REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA
copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 52, summer 2010
Torture porn and surveillance culture
by Evangelos Tziallas
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,
“By the 1990s…cinematic narration could be said, in many cases, to have effectively become synonymous with surveillant enunciation as such.”[open endnotes in new window]
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,
“It is this ambiguity—between surveillance as narrative subject, i.e. as thematic concern, and surveillance as the very condition or structure of narration itself—that will become increasingly characteristic of the cinema of the 1990s.”
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,
“Since the 1970s, one of the striking phenomena that have come to make visual culture seem a vital topic has been the convergence of spectacle and surveillance.”
“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,
“As a society, we have become obsessed with the gaze of the videocam, not only because we perceive that it brings us ‘security’ but also because we are fascinated by the visual representation of ourselves.”
The ever-looming presence of potential surveillance, either via our own “videocams” or CCTV, makes us “comfortable with, and even drawn to, the idea of being preserved on tape.” The converging of these forms of surveillance suggests that a contemporary psychoanalytic approach to understanding gazing (voyeurism, scopophilia, exhibitionism) requires a nuanced expansion and re-conceptualization.
Toronto writer Hal Niedzviecki investigates the effect of surveillance within pop culture phenomena in his 2009 book The Peep Diaries. For Niedzviecki,
“Peep culture is reality TV, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, MySpace and Facebook. It’s blogs, chat rooms, amateur porn sites, virally spread digital movies…cell phone photos—posted online—of your drunk friend making out with her ex-boyfriend, and citizen surveillance.”
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
“wanting to know everything about everyone and, in turn, wanting to make sure that everyone knows everything about [us].”
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-9/11social 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,
“The contemporary horror film’s potential as cultural document that navigates the tensions between American nationalism in the ‘War on Terror’ era and the globalized world [is] similar [to how director Eli] Roth’s horror filmmaking predecessors dealt with Vietnam.”
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:
When the Abu Ghraib photos were revealed to the public, several critics use the word warporn to denote the soldier’s eroticized and self-conscious sadistic representations of prisoners. Warporn refers to a blurring of abuse and war mythologies as Sadean fictions…[perceiving] these images of abuse, not as war documents, nor as porn scenes evoking arousal, but as a new representation of a liminal scene.[16a]
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,
“A theory of pornography must be a theory of the mode of reading which the consumption of pornography habitually involves, which is to say that it needs to be a theory of masturbation.”
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:
“When President Bill Clinton maintained that he ‘did not have sex’ with Monica Lewinsky, he was, according to a certain narrow definition of the phrase ‘to have sex,’ telling the truth.”
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
“the true impact of horror is drained away and the motive for these movies becomes just a way of fast-forwarding from one death to the next.”
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
“the portrayal of explicit sex and of graphic violence developed in tandem.”
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,
“The body spectacle is featured most sensationally in pornography’s portrayal of orgasm, in horror’s portrayal of violence and terror, and in melodrama’s portrayal of weeping.”
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.
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:
“Pornography is today more often deemed excessive for its violence than for its sex, while horror films are excessive in their displacement of sex onto violence.”
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 . 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 the Interactive Sex Simulators (ISS)—using Digital Playground’s Virtual Sex with Jenna Jameson as a case study. In 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 the film 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:
“The common notion of masturbation is that of the ‘sexual intercourse with an imagined partner’: I do it to myself, while I imagine doing it with or to another...What if, even as I am doing it with a real partner, what ultimately sustains my enjoyment is not the partner as such, but the secret fantasies that I invest in it?”
For Zizek then,
“the hard lesson of vitural sex is not that we no longer have ‘real sex’…[but] the much more uncomfortable discovery that there never was ‘real sex.’” 
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,
“Seen any good surgery on unanaesthetized people lately?”
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,
“According to popular usage, film genres are ways of grouping movies by style and story; a ‘genre film’ is one that can be easily categorized with reference to a culturally familiar rubric.”
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
“the process of narrative and visual coding that results from the repetition of a popular film story.”
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,
“The female Elite Hunting employees subvert gender, producing consequences that disrupt the behaviour structure.”
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,
“At the beginning of its activity, the scopophilic instinct is auto-erotic: it has indeed an object, but that object is the subject’s own body.”
“If scopophilic pleasure relates primarily to the observation of one’s sexual like, as Freud suggests, then the two looks distinguished by Mulvey are in fact varieties of one single mechanism: the repression of homosexuality.”
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. Perhaps then, these unconventional representations are responding to another series of images which challenge gender roles and traditional sexuality. I speak about the historical disruption in sexual imagery that came about with the mass publication of the Abu Ghraib photographs.
My intention here is not to suggest that torture porn films are directly molding their representations after, or in response to, the Abu Ghraib images despite some rather disturbing iconographic similarities. I do not consider these documentary images the inspiration for torture porn’s iconographies and narratives, but rather I think it is important to recognize and engage with the unique public discourse that arose after the Abu Ghraib photos were released, specifically in relation to gender and sexuality.
With respect to gender, one image, that of Lynndie England holding a cigarette between her lips and pointing with gun-shaped fingers to a blindfolded Iraqi prisoner’s genitals, received the most attention in the media and is of particular importance. The image did not incite outrage because it showed a person exercising power over the powerless, but rather because it was of a woman exercising power over a man—a white woman, an U.S. soldier with power over a blindfolded naked Iraqi man. England’s rigid stance, the phallic (hands-free) cigarette in her mouth, her two hands shaped liked guns pointing at the Iraqi prisoner’s penis suggesting castration via shooting (similar to how Jennifer killed Gary in Captivity)—these traits present her as a hyper-masculine woman, something the media found to be just as reprehensible as torture. In fact, her (and Sabrina Harman’s) minimal presence in the few images posed a delicate conundrum for feminist critics. On one hand, the media turned the women into jokes or victims, yet on the other hand, these women transgressed their gender roles by being aggressors.
The Abu Ghraib images reinvigorated discussions about torture, porn, homosexuality, proper sexuality and gender. However, most of the early discussions were selectively tailored to promote certain political agendas rather than engage with the images’ complexity. These are porn, liberals like porn, liberals are to blame and are evil; or these are torture, conservatives like torture, they are to blame and are evil: the critical debates enacted a “torture/porn” dichotomized discussion. Although I believe the torture porn sub-genre in film is, at least in part, inspired by these polemic discussions about torture and porn, it is not my intention to revisit these discussions or debates, in which others have gone into the political issues in depth. Rather, the images’ relevance here pertains to their visual associations. The Abu Ghraib photographs have brought sexualized violence into U.S. consciousness. Their infusion with and espousal of surveillance and surveillance culture enact a specific kind of cultural and political constellation of visual rhetoric unique to our time.
The gaze: from voyeurism to surveillance
In theorizing the horror film, Carol Clover’s key work Men, Women, and Chainsaws provides against-the-grain readings, arguing that horror’s representations, specifically of gender, are neither simple nor stable. I have already discussed Clover’s “final girl” and the modern cross-gender incarnation of the “final boy” and how these characters function in shaping the narrative. I wish now to focus now on Clover’s discussion of identification. Although Clover’s book uses horror as a case study, her analysis of spectatorship breaks down the rigid dichotomy of Mulvey’s theory from the 1970s by suggesting that one need not identify with one’s own gender. That is to say, male viewers do not necessarily and are certainly not forced to identify with the (usually) male killer, and that women need not identify with the (usually) female victim. For Clover, male spectators could identify with the female victim and female spectators could identify with the male killer. She opens up the spectrum of identification in part to refute Mulvey’s assertion that women inhabit a perpetually masochistic subject position and men a sadistic one, or Christian Metz’ denial of a potential male masochistic position.
By allowing for cross-gender identification, Clover endows men with the capacity for masochistic viewing, and woman for sadistic viewing, thereby granting both genders a form of spectatorial agency. This concept of spectatorial identification simultaneously rejects some popular notions that mainly men can and do take pleasure in causing pain and that women are forced into, and may only understand pleasure through, pain, which is subsequently forced upon them. What Clover allows for is not only cross-gender identification but a fluidity of identification. That means men and women can switch their identification mid-film; they did not have to choose one position and remain faithful to it throughout the course of a narrative.
The horror film has definitely changed since the 1970s and 1980s, and torture porn’s careful construction of subject positioning not only encourages the cross-gendered identification positions seen by Clover but begin to approach a “genderless” practice. That is to say that one of the innovative features of torture porn is not only the variable array of male and female victims, killers and nude bodies, but also what I believe is a conscious configuration of a political, rather than gendered, subject. I am not naïve enough to suggest that gender (sexuality, race, class, nationality, etc.) does not play a factor in shaping one’s experience, subject positioning, or understanding of a film, or that these films are geared towards female or equally gendered audiences. What I am suggesting is that unlike previous horror films which were geared towards male audiences, these films seemed to be geared towards U.S. audiences. Subject positioning in these films are thought across stronger political and, therefore, ethical lines.
To return briefly to the Abu Ghraib photos, those images, like amateur porn, are actions being performed primarily for the anticipated gaze behind the camera as well as for the prisoner onlookers and for themselves. Indeed the “performative” and “theatrical” nature of the torture scenes in torture porn are similar to the images of torture at Abu Ghraib in that they anticipate and reflexively acknowledge the future viewer’s gaze. Furthermore, the media’s acquisition of many of the photographs establishes that an understanding existed where everyone knew that the guards and their actions could be documented and recorded at any time. ] As Nina Martin has argued,
“The awareness and acknowledgement of surveillance produces pleasures in performance and gives rise to exhibitionism.”[56b]
Despite shots from a higher level suggesting surveillance, it is the camera’s commonplace use by soldiers which makes the images participatory. In images where smiling guards give the thumbs-up to the camera, their gesture acknowledges the multiple gazes intended to see one performing for the camera. The thumbs-up does not just say “Hey, look at me,” but “Hey, I know you are looking at me and this is me acknowledging your gaze and performing for it.” In fact, in that aspect, the Abu Ghraib images also remind a viewer of the performative aspect of much of amateur porn, where guys give the thumbs up to the camera while receiving oral sex or having intercourse.
This is what makes the photos from Abu Ghraib so problematic. From the guards’ perspective, they are posing while torturing for the sake of the gaze, so to some extent the gaze spurs on their desire to torture. As these illicit images made their way throughout the prison, they became “viral.” What strikes the viewer now as uncanny about the published photos is this hook: the viewers’ desire to see meeting the guards’ desire to be seen. On a deeper level, we of course cannot forget the Iraqi prisoners forced to perform for both the military personnel and the camera’s gaze.The detainees are often blindfolded, robbing them of the right to look back, emphasizing their powerlessness within this specific visual economy. This “forced performativity” is repeated in a parallel way in torture porn, whereby the victims are “forced to perform” for the victimizer as well as for the spectator’s gaze. This kind of plotline about forced performativity points to an amalgamation of sadistic voyeurism and surveillance.
The relation between torture, surveillance, and visibility can also be evaluated in cinematic terms of camera work and its effects. As Clover has pointed out,
“The jerky vision of the first-person murderer is a cliché of horror.”
The POV shot highlights the genre and medium’s affinity for voyeurism. In torture porn, however, the minimal use of direct POV shots from both victim and killer opens up a spectrum of identification. The POV shot in horror highlights voyeurism’s invisibility. The killer is invisible in horror; we the spectators are invisible. Torture porn, however, deals with excessive visibility. Everything in torture porn is acknowledged as a performance for not only the torturer but for the camera and surveillance apparatus. Voyeurism suggests limits on visibility. The horror killer’s POV shot both reveals the victims and consequentially obscures them via the very act of watching them from a distance, from behind blinds or through the bushes, etc.. Surveillance’s relation to torture porn, in contrast, suggests limitless visibility, an all-encompassing gaze that desires and has the ability to see everything.
Our surveillance culture is marked by an obsessive desire to record everything and, in some respects, be recorded by everything. A consistent cinematographic motif in torture porn is the constant alignment between the filmic camera and story camera’s surveillance lens. Even when the surveillance apparatus is missing from the storyline, the films, at times, position the camera at a “surveillance angle.” Such a “surveillance angle” refers to a high level shot, tilted downward at a 45 degree angle, usually taken from the corner of the room (where surveillance cameras are generally located). This angle appears throughout Hostel, signifying surveillance, standing in for the lack of the physical camera’s presence.
Another example is in the recent film Pornography: A Thriller (2009) where the character Michael becomes obsessed with the suspicious holes in the corner of his ceiling. The audience is given numerous reverse shots from the surveillance angle referencing and embodying the space of where the surveillance cameras used to be, suggestively foreshadowing Michael’s discovery that surveillance cameras were indeed installed in the corners of the room. In fact, I have found that the “surveillance angle” has become a common motif widely used in narrative cinema, signifying surveillance even if the film is not explicitly, or even implicitly, about surveillance. This angle is synecdochic of our time.
It is this “acknowledged” surveillance gaze that constructs a spectator position across a political axis. As Hollyfield concludes his analysis of Hostel, he remarks,
“Roth directly implicates his audience…Roth’s films hold his audience culpable for the current cultural climate, refusing to allow their horror to become a means of catharsis or blame to fall on one particular entity.”
By guiding the spectator to become both torturer and torture victim, spectatorship in torture porn is tantamount to participation. In this way, the surveillance gaze is enacted to criticize the very act of watching and more importantly, the desire to watch. By appropriating this hyper-visible gaze, torture porn seeks to indict the cultural appropriation of the surveillance gaze. If as Clover has noted, “eyes are everywhere in horror cinema…because, more crucially than any other kind of cinema, it is about eyes,” then torture porn as contemporary texts privileges the all-seeing mechanical eye of surveillance, or in the case of Hostel, the combined synoptic gaze. Torture porn films are allegories about excessive looking, about hyper-visibility. Indeed everywhere in the films, characters are constantly forced to confront the act of looking.
Characters are not only consistently punished for their gaze but are punished for being looked at; what the films punish is visibility. Surveillance seemingly implies there’s a system that keeps us safe; constant visibility is supposed to mean security. Torture porn inverts this belief. In torture porn, when you are watched, you are in extreme danger. These films literalize Foucault’s statement that “visibility is a trap.” When visible, the characters are in actual traps. Torture porn is censorious of our constant visibility, suggesting that a lack of invisibility actually puts us in danger.
Because horror films are so invested in primal libidinal energies such as sex and violence, the punishment of these libidinal energies charts certain narrative and thematic elements in the genre. Edelstein points out that horror cinema is predicated on narratives about “masked maniacs [who] punished nubile teens for promiscuity,” while the “victims [in torture porn] are neither interchangeable nor expendable.” For Edelstein, torture porn’s victims are “decent people with recognizable emotions.” These are not vacant bodies whose sole purpose is to add to the film’s body count (although this happens at times in the Saw series). They are characters with more depth and complexity. Because, as Gabrielle Murray discusses, torture porn is so invested in eliciting visceral reactions in the spectator’s body, the films cannot rely solely on spectacle but require a deeper connection in order to make an impact. When the scripts develop characters instead of caricatures, viewers develop a greater emotional investment in and connection with the victims, thereby making the characters’ pain and suffering all the more intense for the spectator. The characters become people with flaws, not flawed people; they are average and more like the viewer sitting in the theatre or on their couch.
Furthermore, torture porn often punishes U.S./Western decadence and consumption. In Hostel, the men are ignorant of the culture they are immersed in. These characters reflect how most of the world perceives the United States and Western Europe. They have no interest in the people or spaces other than how they can use and consume those things for their own selfish satisfaction. These men are not anomalies. The same can be said for the women of Hostel II who go to Bratislava to be pampered at a luxury spa; the script uses a typical narrative of the wealthy Westerner visiting a developing nation to exploit the relative cheapness of a luxury resort. In the Saw series, the characters who are kidnapped or tortured are guilty of over-consumption; too much sex, drugs, and investment in personal desire and satisfaction. Jigsaw consistently punishes those who are born into privilege and leverage this for evil (Troy in Saw III, all the characters in Saw V). They are too selfish, thinking solely about their own wants. In Saw II and V, two male characters die because they refuse to work together as a team, placing their interests over those of the group. Captivity’s Jennifer symbolizes the American dream. Her punishment is an allegorical punishment of Americana and the U.S. lifestyle of consumption and empty investment in celebrity.
Although torture porn attempts to present a “liberal critique” in an otherwise extremely reactionary genre, these critiques are truncated. While horror cinema punishes vices such as sex and drug-use or alcohol consumption, the punishments in torture porn have a much stronger political and social tinge to them. If we follow Edelstein’s belief that these are “decent” people, it is then the “average” person who is being punished, and if it is the average person being punished, then these films are attempting to pass judgment on the average Western life. Horror cinema punished vice, but torture porn punishes “lifestyles.” In Captivity, Jennifer can also be seen as a financially independent, successful modern woman who is punished for her independence. In Hostel, the men are punished for their vices; of particular concern is the sensitive, gay-coded, character’s punishment. The women in Hostel II are similarly punished for their independence and their sexuality. The film begins with the girls painting a nude male and enjoying the sight of his penis; when the shyest character, Lorna, gets drunk, she allows her desire for sex to get the best of her and is punished accordingly. The most evident however are the Saw films.
The Saw films are exponentially more reactionary than the Hostel films or Captivity.[63b] They may punish over-consumption, but the over-consumption and social ills they punish derive from “liberal” culture. Adultery leads to the destruction of the heterosexual, nuclear family. Self-mutilation/self-loathing/wallowing come from the neglect or excessive self-punishment of one’s divinely ordained life and body. Rape, drug addiction, and the death of children and babies (symbolizing abortion) also characterize this culture. For conservatives, these are staples of “liberal culture,” one set to destroy the fabric of decent civil society. In the Saw films the Jigsaw killer (and his accomplices) can be thought of as a sadistic conservative panopticon. Jigsaw surveils, judges, and then designs individualized “treatments” to help these “victims” with their “afflictions,” merging and highlighting the relation between surveillance and psychiatry. Jigsaw does not torture his captures, he “cures” them or rather he helps them help themselves. By putting them in tortuous yet personalized situations, he forces the victims to confront themselves. He lets them prove to themselves how badly they want to live by suffering excruciating pain for a brief period and living, or doing nothing and dying. In this sense, Jigsaw does not torture (something he makes clear throughout the series) and technically he does not. But such an appeal to semantics is suspiciously similar the U.S. government’s assertion that it “does not torture.” The characters (like those who dare to resist America’s global grasp) brought their punishment upon themselves. Jigsaw is not responsible as he did not murder them; they “committed suicide.”
In the Saw series, the victims are forced to “confess.” At times, before the torture begins, Jigsaw leaves a tape recorder behind which not only informs victims about their particular situation but also details why they find themselves in such a predicament; in other instances, victims are forced to “confesses” as part of their punishment. Jigsaw also co-opts their voices and because of his “all seeing eye,” he is aware of his victims’ crimes and confesses those crimes on their behalf. Jigsaw is a metaphor for the Bush-era conservative panopticon. He is “judge, jury and executioner” rolled into one. Quite often Jigsaw informs his victims what needs to be done in order to survive. Not following his orders leads to death; not following authority and authorial instructions leads to death. It is as if liberal culture were weakening the United States, and only conservative discipline and regimentation could cure these ills and make the United States strong again. Jigsaw is an Evangelical, allowing his victims to be “born again.” Through his forced confessions, he lets them see how “liberal” culture has led them astray and allows them to start their life again.
Saw’s Amanda was a self-cutter whom Jigsaw forced to confront her perverted fetish for mutilation by cutting up an unanesthetized man and digging through his organs for the key which would unlock the contraption around her head. By confronting her perversion, she gained strength to overcome her affliction and joined Jigsaw in his crusade to “help” others. She and he then go forth to “spread his message” and method. By the end of Saw IV, viewers also realize that Jigsaw had added another member to his congregation, a successful convert named Mark Hoffman, a police detective working on the inside for him, who, starting in Saw IV, has taken over for Jigsaw after his death, becoming the new Jigsaw killer in Saw V. Jigsaw’s panoptic gaze is a regulatory and disciplinary gaze. He watches, judges, and attempts to remold his victims’ thinking and behavior.
In horror, the villain voyeuristically spied on you; the gaze was—diegetically and subjectively—pleasurable, invested in the desire to kill the subject(s) in its field of vision. In torture porn, the victims too are spied upon, but are placed under surveillance, enacting a disciplinary and scopophilic/voyeuristic gaze, whereby the pleasure is located not in the victim’s potential future death, but the current act of judgment and guaranteed future “punishment.”
The surveillance gaze
Michel Foucault’s critical history Discipline and Punish has been a foundational text in surveillance studies. For Foucault, surveillance functions through a network of “looks” designed to regulate, discipline, and order “docile bodies” into efficient, useful and productive cogs in the social machine. Enacting a system of behavioral monitoring based on a hierarchy of privilege and reward ensures that everyone (except possibly the person at the top) is being watched. Surveillance is about power, the power to exercise control over subjects through the power-holder’s act of looking everywhere. In discussing Jeremy Bentham’s design for a prison called the Panopticon in the seventeenth century, Foucault extrapolated from Bentham’s beliefs about how prisoners in the Panopticon would internalize surveillance. Foucault demonstrates not only how this internalized gaze spreads throughout other institutions but also how individuals would monitor themselves as though they were potential criminals. Considering the surveillance effect in contemporary times, Brett Mills’ article on Peep Show articulates how,
“the surveillance society functions to control without an explicit display of authoritative power. It is a system which manages to constrain by inducing those within it to watch and condemn themselves and others; it is what Foucault has called ‘a disciplinary society.’”
Mills argues that in being given full access to the protagonists’ thoughts, Peep Show exposes the internal thought patterns of individuals in Western “surveillance societies,” reflexively exposing how the disciplinarian society conditions individuals to monitor and censor themselves. In the history of social monitoring, as Niedzviecki argued, before the Industrial Revolution, “gossip functioned as a kind of community policing,” but as urbanization took off and communities faded, new forms of surveillance were introduced to define and enforce social norms and maintain control. In the past, a nosy neighbor’s potential ear or gaze kept one disciplined, now it is the constellation of visible and invisible external surveillance, often through a state or capitalist apparatus, as well as self-surveillance that configure thoughts and behaviors.
Within recent history, older social networks of monitoring have been ruptured. As narrativized in torture porn, we see evidence of contemporary fears about new versions of monitoring. The disciplinary society Foucault described has disappeared, requiring the never previously built panopticon to be finally realized within torture porn. In fact, the sets in this genre comprise prison-like spaces where the victims are placed and surveilled in a high-tech way. As Foucault argues, “the disciplinary space is always, basically, cellular. In general, in ordinary day-to-day life, the disciplinary society plays much less of a normative role. Ironically, as a result, often through their use of the Internet, many people’s internalized gaze with its ambivalences of fear and desire spurs them on to the very restricted actions they were supposed to refrain from, with the spread of websites about previously taboo topics as an example of this.
Our theoretical understanding of the disciplinary society requires revising a simple application of Foucault’s ideas. This begins by scrutinizing the complex and shifting intersections of surveillance and voyeurism. To begin with, surely we can conceptualize the panopticon as to some degree “voyeuristic.” The gaze in the watchtower, although understood as intermittently present, was meant to be invisible. Such a gaze was meant to condition and discipline; it was meant to be known but not seen. In contrast, usually the voyeur does not monitor but just watches. The voyeur’s gaze is not meant to change behavior or regulate it but simply enjoy it. Unlike that kind of watching, the gaze of panoptic surveillance is more utilitarian, although surely the power to look at and therefore down upon others is pleasurable. From the very beginning, the hypothetical watchguard’s gaze is posited as ambivalent: part voyeurism, part surveillance.
For Foucault, surveillance is a human action brought upon by a system of human gazes which combine to monitor everything. In contemporary discourse, however, surveillance is often conceived as something technological, requiring surveillance cameras or auditory wiretappings, as depicted in film in The Lives of Others (2008). Voyeurism still commonly refers to a human gaze, closely associated with the "peeping Tom," yet more often now, voyeurism does not entail spying through a neighbor’s window but watching a video on YouTube of someone else’s recording of their neighbor.
Because of our fascination with what and how those in power know, much of contemporary film and television, across genres, deals with surveillance, and many fictions, documentaries, and non-fiction TV shows spend time detailing the actions of cops and spies. To consider the social apparatus of spying, it seems that the spy’s surveillance usually has to be invisible. The spy him/herself is less interested in deterring or shaping behavior than recording it. The spy identifies potential infractions in order for others to punish them. Other kinds of surveillance in society are openly visible (as with security cameras) so as to monitor and deter infractions. We need to note such differences as we make use of two competing conceptions of surveillance to analyze this important, worldwide social phenomenon that has such great political and psychological impact. One is more classically Foucauldian and one more recently conceptualized, highlighting the military-industrial-security/governmental/corporate complex’s surveillance that is both visible and invisible.
Psychologically, people’s awareness of and reaction to surveillance has a long cultural history. For example, in the Christian tradition the reason for God’s creation seems to be to discipline us under his all seeing, all knowing gaze. Only now that gaze has been superseded by his secular/corporate doppelganger Santa Clause. We all sing, “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good…,” showing how we have normalized surveillance even in seemingly innocent Christmas carols. Consider how this song attempts to mold children’s behavior by demanding they “not shout,” “not cry,” and “ not pout”—regimented behavior to be rewarded with consumer products. Surveillance and capitalism in Western societies need each other to reinforce the consumer/citizen’s conditioning. We expect to be “measured” and from an early age on begin consuming. Depicting adults who must decide whether to accept or reject the rules of the traditional disciplinary society, fictional narratives since the nineteenth century often have as a protagonist a rebel who stops caring about social rules and norms of success, or who is defeated by them, and who then just goes his/her (usually his) own way (Brave New World is an example).
While surveillance is generally associated with monitoring public space, voyeurism seems to be an invasion of private space and intimate moments. Voyeurism is considered one person’s gaze, while surveillance is a multiple gaze; both practices are assumed to witness an otherwise unknown or unremarked upon “truth.” Of special interest to media scholars is the surveillance production practice and its effect on the content of reality television or documentaries, where people filmed choose to be under constant surveillance. We know their behaviors must be slightly altered by the presence of the camera, even though its presence is not meant to alter the action but rather more or less unobtrusively “capture reality.” Even under the gaze of surveillance cameras which simply record non-stop, some people will at some moments act as if they know they are being recorded while others seem oblivious. Thus, on a surveillance tape it is possible to see two people standing next to each other, framed within the same shot, but with two distinct gazes and possibly distinct behaviors—if one acts as if aware of being recorded while the other does not. In contrast, a voyeuristic gaze need not be hidden but is often overt, especially in sexual matters, as when one person openly shows admiration for another’s body. However, probably the covert glance of sexual appreciation is far more common in daily life as this can provide pleasure with no social consequence.
It seems to me, that voyeurism belongs to a time when people were less visible, when the pleasure of spying or secretly looking at someone during private moments was still intrusive, unexpected and shocking. Surveillance has changed visibility, gazing, and visual culture.
Surveillance and voyeurism do not simply intersect or replace each other, but they complement and complicate each other; they overlap like a Venn diagram. The voyeuristic gaze is not being replaced by the surveillance gaze nor does it necessarily entail surveillance. The nature of the gaze depends on the context. More important, it is imperative to understand that our concepts of voyeurism and surveillance have to change because they have become intertwined. In discussing gender and technology and using the example of Jennicam (in which a woman leaves a camera on in her apartment and publishes all the video on the Internet) as an example, Mirzoeff argues:
“Whereas the male gaze was structured around voyeurism, a looking in which the looked at was unaware of being under surveillance, the watcher here knew that the watched was not only aware of being watched but had enabled it.”
For Mirzoeff, voyeurism entails surveillance, but in the case of Jennicam, Jenny and the viewers are aware of the gaze. Despite the fact that she has placed herself under surveillance and is unaware at any given moment if she is being watched or by who, the gaze is different. Also writing about webcams, Olivier Asselin has argued:
“Webcams are thus clearly a part of surveillance, that is to say of self-surveillance”
Yet he also asserts,
“Webcam sites thus maintain a voyeurism in its pure state – an objectless gaze.”
Such an “objectless” gaze also follows from recording people 24 hours a day, as does the CCTV system in Great Britain, regardless if there is anything happening or not. Voyeurism is, more often than not, specific, while recorded surveillance can include copious amounts of “dead-time.” Voyeurism, then, partly rests upon an act of surveillance, and sometimes voyeurism and surveillance can merge within the very same gaze.
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,
“Apparatus theory and panopticism are discourses that make a number of common assumptions about representation, power, and knowledge but never really converge in theories of narrative cinema.”
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:
“Baudry’s prisoners are the seers, who mistake the shadows on the wall for reality. The camera obscura model of vision, which informs apparatus theory, insists on a transcendental, invisible, abstract viewing position, one that psychoanalysis has further associated with the voyeur. In Foucault’s model of the disciplinary gaze of power, the viewer is specifically a representation of power, as the prisoners are continually ‘under surveillance.’ In the panopticon, the content of the image, which apparatus theory failed to analyze beyond gender codes, is not only rendered as ‘other’ but also represented as entrapped and incarcerated. If ‘visibility is a trap,’ viewer and viewed are drawn into a relation of power and subjugation.”
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:
“The pleasure principle of the voyeur, to see everything and the pleasure principle of the exhibitionist, to show all, have shifted from the fates of private drives to social norms…the sadistic pleasure associated with the control of the gaze and the masochistic pleasure associated with the subordination under the gaze, are afforded new liberties in the social realm. Masochistic and sadistic behaviour, exhibitionist and voyeuristic pleasures, invade the public realm and move in new zones whose gestalt is still undetermined.”
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:
“Infinite visibility, not infinite justice, could therefore be the title for those global operations with which the United States attempts to protect itself from illegal activities.”
Our personal reactions to surveillance are, then, a response to its institutional promulgation. For Weibel,
“The panoptic principle is felt as neither a threat nor punishment, but, rather, as amusement, liberation and pleasure…[for] in the field of surveillance the panoptic pleasures of exhibitionism and voyeurism, or scopophilia, unfold.”
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,
“This desire to attain telepresence, to verify and validate one’s own existence…under the gaze of the media society and thereby to anchor one’s cultural self-realization is characteristic of contemporary media narcissism.”
Zizek echoes the same theme:
“Today, anxiety seems to arise from the prospect of not being exposed to the Other’s gaze all the time, so that the subject needs the camera’s gaze as a kind of ontological guarantee of his/her being.”
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 reflectionreflection: 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
“internalized camera gaze[,] the all-seeing, seemingly omnipresent ‘eye of God’ is reincarnated in the presence of the observer in today’s media culture.”
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, were was criticized and questions 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 minors who are “innocent”) dies. 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,
“The Big Brother environment is a model just as a computer simulation or a psychology experiment is a model.”
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.
Acknowledgements: This paper was presented at the 2009 Film Studies Association of Canada’s annual conference at the Congress of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ottawa. I would like to thank Thomas Waugh and Chuck Kleinhans, and special thanks to Julia Lesage, for guidance and input.
1. Levin, 582. [return to text]
10. Hollyfield, 24. Eli Roth is director of Hostel and Hostel II.
11. See Wikipedia’s article on “Extraordinary Rendition by the United States” for a brief history of displaced torture.
15. See Naomi Klein’s first two chapters of The Shock Doctrine for a full history.
16. The Abu Ghraib photos were the proverbial Kantian “euthanasia of pure reason,” as valid arguments for both sides are forced to co-exist. See Zizek’s chapter on Antinomies of Tolerant Reason in Violence. Here Zizek discusses Kant’s “euthanasia of pure reason” (105) and applies this ideological trap to the publication of the Muhammad images in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, on September 30th, 2005.
16a. Jacobs, p. 116.
17. See Williams’ 5th chapter in Hardcore
19. Ullen, Magnus. <http://www.ejumpcut.org/ >. Locating pornography outside the text was echoed by John Champagne’s study “Stop Reading Films: Film Studies, Close Analysis, and Gay Pornography.”
24. Hollyfield argued that critics usurped the term and turned it into something negative, while Edelstein meant it as a potentially destabilizing term.
30. See Murray “Hostel II: Representations of the Body in Pain and the Cinema Experience in Torture-Porn.”
31. We cannot forget that Bijou Phillips herself is product of empty visibility. She is a rich heiress/teenage model made popular by the paparazzi for her public debaucheries and lewd behavior. Here it seems that in the same way that Paris Hilton got her comeuppance in the2005 remake of House of Wax, so too does Bijou Phillips get hers in Hostel II.
33. Her sexual performance materializes John Berger’s assertion:
“To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men…[in that] a woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself…and so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.” (Berger 46)
For Berger, femininity is inherently tied to surveillance, and surveillance is inherently tied to the self via the other’s gaze. For Berger, “Women watch themselves being looked at.” (47) Self surveillance, and femininity are highlighted as, what Judith Butler would call “performance” or “masquerade,” when Whitney, wearing a mask, gazes playfully at herself in a mirror.
34. The website ingeniously advertises itself as the “World’s Unique Reality Sex Show.” The website can be accessed through its disclaimer page at
37. “Seen any good surgery on unanaesthetized people lately?” is the question Edelstein poses in the first sentence of his insightful article. The entire article can be found online at
38. One could go as far as to argue that the tears which flowed from the eyes of the faithful were symbolically equated to ejaculation—the pleasurable and cathartic release after slow, drawn out teasing/suffering.
39. I must point out here that I have curtailed the history of exploitation horror or contemporary extreme Japanese horror. To properly engage with these specific discourses simply goes beyond the focus of this paper, but hopefully others will explore those sub-genres’ generational and transnational connections.
40. Such a desire to be placed in the centre of the surveillance complex’s panoptic and synoptic gaze was first explored by Warhol’s short, silent film portraits of friends and acquaintances, Screen Tests, in the 1960s. This was explored by Ursula Frohne in her essay on Warhol’s Screen Tests as precursors to surveillance culture.
44. Hollyfield has argued that Hostel is an inverted mirror reflection of the teen sex comedy. P. 26.
45. Although lacking in equality, some examples of females as killers in horror include, Urban Legend, Friday the 13th, and Scream 2
48. Straight Guys for Gay Eyes (http://www.sg4ge.com) is a new online gay porn website which features no gay sex! The website features men having sex with women, but with the focus being almost exclusively on the men, their bodies, faces and motions, further fragmenting the female body and female subjectivity to the point where they are essentially a hole to be used to induce signs of visible pleasure in the men. If gay men watched heterosexual pornography with an attentive focus on the male body, this website simply removes the extra energy needed to focus. Alternatively, although there is a huge emphasis on the men’s masculinity (flexing while fucking, etc.) the site also “feminizes” the men by situating the “heterosexual” male body as something to be explored, substantiated mostly through exploring the male buttocks/anus through visual display and the female actors performing anilingus.
51. This is particularly true of Saw as the film would have been in post-production when the photographs were released.
52. For discussion of the Abu Ghraib images from a feminist perspective, see One of the Guys: Women as Aggressors and Torturers, ed. Tara McKelvey. Emery: Avalon Publishing, 2007. See also the extensive section on torture and the media in Jump Cut (no. 51, 2009).
53. See Lila Rajiva’s The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media. For a comprehensive review, archive and analysis of the debates which emerged in U.S. media outlets in the wake of the images’ release.
54. Clover begins this discussion under sub-heading Cruel Cinema on 205.
55. This of course was the point of her book that identification does, in fact, change from killer to “Final Girl” in contemporary horror.
56. Morris’ Standard Operating Procedures (2008) attempted to provide an alternative perspective on the images by discovering what went on “behind” the images. It is here we discover that thousands of pictures were taken, and it is also here that Sabrina Harman has along history of “unconsciously” giving a thumbs up when posing in a picture, regardless of what is being captured.
56b. Martin, 136.
57. In discussing the Abu Ghraib photos’ relationship to surveillance, Nicholas Mirzoeff observes that “in some of the photographs the view is from a level above the torture itself, which, as Allen Feldman has noted, is the viewpoint of surveillance rather than of participation."(24) See his 2006 article in Radical History Review.
59. The film also features brief torture clips of an ex-porn star from what appears to be a potential “snuff” film. We again see surveillance and extreme representation being used in tandem.
64. Beginning in Saw III, however, the police are perplexed by the first torture victim’s inescapable situation. This points to the presence of another killer, someone other than Jigsaw, because Jigsaw, “does not torture.”
65. In Saw II and V victims need to “confess” in order to escape.
68. Niedzviecki, 142.
69. Foucault, 143.
70. See Astrit Schidt-Burkhardt. “The All-Seer: God’s Eye as Proto-Surveillance.”
71. 2009, 280; re-wording Burgin, 2000.
86. Asselin paraphrasing Virilio, 211.
87. Although this is partly an issue of censorship and economic as the torture or murder of young children would have given the film an NC17 rating and killed its theatrical run.
88. Hollyfield, 30.
88b. And in their respective cases, the violence of patriarchal capitalism.
90. Sample, Virtual Torture: Videogames and the War on Terror.
92. Although in this case it is mobile and fluid rather than attached to, or near, a wall.
93. Buckland and Elsaesser, 162.
94. I argue that the pace would be quick, or timed, and likely frantic, or mixture of frantic and calm, but Buckland and Elsaesser specifically refer to Nicholas Luppa’s conception of pace in video games; “pacing and the beats that are being counted in that pacing are the beats between interactions.” See page 163.
95. Ibid., 162-163.
Appendix A: Box office grosses
|Name of film 
||Total domestic gross
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Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.
Berry-Flint, Sarah. “Genre.” A Companion to Film Theory. Eds. Toby Miller & Robert Stam. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 25-44.
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Carroll, Noël. “The General Theory of Horrific Appeal.” Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror. Eds. Steven Jay Schneider and Daniel Shaw. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2003. 1-9.
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Dickstein, Morris. “The Aesthetics of Fright.” Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film. Revised. Ed. Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharrett. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 2004. 50-62.
Dovey, Jon. “Simulating the Public Sphere.” Rethinking Documentary: New Perspectives, New Practices. Ed. Thomas Austin and Wilma de Jong. Berkshire: Open University Press, 2008. 246-257.
Edelstein, David. “Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn.” New York Magazine. 28, Jan, 2006. 18, Feb, 2008.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd ed. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vantage Books, 1995.
Frohne, Ursula. “‘Screen Tests’: Media Narcissism, Theatricality, and the Internalized Observer.” Ctrl[Space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother. Ed. Ursula Frohne, Thomas Levin, and Peter Weibel. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002. 253-277.
Hollyfield, Jerod Ra’del., “Torture Porn and Body Politic: Post-Cold War American Perspectives in Eli Roth’s Hostel and Hostel: Part II.” CineAction. 78 (2009): 23-31.
Jacobs, Katrien. Netporn: DIY Web Culture and Sexual Politics. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.
Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Toronto: Random House, Canada. 2007.
Levin, Thomas Y., “The Rhetoric of Temporal Index: Surveillant Narration and Cinema of ‘Real Time.’” Ctrl[Space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother. Ed. Ursula Frohne, Thomas Levin, and Peter Weibel. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002. 578-593.
Lewis, Jon. “Real Sex: The Aesthetics and Economics of Art-House Porn.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 51 (2009)
Martin, Nina K. Sexy Thrills: Un dressing the Erotic Thriller. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007.
Mills, Brett. “‘Paranoia, Paranoia, Everybody’s Coming to Get Me’: Peep Show, Sitcom, and the Surveillance Society. Screen. 49:1 (2008). 51-64.
Mirzoeff, Nicholas. “Invisible Empire: Visual Culture, Embodied Spectacle, and Abu Ghraib.” Radical History Review. 95. Spring 2006. 21-44.
-----. The Visual Culture Reader. 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge, 2009.
Mulvey, Laura. “The Light that Fails: A Commentary on Peeping Tom.” The Cinema of Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Film-Maker. London: BFI Publishing, 2005. 143-155.
Murray, Gabrielle. “Hostel II: Representations of the Body in Pain and the Cinema Experience in Torture-Porn.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 50. 2008.
Niedzviecki, Hal. The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2009.
Rajiva, Lila. The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2005.
Rich, Frank. “It Was the Porn That Made Them Do It.” New York Times. 30 May 2004. 18 February 2008.
Russell, Catherine. Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.
Sample, Mark L., “Virtual Torture: Videogames and the War on Terror.” Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research. 8.2 (December 2008):
Sharrett, Christopher. “The Problem of ‘Saw’: ‘Torture Porn’ and the Conservatism of Contemporary Horror Films.” Cineaste 35.1 (2009): 32-37.
Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres: Filmmaking and the Studio System. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981.
Schidt-Burkhardt, Astrit. “The All-Seer: God’s Eye as Proto-Surveillance.” Ctrl[Space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother. Ed. Ursula Frohne, Thomas Levin, and Peter Weibel. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002. 16-31.
Sontag, Susan. “Regarding the Torture of Others.” New York Times. Sunday May 23, 2004. <http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/23/
Staples, William, G. The Culture of Surveillance: Discipline and social Control in the United States. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
Ullen, Magnus. “Pornography and its Reception: Toward a Theory of Masturbation.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 51 (2009)
Virilio, Paul. The Vision Machine. Trans. Julie Rose. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1994.
Weibel, Peter. “Pleasure and the Panoptic Principle.” Ctrl[Space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother. Eds. Ursula Frohne, Thomas Levin, and Peter Weibel. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002. 206-223.
Willemen, Paul. Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess.” Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. Ed. Sue Thornham. New York: New York University Press, 1999. 267-281.
-----. Hardcore: Power, Pleasure and the ‘Frenzy of the Visible’. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
-----. Screening Sex. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.
Zizek, Slavoj. “Big Brother, or, the Triumph of the Gaze over the Eye.” Ctrl[Space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother. Eds. Ursula Frohne, Thomas Levin, and Peter Weibel. Cambridge: MIT, 2002. 224-227.
-----. Violence. New York: Picador, 2008.