From Hostel II, security cameras allow guards ...
... to watch the torture — for “safety purposes.”
A character in Saw II searches the Jigsaw Killer’s lair.
The same character, now in Saw III, recognizing it is now she who is under surveillance when she discovers a video recorder in her closet.
A “self-surveillance” video of a man raping a woman plays on the rapist’s television in Saw IV.
When panoptic technologies are lacking, such as in Hostel’s portrayal of not-quite-Westernized/ technologized post-Soviet Bloc Slovakia, the town’s people combine their synoptic gazes to surveil their victims.
A character in Saw follows a man—with whom he will eventually be locked in a grungy bathroom.
Now he's monitoring and recording that man's every move.
One of the killers in Captivity watches Jennifer struggle and panic as she slowly is buried in sand. Note that the torturer-voyeur's headphones and tilted-back chair position suggest “masturbation.”
Passports in Hostel II being scanned ...
... and electronically wired to computers ...
... and blackberries all over the world for “auction.”
A character in Saw II recognizes and points ...
... to the surveillance camera in the corner of the room which watches and monitors her and the rest of the group’s behavior ...
... as does a character in Saw V.
Saw V—reverse shot of the camera she was pointing to.
Francois Sagat in Saw VI
Francois Sagat the Pornstar
Surveillance is everywhere, and its social ubiquity has led to it being a common element or mode of representation in contemporary moving image culture. As Thomas Levin has argued,
Surveillance has become a mode of visual production, as in reality television shows like Big Brother (US, 2001) or films like Timecode (2000); it has become a narrative and thematic element, as in Caché (2005), Disturbia (2007) The Borne Ultimatum (2007); and sometime it serves as both a mode of production and narrative theme, as in The Conversation (1974), Sliver (1993), The Truman Show (1998), or the British sitcom Peep Show. When surveillance functions as both mode of production and major script element, as Levin puts it,
The prevalence of surveillance in contemporary media is now so vast that, for the purpose of this paper, I would like to focus on a small group of films that exemplify contemporary discourses on surveillance in a specific way. This group of films is collectively known as “torture porn.”
The label “torture porn” refers to a loose association of feature fiction films featuring scenes of extreme violence and torture. David Edelstein coined the phrase in his 2006 New York Magazine article as he quickly surveyed a common trend of violent representations in popular cinema. The catchy term became a trendy buzzword and now torture porn is considered a horror sub-genre in its own right. Although I will in part investigate torture porn as a cinematic sub-genre, my goal is to demonstrate the centrality of surveillance in these films as shaping narrative elements, modes of presentation, and iconographic motifs in ways that convey deep anxieties about the alteration of “the gaze.”
Surveillance in torture porn allegorizes larger cultural and political trends in panoptic (the few watching the many) and synoptic (the many watching the few) subjectivities. Surveillance metonymically encompasses looking and the complex and ambivalent nature of looking and being looked at, and these elements of human social life are currently undergoing radical transformation due to technological advancements spurring on a “culture of surveillance,” or “surveillance culture.” As Nicholas Mirzoeff has noted,
“Surveillance” and the larger category, “image,” are merging together into surveillant images. If these two methods of representation have united, then this union requires us to investigate how the act of looking follows this social and technological change and what the ramifications of this merged, or altered, cultural gaze are. Looking is biological; gazing is cultural. As culture evolves, so too does the gaze.
Torture porn is a sub-genre invested not just in looking or visibility but in panoptic and synoptic watching and hyper-visibility, which are rendering privacy and invisibility a thing of the past. The label “torture porn” combines reference to two of the most intense bodily acts and visible bodily representations; “porn” (sex) and “torture” (violence). The label itself is symptomatic of the extreme forms of visibility that torture porn engages with, bringing the body, but most importantly, visibility to the foreground. These films are partially concerned with “torture” and “porn,” but their consistent underlying structure rests on the sub-textual desires of looking embedded within “torture” and “porn.” Indeed “torture” and “porn” are actions and/or representations designed for maximum visibility.
“Torture” and “porn” come to represent two increasingly intertwined discourses: first, the loss of privacy brought upon by, and commonplace attitude towards, institutional/corporate/government surveillance (the culture of surveillance); and second, our appropriation of surveillance as a form of entertainment (surveillance culture). I argue that torture porn is an extreme reaction to the Bush administration’s post-9/11 surveillance protocols and policies. Entangled with various issues and anxieties relating to the ubiquity of surveillance, we have now also culturally appropriated surveillance as a form of entertainment. In his book The Culture of Surveillance Staples argues,
Toronto writer Hal Niedzviecki investigates the effect of surveillance within pop culture phenomena in his 2009 book The Peep Diaries. For Niedzviecki,
Peep culture then, is “a cultural movement steeped in and made possible by technological change.” It implants the belief, “You need to know. You need to be known.” Why do onlookers jump around behind news reporters filming on location? Because they know they will be seen on TV. People used to avoid walking into strangers’ pictures, now they often jump into the frame because they know they will be uploaded onto Facebook or Myspace, or Flickr, increasing their visibility. Niedzvicki’s book casts a wide net, weaving personal observation, experience and interviews into an exploration of contemporary “surveillance culture.” Topics he investigates include the following: reality television, celebrity “news,” amateur porn, serial YouTubers, camboys/camgirls, social networking, GPS obsession, government surveillance, spying technology, the urge to “confess ourselves,” and the dissolution of community and identity. His thesis is that we have entered an age where surveillance proper (military/security/institutional) has merged with and is appropriated by cultural industries and individuals, resulting in new surveillance-inspired forms of representation and entertainment. We have entered into an age defined by
In short, people live for the surveillance gaze. Niedzvicki does not see this as a positive turn of events, as surveillance remains a key tool of corporate and governmental power. People’s desire to rid themselves of their privacy has dangerous consequences, and the underlying fear and anxiety about these consequences is what torture porn draws upon and implicitly replicates.
Indeed, surveillance is everywhere in torture porn. The films I focus on—Saw (2004), Saw II (2005), Saw III (2006), Saw IV (2007), Saw V (2008), Hostel (2005), Hostel II (2007) and Captivity (2007)—display an endless array of surveillance technologies such as cameras (security, photographic, video, cellphone), computer monitors, VCRs, televisions, and communal synoptic gazes. The omniscient presence of surveillance in these films, however, also indicates both the role and the effect technology has had in influencing our desires and expanding our ability to represent what was once unrepresentable. In torture porn, surveillance is not entertaining; it is dangerous. This cultural anxiety towards surveillance expressed in fiction is intertwined with post-9/11 social fears of institutionalized surveillance. For Foucault, surveillance is about the desire to regulate, discipline and “normalize” behavior, making deviancy obvious to onlookers. After 9/11, hysteria over “potential terrorist behavior” was epitomized by the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign, a crusade intent on transforming the average citizen’s common, passing glances into a massive, active, paranoid surveillance network where everyone is monitored and scrutinized by everyone else.
Torture porn is a post-9/11 U.S. horror subgenre. As Hollyfield remarks, writing about Hostel,
These graphic films use excess to express the trauma inflicted on the American national consciousness. Fear—the fear of being killed in a random terrorist attack, the fear of being watched, or the fear of being kidnapped and labeled a terrorist—has affected the United States after 9/11. As such, it is no surprise that torture porn films would purposely or inadvertently mold their narratives after the multiple reports which have flooded the newswire of individuals being kidnapped, detained and tortured, whether wrongfully or rightfully, at sanctioned and unsanctioned prisons and “detention centers.” In all the torture porn films, people are kidnapped for reasons beyond their knowledge and detained, confined, and tortured. Such an immersion in the nether regions of U.S. political and social consciousness was made explicit in the film Captivity’s banned advertisement, which featured four sectioned-off quadrants containing images to represent each of the four narrative high points, “Abduction, Confinement, Torture, Termination.”
Part of the anxiety that these films respond to and capitalize upon is the threat of being constantly, unknowingly watched and monitored, with the looming threat of potential “correction” and punishment via abduction or torture. Politically, most of these threats pertain to Muslims, Arabs, left-wing organizations, or any groups or individuals that have dared, or were at least perceived as though they dared, to oppose or resist the Bush Administration’s ultra-conservative agenda. This “threat” was less likely to be felt by conservative leaning individuals or organizations. This is of course the point of surveillance: “Don’t do anything we, those in power, do not like or we will label you a threat and neutralize you.” Surveillance, in this respect, is almost always conservative as it is meant to define and detect “abnormality”or that which challenges “the norm,” or status-quo. In contemporary times, what was terrifying about the Bush administration’s use of surveillance, however, was its lack of secrecy, indeed the flaunting of it, including its racist and anti-liberal focus. The Bush administration’s use of surveillance was itself infected by surveillance culture.
Here I will begin my analysis by tracing out the semantics of the label “torture porn,” delineating how the films engage with the politics of these two loaded terms, and their relation to surveillance after 9/11. In examining the words “torture” and “porn,” I will look at some of the ways the phrase “torture porn” came to refer to a sub-genre of extreme horror films. Torture porn is about the politics of torture and porn’s visibility. I then move on to a discussion of the horror genre proper, focusing my attention on spectatorship, arguing that torture porn breaks down gendered spectatorship, situating it on a more political axis. As a case study, I analyze the act of gazing in relation to the Abu Ghraib photos and move from there to take a closer look at the representation of surveillance in torture porn. Finally I would like to contemplate the ideological and cultural consequences of “voyeurism” and “surveillance”and their increasingly intimate relation in contemporary culture.
Defining historically contingent terms
When I tell people “I’m working on an article on ‘torture porn,’” I always have to mime the quotation marks, and then follow up with, “Not porn where people are ‘tortured,’ like S/M, but the sub-genre of horror films, like Saw and Hostel.” Even though no one verbally says anything, their faces unintentionally show relief after my explanation. “Oh,” they usually say, “That’s cool. I love/hate those movies.” Upon being told whether thus person love or hates “those films,” I am then asked, “Why are those movies called ‘torture porn’? It’s not porn, people aren’t fucking.” I have difficulty in responding with a quick and simple answer considering how on a purely visual level, torture porn’s obsession with bondage and contraptions create dark “scenes,” giving it an S/M feel. Part of the difficulty for me is that concrete definitions of “torture” and “porn” remain elusive, so I start my own investigation here of “torture porn” with the very concepts of “torture” and “porn.”
In this decade, the United States has faced a contentious public debate over definitions of torture. For example, despite photographic evidence from Abu Ghraib and the explicit knowledge of “waterboarding,” many people in the United States, including most politicians, deny that the U.S. government sanctions torture. With respect to waterboarding, for example, Department of Justice statements, Senate committee hearings and CNN “special investigations” on waterboarding have yet to yield “conclusive” answers as to whether or not this action constitutes “torture.” Of course many key figures and ordinary people do believe it is torture, and that the CIA and Bush Administration were simply playing a game of semantics to poorly disguise their illegal actions. Of particular interest to me, when the Abu Ghraib photos were leaked to the media, was how quick the conservative right was to dismiss the images and the abuse they portrayed as “pornography” and the actions of “a few bad apples.” For Defense Department officials, too, this was an isolated incident. Following the initial reaction, conservative pundits, journalists and academics were quick to project their anti-pornography beliefs onto these images. For many, “It Was Porn That Made Them Do It,” a sentiment Frank Rich satirically explored in an article of the same name.
Suffice to say that strong arguments about the photographs’ nature were made by both sides of the “torture “or “porn” debate. Were they evidence of torture? Yes. Were they pornographic? Also yes. The images simultaneously look like extreme, amateur S/M porn, and photographic evidence of meticulously calculated, by-the-book torture techniques. Nudity, humiliation, bondage, sensory deprivation via blindness, disorientation, etc., are standard operating procedures long researched and taught as methods of interrogation to CIA operatives. These images sparked outrage not only because of what they showed but also because they were indefinable. As Katrien Jacobs notes:
This relatively short-lived discussion about the Abu Ghraib photographs reminded me of the “porn wars” during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1989 Linda Williams’ critical text Hardcore dared to investigate moving image pornography as a popular cinematic genre in its own right, worthy of analysis and study. This landmark book affected the trajectory of discourses around pornography on a larger cultural scale. Williams’ study decentralizes the question, “Is pornography good for woman or bad for woman?”—while the author slyly constructs her analysis favoring the “pro-sex” side. For her, pornography is a genre akin to the musical. Like the musical, narrative pornography focuses our attention on the interludes between the narrative moments, and like the musical, these interludes construct a vision of bliss between men and women. William’s study has, of course, been criticized, even by herself, but her work has opened the doors for what is now considered “porn studies.”
This recent, growing field of research continues to raise and sometimes answer many questions about pornography, including attempts to define its loose and porous nature and to further consider it as a genre of cinema. Two recent Jump Cut articles, one by Magnus Ullen, the other by Jon Lewis provide some important insights into this discourse about pornography. In attempting to re-define pornography, Ullen directly criticizes Williams for taking a textual approach to studying it, arguing that pornography lies not in the text but in the spectator’s hand(s). Ullen discusses the “pornographicity of porn,” arguing,
Pornography then is not necessarily about explicit sexual representation but rather about the text’s intention to elicit sexual arousal as the reader/viewer uses these texts as masturbatory aids. Although this may seem obvious when thinking about pornography, Ullen’s argument removes agency from the text, placing it both figuratively and literally in the spectator’s hands. Ullen’s argument opens up the definition of pornography to allow for a wider range of texts to be considered pornography. For Ullen, sexual visibility is not determinant, but subjective.
Jon Lewis explores a different aspect of defining pornography in his article on art-house cinema featuring explicit sex. This genre, “art-house porn,” is defined by both its exhibition venue, the art-house cinema, and its scenes of graphic “real sex.” In attempting both to define this sub-genre and to ascertain why individuals, studios, and investors would financially risk making these volatile works, Lewis examines the blurry threshold between porn and “legitimate cinema” featuring real sex. For Lewis, the difference between “porn” and “art-house porn” is partly a matter of bourgeois taste, with “porn” associated with low-class entertainment. In contrast, “art-house porn” does not aim for sexual excitement but uses sex to create a more “real,” more intimate filmic experience. Pornography, like torture, is also a game of semantics. To Lewis, this kind of serious semantic play was exemplified by the Clinton/Lewinsky affair:
To define “torture porn” however, is even more elusive as this phrase relies slightly less on visual presentation and more on ideological and psycho-social representations for its currency as a meaningful term or label. “Torture porn” is partly about the label’s individual discourses, torture and pornography, but is more about their visual intersection. Thus, “torture porn” is not porn and does not feature “real” sex, yet there is something “pornographic” about it. These representations within “torture porn” are too visible and feel as though they are “illicit.” Lewis, pointing to this linguistic slippage, suspiciously chooses to end his article with a discussion of the perplexing U.S. viewer’s preference for graphic (simulated) violence over (non-simulated) sex—using Saw IV, a “torture porn” film, and Short Bus (2006), an “art-house porn” film, as examples. This “slippage” is only furthered by the cameo appearance of gay porn superstar Francois Sagat in Saw VI. It is a symbolic integration of “porn” into the violent narrative vis-à-vis the pornstar.
So then why the term “torture porn”? Why combine these two volatile words to describe a cinematic sub-genre. Edelstein seems to use the terms as vernacular coefficients, appropriating their colloquial significance. In a sense, people can say that they “get off” on the torture sequences in these films, in the same way that they “get off” when they watch porn. There are many contemporary films that feature sequences of torture including True Lies (1994), The Cell (2000), Syriana (2005), and Casino Royal (2006), which are not considered torture porn. Their torture scenarios are not the narrative focus nor intended appeal of those films. As Ullen defines pornography by its intent, masturbation, we can define “torture porn” by its intent. People watch porn to get off, so in this instance, they watch torture porn to “get off” on the torture. This follows director Eli Roth’s own description of late 80’s horror as “gore-porn,” where
Current colloquial usage of the word “porn” added on to another word transforms it into an associative suffix, whereby that which it describes or is associated with becomes manipulatively prurient. Porn has become a pseudo-suffix that gets attached to something that is not sexual, yet obviously meant to entice you. For example “art-house porn” combines “porn” (real sex) and the art-house film, while something like “food porn” utilizes images or displays of food meticulously designed to entice purchase. With respect to torture porn, the films’ torture sequences are usually the main draw; the narrative is constructed around them. These films rely on the promise of graphic torture to fill seats, in the same way graphic sex scenes sell narrative porn films. But this is only part of the reason why this sub-genre has been labeled “torture porn,” and is only one part of their appeal.
To give an example of this kind of slippage between “torture” and “porn” in critical discourse and the colloquial appropriation of “porn” as meaning prurient enticement, I’d like to refer to Morris Dickstein’s article The Aesthetics of Fright, an article originally written in 1980 during the height of the “porn wars.” Dickstein argues that “another feature of the new wave of horror is a hardcore pornography of violence” which is “made possible by the virtual elimination of censorship.” He incorrectly concludes the horror film and porn are one and the same since
Dickstein, although obviously politically biased, not only demonstrates that this linguistic association pre-dates Edelstein’s coinage but also exposes how Edelstein’s idea could potentially be negatively appropriated. The term “torture porn” marginalizes “low” texts because it seems to reduce the films to their graphic images, depleting the narratives of their potential political significance and, most importantly, their complex pleasure.
Part of “torture porn’s” pleasure lies in its imagery. However, the narrative adds to pleasure by contextualizing audio-visual spectacle and indeed can be a source of pleasure in itself. As Noël Carroll has argued, horror cinema’s “narrative may be the crucial locus of our interest and pleasure.” Rather than violence, or as Carroll puts it, “object-horror,” being the films’ central focus, “the way that manifestation or disclosure is situated as a functional element in an overall narrative structure” may be the source of horror’s appeal. For example, narrative pleasure is particularly important in films where the killer is unidentified or unknown. In these films, the withholding of information or visual stimuli until, for instance, the killer or monster pops out of nowhere (emphasized by loud music) is a significant horror convention. Importantly, such a convention is usually missing from torture porn, where all the victims are confined and all the victimizers known and probably visible. In torture porn, it is not about when it happens but how it happens. The narrative strategy changes in these films, but narrative design is still a key element of audience pleasure.
In terms of another narrative strategy, Carol Clover’s masculinized-female horror-movie hero and survivor, the “Final Girl,” is not only a common character in horror cinema, but one whose presence transforms the narrative pattern into a familiar “genre” pattern. Part of Clover’s thesis is to demonstrate how identification in horror cinema begins with the male killer, but then transitions over to the female victim turned survivor. The “Final Girl” narrative plays a guiding role in some popular torture porn films such as Hostel’s“Final Boy” Paxton, and Captivity’s Jennifer and Hostel II’s Beth as “Final Girls.”
Part of horror’s appeal then is our desire for the victim to face his/her (usually her) victimizer and defeat her/him (usually him). Hostel II’s Beth takes the Final Girl to her ultimate, popular-culture-inspired, feminist conclusion when she literally castrates her would-be victimizer, a desire invigorated by him calling her a “cunt.” Beth has made her distaste for the word very obvious earlier on in the film, and near the end, when her captor utters that word, the audiences’ expectation and desire for Beth’s ultimate victory are set up via this narrative strategy. Narrative pleasure plays an important role in both horror films and the torture porn sub-genre, albeit in somewhat different ways.
Horror cinema, torture and porn all feature and use the body as a focal point of pleasure and desire, expressed in different ways. The horror film represents violence; real-life torture is actual violence usually not meant to be captured; and pornography is actual sexual activity that is meant to captured and represented. These three realms of social practice and intertwined discourses weave together simulation, actuality and actuality as simulation. The focus on the body in porn and horror is meant to elicit visceral reactions in the spectator’s body, as is the representation of torture or the witnessing of actual torture.
Focusing on just horror and pornography momentarily, the spectatorial body and the represented body have been historically conceived as a common thread amongst “low” genres such as these. In her article Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess, Williams explains how melodrama, horror, and pornography are perceived as “low” or “gross” genres, and she locates their sub-cultural status in their focus on the body. Due in part to their bodily association, these genres are commonly deemed excessive, sensationalist spectacles. Because these films center their narrative in both the characters’ and spectators’ bodies, they differ from “high” genres that supposedly only impact the mind. Preference for the mind over the body has a long history in the West, beginning with Platonic philosophy and continuing on with Christianity. The body is frail, diseased, weak, “sinful;” the mind is strong, rational, “divine.” For Williams, class-related tastes use the mind/body split to interpret “explicitness.” The poor and uneducated are associated with the body; the bourgeois and intelligentsia with the mind. Certain film genres become associated with “mindless entertainment,” requiring no thought or scrutiny; they seem designed only to manipulate the body. Films with “maximum visibility” seem to put “it” all out there on display, with no subtlety or nuance, which would require “critical engagement.” Hatred for these genres—melodrama, horror, porn—and for torture porn in part indicates a class-based moral judgment.
Discussing the three genres’ visual excess, Williams writes,
These films complement their visual representations aurally with “cries of pleasure in porn, screams of fear in horror, sobs of anguish in melodrama.” As Williams describes horror and porn, the body and its sounds in porn are associated with pleasure, while in horror, the body and its sounds are associated with pain.