Torture Porn + Post-Horror Week 4

 

According to Reyes, what is the role of torture in the torture porn franchises Saw and Hostel? Using references, explain this in your own words. How do you think these purposes might relate to the socio-political environment of that time period and such events like 9/11 and the Abu Ghraib torture scandal?

Reyes (2014, p. 128) identifies Hostel as one of the most profitable and important among a wave of Hollywood horror films which followed Americans traveling abroad in search of “strong experiences, exotics sights or illicit pleasures” only to find themselves at the mercy of killers, torturers and various other misfortunes. While Hostel portrays its protagonists as victims of their own hubris it still remains sympathetic to the victims, as the tension is derived from whether they will survive or escape torture (Neroni, 2015). This role-reversal between perpetrator and victim is a common trope in horror, and holds particular relevance to the socio-political landscape of the time – visual parallels are drawn between the brothel the protagonists visit for sex tourism in the beginning of the film and the factory used for torture. The real life sex trade and the imaginary torture industry both deal in flesh, and the two are equated within the film. “Underscoring all actions in the Hostel franchise is an extreme capitalist – often retributive – ethos that renders everyone interchangeable and reduces everything to its monetary value.” (Reyes, 2015, p.30)

Saw differs greatly in execution, building on serial killer films of the 1990s that was intensely focused on the murder method of Jigsaw, the primary antagonist, who creates mechanical traps and devices to force p. Jigsaw believes that torture and pain are a redemptive force, although his methods yield zero results – even the one person who does survive devotes her life to him, living not for herself but for the person who tortured her, and dying in the third film (Neroni, 2015). The injuries incurred from surviving Jigsaw’s games would be enough to severely impair their quality of life and leave them isolated from society (Reyes, 2014). After the first film the sequels dived deeper into spectacle, forgoing its psychological aspects to instead display increasingly complex torture devices. This is closer to the intended use of torture for information and confession, but Jigsaw only deals further psychological and physical damage until they die, with no satisfaction for torturer or the tortured – aside from the former’s sadistic desires. Jigsaw’s “fantasy of transcendence” is a lie (Reyes, 2015, p. 141). There is no deeper meaning to torture and attempting to construct it as a noble act is simply a justification for sadism.

While horror films had used torture extensively before what really defines torture porn of the 2000s is its reactive nature to 9-11 and Abu Ghraib prison scandal, both of which revealed a darker side to the United States of America’s Government and policy. Torture was not only seeing a boom in horror but found itself into thrillers on television such as the show 24, which promoted what Neroni (2015, p. 27) calls the “contemporary torture fantasy”, in which torture is normalized as a tool in pursuit of the greater good. Torture was given euphemistic terms such as “enhanced interrogation techniques, or outsourced to other countries in order to distance the Government from sanctioned torture. (Kerner, 2015) The Abu Ghraib photos challenge this fantasy, as it is clear from reports and photos that the American soldiers were smiling as they tortured, not pursuing some grand truth or world-saving secret.

The Hostel franchise acts as an exploration of post-911 anxieties about the world outside of America and the West – Kerner (2015) notes that in real life many CIA “black sites” are suspected to be located in Eastern Europe – and the glee with which American soldiers violated prisoners’ human rights for pleasure. In some ways Jigsaw’s machines are the ideal form of torture that the “contemporary torture fantasy” purported to be – an impersonal judge forcing confessions out of their victims, in addition to forcing them to participate in their own mutilation as penance (Reyes, 2014). However, the fact remains that the machines were constructed by another human being who cannot be removed from the equation.

Neroni (2015, p. 91) states that “All torture porn films take torture out of the realm of immediate national need and place it in a more individual and personal level”. While as films they can only act as a substitute for the non-vicarious experience of pain, torture porn can help create empathy with the victims of torture and speaks to a wider cultural shift in America’s (and the Western world in general’s) view of it. Viewers consider why the torturer smiles, how effective torture truly is at obtaining information and what is like to know the people tortured in the film are very much like themselves.

 

  1. Rose (2017) defines this modern boom of prestige horror as “Post-Horror.” What does he mean by this term? Find and read some critiques on his definition online and respond to both. Do you think Post-Horror is a valid term or not? Using examples and references explain your position.

Rose (2017) does not offer a particularly clear cut definition of post-horror but suggests it could be a new subgenre of horror which is unconventional, mainly made up of auteur-driven indie films with low budgets which often divide audiences and critics. I would contend this more a consequence of misleading marketing rather than a dichotomy between how critics judge a film and how the average moviegoer consumes them. However, Rose (2017) claims these films are “reacting against” a mass market of low-budget horror films created by highly profitable successes such as Split or Get Out.

I am at a disadvantage as I do not consume much horror media but Rose’s definition of horror itself seems too limited in scope. At one point in the article he claims that horror is bound by rules and tropes and that post-horror throws off “cast-iron conventions”, suggesting that horror is inherently formulaic. To me this seems equivalent to judging a genre by its worst or least interesting work and creating an unnecessary label to separate it from the films Rose approves of.

Brown (2019) suggests that post-horror is a largely pointless term that stems from a lack of historical perspective on the genre, as people fail to acknowledge that socially aware horror films have existed since the early day and that most post-horror are nowhere near as experimental as what has come before – films such as Eraserhead and Suspiria have “expanded the language of cinema”, and socially aware horror is nothing new. He also notes another recurring aspect in films labelled post-horror is the focus on psychological realism and the domestic, harkening back to the nineteenth-century realist novel. However, “Allegiance to such modes of storytelling not only skip twentieth- and twenty-first-century artistic innovations but also fail to recognise the unique contributions of horror to the history of cinema.” Rose only gives a token acknowledgement of horror’s transgressive nature as a genre, but has a reductive view of it overall. When he encounters horror films which appeal to his sensibilities as a critic he qualifies them instead of simply accepting them as horror. An overview of horror’s history reveals that these films are arguably not even particularly unlikely outliers.

However, Rose is defining post-horror as something that is largely defined by our current time period in reaction to today’s audiences. In that sense the term makes more sense, but it does overstate the subversive qualities post-horror films possess in relation to horror’s larger canon. I do not have the knowledge to say whether or not there are other horror films today which resist categorization of both the typical post-horror mould or mainstream market appeal.

This will be my most speculative claim but there also seems to be an unspoken rule that Rose is using quality as an indicator – he gives little criticism of the films he considers post-horror and places an emphasis on the film’s philosophical subject matter as one of their defining characteristics, and implies they are more worthy as art with other horror films simply being there to simply frighten people. Quality is a dangerous qualifier for a genre to include because it is highly subjective. Including it in the definition of post-horror muddies the discourse and encourages elitistism (whereas even a film like the 2018 Slenderman can be reviled by critics and audiences alike and still find itself in the horror genre alongside a diverse and beloved catalogue of films as The Thing, Halloween and The Shining). Rose (2017) never outright states it because the idea of post-horror is still quite loose, but it speaks to his biases as a critic. I think it is erroneous to assume something must be good to even find value in it as a cultural resource, but that is another topic.

Overall I think Rose has placed too much emphasis on a false dichotomy between critic and moviegoer based on first impressions made by both. It is only natural that people’s expectations affect their enjoyment of a film. The fact that critics and audiences are divided seems to be a consequence of bad marketing rather than a deliberate attempt to defy conventions. Like Brown (2019) I do not think it can be denied that the films labelled “post-horror” share many elements, and I think as a concept it has some use as a way to describe the current crop of horror films which do not fit the mainstream. It has value as a subgenre but the assertion that it is breaking new ground is a spurious one.

 

 

Reference List

 

Brown, M. (2019). The problem with post-horror. Retrieved from https://overland.org.au/2019/05/the-problem-with-post-horror/

 

Carroll, N. (2003). The philosophy of horror : Or, paradoxes of the heart. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com

 

Kerner, A. M. (2015). Torture porn in the wake of 9/11 : Horror, exploitation, and the cinema of sensation. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com

 

Neroni, H. (2015). The subject of torture : Psychoanalysis and biopolitics in television and film. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com

 

Reyes, A. X. (2014). Body gothic: Corporeal transgression in contemporary literature and horror film. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com

 

Rose, S. (2017). How post-horror movies are taking over cinema. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jul/06/post-horror-films-scary-movies-ghost-story-it-comes-at-night

 

Dominic McAlpine

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