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By now, the phrase “torture porn,” coined by critics as a denigration of the extreme horror subgenre, is familiar to most people, many of whom consider it one of horror’s more regrettable trends. The emergence of extreme horror launched a debate regarding the merits of explicit violence, and whether such works possessed any artistic value at all. Not until the fin-de-siècle rise of the New French Extremity, however, did it gain prominence as a distinct subgenre of the horror film. That it is horror’s most violent mode is not the only reason it tends to stir up controversy; it presents a mirror into which human beings can view themselves without the thin veneer of propriety that holds our civilization together. It is the dark heart of human nature, a brutal and bloody Hobbesian nightmare that contemplates the depths to which we might sink if we continue to dehumanize each other—the natural consequence of existential nihilism.
The movement’s literary origins begin in 1980s “splatterpunk,” but its filmic counterpart traces its roots back much further, to the Grand Guignol of Paris theater in the early twentieth century. The 1970s, however, presented the true forerunners of the modern extreme horror film, with the giallo of Fulci, Bava, and Argento, as well as Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972) and Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978). The 1980s were famous for body horror, while in the 1990s, Japanese director Takashi Miike became legendary for gruesome films like Ichi the Killer (2001) and Audition (2001). James Wan’s Saw (2004), however, is now deemed the genesis of extreme horror in the United States. The following year, in 2005, Eli Roth released his second film, Hostel (2005). Critics and viewers seemed equally divided on its virtues, or lack thereof. Was it merely a gleefully blood-soaked testing of film censor boards? Or was it a nightmare vision of unregulated American-style capitalism’s logical conclusion, where human beings themselves are commodities? Notes horror expert Thomas Fahy (Rogers, 2010), “‘The protagonist who is able to escape the torture facility—in which rich people pay to torture European backpackers—had a different price charged for people from different countries and the most expensive people to torture are Americans. That speaks to anxieties that we have as a country.’” The American capitalist economy is all too eager to exploit poorer areas of the world, to view the workers who produce our goods in near-slavery conditions with nothing but contempt. Those in exploited countries might take a great deal of pleasure in turning the tables on Americans if presented the opportunity. Fifteen years before Hostel, horror scholar Noel Carroll (1990, p.213) wrote in his book The Philosophy of Horror that, “What is passing, attended by feelings of anxiety, is the social myth of the ‘American’ individualist which, in the case of horror, is enacted in spectacles of indignity, directed at the body…”. To be American is in fact the worst thing one can be in Hostel, as it guarantees the ghastliest tortures by people paying the highest price for the privilege. “[Horror’s] radical premise,” says Joyce Carol Oates (2006, p.6), “is that, out of utterly plausible and psychologically realistic situations, profound and intransigent truths will emerge.” Hostel, then, is the consequence of our moral actions—or lack thereof—as the last remaining superpower.
The late Jack Ketchum (2006, p.121) wrote that, “Someone once theorized that horror…allows us to rehearse for death. I don’t know about that, but I do know [it] rehearse[s] us for worlds of grief and agony.” Emotion drives horror, arguably more than any other genre outside of romance, and horror is the only genre named after an emotion. Its primary purpose is to force confrontation with the darkest aspects of ourselves, the ones we usually try to avoid and upon which acts of violent crime shine a distressing light. According to Fahy (Rogers, 2010):
We’ve all felt anger, had negative thoughts, behaved recklessly at one time or another. We all have these characteristics or qualities in us somewhere that horror films tend to literalize or give extreme examples of. In some ways it’s a fun outlet for exploring the darker angels of ourselves.… Like a roller-coaster ride, it can be thrilling and fun and you feel like you confronted a certain fear and you mastered it—once it’s over.
It is more difficult, though, to feel that one has mastered the fears presented in extreme horror when our society seems to thrive on exploiting them. In his 1651 treatise Leviathan, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes assessed human nature as one of perpetual war. “…[W]e are constantly pursuing pleasure, vying for power over others, and doing everything possible to avoid death. This creates an environment in which every man is ‘against every man,’ and he feels entitled to ‘every thing, even to one another’s body.’” (Fahy, 2010, p.62). Many, if not most, mainstream reviewers were until recently reluctant to acknowledge horror’s potential as a transformative genre because of its relationship to violence—and likely due to the penchant for extreme horror in particular to reveal humanity’s inherently aggressive state. Paul M. Sammon (1990, p.279) notes of splatterpunk authors that, “These are…uncensored artists who don’t mind reflecting, through the dark mirror of their fiction, what their individual psychic radars have picked up as the genuine human condition—one that’s not a pretty sight”. He could have very well been talking about extreme horror directors, though his quote predates Saw by fourteen years.
Only a few months after Saw’s release, the photos of prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib—including rape, beatings, chaining, and shooting, all common motifs of extreme horror—were published, and the widespread incidence of torture at other American detention centers revealed to the public. The “torture porn” subgenre exploded seemingly in conjunction with these revelations. Eugene Thacker (2011, p.98) posits in his book In the Dust of This Planet that horror is not so much about the fear of death as it is “the dread of life”. There is much to dread about Hobbes’ vision of human nature, particularly when—as in the case of Abu Ghraib—it is on display for all of us to contemplate. We can thus read extreme horror as a type of “extinction cinema” portraying moral and ethical apocalypse through the destruction of what is dearest to us—our own bodies.
Philosophy professor Jeremy Morris (2010, p.43) argues that elements vital to what he terms “torture-horror” are “depictions of noninterrogational tortures that are realistic, accusatory, and essential to the narrative.” All three of these components, found separately in many non-horror films, when combined form the core of torture-horror: the audience is asked whether the torture and the torturer’s enjoyment (as well as their own) are justified (Morris, 2010). When we watch extreme horror films, we are forced to confront the sentimentalist theory that true empathy allows for disgust at depictions of torture as well as the ability to partake in the torturer’s joy. According to sentimentalism, this conflict does not indicate immorality on the part of the audience but rather “a moral vindication” (Morris, 2010, p.51). It is also why recursive scenes of lifelike violence are crucial to torture-horror, because they enable us to identify with both victims and torturers (Morris, 2010). A morally good person can feel both the pleasure and pain of others; a sadistic character is not a moral one because he or she only feels pleasure from the inflicting of pain. The evolution of extreme horror also includes video games, such as Rockstar’s infamous 2003 release Manhunt. Being interactive, these games uncomfortably blur the line between audience and torturer. The player assumes the role of James Earl Cash, a death row prisoner forced to participate in a series of snuff films for an underground director, former film producer Lionel Starkweather. The player survives by performing increasingly violent stealth executions on gang members (Wikipedia, 2018). Because they are “bad,” we don’t necessarily feel their pain, but we do gain pleasure from the brutal murders we commit against them. With Manhunt, at least, it appears that we play purely for sadistic reasons, which recalls Fahy’s “darker angels” and the providing of a safe outlet for those explorations.
Noel Carroll wrote The Philosophy of Horror long before the emergence of extreme horror films as we know them today, but he was certainly familiar with splatterpunk, as well as the “body horror” of the 1980s popularized by David Cronenberg’s films. He did clearly anticipate the relationship between postmodernism and extreme horror and the concerns expressed therein. “Pax Americana,” he writes (1990, p.213),
…was a fantasy which was easier to sustain in the context of the rising productivity and international hegemony which reassured the well-being of a majority middle class, as well as their faith in…a secular morality of prosperity and conformism. The undermining of that sense of security may well be symbolized in the extreme iconography of personal vulnerability, rooted in bodily degradation, in the horror genre, on the one hand, and the excessive denial…of the category of personhood by postmoderns on the other hand.
This vulnerability of the middle class, this precarious illusion of security—both physical and mental—is precisely what extreme horror exploits, in the context of the cultural and economic fears of the current age and through our greatest weakness, our own soft and easily broken bodies. Torture-horror’s realistically depicted explorations into this fear are precisely why so many critics and viewers find it excruciating to watch.
Personal vulnerability is perhaps why much of the previous decade’s extreme horror was centered in European countries with tenuous social and economic situations. 2010’s A Serbian Film is a prime example of this phenomenon. Banned in several countries and heavily censored in many more, the film was challenged by critics with little knowledge of the horror genre who used its notoriety as ammunition to reject it. This self-righteous outrage blinds them to Srdan Spasojevic’s use of sadistic sexual images as a commentary on the fact that, in a world as desensitized as ours, extreme depictions of sex and violence are the only things that continue to grab our attention. They are virtually the only things that still move product and, in the most impoverished nations, are the only remaining exports. It is tempting to read A Serbian Film as metaphor (an act discouraged by its director) for the horrific war crimes reported during the Bosnian War. Spasojevic (Slobodna Dalmacija, 2010) does admit that it “in a metaphorical way deals with the consequences of postwar society and a man…exploited to the extreme in the name of securing the survival of his family.” Its themes can additionally be applied to the rise of the total surveillance state, the sacrificing of our individual autonomy, and the ongoing commodification of our humanity in the face of a declining world economy.
A Serbian Film, Hostel, and others reflect the anxiety of the postmodern era as observed by Carroll, that “[i]n the contemporary horror genre, the person is so often literally reduced to mere meat; indeed, the ‘person-as-meat’ could serve as the label for this tendency. And, in turn, this reduction of the person correlates in certain respects with what postmoderns herald as the ‘death of man’. Within the horror fiction of the present, a person is not a member of some privileged ontological category…” (1990, pp.211-212). In A Serbian Film, Spasojevic reinforces the postmodern idea that human life possesses no inherent meaning beyond what we have subjectively, anthropocentrically assigned to it. H. P. Lovecraft famously found the idea so compelling that his characters function merely as vehicles through which to observe the horrors inflicted by an uncaring universe on an irrelevant species, a concept reiterated throughout Thomas Ligotti’s non-fictional The Conspiracy against the Human Race. As Ligotti writes, “[T]ragedy as entertainment performs a crucial function—that of coating the spattered nothingness of our lives with a veneer of grandeur and style…” (2010, p.165). This may be true of slick Hollywood dramas and even, to some extent, mainstream horror films, but one strains to find anything grand or stylish in the typical torture-horror film. If anything, the “spattered nothingness of our lives” is magnified and ultimately reinforced.
One first observes A Serbian Film’s unmitigated bleakness, a reflection of the economic misery suffered by so many Eastern European countries once part of the Soviet Bloc and in a world where, just two years after Hostel, the bottom began to fall out of many economies worldwide. The only way aging porn star Milos can care for his family is to sell his body to the highest bidder, for he is viewed as little more than his famous erection. His former co-star Lejla encourages him to sign on to producer Vukmir’s new “art” film, after which he will never have to work again. By the time Milos shoots his first scene and begins to understand the nature of the film, it is too late for him to escape. When he refuses to continue, he is drugged, sodomized, and beaten. The infamous “newborn porn” scene that leads to Milos’ breaking of his contract, while nearly unbearable to watch, powerfully indicates that we are robbed of our innocence as soon as we enter the world, that we are indeed manipulated and “fucked” from birth. That Vukmir is a child psychologist by training only drives home the point: no one can be trusted to have our best interests at heart, nor to value us as human beings. Milos’ brother and dirty cop, Markos, and Vukmir—both employed by the government in roles meant to engender people’s trust—succumb to its corrupting influence and thus become facilitators of its worst atrocities. Another scene portrays Lejla chained in the center of a room with all of her teeth scattered on the floor as Markos forces his penis into her bleeding, toothless mouth while pinching her nose, thus suffocating her. It is a grotesque but potent metaphor for the way we are all silenced on a daily basis by those to whom we have given authority over us.
Carroll writes that, “…[I]t is a standard variation of the horror genre that sometimes the horrific being is not expelled or eliminated at the end of the story” (1990, p.201). Vukmir dies, but there are simply others who take his place at the end of the film; with so many billions of people on the planet, we have rendered our individual lives meaningless. What we as comfortable, middle-class Americans view as abnormal, such as the economic woes that might lead someone into Milos’ situation, is in fact what A Serbian Film’s pessimistic ending demonstrates as the depressing reality for much of the world. “You’re raped from birth,” Spasojevic (Electric Sheep, 2010) states, “and it doesn’t even stop after your death: that was the point of the ending.” It also indicates the degree of bitterness Eastern Europe still harbors for the West that abandoned it after the Cold War, as evidenced by Spasojevic’s own comments: “…the Western world has lost feelings, so they’re searching for false ones, they want to buy feelings” (Electric Sheep, 2010). “At its best,” Paul M. Sammon writes in his essay “Outlaws,” “splatterpunk is a literature of confrontation, anger, and despair, sometimes flirting with nihilism but always aware that it is using materials from the real world as its fabric” (1990, p.281). What was flirtation in splatterpunk is now, in torture- horror, a full-blown marriage to hopelessness.
Carroll also argues that, “[H]orror fiction, with its structural commitments to the fragility or instability of standing cultural norms, becomes a ready pop-artistic symbol for feelings that ‘the center cannot hold’” (1990, p.212). Another intriguing aspect of extreme horror is that, in a reversal from horror tradition, many of the main characters—and thus the victims of some of the worst violence—are men. This becomes potent symbolism for the fear amongst many straight white men that they are no longer the locus of society, that all the socio-political power granted to the phallus as a cultural norm has been a lie. When the torturer is a woman, we are presented with even more compelling evidence for this interpretation. In some cases, the plot is an explicitly feminist wish fulfillment of repaying men with the cruelty women have suffered for centuries. A hallmark of extreme horror, as Morris notes, is the exploration of Kantian retributivism or lex talionis and the “seeking for an appropriate code of punishment” (2010, p.47), since in extreme horror narratives, the victim eventually becomes the torturer. What is appropriate punishment for millennia of abuse and subjugation? An increasing number of women are exploring extreme horror’s potential for feminist discourses both in film and in literature, perhaps in an effort to answer that question.
The purpose of art is to provoke a reaction. The best art is not that which pretends the world is a kind and gentle place; it is that which challenges us to confront what we fear, and perhaps our own society is most deserving of that fear. While the journey is harrowing, we come out on the other side with a deeper understanding of our world and ourselves. In the end, that seems to be the point of so-called “torture porn”—that millions of people are living out the real-life equivalent of a horror film. The shocking acts portrayed in these films are perhaps the purest examples of art imitating life. Reactionary calls for their censorship grow in proportion to the increasing violence in our society, yet, rather than combat the actual causes of violence (like poverty), would-be censors attack the easiest target—the horror industry itself, though no evidence exists that the filmmakers involved in extreme horror endorse the acts depicted. It is convenient to forget that torture as entertainment stretches back at least as far as the Roman gladiatorial games and, until recently, public executions were considered suitable amusement for the entire family. As late as 1939, at France’s last public execution—of serial killer Eugen Weidmann, by guillotine—the crowd shockingly used “handkerchiefs to dab up Weidmann’s blood as souvenirs.” Public executions were banned, with then-President Albert Lebrun “finding that rather than serving as a deterrent to crime, they awakened people’s baser instincts” (Mashable, 2015). Until we are brave enough to acknowledge our complicity in the devaluation of life, extreme horror will survive as a necessary evil in bringing the horrors of human nature to light.
Carroll, Noel, 1990. The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge.
Fahy, Thomas, 2010. “Hobbes, Human Nature, and the Culture of American Violence in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.” The Philosophy of Horror. Ed. Thomas Fahy. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.
Jegic, Marko, 2010. “INTERVJU Redatelj Srdan Spasojevic: Moj šokantni ‘Srpski film’ prokazuje fašizam politicke korektnosti.” Slobodna Dalmacija.
Ketchum, Jack, 2006. “Splat Goes the Hero: Visceral Horror.” On Writing Horror. Ed. Mort Castle. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.
Ligotti, Thomas, 2010. The Conspiracy against the Human Race. New York: Hippocampus Press.
“Manhunt (video game),” 2018. Wikipedia, 7 May. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manhunt_(video_game).
Morris, Jeremy, 2010. “The Justification of Torture-Horror: Retribution and Sadism in Saw, Hostel, and The Devil’s Rejects.” The Philosophy of Horror. Ed. Thomas Fahy. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.
Oates, Joyce Carol, 2006. “The Madness of Art.” On Writing Horror. Ed. Mort Castle. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.
Rogers, Thomas, 2010. “The Meaning of Torture Porn.” Salon.com. Salon Media Group. Inc., 7 Jun.
Sélavy, Virginie, 2010. “A Serbian Film: Interview with Srdan Spasojevic.” Electric Sheep.
Sammon, Paul M., 1990. “Outlaws.” Splatterpunks. Ed. Paul M. Sammon. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Thacker, Eugene, 2011. In the Dust of This Planet. Horror of Philosophy Vol. 1. Winchester, UK and Washington, USA: Zero Books.
Hostel. Directed by Eli Roth, performances by Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, and Eythor Gudjonsson, Lionsgate and Screen Gems, 2005.
I Spit on Your Grave. Directed by Meir Zarchi, performances by Camille Keaton, Eron Tabor, Richard Pace, and Anthony Nichols, The Jerry Gross Organization, 1978.
Ichi the Killer. Directed by Takashi Miike, performances by Tadanobu Asano, Nao Omori, Shinya Tsukamoto, Alien Sun, and Sabu, Media Blasters, 2001.
Last House on the Left. Directed by Wes Craven, performances by Sandra Peabody, Lucy Grantham, and David Hess, Hallmark Releasing, 1972.
Saw. Directed by James Wan, performances by Cary Elwes and Leigh Wannell, Lionsgate, 2004.
Serbian Film, A. Directed by Srdan Spasojevic, performances by Srdjan Todorovic, Sergej Trifunovic, and Jelena Gavrilovic, Jinga Films, 2010.
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