TORTURE PORN

Photo by Julia Kadel on Unsplash

Torture Porn is a genre label that has been placed on a form of cinema which by conventional standards is extreme. Some of the most famous, generally accepted examples include the Hostel films, and the Saw series. For the most part when critics and commentators use this terminology they are not explicitly speaking about pornography and torture combined. In fact pornography and sex is absent in the majority of these films, there are some exceptions. What is trying to be conveyed by the use of this genre label is that the torture and violent sequences contained within the film are gratuitous and exist to titillate shock and scare the audience.

They are violence’s version of pornography. This narrow view is I believe detrimental to the films themselves. The train of thought from this label is that the films exist for the shock value alone, to show the audience a spectacle of violence, and unrelenting visual assault. While this is, in-part, true I think that they are designed to and indeed, do, do more. I think that they are designed to cause the audience to feel something, to experience something, even if it is as something as extreme and unlikely to occur as the scenes in Saw or Hostel. The intent is still there, and to give an offhanded genre description of ‘torture porn’ is to not give credence to what the films can and do achieve.

In the New Yorker magazine, movie critic, David Edelstein, wrote an article titled; Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn. In this seemingly genre formative article he asks many questions and gives many judgements in relation to the continually growing body of work which has at its core, torture and extreme human behaviour. While on one hand defending slasher films, such as Scream, on the other he condemns films like The Devils Rejects and Irreversible. I take issue with the label that has been slapped on these films. Torture Porn while mentioned in the title does not re-emerge, as a theme, again until the closing paragraph where there is an inference on the motives of the film makers. Edelstein writes, “I’ve described all this freak-show sensationalism with relish, enjoying — like these filmmakers — the prospect of titillating and shocking. Was it good for you, too?” (Edelstein)

Edelstein’s commentary is far too simple to be taken seriously, the aforementioned closing statement takes the notion of the porn too far. There is an implication, even an assumption, that individuals, who take part in the cinema, streamed or DVD experience of these films are in some way voyeuristic in nature, or at the very least obtaining some form of gratifying experience from them. Of course not sexual in nature, but the language is reflective of this. There is little time given, by Edelstein or many other writers, to the idea that these films may play a larger role in the psyche of the viewer or may serve a greater purpose.

If we hearken back to films like The Hand of Satan (1917), Freaks (1932), The Cushing and Lee films of the 50’s or the 80’s slasher films. We see these eras were catering to the current wants and needs of their generation. Are not the filmmakers of today just catering to a new generation, one who needs to be shocked and truly horrified to get any reaction?

Torture Porn: Not such a new genre

The critics of horror are quick to jump on the extreme nature of the films they deem as torture porn. But a look into history delivers a sobering reality jolt that this type of entertainment has always been around and will always be around. If we must we can go all the way back to the first century Rome where gladiatorial events, themselves designed to be gory, were inter mediated at noon by the torture and execution of prisoners for the amusement of the crowd. Let us not go back so far but let’s look to modern times to the Theatre du Grand-Guignol, Paris, and 1898–1930. This historic theater was infamous for being a house of horrors. The measures of success of its plays, in its early years were, based on the number of people who feinted (Peirron 1996). It was constantly having battles with authority over censorship and was closed down on more than one occasion in its history. The content of the theater would best fit into the torture porn genre. Rather than go through the plays I will cite the deaths of the theaters main actress, Paula Maxa. It is said she was, “…shot…, scalped, strangled, disemboweled, raped, guillotined, hanged, quartered, burned, cut apart with surgical tools and lancets, cut into eighty-three pieces by an invisible Spanish dagger, stung by a scorpion, poisoned with arsenic, devoured by a puma, strangled by a pearl necklace, and whipped…”(Peirron 1996) This type of entertainment is not the brain child of Eli Roth, Tarantino or anyone else specifically it has been around for as long as criminality and realism, and will continue to be.

Further to this early cinema has played a role in this genre. David F. Friedman’s Blood trilogy (1963–65) is referred to by the creator himself as a ‘super blood and gore’ movies (Romer 1964). Add to this cult films like Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Last house on the left (1972) and Japanese Pinku films such as Beautiful girl hunter (1979), Shoguns Sadism (1976) and the snuff film inspired Guinea Pig series of the 80’s and 90’s and there is quite a history which is established for this genre. So why is there renewed outrage and condemnation of this form of violent cinema and what films are causing it?

The Films

Any argument of this genre of film must include a look at what we are actually talking about. We must have a contextual reference with which to explore the meanings of and need for, if at all, such material. I have selected a few films only, to illustrate my argument, these films have caused some of the highest levels of outrage, but also made the most money, to try to list all films under this genre is not possible, one person’s torture porn may be another’s thriller. So I have decided to settle for a few and use them to illustrate my point.

Hostel (1,2,3)

The first Hostel was made for poultry $4.8 million and to date has a worldwide gross taking of $80,578,934. Hostel 2 was made for $10.2 million and has grossed $35,619,521

Saws

Collectively, the “Saw” films have made over $865 million at the worldwide box-office and sold more than thirty million DVDs

The Devils Rejects

Made for $7 million made over $19 million

Wolf Creek

Made for around $1 million grossed over $27.5 million.

So financially it is a profitable genre.

This means people are buying it and watching it. Hostel topped U.S Box offices for several weeks, as did several of the Saw films. So the question is why are people lining up to see these films? It cannot be purely for the spectacle, or can it? My answer is no. There is something that these films are tapping into, something which is quite possibly primal, but it is a feeling an emotion.

Other films, the Superhero genre and action genres for example, we like to identify with the hero, possibly the damsel in distress. We look at something aspirational. Dramas, we can see something of ourselves in some of the characters perhaps, or identify with what they are going through. I have found that the most successful films, the classics, are those which can have an emotional connection with the audience. They hold, maybe only a sliver, of mirror up to us, so we identify something in them, which is in our human experience. Do any of the films listed above do that? It is an uphill battle to argue that they do. Who do I as a viewer identify with? The torturer/killer/psychopath? The victim? It is hard to see the appeal of these films being based on a shared human experience or emotion. My argument is that they do not reflect human experience as much as they are designed to gain a reaction from the viewer, there is not necessarily identification, but there is a connection. A need, almost, to be shown something, that they have not seen before, not merely for the spectacle, this would not be enough of a driving force, but for the feeling, the emotion, the ability to feel more than the natural human experience.

Social/psychological Reasoning

We live in a world where we have virtually everything that is able to be seen at our fingertips through television, internet and game play. Some will argue that this social media all-encompassing culture is a good thing, others not so much; this is a discussion for another article. What can be asserted for certain at this point is that now more than ever, and this current generation more than any other is more tuned in, switched on and fully updated, when it comes to all forms of media.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, children watch an average of 28 hours of television a week. Children, ages 8 to 18, spend more time (44.5 hours per week- 61/2 hours daily) in front of computer, television, and game screens than any other activity in their lives except sleeping. (Lurie 2009). These trends have changed as YouTube, Vloggers, streaming and online gaming have taken hold of the youth market (Ofcom). This is quite a disturbing and telling statistic and when married with an analysis of the content which they are viewing we have a generational issue. It has been said, in many journals, article and book that, by the time a child is eighteen years old, he or she will witness on television (with average viewing time) 200,000 acts of violence including 40,000 murders (Lurie 2009).

One has to look at these figures and wonder what it is doing. This directly relates to the popularity and role which “torture Porn”, plays in modern society. Six prominent medical groups including, American Academy of Paediatrics, American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association warn of the effects of media violence on children;

• Children may become less sensitive to violence and those who suffer from violence.

• Children will desire to see more violence in entertainment. (Lurie 2009)

This is an assertion supported in many peer reviewed articles Funk tells us that, repeated exposure to real life and to entertainment violence may alter cognitive, affective and behavioral processes, possibly leading to desensitization. (Funk 2003)

It is my assertion that the current generation has become so desensitized by the violence with which they have grown, that they seek more and more extreme visual stimulation to satisfy the need to feel something…..anything. It is sort of like a drug high where bigger and bigger highs are sought, this case it is the need to be shocked, because normal modes of violence and horror, just do not work. They lack the punch, the stimulation of fear to this generation of eye witnesses to murder and mayhem. This idea was first introduced in 1979 when Zuckerman contended there was a sensation seeking theory of horror film appeal (Zuckerman 1979); this is greatly enhanced and is now more relevant than ever.

This desensitization of the horror viewer leads producers, writers and directors to push the envelope further and further in order to get a reaction. This is illustrated nowhere better than by the words of iconic author Stephen King. King said,

“I recognize terror as the finest emotion, and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud” (King 1981, p. 37).

That is what a great deal of this material is about, it is a means to tell a story, but in a graphic and shocking way. Not merely for the sake of gratuity, but for the express purpose of affecting the low affected nature of today’s viewer.

Societies’ changing nature and tolerance also has an impact on what appears on our screens. The advent of social media and the surveillance world in which we live has seen a surge in ‘lost footage’ and ‘Social media/Zoom’ (films like Friend Request, Searching and Host) type films, terrorism has become a popular subject in political thrillers and dramas, and it follows that this would flow to the horror genre. I am sure increasingly we will see Pandemic films become a genre. This has been given a title societal concern theory and it, highlights the role of cultural and historical fears in the development of horror movie scripts (Wells 2000). The 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, including the repeated footage of victims leaping to their deaths. The revelations in 2004 of the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the graphics photos of humiliation that followed are the types of societal keystones which film producers look at and reflect their stories and imagery from. Society demands art, art reflects society; consumers devour the art and create a lucrative market for mass production. This is why it seems there is a flood of graphic horror films. There is a market, while it exists so too will the genre, but not a genre of torture porn, but of extreme cinema, to reflect society and illicit a reaction of emotion in an otherwise desensitized and reaction-less generation, who may have just seen it all before.

Photo by Jose Francisco Morales on Unsplash

NOTE:

I thought I would include a quick list of recent movies that have been jammed into this genre:

· Butchers (2020)

· Death Ranch (2020)

· Alive (2020)

· The Bellwether (2020)

· Girl Blood Sport (2020)

· Don’t Let Them In (2020)

· Fingers (2019)

· Play or Die (2019)

· The Furies (2019)

This is a brief list from 2019–20, I am sure we will see more come in 2021 in fact Breeder from Denmark has already been slotted into the genre this year…more to come…no doubt.

Photo by Perchek Industrie on Unsplash

References

Edelstein, David. (2006). Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn. New Yorker Magazine. February 6, 2006 Issue (http://nymag.com/movies/features/15622/index1.html)

Funk J, etal. (2003). Violence exposure in real-life, video games, television, movies and the internet: Is there desensitisation? Journal of Adolescence Voil 27 Issue 1 February 2004 pp. 23–39.

King, S. (1981). Danse macabre. New York: Berkley

Lurie, M. (2009). The Effects of Television on Your Child: What You Can Do. http://michellelurie.com

Ofcom (2018) https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0024/134907/children-and-parents-media-use-and-attitudes-2018.pdf

Peirron, Agnes. (1996). House of Horrors. grandguignol.com/history.htm.

Roth, Eli http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1555691/hostel-director-wants-nolimit-horror.jhtml

Romer, Jean-Claude. (1964) “A Bloody New Wave in the United States”, in Silver, Alain & Ursini, James (eds.) Horror Film Reader. New York: Limelight Editions, 2000.

Wells, P. (2000). The horror genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch. London: Wallflower.

Photo by Benjamin Balázs on Unsplash

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