Jennifer getting ready to watch the tape.
Jennifer watching a recording of herself being recorded.
Oli, from Hostel, takes a picture of himself having sex in a bathroom stall. Notice the “doubled surveillance angle.” We the spectator are positioned via the filmic camera at a “surveillance angle” with the character’s personal surveillance apparatus directly in the foreground of the shot, held up at the same exact angle. We are watching him surveilling himself. His use of the personal surveillance apparatus (cell-phone camera) and his desire to flaunt his activities makes this “self-surveillance.” This self-surveillance via the “surveillance angle”, is a common act which can be seen at a bar, club, school hallway, street corner, Facebook account, or profile shot for on-line dating.
The image is then instantly transmitted to his companions’ cell phones. This suggests that bodily contact is simply performed for the other’s gaze. The intimacy and pleasure being felt is a means to end representation. His gaze into the cell-phone camera’s gaze suggests pleasure lies in being transformed into a visible image, rather than the bodily sensations felt during carnal intercourse.
Jennifer and Gary being captured having sex.
The “faked” picture is used to entice the men in Hostel to go to Bratislava. The personal surveillance equipment (camera) suggests “authenticity.” The men go because the picture suggests that these individuals just happened to have captured these girls getting naked and having fun because that is what Slovakian women do.
Jennifer awakens to the image, sound, and even breeze (the curtains
The image deteriorates, the sound fizzles, the curtains become immobile
The image disappears revealing Jennifer’s “captivity.” The image is a trap, a tomb.
The townspeople envelope Britney
Upon her death, the town’s people disperse, finally leaving Britney alone.
From Captivity. Jennifer is still “trapped” in the basement, as suggested by the advertisement which “traps” her in the surveillance space.
The killer from Saw leaves one of the victims, Adam, to die in the torture chamber. Notice the hand reaching out from the bottom right hand side.
The camera which pops down into the vent in Captivity.
Jennifer confronts the surveillance gaze and recoils in horror.
Pepeping Tom. The old “amateur” camera which turned voyeuristic fantasies into documented realities.
The film presented audiences with a self-reflective vision of cinematic spectatorship as inherently perverse. As Laura Mulvey has argued, “Mark is an obsessive cameraman, acting out the implications of the voyeuristic and sadistic gaze that, Marks and Powell imply, is inevitably present in the cinema.”[89b] The apparatus itself is used as a (phallic) weapon, equating visibility as an act of violence. It is this “obsessive” need to constantly record and inevitable perversity and potential danger that come with technological capabilities which allow us to “see more” which Captivity builds upon.
James Stewart’s Jeff in Rear Window using his telephoto lens as a magnifier to spy on his neighbor.
Poster from Disturbia. An updated version of Hitchcock’s Rear Window has a delinquent teenager under house arrest as the protagonist rather than a photographer with a broken leg. In both films, male protagonists spy on neighbors, documenting their “abnormal” behavior, but rather than physical disability limiting his mobility, the surveiller in this instance is also surveilled by the monitoring device attached his leg which tracks and limits his movement.
Diorama of torture space in Saw V. Notice the tiny figurines in the first quadrant.
A twisted game of “hang-man” in Saw VI
An interactive maze game in Saw VI.
From Saw VI. Six victims are tied to a spinning device. The wheel spins and victims randomly stop in front of the gun. The gun will automatically shoot unless the protagonist forces the gun to miss by having a metal spike stab his hand.
Close-up of the gun in Saw VI’s “shooting game.”
From Paranormal Activity. Micah holds the camera and films his wife Katie. The apparatus is visible and acknowledged. The camera is hand-held and mobile. The camera is not your tiny average amateur camera. This is a professional camera, purchased to perform a specific meticulous task, requiring its supped-up capabilities.
Paranormal Activity. The couple putting themselves under surveillance in order to monitor both the house’s and their own behaviour throughout the night.
Paranormal Activity.The day after, Micah plays the recoding on his computer and slowly scans the image for deviant behaviour.
Since initial impact, New York has been under increasingly intensified surveillance.
Amateur photographs from 9/11. Many images from 9/11 were captured by average people on their home-camcorders and cellphones. When the World Trade Centre was hit, all that could be done was record and document the attacks and then repeatedly review and replay the images and videos afterwards. In documenting and making this national trauma visible, its purpose could be understood.
How do psychoanalytic concepts of watching account for these new presentations, and how do our ingrained concepts of surveillance potentially keep us from understanding new methods of gazing. The relationship between voyeurism and surveillance is directly questioned in Captivity as the killer follows and records Jennifer in public, kidnaps her and places her within his surveillance-laced lair. His recording of her “unawares” is both surveillance and voyeurism, and in his lair, as she is under constant surveillance, his gaze is both sexually voyeuristic and punitively controlling.
The differences and relations between “voyeurism” and “surveillance” are extensive, and I cannot do justice to their complexity in this paper. What I want to offer are some observations about how to start rethinking these culturally charged ways of seeing. I of course am not the first person to question the historical construction of the cinematic gaze. Catherine Russell, for example, noticed the dichotomous trajectory of the cinematic gaze when she argued,
The classical method of understanding cinematic pleasure has remained firmly entrenched within psychoanalytic traditions, and Russell’s analysis points to a need to re-investigate how other nodes of power shape the gaze and re-construct it as a complex gaze. In comparing Foucault’s panopticism with Jean Louis Baudry’s theory of the cinematic apparatus, modeled after Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Russell argues:
In thinking about how technology, surveillance, art, looking, and pleasure converge in modern culture, Peter Weibel indicates how the psychology of voyeurism has changed in contemporary times:
Weibel points toward both the epistemological and ontological shift that the cultural ubiquity of surveillance has inspired. It’s changing looking, pleasure, and performance. And Weibel acknowledges that this transformation’s course is still “undetermined.” This psychological shift has taken place in conjunction with the larger network of surveillance, a network already in place but spurred on by the effects of 9/11:
Our personal reactions to surveillance are, then, a response to its institutional promulgation. For Weibel,
Surveillance, according to Weibel, is not a type of gaze but rather the re-organization of the gaze within a whole new kind of visual economy.
Jigsaw articulates this optical shift in Saw when, via a tape recorder, he asks Adam, “What do voyeurs seek when they look into the mirror?” Adam soon discovers that one of the mirrors in the room is actually a two-way mirror and smashes it, revealing a video camera. This moment in Saw suggests that what voyeurs seek when they look into the mirror now is surveillance. It is not enough to be seen by one person; we want to be recorded so that many can see us.
Voyeurism was a hidden, somewhat shameful, secret gaze, while surveillance is a flaunted gaze. The voyeuristic gaze seeks others as a way to acknowledge the self, while the surveillance gaze only seeks itself; it is a further intensified narcissistic gaze. It is no longer voyeurism’s “I see you,” or exhibitionism’s “I want you to see me,” but surveillance’s “I want you to see me seeing you,” and surveillance performers’ “I want you to see me seeing you see me.” Rather than seeking the human gaze of the other for mirrored identification, we now seek the recorded gaze of the mechanical: we increasingly know ourselves (and others) as images rather than people mediated by images. For Ursula Frohne,
Zizek echoes the same theme:
Whether looking or being looked at, the gaze invariably turns back to the self, something Paul Virilio now sees as a merging of the human gaze and the technological surveillance gaze. For Virilio, we live with “Vision Machines,” within a system where machines watch us, and where we watch them as they watch us, ad infinitum, mimicking the endless gaze of two mirrors side by side reflecting each other’s reflection: an undecipherable world of mise-en-abyme.
Surveillance culture produces “a new readiness to give up one of the fundamental principles of civilization—that of the legally protected private sphere and personal intimacy…” and it is precisely this willingness to sacrifice our private selves to the media that torture porn is critical of. Niedzviecki quotes Renton and Reuben’s belief that “reality TV’s production techniques have aspects in common with torture” citing shows “like Fear Factor and Survivor and even The Real Gilligan’s Island, that regularly subject their contestants to confinement, starvation and degrading activities.”
In this regard, Saw II is the film most critical of surveillance culture. The entire film is constructed as a sinister version of Big Brother. Eight strangers wake up to find themselves locked in a large house with poisonous gas slowly leaking through the vents. Their mission is to find the code to the safe, a safe that contains the antidote. What the victims here are fighting for is “immunization,” or as in the reality television show Survivor, “immunity.” As contestants in reality television get knocked off, victims in Saw II get killed off, and as with most reality television shows, an implicit “award” for those who survive is additional visibility. In this instance, however, this “award” is perverted as it only prolongs one’s torture. The longer you last, the more screen time you get, but the more screen time you get, the more you suffer. A tape recording tells them to work together as a team, but each “contestant’s” greed takes over, leading to their demise. Saw II implicitly critiques reality television’s neo-conservatism and expresses disgust for our desire to rid ourselves of our privacy. Not only are people dissolving themselves into images, not only are they watching people being tortured, they are even letting themselves be tortured for this new social privilege.
It is no surprise that the cultural appropriation and use of surveillance has focused so intently on the “average person,” and that this visual power of public looking, especially on the Internet, has been leveraged by individuals to expose themselves. Surveillance culture is an attempt to salvage ourselves. As Hal Niedzviecki argues, when people appropriate surveillance as a form of resistance, it does not mean they attempt to resist the institution but rather to resist the eradication of themselves. The surveillance gaze then is partly a gaze of lamentation. Perhaps then is why so many have churned out images of themselves on the Internet performing intimate, obscene or criminal acts, such as eating feces, having orgies, torturing others, attacking the homeless, or committing crimes; and perhaps this is why the public’s eyes are simultaneously attracted to these very same images. As the world becomes more virtual and fragmented, yet integrated, it seems people need to intensify the shock in order to feel something. Yet these grasps for attention only add to the seemingly limitless fragments available for consumption. As the protagonists of a film like Menace II Society indicate (they robbed a convenience store and stole the surveillance tape not to remove evidence of a crime but to play it repeatedly for friends as entertainment), it seems that a condition of modern subjectivity is people’s need of the other’s gaze to validate themselves, regardless of what the gaze sees, whether it be mundane activities like washing the dishes or a crime. As the title of Sandra Bernhard’s one woman act/film puts it, “Without You I’m Nothing” (1990), or as Ursula Frohne has argued, our
The characters in torture porn are all too aware of their visibility. For example, Captivity's victim Jennifer has a blasé attitude towards being filmed or even a specific desire to be filmed since she has sex with Gary on camera, fully aware she is being watched, and she either does not care or wants her captor to see her pleasure.
At the same time, torture porn may also critique surveillance’s function to register some kind of documentary “truth.” For example, surveillance’s authenticity is criticized in Hostel when Paxton discovers the cellphone image of Oli and Yuri to be a lie; however, the background of the image contains something “authentic,” a smokestack, a visual indication which Paxton uses to discover “the truth.” The surveillance image here is presented as a “partial” truth—neither entirely truthful nor entirely incorrect but a complex mixture of the two.
A similar question of surveillance’s authenticity is also raised at the end of Saw II, when it is revealed that the supposed real-time images were actually recordings: not fake but not “truthful” either. Here, the semi-fraudulent “real-time” surveillance images which helped the captives in Speed (1993) escape are reversed, used as a tool to fool the police.
This questioning of authenticity is taken to an extreme where death in torture porn becomes symbolic of an inability to die, of an inability to decay. Death is something digital technology is making seemingly obsolete. Torture porn fetishizes death by prolonging it, by aestheticizing it, so viewers can feel it. The sub-genre functions as a cumulative reaction to our inability to be invisible, to our inability to decay, to our simulated and recycled permanence. Thus, being forever bound to the image is the motivation for the brothers in Captivity. When Gary develops real feelings for Jennifer, his brother reminds him, “It’s the tapes and the books that make it better, make it last forever.” The image is a form of permanent torture. Even in death, the women in Captivity cannot escape their torture. Their suffering is recorded, stored and played over and over again, in a private, perverted archive.
Torture porn is a sub-genre specific to post 9/11 anxieties about surveillance and the cultural consequences of surveillance. Approximately thirty years before Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, George Orwell’s dystopian vision of a totally panoptic world in 1984 approached surveillance with the same intensity and bleakness that torture porn exudes. For Orwell, televisuality (or for us, surveillance) could not produce pleasure; pleasure is located in invisibility. Orwell could not foresee how the drastic dissolution between public and private could create the potential pleasure located in constant visibility. Orwell’s polemic vision in 1984 also discounted the seductiveness of celebrity. A more modern dystopian fiction in the same vein is Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Haunted, which tells the story of a group of individuals who are locked in an abandoned theatre and who sabotage themselves in order to further their suffering. Their goal is to create more compelling narratives of suffering to report to the media when there are eventually released. The book is critical of surveillance culture’s obsession with suffering and self-sabotage in the name of “fame.” Like Haunted, torture porn adapts 1984, altering it to reflect the state of surveillance in the 21st century.
In a comic critique of surveillance culture, a 2008 episode of South Park entitled “Britney’s New Look,” Britney Spears’ relentless paparazzi surveillance ends with her dying in the middle of a corn field. When Britney realizes she’ll never escape from the surveillance gaze, she unsuccessfully attempts suicide. She spends the remainder of the episode being unhappily dragged about with half her head missing. Sympathizing with her plight, Kyle and Stan attempt to take Britney away from the photographers, but they too eventually recognize that they cannot escape. At the end of the episode, all the town’s people envelope Britney and begin taking pictures, slowly killing her. The violent actions in torture porn make the gaze sadistic, while in South Park, the act of looking is itself an act of violence. Britney is killed by her hyper-visibility, by her over-exposure. Similar to Jigsaw’s claim that he does not kill people, the people of South Park claim that they are not killers. Britney is said to have killed herself, so responsibility gets transferred to Britney—she asked for it.
Referentially, the episode is responding to the ceaseless media coverage Britney Spears received over the 2007-2008 period where her erratic behavior garnered almost unprecedented coverage. After her critically panned performance at the 2007 MTV Music Video Awards, people were asked to “leave Britney alone,” a phrase repeated at the end of the South Park episode by Stan’s father, Randy Marsh, when he states, “Well, I think it’s time for us to leave the poor girl alone.” During this period, celebrity coverage was criticized and questions were raised about media cruelty and sadism. Ironically, the critics raising these issues appeared in the very same media outlets which purchase and fund celebrity surveillance, as talk show hosts rehashed the issues with same the feigned sincerity shown after Princess Diana’s death, questioning whether the media (they themselves) have “gone too far.”
Connotatively, the witty South Park episode uses this critique of intense celebrity surveillance as an allegory for surveillance as a whole. Britney stands in for the average person who, via an appropriation of surveillance technology, attempts to create him/herself into a celebrity. The episode is not only critical of this appropriation, but it also acts as a cautionary tale about the dangers of visibility, since Britney might come to represents the “average person” under the Bush administration’s panoptic gaze. Surveillance culture’s obsession with the “celebrification” of the average person is also an underlying criticism in the film Captivity. As Niedzviecki observes, “Peep emerges, at least in part, from our increasing and ongoing desire to adopt the mantle of celebrity and try out life lived in front of and for an audience.” Like Britney, Captivity’s Jennifer is under constant media surveillance and it is her constant visibility that is her eventual demise. By the end of the film, Jennifer escapes her captors but, like Britney, is unable to escape surveillance. This is suggested by her aimless wandering into an industrial street, juxtaposed against a large and glamorous billboard advertisement in which she herself appears. As one author poignantly and eerily puts it: “We think we are stars, but we’re really only prisoners:” a sentiment reflected in Ondi Timoner’s We Live in Public (2009).
All of the torture porn films end rather bleakly. They lack catharsis. Their plotlines, characterization, and mise-en-scene reflect both our inability to escape the surveillance gaze and our circular attempt to escape this paradox. In all the Saw films everyone (except the s who are “innocent”) die. Even in the films where the victims escape, the narrative suggests inescapability such as in Hostel and Hostel II. In Hostel, Jay escapes only to be killed off in the beginning of Hostel II and Beth’s branding sets her up for eventual execution, a punishment for killing the Elite boss’s daughter. In Captivity, as a celebrity, Jennifer is used to being watched and actively desires and requires this gaze. Yet when forced to confront her placement within the media’s borderless panopticon, she recoils in horror. An “eye” at the center of the surveillance camera that records her references Dziga Vertov’s “Man With a Movie Camera,” and in Captivity, not only does her captor have a movie camera, he has several. Captivity is anxious not about being caught “unawares,” but about the inability to be caught “unawares.” In the same way that Powell’s Peeping Tom invited audiences in 1959 to confront the perversity of cinematic voyeurism, viewers are invited to confront their use of surveillance as entertainment and asked to question whether their loss of privacy in the name of security has made them any safer.
Captivity should be seen and understood as a contemporary revision of Michael Powell’s classic Peeping Tom (1960). In Peeping Tom, Mark Lewis plays a cameraman and part-time porn photographer who kills women while recording them with this personal camera. The true perversity of Mark’s killings lies in his forced reflexivity. Mark has attached a mirror to the tripod-camera apparatus, forcing his victims to watch themselves die. Mark records and archives the women’s deaths, reliving their suffering during his own private screenings.
Both films tell the stories of men obsessed with documenting, using sex and violence to question the consequences of technology’s ability to bridge fantasy and reality. Captivity and Peeping Tom use the documenting, archiving and sexual commoditization of women’s bodies to emphasize the violence of visibility during their respective eras.[88b] But whereas the gaze in Peeping Tom was limited to one camera, the Dexter brothers’ was multiple. While in Peeping Tom the gaze was voyeuristic and the distance between sex and violence was further apart, the gaze in Captivity is surveillant, with sex and violence brought much more closely together.
After Captivity’s critical and box office failure, the torture porn sub-genre began to fade. Films began to poach torture porn’s tropes without being torture porn. The first film to do so was Untraceable (2008). This revenge tale deals with a scorned youth who blames media/surveillance culture for his father’s suicide and seeks revenge by kidnapping specific people he believes contributed to his father’s death. He then tortures them live on the Internet. Owen, the young killer, sets up elaborate torture systems that increase in intensity as more viewers log onto his website to see the torture. Owen parallels Jigsaw, the people of South Park, and U.S. official doctrine in that he says he “does not torture.” He displaces blame onto the insatiable, sadistic desires of the audience. If they would cease watching, Owen says, the victim would not get tortured. He brings the issue of torture’s relation to the media its most visible conclusion.
Untraceable is built on the premise that the Internet is evil and so requires surveillance and monitoring. If Owen’s evil website is “untraceable,” surveillance is required to discover and stop it. In its plotline, the film serves up a reactionary, techno-phobic, paranoid vision of the Internet. The dialogue even makes an explicit reference to torture porn discourse, since a detective gives a long speech about people using the Internet to search out torture, in which he denounces the perversity of wanting to see strangers having sex. Untraceable is finally more of a detective thriller rather than torture porn. The torture in Untraceable is not the main draw, but only one element of the overall narrative. And even though the torture plot is calculated and meticulous, it does not exude the same intensity and darkness that permeate torture porn, considering Owen is killed and Diane Lane is saved.
Interestingly Saw V, released in October, 2008, nine months after Untraceable, transforms that series’ overall narrative structure, also foregrounding a detective narrative and placing torture into the background. Through all the Saw films, the narrative is split between the main plotline of victims and the sub-plotline of the detectives trying to save them and stop Jigsaw: surveillance versus surveillance; authority versus authority. In Saw V, the importance of the two plotlines is reversed. In Saw III and IV, all the victims are separate, with a central “victim” taking on the role of torturer. In Saw V, five individuals are kidnapped, and as in Saw II, are placed in the surveillance/torture space together. What differs in Saw V, however, is the characters’ awareness of their situation. When the characters awake to find themselves in their situation, they do not seem particularly shocked or afraid. Their attitude is almost business-like. Brit calmly states, “Make sure we follow the rules.” The characters in Saw V recognize that they have been captured by Jigsaw, they are in his game, they are all connected together somehow, they need to figure out why they are grouped together, they need to play the game, get it over with, and hopefully survive. When kidnapped, Jigsaw, over voice-recording, directly asks individuals to play his game. His torture constructions are mini-games. Indeed numerous flashbacks occur throughout series showing Jigsaw and his accomplices setting up the contraptions and “game spaces.”
The only character to show any real panic is Mallick, who yells, “It’s Jigsaw. I knew this was gonna happen to me. This is what he does!” Brit responds by stating, “It’s not Jigsaw, he’s dead. Haven’t you watched TV lately.” Jigsaw and his games are now part of popular culture. Similar to what Jigsaw did in Saw II, he instructs the players to resist their “life long instincts” and to “do the opposite.” What differs in this film is that even though the group ignores Jigsaw’s instructions, the two final “contestants” work together and survive. When discovered by a police officer, Brit softly whispers, “We won.”
The fifth Saw film turns torture porn into a pseudo video game while simultaneously highlighting the “gaming” nature of the entire series. Saw V changes the nature of torture from individuals racing against the clock, to people knowing they are pitted against each other and against the clock. It goes from player versus computer, to player versus player and the computer. The characters know this is a game, as does the audience; the audience and the characters share this common knowledge, and similarly, share the anticipation of what puzzle or mini-game awaits in the next room. The film seems to set up a similar mechanism to that of Untraceable, where the viewers functioned as if they were playing an online interactive “game.” In Saw V, when Detective Hoffman, as “Jigsaw,” enters his lair, the camera tracks across a diorama of the torture space, located next to a massive surveillance operation console. If Saw II was like a reality television show, then Saw V makes the space even more “virtual” by allegorizing it as a video game. The movement from the diorama to the surveillance console not only highlights the torture space’s relation to surveillance, but the space’s relation to control. The surveillance console matches a video game console, and Jigsaw is going to play a “video” game using real people. The torture space is first shown in detail just prior to the characters appearing for the first time, which happens late—twenty minutes into the film.
Such further layers of virtualization make Saw V a pivotal film, moving the series from torture porn into a new realm. Torture porn’s bleakness tapers off here, offering the “players” a pseudo-way-out and the audience more pleasure in the hyper-virtual. Saw V offers viewers not so much catharsis, but a potential form of resistance to the bleakness paradox. The film’s “videogameness” self-reflexively acknowledges the audiences’ pleasure and investment in the Saw films. Perhaps this is why the Saw films remain so popular and profitable while Hostel ended after its second attempt and Captivity failed both critically and financially on its first attempt.
When I first proposed a study on torture porn, I must confess that I was initially too scared to watch the films. The first Saw film left me with a lingering, uneasy feeling that I too was always being watched, and that at any moment I could be kidnapped and punished for sins buried deep in my closet.
However, I eventually mustered up the courage, endured a torture porn marathon, and was shocked that by the end I was perversely fascinated. In terms of my response, the films went from “torture” to “porn,” from pain to pleasure. Not only did I want to see what elaborate, sinister ideas the writers were going to come up with next but craved using the experience to imagine, “What would I do if I woke up in that situation?” I am apparently not the only one to ask myself this question — as a recent explosion of “Escape the Room” games on the Internet are built upon this question. Players take on the first-person perspective of an individual who is locked in a space (amusement park, car, lion cage, coffee shop, kitchen, crimson room, etc.) for reasons beyond their comprehension and, like those in torture porn, must figure out their escape, at times under a time limit. We again see the re-fashioning of political culture into perverse entertainment.
The very question which left me sleepless years ago is now a question which provokes pleasure and it was this underlying sense of “videogameness,” which, I think, subconsciously attracted me. I am ashamed to admit that these films nourished the 1980s generation kid who fantasized in his youth about being transplanted into the virtual, fantastical spaces he devoted so much time to mastering. Of course, a viewer injecting him/herself into virtual space has not been lost on producers as an economic opportunity. Saw: The Video Game was released in North America on October 6, 2009, and is modeled after the “survival horror” genre made popular by the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series with these games later being adapted into horror films. More important, we must remember that video games themselves are virtual surveillance. In summarizing Bernadette Flynn’s research which compares Big Brother and the video game The Sims, Jon Dovey finds,
In the case of The Sims, players are able to isolate Sims in boarded off rooms, torture them with deprivation and starvation, and then watch them die; torture here produces no information, just a panoptic, sadistic spectacle. Reality television shows, too, take place in “closed environments, fiercely policed by security guards and surveillance.” They have a setup very similar to video games. Visually, in videogames, third-person camera perspectives give players a panoptic, (at times) controllable gaze that watches over the characters whom the players control and that surveys the surrounding space for danger/treasure/etc.. Part of the pleasure lies in the belief that through visibility we can control and master the subjects and space in our field of vision. In some games, players are able to oscillate between an invisible surveillance gaze, usually shot from a “surveillance angle,” an angle which allows the space's visibility to be maximized, or for "maximum visibility," and an embodied POV gaze, so that the game links these two gazes as the player’s surveillance.
It is no surprise that film scholars such as Warren Buckland and Thomas Elsaesser have noticed that some contemporary films are modeled according to videogame logic, organizing their narratives and producing pleasures associated with the video game. The children of my generation are now grown up, seeking and creating pleasures which engage with subjectivities negotiated through the controlled, yet more participatory logic and pleasures associated with the videogame. For Buckland and Elsaesser, video game worlds are ruled by reliable rules, to which I would add, creating an enclosed, visible space where freedom is limited according to each individual world’s logic. For Buckland and Elsaesser movies which have serialized repetition of actions; multiple levels of adventure; immediate rewards and punishments; similar pace to those of videogames, and a sense of interactivity are organized according to video game logic. The authors also emphasize the important element of violence in video games.
Saw V and especially Saw VI are clearly organized around this sort of logic. After the original Saw film, the series built on Saw II’s successful re-articulation of gaming viz a vis its criticism of reality television by integrating videogame logic into their narrative structure: the movies offer characters immediate reward (life/knowledge) or punishment (death); the narrative mixes fast-paced/timed sequences and slower information sequences; characters advance and build upon previous experience; the spaces are confined and organized around rules which are both tacitly understood and explicated prior to game-play; narratives and scenes are organized around competition, either against one’s self or others; and most importantly, the combination of these factors creates a sense of interactivity between the viewer and the narrative space.
Saw VI in particular pushes this form of narrative organization, recapitulating Saw III’s structure, but rather than having the protagonist go through a series of games whereby he chooses to save the individual victim, here the protagonist of Saw VI has a much more variable role, having to guide a victim through a steam-piped maze, playing a shooting game with six human targets, being pitted against another in an air-deprivation game, as well as playing a game of hang-man. Both the torture porn space and surveillance gaze are equated with the videogame making visibility, control, enclosure and virtuality perversely pleasurable.
On the series’ signature opening weekend (the weekend before, or of, Halloween), the surveillance-saturated torture porn film, Saw VI did not have as big of a box office draw as another surveillance-saturated film: Paranormal Activity (2009). Paranormal Activity is a “found footage” narrative film in the tradition of the Blair Witch Project (1999), whose protagonist couple record themselves in the hopes of capturing evidence of the paranormal activity which haunts them. The film is a low-budget reinterpretation of the “haunted house” sub-genre, a sub-genre which has always pitted the private space against the encroachment of the public space, and stands as an indictment of the continual erosion between the public and the private. The house, as a symbol for the private space, demands its privacy, with the camera, symbolizing the public, agitating and provoking the house to react and defend itself from this forced visibility, eventually leading to the couple’s demise.
The film’s formal cinematographics oscillate between hand-held, mobile long-takes when the two main protagonists (mostly by Micah) are in possession of the apparatus and static long-takes which record them while they sleep. Micah is obsessed with capturing everything on video as a way to stockpile “evidence.” The tapes are meant to discern the “normal” from “abnormal,” or “paranormal.” The act of recording here moves beyond mere observation to ceaseless recording. In attempting to make deviation visible, self-documentation becomes self-surveillance.
Paranormal Activity and films such as Blair Witch, REC (2007) Quarantine (2008) and Cloverfield (2008) push the verité traditions of filming and observing into the realm of surveillance. This particular style of filming occurs in narratives which revolve around crises with films such as these mocking our investment in surveillance’s potential to make us secure via visibility. The characters in these films endlessly record as a way to sort through their traumatic and confusing scenarios in order to make sense of their surroundings and feel safe. The camera here becomes a microscope. They believe that in rendering themselves and their surroundings visible they can be safe. If they can capture and record everything, they can see it, dissect it and, therefore, know it. Surveillance and visibility here become security blankets; our disavowed faith in panoptic visibility is thoroughly punished in these, and all the torture porn films.
Perhaps Saw VI’s low opening weekend and low box-office gross points to the end of the torture porn sub-genre proper—a post-9/11 genre too closely associated with post-9/11 U.S. culture, media and politics. If interest in extreme representations in horror is truly over, the torch has been passed on to Paranormal Activity, whose success indicates that our cultural obsession and ambivalent relationship with surveillance is here to stay.
To repeat Clover’s observation that “eyes are everywhere in horror cinema;” it is perhaps the horror genre with its perverse investment in human libidinal energies and its ordering, judgment and punishment of these energies and desires where a re-investigation of the tensions between voyeurism and surveillance can take place. It is the horror film which makes us feel the panoptic gaze. Late at night, in the dark, in our beds, underneath our (security) blankets, it refuses to let us forget that we are indeed being watched.