"If you want to make a porno, make a porno," Mina exclaimed. "And if you want to make horror, then make horror. But don't make half a porno and half a horror movie."
Ball gags do not a porno make.
The first half of Hostel focuses on a boys’ sex romp through Europe, while the second half features people being tortured, escaping from torture, and killing their torturers. But the film’s flaws, both in its story and direction, are overshadowed by its novelty. Simply put, Hostel blew everyone out of the water with its onscreen violence and gore. No mainstream audience had seen anything like it in a really long time.
Despite my own feelings about the movie (I think it’s clumsy and self-congratulatory), I have to admit Hostel did a lot for horror. The film’s commercial success, as well as its failure to strike a positive chord with critics, helped to formalize and canonize a sub-genre that had, until 2005, been largely relegated to the direct-to-video market. Looked down on, criticized, and generally under-appreciated, exploitation and splatter films were languishing in the gutters of modern horror cinema culture—sure, people liked them, but as a guilty pleasure that lacked any aesthetic value. Whether Hostel itself has any aesthetic value is debatable, but a lot of people have written a lot of words about how Hostel led mainstream horror into new, explicit directions. The name given to this nearly-new breed of film was “torture porn”.
Penetrating the Fog of Confusion
The first use of the phrase “torture porn” comes from David Edlestein’s 2006 article in New York Magazine, "Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn", in which he describes a new wave of horror cinema. Cresting that wave were Hostel and Saw, and Eli Roth’s critics and detractors seized upon torture porn as the perfect negativism; the phrase spoke to their own cultural, personal, or political objections to alienating, dehumanizing movie violence.
The fallout from Edlestein’s article is apparent in later publications. Though he never explained what he meant, most people interpreted the phrase to mean sexualized displays of bodily violence and/or violence that was meant to sexually excite or please the viewer. It is a literal reading, but it is not correct. Like the horror genre itself, torture porn is nuanced, and defies literal interpretation. Indeed, much of horror is sex, but not all sex is porn and not all porn is sex. Ironically, this popular, if flawed, take on torture porn perfectly sums up Hostel’s dichotomous structure. The movie is, to a greater or lesser extent, half torture and half porno.
Writing about superhero comics, Cyraique Lamar identifies a trend among superhero writers called “superhero tragedy porn”:
“[S]uperhero writers often turn to dark 'n gritty plots to give their comics’ greater narrative heft. Unfortunately, these "adult" story lines are to tragedy what porn is to sex: a hyper-stylized, wholly disposable facsimile of the real thing. […] Tragedy rockets into our heroes' lives without warning. The horrible event is often written simply to elicit shock… ” (Lamar 2010).
Lamar’s comments succeed in defining porn in abstract terms, something that Edelstein never bothered with and others have failed to do (Williams 2008; Daniel 2010). The “porn” of superhero tragedy porn is not sensual, sexual, or erotic. What it is, is titillating, shocking, and wholly without value. Likewise, torture porn is not meant to arouse the viewer, at least not sexually. Rather, the sub-genre exists to put extreme bodily violence on display and nothing more.
Welcome to the champagne room. Just take a seat and your drink will be served shortly.
Coming to an Understanding
Roth’s apocryphal claims of using his films to express his disgust for the injustices suffered by prisoners at Abu Ghraib was meant to legitimize the violence of Hostel (and, to a lesser extent, Hostel II), but there is nothing about his movies that suggests this might be true . Torture is meant to degrade, belittle, demean, and injure both physically and psychologically, with the purpose of extracting information. The torture endured by victims in torture porn movies exists for no other reason than to cause bodily harm—no secrets are revealed, nor are they sought.
Torture porn is violence for violence’s sake, and is part of what Seltzer (1997) describes as “wound culture”—a fascination with torn open bodies and a collective gathering around shock and trauma. Wound culture is what drives the public’s interest in violent killers (real or fictitious), and motivates the more visceral aspects of the horror genre. In this regard, when Hostel and Saw premiered, torture porn wasn’t new to horror fans, but it did put on a show for non-fans through its mainstream dissemination.
Torture porn waned in popularity over the latter half of the 2000s, perhaps to due market over-saturation. Now, with the close of the Saw franchise, it’s possible the sub-genre will return to the direct-to-video market, out of sight of critics and theorists. What the torture porn debate has shown us is horror’s ability to transcend intellectual boundaries and widen the scope of genre criticism. Unfortunately, the misidentification or misunderstanding of horror violence by mainstream critics limits the genre’s impact on film in general.
Earle, Daniel. 2008. Torture Porn: Conceptualizing a Current Trend in Graphic Imagery. http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p256857_index.html
Edelstein, David. 2006. Now Playing at your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn. New York Magazine, January 28. Available online at http://www.nymag.comlmovies/features/15622
Egan, Mary Ellen. 2007. Box Office Gross. Forbes 180, 1, pp. 94-98.
Lamar, Cyriaque. 2010. Superhero Tragedy Porn is Bad for Comics. http://io9.com/#!5489560/superhero-tragedy-porn-is-bad-for-comics
Seltzer, Mark. 1997. Wound Culture: Trauma in the Pathological Public Sphere. October 80, Spring, pp. 3-26.
Williams, Reginald. 2008. Torture Porn: Why This Horror Genre Moniker is a Misnomer. http://blogcritics.org/video/article/torture-porn-why-this-horror-genre/page-1/