From The Passion of Christ (Mel Gibson, 2004)

Increasingly graphic scenes are appearing in a broader range of mainstream and art-house releases...

... from the protracted beating...

...lashing, and scourging of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ...

From Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)

...through to the latest Bond film offering, Casino Royale...

…in which Daniel Craig...

...while tied to a seatless chair...

...had his genitals whipped.

From The Passion of Christ

Why would audiences want to see films in which representations of dramatized torture are enacted in intimate detail and for protracted periods of time?

Real-life torture at Abu Ghraib

The images of torture from Abu Ghraib...

...shocking in their stark bleakness...

...effectively focused attention on the morality of torture in the public realm.

From Hostel II (Eli Roth, 2007)

Rich people go to a spa in Slovakia to kill, torture and maim people.

In Hostel II there is a gender switch to three American girls.

Encouraged by an Eastern European bombshell, they take a trip to that same spa in Slovakia.

Men with Blackberries and mobile phones frenetically bid for the girls.

From this moment on we move between luxurious images of the peaceful spa...

...and grisly, bloody images of a masked and leather clad woman wielding a scythe...

...while men in rubber gloves and jump suits...

...use chain saws and blow torches on their victims.


The 60s in the United States is seen as a period of extreme unrest. The country was at war in Vietnam; civil rights, peace and women’s movements flourished; iconic figures like John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were assassinated. Television not only bought images of the war into homes but also pitted another leisure source against the cinema. Losing popularity and perceived as out of touch with the contemporary milieu, Hollywood introduced the ratings code, which enabled the development of films catering to specific demographics. This resulted in the production of films dealing with adult themes, specifically incorporating sex and violence. New Hollywood then evolves due to the breakdown of the studios, the end of the production code, the fragmentation of audiences, and an increasingly decentralized mode of production. Feature films also incorporated alternative filmmaking practices such as low budget, auteur driven, foreign influences, and experimentation in editing, multi-camera shooting and special effects.

I offer here a condensed “pat” history with which most of us are familiar, and it is similar to the argument that the increased carnage in films arises out of and in response to the “increased carnage” in society. As Slocum claims "film violence" has become a trope closely associated with that of “the 60s.” While Slocum agrees with J. Hoberman that “public attitudes toward violent imagery are historically determined,” he further argues that the naturalizing that occurs through the development of such tropes has obscured further debate (Slocum 17). Moreover, Slocum regrets a lack of analysis of the “nature of the linkages between cinematic and social violence” since much of the discussion remains “circumstantial and speculative” (17).

The primary theoretical model supporting this interpretation of a connection between film violence and social conditions is the “media effects” model, which developed from behavioural science and communications studies analyses of the “instrumentality of media” (Slocum, 23). For the cinema the research question becomes: What are the behavioural “effects” of viewing violent films? For most film scholars, when they think about the media effects model, their focus is on the audience. Does the viewing of violent film affect audiences and what is that effect? While most of us agree that a “vulnerable” spectator might be inspired by film violence to act out, most of us also concede that this is a rare kind of film viewing. What the cinema mostly does, and one of the main reasons we continue to engage with its content, is that it affects us — it makes us feel.

Slocum’s argument draws attention to the way in which this "media effects" discourse both underpins and restricts many of the debates about film violence. He argues the interpretation of film violence as an “effect” has become naturalized in critical discourse and legitimated through funding and policy. This naturalization has had two distinct results in writings on horror. It limits our perception of violence in the cinema to “blood and guts,” and it results in the insistence on a critical consideration of the moral stance of the film (Slocum 24). Equally important to consider when analyzing film violence, as Slocum observes, is that it can also articulate issues of power and its relations. Questions of morality restrict our analysis, while the linkage of “the 60s” to “film violence” atomizes a historical moment and ascribes to it an aesthetic and thematic effect (Slocum 23). We need only look back to the films of the “50s” or the “30s” to assess the kinds of critical problems that would occur by using this simple equation.

Currently, a similar logic of “effect” argues for a direct linkage between our current historical moment — post 9/11 — and the escalation in explicit violence on our screens. In fact, filmmakers living in a society of increasing uncertainty, war and torture have often responded by exploring this reality on film. To take one example, over 250 documentary and feature films have been made on the bloody break up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the ignition of ethnic violence there with new successor states claiming their territories (Iordanova 6). Filmmakers do often choose to make films that have a strong or political social commentary, and the act of making these kinds of films and the process of viewing them can be homeopathic. But if we consider increased representations of explicit violence in contemporary film, is such a direct correlation so clear?

To provide an obvious anecdote to the linear “effects” argument, consider the relatively low crime rate in Japan. In that culture, tolerance of explicit violence and sex in the cinema and other media is extremely high. Furthermore, if we can go on the web and see images of real victims of torture, of kidnapping and execution, why would we want to see the dramatization of these actions in films?

We could look back to consider the influential nature and trajectory of the Italian postwar film movement, Neorealism. Although Neorealism left a powerful stylistic and social legacy, we can argue that this social realist style had difficulty maintaining an audience largely because people who had lived through the war wanted fantasy on their cinema screens rather than the hardships of their daily lives. To create a parallel with our own times, the war in Iraq is becoming increasingly unpopular and has declining support in the West as more troops die. The U.S. military is currently offering a $20,000 cash bonus to new recruits as the Army is unable to meet its recruitment targets.

A critic could well ask if “torture porn” deals with these political and social concerns in an explicit or implicit way. Does it function as allegory? What needs or desires does it fulfil for audiences — what kind of experience does it give them? Furthermore, why are we labelling these representations of torture and degradation in contemporary cinema as “porn”?

Our general understanding of pornography is the expression in literature or art of obscene or unchaste subjects. Although Lawrence Alloway was writing in the 1970s, I find his discussion of the term in relation to media most useful. In Violent American: The Movies 1946-1964, Alloway evaluates Arthur Schlesinger’s use of the phrase “a pornography of violence” in his discussion of Bonnie and Clyde (64). The question for Alloway is this: What does the term

“pornography mean that would make it applicable to mass media?” (64).

He suggests that the criterion for understanding how this term is pertinent to representations of violence in mass media needs to be a social one. Pornography is

“visual and verbal material that exceeds what is socially tolerable in significative form” (Alloway 65).

Erotic material is legally available so it cannot be pornographic. Therefore, pornography is sexual description or depiction that is unacceptable and illegal. Yet finding agreement on a concise definition of what pornography is proves more difficult. Every country’s standard of tolerance varies and changes over time. Good examples of this in reference to feature films are the chequered censorship and distribution histories of films like Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Pasolini’s Salo (1975). Acknowledging this difficulty of defining the concept, Alloway argues:

“A social definition is the only one that can stand in the face of the variability of standards: ‘pornography’ is that which must be clandestine for a particular group at a particular time” (65).

The label “torture porn” would then by definition mean that the representations of mutilation and torture in films are pornography because they are illegal or at least unacceptable to contemporary cinema audiences. Yet as we all know, films depicting such practices are not banned. Instead, age demographics are restricted through the usual form of ratings. The ratings range from a PG for Hostel to the R ratings that most of the other films receive. Of course, DVD releases are another issue: you can currently obtain a copy of Hostel where the cover calls it “unrated.” In sum, since most viewers legally viewing these films and are 18 and older, the films do not fulfil the above requirements of pornography. The label "torture porn" remains evocative and potent — a bit punk rock. But what the use of the term "porn" suggests is untrue — that this trend provides viewers with secret, illicit, and underground works.

Real-life torture

Perhaps we should view this label of "torture porn" as liberating because it voices the “T” word. Shortly after the release of the Abu Ghraib images, Susan Sontag in the New York Times resoundingly condemned the refusal by the Bush administration to call the actions that took place at Abu Ghraib “torture.” The shock voiced by the Bush Administration in relation to the photos and their circulation, argues Sontag, undermines and elides the fact that the true horror lies in the actions — the real thing. Commenting on the overwhelming power of images in our world, she says,

“the Western memory museum is now mostly a visual one.”

Due to new technologies like mobile phones and digital cameras, each soldier was recording a “visual” memory of his or her war experience. Military forces can no longer easily censor the circulation of information from their ranks. Now soldiers have become amateur “war photojournalists.” Enabled through digital camera, they record

“their war, their fun, their observations of what they find picturesque, their atrocities” (Sontag).

They swap images among themselves and e-mail them around the globe. We have only seen a few of these images. In fact, Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged the circulation of many more images, and videos, too — images and film we were not allowed to see (Sontag). However, since 2006, most of these images and films have been made available on Salon.com, where there is an archive of 279 photos and 19 videos of Abu Ghraib abuse first gathered by the criminal Investigation Command CID, and their timeline of events, which were acquired through a military source.

Drawing attention to the explicit nature of these images, Sontag claims torture has predominately a sexual nature. Further compounding the sexual component of the torture images is the fact that when circulated, they were interspersed with more traditionally pornographic images of soldiers having sex with each other. Historically, torture is frequently based on

“rape and pain being inflicted on the genitals” (Sontag).

Truly disturbing, the label "pornography" appropriately fits the actual images of victims of torture at Abu Ghraib. They are covert images taken in the secret of night; images of illegal acts inflicted upon human beings and shared among a cohort; they circulated for reasons of power and reasons of pleasure; illicit images that were never supposed to reach public sight. It is these images that truly fit the label “torture porn.” However, still difficult to fathom is the fact that the perpetrators of the acts and the images appeared to have

“no sense that there was anything wrong in what the pictures showed” (Sontag).

It must seem that I wish to tease out the implication in this label of "torture porn" because I might want to supplant it with a “better” one. Actually, as a descriptive title, I think “torture porn” serves its function well. Rather, my purpose is to draw attention to assumptions made about how we might correlate our knowledge of “escalating” violence worldwide and its social representation in visual images, specifically those of torture, and an upsurge in explicit images of violence and degradation in contemporary fiction film. Non-profit organizations like Amnesty International work tirelessly to draw our attention to incidences of torture throughout the world, yet many of us take little notice of their efforts. The images of torture from Abu Ghraib — shocking in their stark bleakness — for a while effectively focused attention on the morality of torture in the public realm. In discussing social issues as she described the “torture-porn” trend, Lynden Barber thus writes:

“While asking us politely not to mention the T-word, the US has admitted to the use at its Cuban detention centre of techniques including near-drowning, extremes of heat and cold, and 24 hour lighting” (25).

But why would social revelation and debates result in the popularity of feature fiction “torture-porn” films that animate experiences of torture, mutilation, dismemberment, castration and cannibalism? David Edelstein queried, in this regard,

“Fear supplants empathy and makes us all potential torturers, doesn’t it?”

Thinking about fear and the potential for torture in all of us is a crucial one to consider in relation to government and military use of torture and society’s acquiescence. However, my purpose here is to tease out some untested connections in a critical debate that links increased public knowledge of images of torture, increased representations of explicit violence in films, and audiences’ desires to experience these graphic representations. Do we as spectators become complicit due to our fear supplanting our empathy? I can no longer ignore these "torture porn" fiction feature films.

In June 2007 I was doing some work in London when Hostel II was released in cinemas there, so I decided I must see it — but I had to do it in the middle of the day. It needed to be light when I resurfaced from the cinema. Before discussing this film and others in the trend, I wish to take a detour through Elaine Scarry’s key work on torture in The Body in Pain: The Making and the Unmaking of the World. I find it uncanny the way in which the title and setting of Eli Roth’s Hostel films evoke all the nuances that Scarry illuminates of the comfort, terror and deconstructions of the word “hostel” from refuge to hostility to sacrificial victim. Most of us think of torture as the infliction of excruciating pain so as to extort a confession of “secret information.” In fact, as Sontag notes, one of the definitions from the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, of which the U.S. is a signatory, torture is

 “'any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession'….The 1984 convention declares, 'No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.' And all covenants on torture specify that it included treatment intended to humiliate the victim, like leaving prisoners naked in cells and corridors."

It is clear that what happened at Abu Ghraib is torture, but the meanings and purpose of torture are more complicated than appearances. Scarry agrees that torture is a primary physical act of inflicting pain and a

“primary verbal act, the interrogation” (28).

But she furthers our understanding of torture's mechanism and function when she argues that in spite of the interrogation and the inflicting of pain, to posit that interrogation has obtaining information as its aim is a ruse. Ultimately, torture is a process whereby recognition of weaponry as agency enables a denial of the victim’s pain and its translation into the assertion of the power of the torturer’s regime. Scarry’s discussion of the process through which this occurs is complex, but a brief outline will enable us to have a general understanding of the structure of torture.

Having no referent or external object, Scarry insists that pain not only resists language, it actively destroys it. Our compensation for the ambiguity of bodily pain — the felt reality of those who have it with the inability of others to share it and therefore confirm its existence — is that we externalize it by recognizing its characteristic in weapons (16). However, “perceptual confusion” arises because rather than the weapon symbolizing pain, the language of agency fosters the conflation of pain and power (18). The extreme bodily pain associated with torture is caught up with “the problem of power” (12). What enables the conversion of this “absolute pain into the fiction of absolute power is an obsessive, self conscious display of agency” (27). Furthermore, in torture the negative use of the language of agency achieves a “sadistic potential” (18). In torture, observes Scarry, it is in part the

“obsessive display of agency that permits one person’s body to be translated into another person’s voice, that allows real human pain to be converted into a regime’s fiction of power”(18).

Her thesis elucidates how torture is not used to unearth “secret information” in wars and political struggles. Rather, torture functions to confirm the power of one group by denying the bodily pain, the voice, the agency, ultimately the civilization of the other side through conversion of an individual’s pain. As we apply Scarry's theory to the cinematic phenomenon of “torture-porn,” it is important to understand how she sees torture structured as an event — the playing out of a monstrous drama. Scarry observes:

"Torture is a process which not only converts but announces the conversion of every conceivable aspect of the event and the environment into an agent of pain. It is not  accidental that in the torturer’s idiom the room in which the brutality occurs was called the ‘production room’ in the Philippines, the ‘cinema room’ in South Vietnam, and the ‘blue lit stage’ in Chile: built on these repeated acts of display and  having as its purpose the production of a fantastic illusion of power, torture is a grotesque piece of compensatory drama" (28).

Although interrogation is a feature in both war and thriller genres, films that fit within the “torture porn” trend never represent it. Instead these films bring us face to face with what is routinely denied in the process of military, state and government sanctioned “torture”: the event is reduced to a cruel, clear dynamic of power relations. The victim’s power is stolen from them through imprisonment. Then the victim’s agency is annihilated by the process of torture — not just through the infliction of excruciating pain, but its anticipation and duration. In these films there is no attempt to suggest legitimization for the torturer’s actions. They clearly display the fact that the torturer’s pleasure is his or her absolute power over the victim, events and situation. This sadistic pleasure is intimately bound to the torturer’s omnipotent and omniscient power. Yet there must be a survivor – the “final girl” who Carol Clover identifies in Men, Women and Chainsaws as empowering because she escapes to live another day or even returns to kill the “monster.” Someone has to escape to allow the audience to surface and the series to continue. Having now seen many of these films, I find one thing consistent within them. That is the staging of the performance of the torture, the maiming, the dismemberment.

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