Catton family: memorial marionettes of the people whose strings he pulled until every last one was dead and buried. 

If I keep going this article will never end (don’t even get me started on the Shakespearian elements) so I will leave with one piece of advice; accept gross art into your life. Trust me.


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