Saw III. Victim attached to a “cross-like” device which will twist his appendages off. His nudity allows for maximum visibility of his suffering and in the context of this film, highlights its religious connotations by visually signifying him as a “Christ-like” figure.
Saw II. There is absolutely no narrative need for this man to be top less, let alone, bottom-less, and in a pair of sexy blue lycra bikini briefs. All of the violence is located on his face. I am personally disturbed by the fact that every time I watch this movie my eyes race back and forth between his crotch and his attempt to poke out his own eye. I believe this frenetic gazing is intentional. The very act of looking from his genitals (porn) to his face (torture) stitches these two focal points together forming “torture porn."
A victim in Hostel II.
Saw III. In an “S/M scene gone wrong,” Troy must free himself from the chains before the bomb goes off. He does not really need to be in his underwear as the chains are attached to his limbs.
Saw. His almost nude body allows us to see, thereby making it more likely we will feel, this man’s pain.
Saw. This character’s nudity is partially narrative. He is covered in flammable gel. Had he been clothed, he would have been able to simply remove the clothing. Regardless, for this “torture” to work, he needs to be mostly nude. This “scene” is based on his nudity. It only “works” if he is nude. His nude body, therefore, takes precedence over the “torture.”
Saw III. A nude woman hangs from her wrists and is slowly doused in water in this large freezer. She will literally freeze to death.
Captivity. Personal photographs, fashion magazines, pornographic comics, the “raw materials” the brothers use to construct their scrapbook.
From Saw III. Detective Allison Kerry has her ribs pulled out by this mechanical “angel of death” machine. The metal claws which dug into her ribcage transform into demonic wings. The emphasis on her ribs and its tie to the female body make the spectacle a religious allegory, invoking the myth of Eve. Narratively, the film asks us to “return to the beginning,” Saw, for potential clues, while the overall theatricality of the spectacle, emphasized by slow motion, coloured lighting, and her unnecessarily lifting her arms towards the sky, mocks Passion’s excessive visual presentation of religious violence.
From Saw III. Jeff fails to save the drunk driver who is tied to this crucifix device which eventually snaps his neck. He kneels before this “Christ-like” figure.
Hostel II. The victim, Lorna, is hung nude, up-side down over a basin in preparation for her torturer, a woman who goes by the pseudonym “Mrs. Bathory,” who will lie underneath her and …
... mercilessly slash her body to death, allowing her to …
... drench herself in her victim’s blood. The torturer writhes with ecstatic pleasure, rubbing her victim’s blood all over her body. This is perhaps the penultimate image of “torture porn;” the sexually charged pleasure in completely immersing oneself in someone else’s suffering. A case can be made for the victim’s need to be nude, however this woman’s nakedness serves no purpose other than to re-enforce, and bring, the label “torture porn” to its visual conclusion.
The collection of weapons available to the torturers in Hostel. Their presentation is reminiscent of a dentist or surgeon’s tray of tools.
Hostel. The weapons are meant to be visible to the victims.
Vaginal weaponry as a convention
A round, sharp toothed band saw about to rip Whitney’s face off in Hostel II
The pit of dirty needles in Saw II
Pit of dirty needles.
Close-up of a “bloody box” in Saw V. Here, the two final survivors must bleed out a certain amount of blood by letting a saw slice open their hand and arm before the door which traps them opens and lets them free.
A “box” tightly fitted around a character’s head which will fill with water and drown him.
A character in Saw II sticks her hands into this box through two holes in order to grab the needle inside which can cure her from the poison seeping into the boarded-off house. Serrated razors are attached to the holes. The more she pushes her arm in, the more they cut her. She cannot remove her arms without cutting them off. She is stuck there bleeding to death. This is “fisting” gone wrong.
These massive metal “lips” in Saw will rip her jaw off if she fails to obtain the key located in another, temporarily sedated man's stomach.
From Saw V. The walls slowly close, crushing him.
Character from Saw II trapped in a furnace, soon to be burned alive.
There is, of course, a connective thread between torture and porn—the act of looking. Indeed torture and porn are all about visibility, about making visible our ability to inflict pleasure or pain on the body. Torture and porn are about witnessing our ability to induce sensation in the other’s body and having that power visually and aurally validated. This is a critical juncture. On one side, viewers have pleasure (porn); on the other side, they have pain (horror). In torture porn, the line is not only blurred but non-existent, as the pain-pleasure division of looking, hearing and feeling dissolves.
Williams herself noticed this trend and criticism almost two decades ago:
Such an increasing sadomasochistic interchangeability is specifically addressed in the first Hostel film when Josh walks through the hallway of a neon-lit bordello and hears screams coming from inside one of the rooms. Alarmed, he opens the door to help the individual being harmed only to discover a leather-clad dominatrix sitting on top of a semi-nude male slapping him in the face. He mistakes the screams of pleasure for screams of pain. This slippage between “torture” and “porn” is inversely repeated later on when a guard in the torture complex watches porn on his laptop; screams from those being tortured mix with screams from the porn movie playing on his laptop. Torture is diffused into and confused with sexualized spaces and vice-versa.
“Torture porn” as a term thus not only refers to its close association with the body but to the way in which the body is consumed by viewers and used in the films. Torture porn goes beyond sexualizing violence; it is hyper-sexualized violence. While horror cinema is about watching sexy, scantily clad, big-breasted woman running away from killers and then being stabbed with big thick knives, torture porn goes further by stripping these actresses and actors of their clothing, rendering the violence caused to their fragile bodies completely visible. This association is explored by Gabrielle Murray in an article on the body in pain and its placement within the torture porn sub-genre. The characters’ nude or barely covered bodies not only hyper-sexualize the violence but allow us intimate access to their pain. The examples are numerous.
Nudity in cinema, especially in horror, is rarely necessary on a narrative level. There are always, as Lewis indicates, ulterior motives for using nudity or sex. In torture porn, the heightened level of nudity complements the more intense spectacle of violence, but it also allows for the maximum visibility of pain to be tinged with sexual overtones. The point here is not necessarily to judge the appropriateness of the nudity, but rather to demonstrate that in this horror sub-genre, nudity or near nudity is a much more common style of representing the body. The victims in the horror genre are almost always clothed, mostly because they are busy attempting to escape their victimizer. In horror, the characters’ wounds are not as visible as they are in torture porn due in part to the temporal nature of horror’s violence. The chase (or keeping the female victim in some sort of peril) in horror is prolonged, but death is usually quick. In contrast, in the torture porn sub-genre, the wounds’ visibility complements the drawn-out duration of the violence, thereby complementing the narrative pace and presentation. As such, torture porn perverts patterns of sexual arousal and narrativized methods of sexual representation. Instead of the body being sexually stimulated towards pleasurable orgasm, or, la petite mort, it is instead painfully stimulated towards death, or, la mort.
Earlier films such as Saw, Saw II, Hostel and possibly Saw III were created/released prior to Edelstein’s article being published. However, Hostel II and Captivity seem to actively engage with the label “torture porn,” especially by using women as protagonists. By probing the intersection of “torture” and “porn” (and discourses related to torture and porn in general), the films self-referentially display an awareness of their desired status as torture porn. Indeed both of these films are about the construction of femininity and its root in misogynist patriarchy, placing female bodies and identities at the intersection of sex and violence. Prior to her torture in Hostel II, Bijou Phillips, who plays the character Whitney, is tied to a chair in front of large mirror to be “prepped,” a mirror which is reminiscent of a Hollywood starlet’s dressing-room mirror. Her constrained placement in front of this mirror cruelly forces her to confront the perversity of “femininity” as a cultural construction filtered through capitalist enterprise such as advertising, “Hollywood” cinema, and pornography.
Twice before this scene, Whitney is shown in front of mirror performing for herself—once sexually and once in a masquerade. She surveys herself, aware of her own womanly performance and how she will be seen. Here, surveillance and performativity are linked via her awareness of her femininity and the film’s traditional use, both in casting and in script, of female beauty to appeal to the viewer’s voyeuristic pleasure. By centralizing femininity, Hostel II’s narrative thus enacts a more reflexive discourse on torture porn by highlighting the sexualization of the (female) body and enacting violence on it. This connection in the film between torture, porn, and femininity is further supported by choice of location, with some of the sequences shot at the Big Sister brothel in Prague. In fact, Big Sister is a bordello completely rigged with surveillance cameras which stream live sex shows to viewers on the Internet.
Another film, Captivity, also utilizes femininity to anchor its narrative and themes as torture porn. Torture in this film is directly linked to pornography. The film is about two brothers who kidnap women and use torture to remove their defenses and make them even more vulnerable. In Captivity, Jennifer, a model-actress, gets kidnapped and tortured as one brother, Ben, remains upstairs and controls the surveillance apparatus and experiences what Jennifer does through mediated images while the other brother, Gary, poses as a captive. As Jennifer (like the previous women) is tortured, she seeks security in Gary and, as she is meant to, eventually develops affection for him. Through a mixture of visual (surveillance) and physical (torture) conditioning, they can modify and control Jennifer’s behavior, disciplining her into having sex, thereby producing “porn.” The brothers’ ultimate goal seems to be for Gary to fuck the female victim while Ben watches from upstairs on the monitors.
Near the end of the film, when Jennifer eventually escapes from the basement, she discovers a scrapbook filled with page after page of collages and instructions on the brothers’ system. The instructions blend images of torture, porn, other violent sexual practices on women by men, and the brothers’ own photographs. This scrapbook not only reveals “woman” as the men’s fantasy construction but implies that sexual desire for women is intrinsically manipulative and violent. The scrapbook is the embodiment of torture porn; it is a calculated, cold construct which weaves porn (sex) and torture (violence) together.
For example, Ben emphasizes the mechanization of sex in contemporary culture when he praises the mediated representation of sex for its predictability. When he explains his viewing pleasure to Gary as, “You’re inside her. I’m inside her,” Ben indicates a contemporary development in pornography—the dissolution of authenticity and the collapse of actuality in relation to the image, highlighting new discourses about virtual pornography. Taking up such an issue in a theoretical way, in Screening Sex’s concluding chapter, Linda Williams broadens the spectrum of her analysis of pornography from strictly narrative sexual representations to virtual representations. She takes as an example Interactive Sex Simulators (ISS)—using Digital Playground’s Virtual Sex with Jenna Jameson as a case study. On that website, sex simulators allow men to take on the position of a faceless (headless) digital body (specifically, penis) and dictate how it will fuck Jenna Jameson. This collapsed relation between body and image is further articulated by “gonzo” style filming, a now-prevalent style popularized by digital and on-line technology whereby the entire sexual encounter is shot in a POV long-take, from an (almost always the male’s) embodied position. When this disembodied penis is “inside her,” presumably the viewer is also “inside her.”
In Captivity, Ben is constructed as the presumed “average male” porn viewer—overweight, working-class, balding. Like the average men who use ISS’s and Internet porn, Ben uses Gary's thin, gym-toned body as an avatar, a digital stand in for himself. For Ben, watching and then joining in via masturbation are the same as intercourse. Like Baudriallard’s simulacrum, the real and the reproduction are no longer different. In gonzo porn, as in the ISS that was discussed and Ben’s surveillance in the film, not only does the image have an ever more tenuous relation to a pre-filmic sexual event but so does our embodied connection to visuality. As Zizek argues:
For Zizek then,
For Zizek, physical sex is just masturbation with flesh rather than plastic or one’s own hand; fantasy, rather than the body, dominates the experience. Part of the viewer’s discomfort with Ben’s belief lies in the violent way the film narrativizes this evolution of sexual desire. Captivity’s plot confronts ways in which technology’s use reveals new and hidden intricacies of sex. Virtual sex and eradicating private sex life as a result of amateur porn/hidden-camera porn are libidinal supports of surveillance culture.
So far I have focused my attention on the “porn” part of the “torture porn” label, but what about the “torture”? In the very first sentence of his article defining the sub-genre, Edelstein asks,
A key element of torture porn is the meticulous, cold, and calculated method in which pain and violence are performed on the bodies. In horror cinema, the violence is almost always “warm-blooded,” the end result of a chase. Or violence comes from surprise attacks on the body (multiple gunshots/stab wounds) where the killer is interested in killing, not the method or presentation of the violence, nor how much pain is inflicted on the victim. That is, in many films the killer wants to kill the victim, not torture him/her. In contrast, in torture porn, death is not the main narrative focus or character goal, but it is the by-product or end result of torture. After the victim’s body has been fully used up for the torturer’s pleasure, it must be disposed of, like a used tissue or condom. Torture porn is about slow, drawn-out, controlled, premeditated pain being inflicted on the body; it is about visibility, not invisibility. It is not about the unknown but the all-too-known, not about anticipating when or how the violence will occur but confronting what remains clearly before your eyes.
Visual representations of torture cannot be divorced from their cultural climate. Saw III is the most overt torture porn film to engage with post-9/11 politics and culture, with a plot based on the theme of religion. The film’s central torture narrative deals with Jeff, a self-loathing husband who cannot get over the loss of his child. His marriage and relationship with his remaining child fail as he sinks into depression. Those responsible for his child’s death—the bystander who did nothing, the drunk driver who ran over his son, and the lenient judge who sentenced the driver to only six months in jail—have been abducted by the killer Jigsaw (seen over various Saw films), providing Jeff with a unique opportunity. Jeff is also abducted and told he can enact revenge by letting Jigsaw’s torture contraptions torture and kill the other captives, or he can forgive them and save them from their suffering and eventual death. The plot’s adherence to a revenge narrative astutely invites the viewer to take an active role as torturer. Jeff himself is a torture victim, whom Jigsaw forces to face his fantasy/nightmare; Jeff is also a torturer, as the fate of “his” victims rests “in his hands.” By identifying with this main character, spectators then are placed in both the torturer/victim positions, and Jeff’s decision-making process actively invite them to reflect on what they would do in the same situation.
Religious imagery abounds in the film and is used as a narrative device, so that the theme of religion itself further layers the film’s torture discourse. Not only does the film invite us to reflect on and feel torture, but also it becomes an indictment of one of torture’s biggest supporter, the religious right. Its violent theatricality recalls The Passion of the Christ (2003) but it is even more perverted than the torture in that film, which led Edelstein to group Passion in with other torture porn.
Responding to not only Passion’s brutal imagery but also its sinister “call to arms” for fellow “Christian soldiers,” Saw III critiques how religion has been used as a tool for revenge. Before Jigsaw gives Jeff an option to save the drunk driver, Jigsaw on a tape recording asks Jeff, “Does do unto others as they would do unto you apply here?” The film’s emphasis on religion is even used in its advertisements that visually focus on teeth, referencing the Old Testament dictum, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” After 9/11, religion as a tool of violence once again dominated social consciousness, with the religious right insisting that radical Muslims must be stopped by the United States as God’s chosen—Christian—land.
Does the presentation of violence make torture porn so different? What about torture in other films and television shows? Surely the television series 24, which features sequences of torture, also negotiates aspects of U.S. culture and politics after 9/11. Both 24 and the Saw series deal with torture in a “ticking time-bomb” scenario. Torture in 24 is represented as necessary to extract information during periods when law-enforcing characters are “racing against the clock,” such as when a bomb is about to explode. The Saw series uses this “race-against-the-clock” scenario in a more perverted way, placing all of the victims in a “deadline” situation, but so as to deter their rational capacities and initiate their “fight-or-flight” response. In 24 torture is almost always successful in helping authorities save people; in the Saw series, it is not. 24 sees torture as potentially valuable and necessary; Saw mocks this belief by constructing the “ticking time bomb” scenario as a period which diminishes the victims’ cognition and is therefore dangerous to them. However, this mode of presenting torture is specific to the Saw series and not Hostel, Hostel II or Captivity, and finally cannot be seen as a major element of the sub-genre.
Thus far I have attempted to engage with the politics of the terms “torture” and “porn,” attempting to recognize some of the thematic characteristics and iconographies which shape the representations in torture porn, making it its own unique sub-genre. It should be recognized, however, that genres and sub-genres are porous. I wish to demonstrate how their being situated within a torture porn discourse reflects commonalities and individual film’s structures relating to said discourse. In order to further engage with these films as part of a “sub-genre,” we must contextualize them within the horror genre, and this is what I turn to next.
Torture porn as part of the horror genre
What I wish to look at are some common elements in horror cinema and explain how torture porn displays, alters, or rejects these generic codes. My intent is to demonstrate how torture porn evolves the genre with some interesting results, most importantly, the way in which spectators look. I contend here that torture porn is primarily structured by the fact that surveillance is altering social consciousness and our desire to look and be looked at. These films point to a change in our visual desires, desires now influenced by surveillance technology’s ability to create, distribute and access a seemingly endless stream of visual content without limit or delay. Not only can people rarely escape surveillance, but they also learn to desire through the surveillance gaze and apparatus usually by narcissistically placing themselves at the center of it. To locate torture porn within the horror genre, I would make the following generalization. As discussed above, the horror genre is heavily invested not only in the body and looking at the body but also in the act of looking itself. The horror film is committed to voyeurism, but torture porn, I argue, is invested more in surveillance.
Situating torture porn within the horror genre will allow me to focus on the history of the gaze in horror and how and why torture porn alters this gaze. I begin this analysis by placing these texts within the broader spectrum of the horror genre, looking at how they reflect or diverge from certain iconographic and thematic genre conventions, and hypothesizing the significance of the films’ allegiance to, or deviation from, horror.
“Genre” is the term given to a group of films that draw from and perpetuate certain common conventions, motifs, styles and narrative patterns. As Sarah Berry-Flint puts it,
When you go to see a horror film, you know there will be a killer or killers, whether human (identifiable, or unidentifiable), imaginary, undead, or monstrous who will seek revenge on, or just randomly attempt to kill, a group of individuals. When you go see a torture porn film, you know people are going to be tortured in a graphically explicit and dramatic way.
As Thomas Shatz notes, genre involves iconography, which is
When you go to see a horror film, you expect, and desire, to be scared. You expect, violence, screaming, things and people popping out of nowhere, weapons (knives, guns, chainsaws), dark lighting, empty or isolated spaces. Although torture porn adheres to some of these conventions, in horror the thrill is seeing whether you can handle being scared, while in torture porn the thrill is seeing whether you can handle the confrontation with looking at carnal, sadistic, bodily violence. Pleasure lies in being tested, but in horror, the pleasure is derived more from narrative devices, while in torture porn it is derived from visual confrontation. In horror, viewers may half cover their eyes when they register that the act of violence is about to occur and quickly turn their heads as soon as it does. In torture porn, an internal countdown begins once the violence begins, testing how long viewers keep watching, before or if they turn away.
It is because “each genre film incorporates a specific cultural context” that “patterns of sameness both arise, and are necessitated to create genre.” If filmmakers wish a work to be considered “genre,” they must incorporate some aspects of the desired genre for familiarity and marketability yet be different enough to be “new” and financially successful. The more generic elements used and referenced, the more of a “genre” film it becomes. Even in the horror genre there are further sub-genres, such as the religious horror film, the slasher film, the teen slasher film, the monster horror film, etc., all of which borrow from “horror-proper” yet differentiate themselves enough to form their own grouping. As a way of differentiating themselves, sub-genres also borrow from each other and other genres. Even in torture porn, the Saw series slowly transforms into more of a detective thriller, while the Hostel films incorporate aspects of the roadtrip/teen sex comedy, and Captivity can be seen as a more extreme “kidnap” movie or “woman-held-hostage” film. So what do these films have in common in spite of their narrative and thematic differences which make them torture porn? What aspects of the horror genre do these films share in common, and what conventions diverge from horror?
Perhaps the most fascinating convention unique to torture porn is the overwhelming presence of “vagina dentata” or “vaginal weaponry.” Horror is a traditionally symbolically phallic genre, notorious for its “misogyny.” It is generally perceived as a masculine genre invested heavily in male sexual anxiety. In horror, phallic weapons are the norm, but in torture porn, especially in the Saw series, vaginal weaponry dominates. In terms of props and mise-en-scene, while phallic imagery symbolizes the erect penis and penetration, torture porn’s vaginal weaponry is spatial and contraption-like and engulfs and suffocates, rather than penetrates the character.
Such a mise-en-scene exemplifies the way in which torture porn brings issues of femininity and sexuality to the foreground. In the horror genre, in contrast, two enduring staples are the dominance of male killers and the grossly disproportionate amount of screen time given to the female victim’s terror. The body count in horror is generally even between men and women, but men are killed off quickly, while women’s terror gets drawn out over larger periods of time. Women have to scream and run and fall and get up and struggle and run some more, and finally get killed, or reveal themselves as Final Girls. In torture porn, on the other hand, there are a surprising number of female killers including Shawnee Smith’s Amanda in the Saw films as Jigsaw’s victim-turned-accomplice and Hostel II’s “Mrs. Bathory.” In an alternative ending available on Captivity’s DVD, Jennifer herself becomes a killer, taking revenge on men who have specifically targeted women as victims. In the first and second Hostel films, men and women work together to lure male and female victims to Bratislava to be sold for torture. In those films, as Hollyfield has argued,
Torture porn’s investment in containment and claustrophobia transforms the entire setting into a “vaginal space” and weapon. Here, the settings connote violence since the act of containment/confinement is itself an act of torture. In this way, the sub-genre’s masculinization of femininity produces some interesting queer energies as traditional dichotomies of gender roles and genderedness become diffused.
In torture porn, except for Captivity, an equal if not larger portion of screen time is dedicated to men’s prolonged suffering. Saw depicts two men locked in an abject bathroom together, mentally and then physically tormented. The rest of the Saw films also feature more male than female victims, with much more screen time dedicated to male suffering. In the first Saw, a male killer focuses all his attention on two male victims. The plot of that film reminds me of Freud’s case where a woman felt she was being followed and photographed by a photographer; a deluded fantasy brought upon by guilt for an affair. To Freud, her paranoia was a sign of her “homosexuality,” as Freud in general considered paranoia a telltale sign of homosexuality; this sense of “being watched” suggested one had something to hide. In Saw, Dr. Gordon is also having an affair except he really is being followed and photographed by a photographer. Surveillance in this respect is queered in the film, and the plot seems to use it to transmit a sense of queer desire.
In all the torture porn films, gender is mixed up and usually queered. In Hostel, potentially queer character Josh sends the wrong signal to an older (assumingly) gay gentleman. This older man ends up purchasing Josh, stripping him down to his underwear and torturing/killing him. In Saw III, victim turned victimizer tortures numerous male (and female) victims. In Hostel, all the visible victims are male except for one Japanese woman, Yuri, and most of the clients are men. In Captivity the brothers’ relationship is more than subtlety queer. One cannot tell if Ben is interested in the women his brother Gary fucks or in watching Gary fucking with a “Straight Guys for Gay Eyes” (a gay porn website) incestuous gaze. Traditional male killer and female victim scenarios are subverted in torture porn, disrupting both gender power dynamics and unleashing queer sexual energies meant to be kept at bay by this older killer/victim genre convention. Furthermore, if the female body in the horror genre was the locus of male anxiety or heterosexist male prurience, then what anxieties are being communicated by transposing killer/victim genders? When the viewer takes pleasure in seeing these male bodies, these bodies must be punished through mutilation and suffering as a way to disavow this threat. In his critique of Laura Mulvey on the gaze, Paul Willemen quotes Freud’s belief,
Why are torture porn films so invested in gender politics, and why do these more explicit queer sexual energies manifest themselves and permeate such an extreme sub-genre? Perhaps these films react to mainstream media’s slow but increasing acceptance of (certain kinds of) gay and lesbian sexuality and more incorporation of female characters who defy conservative constructions of gender traits and roles. Interestingly the women in torture porn, unlike their murderess predecessors, do not seek revenge but pure sadistic pleasure. This is an exceptionally important divergence from the few horror films which feature female killers (except, of course, Jennifer if we count the “alternative ending”). While homosexuality was either kept at bay in horror or punished for its perversity (such as in The Silence of the Lambs, 1991), in torture porn same sex desire is not exclusively punished but is rather an integral part of the broader narrative discourse. Despite this integration of queer sexuality, I am, however, concerned about Captivity’s overall conservative and regressive suggestion that misogyny is rooted in disavowing homosexual desire.