Today on Blogcritics
Home » LOTT D Roundtable: Torture Porn in Horror Today

LOTT D Roundtable: Torture Porn in Horror Today

Please Share...Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Facebook0Share on Google+0Share on LinkedIn0Pin on Pinterest0Share on TumblrShare on StumbleUpon0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone

Cinema tends to reflect either the banality, the sanctity, or the immorality of our times, and patrons of movies promote the ones they like most by buying more theater tickets, more DVDs, and more Netflix rentals for them. The popularity of a movie will invariably foster more movies with similar storylines, similar characters and action themes, and as many sequels as an audience's attention span will allow. In a word, profit drives the creative ups and downs of cinema. From the independent to the mainstream, whether grindhouse or arthouse, the bottom line accounts for most of what we see and hear in the darkened theaters of Cannes, Sheboygan, and points in between.

With movies affected by the vagaries of social and commercial forces, how do you explain the cross-genre use of torture porn in films like The Passion of the Christ, Saw, Hostel, Wolf Creek, Irreversible? Or even its lesser use in television shows like Battlestar Galactica or 24? How do you justify the extended, agonizing, and too graphic torture of a human being (or human-like being), who is humiliated and vivisected emotionally, spiritually, and physically? Is it a necessary component for high drama, or just a bottom-line feeder? And what does it say about us, the audience, promoting such movies like Saw every Halloween, forcing each sequel to become a more creative evisceration bloodbath?

The horror-blogging members of the League of Tana Tea Drinkers give their take on torture porn. One word of advice: this is not a fluff piece of transient newsy gossip, or Twitter-sized comments of self-importance. Brew a nice cup of tana tea and butter your brain on both sides before you begin. Now get nice and comfortable. Ready? Let's begin.

What Dr. Kim Paffenroth from Gospel of the Living Dead thinks…

I would say that if something (text or film) has torture in it because the torture is what is entertaining or interesting about the work, then that is, like pornography, just trash, and watching it is a demeaning and sullying activity.

But for the deeper question of when the story might justify, or even demand, the graphic depiction of torture, I'd fall back on my teaching of (non-genre) literature. Are there examples of graphic torture in "great" literature or "high" (as opposed to "pop") culture? Off the top of my head, I can think of a couple that have stuck with me. The eye-gouging in Oedipus Rex is one. The stake through the head and the head on a platter of the Old and New Testaments, respectively, are others. (I'm not going to go into any of the atrocities from Titus Andronicus, because I think that play does border on the pornographic.)

But the best example is probably Gloucester's torture scene in King Lear. That is a very harrowing and grotesque scene of abusing an old, helpless man, culminating in gouging out his eyes, followed by a bloody sword fight in which Cornwall and another man kill each other. But I think the story fully justifies the scene, both for the depravity it shows in Cornwall and Regan, and for the heroism it shows in the man who attacks Cornwall to try to stop his rampage. It is the turning point of the play in some ways. And also, one should note that there are many more harrowing scenes in the play that include no blood-letting – the "What need one?" scene in which Lear is verbally stripped of his dignity is much more brutal, cruel, and perverse in many ways. A play that can move us so deeply without showing anything bloody surely has the right to occasionally make the ugliness of its dystopia concrete, literal, and physical. The example is especially apt in this context also because King Lear does represent a kind of dystopia – a mad dissolution of all "natural" human ties, together with an apocalyptic dissolution of the "natural" world into a maelstrom that shakes and inverts all the elements.

Unfortunately, we are probably still left with a judgment call and an ambiguity, since the example is taken from the stage. The director of the play still has to make the decision of how to block the scene, and it can be done quite quickly, with Gloucester's back to the audience, or it can be drawn out with just as much screams and squirting blood as the director deems "necessary." (Look at Kurosawa's Ran for a very bloody and stylized version of Lear.) But the point is that even if staged in the bloodiest way possible, the play's effect would not rely on the scene; instead, the scene's bloodiness would be justified by the overall power of the play.

What Gary D. Macabre from Blogue Macabre thinks…

Greetings once again fellow traveler. So here we sit with the discussion of Torture in horror movies. Being a classic horror fan I can tell you how simple it would be to bash this new trend in exploitive horror films striving to be the first to cross the line of good taste one more time. Exploitation films, excessive gore for gore's sake and now torture.

Well guess what, I’m not going to bow out of this topic that easily. Admittedly this new trend personally does nothing for me  (I’ll take Phantom of the Opera over Saw any day) but I can’t simply dismiss it as easily as I might like. Why is that, you say? Well it’s certainly not because these films have good writing, creative plots, inspired acting or even the creativity of the '80s slasher film. Most of these films fall flat on their own merit for this, but as a trend, or perhaps even a subgenre these films do in fact strike a chord, and you know what, this same chord tethers them back to some of the greatest and most creative horror writers of all time.

So to be different I’m not going to talk about modern torture films, because I’m sure you’ll find some good insight from my fellow LOTT D members on their respective blogs on that matter, rather I’m going waaay back to point out a few examples of Torture Terror in the realm of Classic Horror.

Edgar Allen Poe — how does that name strike you for classic horror? And his submission to the realm of torture: The Casque of Amontillado. Monteressor, a 19th century nobleman feeling betrayed by his acquaintance Fortunado, lures him into the catacombs and chains him to a wall and proceeds to bury him alive, taking time out to appreciate his nemesis’ anguish. For the silver screen this tale was mated with the Black Cat in 1962 and produced by Roger Corman starring horror greats Vincent Price and Peter Lorre in Tales of Terror.

Poe also penned "The Pit and the Pendulum". One could look long and hard to find another story with the intimacy of terror told in the first person as the character endures as first he faces being tied to a table as a deadly pendulum swings lower and lower.  Escaping this demise he finds himself in an even worse predicament as the walls close in and he is forced to the edge of a cavern of flames. This also made it to film starring Vincent Price in 1961.

1935 saw another pair of Horror icons, Karloff and Lugosi, paired up in The Raven. Lugosi, playing character Dr. Richard Vollin, has a fondness for the writings of Poe and medieval torture devices. Possibly not the best of the Universal team-ups with these two greats, but well worth the watch.

Arch Obler, genius of Old Time Radio Horror and the amazing series Lights Out, wrote possibly one of my favourite episodes entitled "Murder Castle". An elderly man lures young women to his mansion with the promise of employment only to murder them in a multitude of grizzly manners for their meager belongings and his own entertainment.  Keeping the time frame of 1938 in mind and the desperation of the depression still looming, this tale would have been mind-blowingly real and terrifying at the time of its original airing.

The Bloody Pit of Horror (1965) is one of the more outlandish films of the genre with a character named the Crimson Executioner and a dungeon of various torture devices. This movie is bad, but thoroughly entertaining. I could say more on this movie, but I will save it for another time.

Witch Finder General (aka The Conqueror Worm), possibly one of Vincent Price’s best roles as Inquisition Torturer Matthew Hopkins, was stated to be one of the most violent films of 1968. While not truly as graphic or as focused on torture as one might think, it is without doubt a must see for any Vincent Price fan.  Its recent DVD release was also nominated for a 2007 Rondo award.

So while I won’t be renting Saw III-XV or another Hostel movie any time soon, torture as a device in horror is very much a legitimate theme and I will not knock them for that.  The drive to be more graphic than your predecessor is another twist on the old theme of excessive gore and really loses steam after the first couple attempts if you ask me. I have to ask myself however, if one-upmanship is the goal why are these movies getting less interesting, less innovative, and lesser writing?

What T Van from Tolerated Vandalism thinks…

Torture isn't just a song by The Jacksons. Annalee Newitz recently posed the question, "Do We Need Graphic Torture In Our Dystopias?" on Horrorhead. Newitz ponders the question without defining a clear response. She seems to be wondering if these types of scenes add any value to moving the story forward.  I'll answer that question right now. Graphic scenes of torture are almost never necessary to tell a story.  Torture can be used as a plot device to add realism to a scene. Basically, torture isn't necessary but it can work.

I hate the term torture porn. It's just stupid. It's a term that some douche came up with to make horror films seem more sensational than they really should be.  The Saw franchise doesn't deserve the attention that it receives. The first film was interesting but it went downhill from there. The same can be said about Hostel. I know that Eli Roth is considered a pariah amongst horror fans but I feel that beneath the gore of Hostel there was an interesting story.  The torture wasn't necessary in either of these films. Torture can be implied and be as scary, if not more scary, than the reality of what is shown on screen. However, I don't have a problem with the scenes actually being depicted on screen. It may not be the best way to tell a story but these are, after all, horror films.

Should torture be depicted in television programs like 24 or Battlestar Galactica?  These shows aren't considered to be part of the horror genre. My answer is absolutely. Both 24 and Battlestar Galactica are using torture as a device. It's not a very subtle device but it's effective. Dystopian storytelling is usually not very subtly using political subtext to tell a story. 24 is doing so in a way in which Jack Bauer is an anti-hero to the nth degree. For fuck's sake, he ripped a guy's throat out with his teeth. BSG shows scenes of graphic torture and I don't blink an eye. This is a television show that is set in space with fucking robots for villains. Do I even need to comment on the fact that scenes of torture in this context are ridiculous? Who gives a shit?

The debate over torture in media has been raging as a hot topic for the past three years. It really has become a stagnant topic. There are no clear winners or losers in this debate. It's similar to horror fans who lament PG-13-rated films versus R-rated films. Who cares? It all boils down to one simple question: is the story any good? That's the only thing that should matter. How the story is told is up to the creator of the product. Sure, studios and political correctness can get in the way but we don't live in an ideal world. If we did, every director would have final cut, every author would have final edit, and every horror movie would be awesome. Unfortunately, that's not our reality.

Are there films that cross the line with scenes of graphic torture? Of course. Anyone who has ever seen Gaspar Noé's Irréversible can attest to the fact that a nine minute rape scene is despicable and completely unnecessary. There are a number of things that I don't want to see in movies: rape, child molestation, necrophilia, Sandra Bullock, etc, etc.. Almost every film ever made has something that someone will find objectionable. But I'm not a politically correct idiot with his head stuck up his ass either. The bottom line is this: if you're shocked or disgusted by scenes of torture in media, you probably shouldn't be watching movies like Saw or The Hills Have Eyes or reading books by Jack Ketchum. That's just common sense.

What Tenebrous Kate from Love Train for the Tenebrous Empire thinks…

The unlikely commercial success of so-called "torture porn" films has generated a lot of press over the past several years, spawning at least two franchises in the form of the Saw and Hostel films. The key appeal of these films is their set-piece scenes of elaborate and gruesome torture, providing teenagers everywhere with a convenient conversational gambit: "I saw this movie over the weekend where a guy does X to this other guy and then…" Much of the mainstream press surrounding these movies concentrates on the same "Decline of Western Civilization" bunk that saw the drafting of the Hays Code in the 1930s. Interestingly, the best discourse on the topic hasn't been written in publications like frequently-insightful New York Magazine (in an article that misses the point entirely, the author makes sweeping generalizations about the "relatability" of characters in older horror films versus those in the more recent crop of ultraviolent cinema), but has been explored on various fan-based message boards where there's a healthy debate about the relative *quality* of these films.

There have been movies that could reasonably be dubbed "torture porn" for decades now, encompassing such works as the Faces of Death series, episodes in the Guinea Pig series and, arguably, much of the Italian cannibal cycle. I think what has people all aflutter is the fact that the recent American movies in this subgenre have been such money-making machines. Whispered-about movies swapped on grainy VHS are one thing, but these newer movies are the cinematic equivalent of the "Not In My Backyard" conversation. REAL people — real TEENS, even! — are watching these movies and now, apparently this is A Big Issue.

For me, the torture porn conversation is not one of the morality of the viewing audience and their shortcomings as human beings. It's a conversation about lazy filmmaking and piling on scenes of gore while letting style languish (perhaps even substituting copious gore FOR style). Much like a comedian should never go for the very first punchline he creates (writers of Robot Chicken and Family Guy, take note), a horror director shouldn't stop short at "gross." This genre is about more than the Ick Factor. The reasons I disliked Hostel had nothing to do with the slicing of tendons, the gouging of eyeballs or the relative length and intimacy of the violent sequences; my reasons had everything to do with lackluster acting, a rotten script, and the retread of ground that was heavily traversed and not-so-fresh by the late 1970s. I hated Hostel so much that I'm adamantly skipping the sequel in spite of some cute stunt-casting with Edwige Fenech. Moving on to the Saw movies — I managed to lock myself out of my apartment in a post-surgical haze while the second half of Saw II played on my television. I see this as being the hand of a benevolent deity intervening on my behalf to shield me from more poorly-acted, implausible, Rube Goldberg murder scenes. The Saw movies are like a gore-soaked session of Mousetrap, without any of the intellectual stimulation of the board game.

Worse yet, these movies are utterly humorless. Scenarios that could be salvaged with a smirk or with some element of unreality (not to be confused with implausibility) are played with a deadpan that sucks all joy right out of the room. Cary Elwes' severed leg is SERIOUS BUSINESS. Hell, even a cool-looking jaw-trap murder-thing is SERIOUS BUSINESS, when it ought to give an opportunity for showing psychedelic madness on screen. All this seriousness might be an attempt at enhancing the audience's connection with what's happening in the film, but it seems to me to be the easy way to handle material like this, providing an "out" if questioned about the glamorization of movie violence. The movies are in bad taste, but not in fabulously bad taste — they never achieve the jaw-dropping high camp of the Ilsa films and there's never an interjection of weird comedy as in Last House on the Left. This is even before addressing the fact that no one in these movies comes close to the screen presence of a Dyanne Thorne or a David Hess.

From where I sit, the main threat of torture porn seems to be that it can lead to me getting locked out of my apartment, or throwing loud hissy fits post-Hostel. For the betterment of my personal universe, I'm staging a personal boycott of torture porn. There's just too much interesting splatter out there for me to trouble myself with.

What Vince Liaguno from Slasher Speak thinks…

You know you’re getting older when you find yourself saying things like “Remember those great old slasher films?” I find myself saying that more and more as horror cinema takes its latest turn into what many regard as “torture cinema.” Films like Wolf Creek, High Tension, Turistas, the Saw and Hostel films, and The Devil's Rejects have ushered in a whole new era of slasher film, one steeped in meaningless depravity. Much of the classic slasher formula remains intact in these new films, albeit buried beneath buckets of blood, guts, and gore. There is aggressive sadism behind the carnage in these new films that makes them more visceral than their predecessors and, ultimately, more unnerving on a very real, very primal level. Some would argue that killing is killing and that there’s no difference between Jason Voorhees slaughtering nubile co-eds in the Friday the 13th film series and the wealthy businessmen paying to torture and slaughter nubile coeds in Hostel: Part II. But a closer look at these films shows that there are indeed key differences.

In the classic slasher films of the '80s, there was a gleeful abandon of credibility as virtually indestructible supernatural killers like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger sliced and diced their way across the screen. Their motivation was simple: revenge. There was a cause and effect to their actions, much in the same way those making social commentary in these films saw a cause and effect relationship between promiscuity and drug use and the moral decline of the day. Audiences could watch in relative comfort, knowing that those guilty in some way were receiving comeuppance for their sins. There was a sense of detachment in that knowledge. In the worlds of Eli Roth and Rob Zombie and Greg McLean, the social commentary is still there (but the thinking is more global as in anti-American sentiment abroad versus domestic mores) but the motivation behind the carnage is blurred, making the experience that much more unsettling and effective on a whole new level. Whereas the classic slasher film wrapped up the experience in a tidy bow, the new torture films present audiences with the idea that bad things happen for no good reason. Some people are just plain nuts – and they look just like you and me. Talk about inducing paranoia.

Devin Gordon, in an April 2006 Newsweek article, writes that “it’s practically cliché that you can tease out a generation’s subconscious fears just by watching its horror movies”, and a film like Hostel certainly seemed to strike a nerve when it arrived at the local multiplex just as we were inundated with reports of sadistic prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. That abuse was made all the more horrific because it wasn’t enacted by some covert team of government interrogators trying to extrapolate plots of mass destruction from would-be terrorists but rather by the cherub-faced everyday young men and women we sent off to fight a war, the same ones for whom we tied yellow ribbons around trees in gestures of support. There was an air of incomprehensibility to the news, one that unsettled and discomfited and reminded us all that good people do really bad things. Roth reflected that in his film with the story of American youth abducted, tortured, and killed at the hands of everyday businessmen who just so happened to have the inclination and money to buy victims.

The killers in Hostel and its sequel are just like the suit-and-tie stockbrokers and real estate brokers and company executives driving in the Lexus next to us on the freeway. And it is this convincing facade of normalcy juxtaposed against the heinous inner workings of these killers that shakes audiences to the core. Whereas we rarely asked the “what if?” question when Jason Voorhees survived an axe to the head or Michael Myers walked out of a burning hospital unscathed, we view these images and ask very real questions. What if there are organ harvesters waiting to snatch me from the beaches of Cancun? What if there are underground societies where our college-aged sons and daughters are abducted from European youth hostels to be sold to the highest bidder with the most depraved mind? The answers frighten us as much as the graphic on-screen images, thus, when we leave the theaters, we take a piece of them back home with us. And after a Jason, Michael, or Freddy movie-going experience? We took a sigh of relief after the requisite final shock, chuckled at the lunacy of what we had just seen, and then argued over whether it would be mozzarella sticks or chicken wings at Applebee’s or TGI Friday’s.

Torture cinema, while reverent to the classic slasher roots in which it’s steeped, has simultaneously promulgated the genre while turning the slasher formula on its head. The set-ups are still there: youthful, party-going victims in isolated locations who run afoul of a demented madman or two. But whereas Jason or Michael or Freddy cut to the chase and lopped off a head or sliced through a jugular before moving on to the next victim in need of systematic dispatch, the madmen in torture cinema tease and tantalize the terror from their victims, savoring the anguish. For audiences used to quickly covering their eyes just before the big kill, it’s as if filmmakers have now stuck toothpicks under our eyes, forcing us to endure the same sadistic torture as their onscreen victims. Indeed, it’s grueling to sit and suffer along with the victims, whose painful screams linger longer onscreen and in our ears than those of their cinematic brethren of slashers past. It’s as if we’re the ones being tortured.

Our beloved final girls are still present in these reinvented slasher films, but gone are the days of Laurie and Alice and Nancy where they ran a bit, hid in a few closets, had some hair ripped out in a light battle, and then took a little breather before the sequel. No, the new generation of filmmakers don’t seem to care as much for our beloved heroines as we do – often dismembering, disemboweling, and otherwise dispatching with these scream queens late into the third act. Case in point: in Wolf Creek, a 2005 Texas Chainsaw Massacre retread set in the Australian outback, a deranged Crocodile Dundee-like psychopath severs the would-be final girl’s spinal cord and matter-of-factly declares, “Now you’re just a head on a stick.” Laurie Strode never had it so good.

Film historians have often likened watching a horror film to riding a roller coaster; and as engineers have developed new coasters at dizzying new heights with nauseating new twists and turns and drops and jolts to enhance our experiential fear, so too have filmmakers upped the ante in horror films with ideas and imagery meant to rattle us to our cores. Subtlety, it would appear for now, is a thing of the past. Until at least the next reincarnation of the horror genre.

What Curt Purcell from Groovy Age of Horror thinks…

It may or may not surprise you that I haven't seen a single movie of this sort, and not only from the current bumper crop, but even from the first turn of the cycle — I haven't seen the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Last House on the Left or any of those, either. I therefore can't offer any informed opinion on their merits. In a perverse sort of way, though, I think I can still say something interesting about them, as a die-hard horror fan who's shunned them on the basis of the image they've fostered and cultivated so aggressively.

Looking at how they're promoted, and listening to how they're reviewed, discussed, and especially how they're defended by their fans, my impression is that they're based on a rationale that's seductive in its simplicity but ultimately very, very misguided about horror. Now, that might sound like an extraordinarily arrogant thing to say — "misguided!" — particularly coming from someone who hasn't seen these movies. Fair enough. Nevertheless, in my experience, most people seem pretty bad at analyzing, understanding, and articulating their aesthetic responses to movies or anything else. As I hope to explain, it's easy to see how someone could come to be a horror fan, misidentify what they enjoy about the genre, and proceed on a number of mistaken assumptions toward something that's quite far indeed from the original kind of experience that made them love horror in the first place.

The chief fallacy, which extends far beyond the subgenre under discussion here, is overestimating and overvaluing fear as an ingredient of horror. I've touched on this before. Fear is the defining spice in our enjoyment of horror, so it's obvious why fans would zero in on it in this way, to the neglect of other ingredients that might be just as essential even if they're not nearly as apparent. But I suspect that the kind of original experience that makes a horror fan has a much richer appeal, with fear as one element among any number of others. I'll put it this way: I shake a lot of Tabasco on a lot of food, but that doesn't mean I'll swig it straight from the bottle. My impression of these movies is that they try to deliver a straight, raw dose of fear, which sounds just as unpalatable to me for essentially the same reason.

Again, just going on my impressions formed by ads, reviews, and what fans say about these movies, it sounds like they compound the above fallacy by misconceiving fear as an entirely aversive emotion. We're so used to hearing about the "fight or flight" response and thinking of fear in negative terms that we lose sight of the full scope of our experience of the emotion. For good evolutionary reasons, there is a powerful attentional and even attractive component to fear. A frightening stimulus provokes heightened vigilance and rivets the attention, to an extent that sometimes elicits approach and exploration (as opposed to flight or some other aversive behavior). Darwin documented this in monkeys.

The physical changes associated with fear prepare us for action, which might mean fleeing or fighting off an aggressor, but which might also, more positively, mean proactively taking a risk (for example, "going out on a limb" for a piece of fruit that's difficult to reach, or going after dangerous prey, as when wolves attack moose that significantly outweigh them and present daunting natural weapons such as hooves and massive antlers). The rush of risk-taking is nothing more, really, than a positive and pleasurable quality of fear that propels you into a situation rather than away from it.  To my mind, this is most likely the kind of fear that makes a horror fan in the first place — fear that fascinates, attracts, thrills, and pleases.

Contrast that, now, with the stated aims of so many of these movies to make audience members leave the theater, faint, vomit, wet themselves, or at least look away. This is a strictly aversive understanding of fear. Although I think it has nothing to do with the root appeal of horror, it's easy to understand how horror creators and fans could mistakenly come to embrace it.

If what you think you enjoy about horror is fear, pure and simple, and if you quite naturally want more of a good thing, you'll probably reflect on times when you've felt fear most intensely. The experiences that will stand out most vividly in memory will most likely be among the most aversive, because they probably touched hardest on issues of survival, and probably did not resolve into more positive emotions as would happen after successful risk taking, for example. Thanks to cognitive biases like these, it's just an unfortunate fact that a little thinking about something can lead very far astray. And that's exactly what I think is going on here — why horror creators and fans pursue an otherwise inexplicable escalation of raw cruelty, ugliness, and vileness in horror. They've simply done a poor job of analyzing their enjoyment of horror, they've profoundly misunderstood it, and everything follows from that.

The laundry list of aversive responses above points to another huge horror fallacy: the view that horror should aim to provoke real fear behaviors. There are good artistic reasons for maintaining a strong distinction between fantasy and reality for the audience when it comes to horror. Much horror, though, misguidedly strives in every way it can to dispel that sense of distinction. The most effective means to that end is increasingly naturalistic horror depicted in an increasingly realistic manner. I'd expect diminishing returns from such a progression, and without a doubt this kind of horror quickly hits the dead end of reality itself. Horror creators hit that wall hard when they come to see themselves in competition with internet footage of beheadings and camera phone video of Abu Ghraib prison interrogations. That's a face-off they can't win, because, after all, reality is reality, and it doesn't get any more real (or horrible, in the most negative sense of the word) than that.

Aside from the purely artistic problem of hitting this dead end, I'd also just note in passing that to the extent that horror succeeds in piercing or breaking down the distinction between fantasy and reality, it lays itself open to legitimate ethical questioning and critique. And I say that as someone who usually dismisses out of hand the various overheated, half-baked criticisms of horror as a supposed contributor to real-world ills.

As wrong and ultimately self-defeating as this approach is, it does make a certain intuitive, prima facie sense, so it's easy to see why so many horror creators and fans are led astray by it. Conversely, it's not so simple to understand precisely why and how horror is much better served by maintaining as firm a distinction as possible between fantasy and reality.

The whole point of fantasy is that it allows us to experience feelings and emotions in isolation from certain unwanted, limiting, or inhibiting factors in reality, such as real outward behavior, real consequences, and real time.  What happens in your fantasies can stay in your fantasies–nobody gets hurt, and nobody's the wiser.  Fantasy thus offers us a "safe place" in the sense Ernest Hartmann describes when drawing parallels between dreams and therapy:

Starting again with my material on dreams after trauma as the trauma is resolving, I have suggested that dreaming has a quasi-therapeutic function (Hartmann 1995). Dreaming allows the making of connections in a safe place. I reviewed many similarities between dreaming (whether or not remembered) and the process of psychotherapy, especially after trauma. Both good psychotherapy after trauma and dreaming first provide a safe place for work to be done. In therapy the safe place is much more than the physical setting; it involves the safe "boundaries" of the therapeutic situation and the gradual trusting alliance formed between patient and therapist. In dreaming — especially in REM sleep — the safe place is provided by the well-established muscular inhibition which prevents activity and the acting out of dreams.

Once a safe place is established the therapist allows the patient, especially the traumatized patient, to go back and tell her or his story in many different ways, making connections between the trauma and other parts of the patient's life — overall making connections and trying to integrate the trauma. Dreaming performs at least some of these same functions — since its nature is making connections broadly in a safe place.

As this quote indicates, maintaining firm boundaries around a metaphorical "safe place" allows not only for a broader range of emotional experience, but also in certain circumstances for a greater depth and intensity of emotional experience.  Violent, threatening emotions that our defense mechanisms might dull or inhibit in a real-life context may be accessed and experienced more fully when we can feel safe and assured that they won't fly out of control and lead to acting out with all the unwanted consequences that would entail. I hope this clarifies why I think it's misguided and self-defeating for so many horror films to strive to provoke exactly that kind of negative real-life fear response in viewers by assaulting their sense of a safe boundary between fantasy and reality.

To wrap up here, I honestly don't have any idea whether any of these criticisms really apply to any of the films in question, since, as I mentioned, I haven't viewed them. I know for a fact, though, that these horror myths do loom very large in the promotion, marketing, discussion and defense of all these movies–which is precisely why I've avoided them.

So there you have it. Now what do you think?

The mission of the League of Tana Tea Drinkers (LOTT D) is to acknowledge, foster, and support thoughtful, articulate,and creative blogs built on an appreciation of the horror and sci-horror genre. Contributing members for this article:

Dr. Kim Paffenroth, Gospel of the Living Dead
Gary D. Macabre, Blogue Macabre
T Van, Tolerated Vandalism
Tenebrous Kate, Love Train for the Tenebrous Empire
Vince Liaguno, Slasher Speak
Curt Purcell, Groovy Age of Horror

Powered by

About ILoz Zoc

  • duane

    Interesting coincidence. The featured headline on my Yahoo home page says “Most violent game ever?” referring to the new Gears of War video game in which, evidently, one can chainsaw an opponent in half from the crotch up, and then use one half of the corpse as a “meat shield” to absorb enemy fire.

    Well, Iloc, I read the entire article, and I came away feeling like only the surface had been scratched. I’m not a movie egghead like you and the LOTT D. I have no deep thoughts to offer, I certainly couldn’t find anything with which to disagree. Chords were struck by the Purcell article concerning the topic of separating fantasy and reality. A nice clashing of the two appears in Pan’s Labyrinth, in which torture figures a bit too prominently. Who wouldn’t agree that the horrors of the real world far exceed anything a fictional movie can bring? Maybe that’s one reason I prefer my horror movies to feature supernatural phenomena — ghosties. Give me a good haunted house story any time and keep the silly Jasons and Michaels and Freddies.

    I’m reminded of the Hellraiser series, which depicts torture by demons from Hell, who inflict torture because … well … that’s their job. There was a definite shock response there, but I could “accept” it, because, after all, that’s what Hell is all about, right?

    I found Saw, Hostel, and Irreversible to be rather dismal exercises. As disturbing as the rape scene was, I was just as grossed out by the head bludgeoning sequence (with a fire extinguisher?). They aren’t “scary.” I’m too old, I guess, to get a thrill out of gratuitous violence. Oddly enough, I enjoyed Wolf Creek, maybe just because I find Australia to be fascinating.

    The Audition also features unnecessary torture. I’m pretty sure that seeing needles stuck into the face of a bound man and having his feet cut off didn’t add a lot to the story.

    Zombie movies … I wouldn’t classify them as torture porn. That’s just the undead doing their undead thing. And the Rob Zombie movies are so far over the top that their impact is minor, along the lines of the mass dismemberment fight sequence in Kill Bill, Vol. 1. It’s all in fun, in other words.

    The bathtub scene in Scarface where Pacino’s partner in crime gets his arm chain sawed off is far more disturbing than anything I’ve seen in a horror movie.

    All in all, I would have to agree with a few of the contributors that the envelope-pushing gutfest sequences are given more and more attention by the producers in order to cover up the fact that the stories aren’t really very compelling. And strangely enough, people will pay to see it. I know I have. But that’ll do it for me.

    What do YOU have to say about it?

    And what did you think of The Blair Witch Project?

  • http://lottd.blogspot.com ILoz Zoc

    The bathtub scene in Scarface is gut-wrenching because it touches reality. It gave me nightmares afterwards. I’ll say that I find torture porn that comes too close to actuality very disturbing. The more fantastic, or ludicrous the depiction, the less it bothers me mentally. But the “real” or more plausible depictions are not to my tastes or nerves.

    What also bothers me is the commercialism of it. Saw has become an annual event, and audience pandering keeps increasing the sadistic bloodletting to meet expectations.

    But it is so damn effective for a horror film, isn’t it? I mean, it churns our stomachs while delivering a WTF “I’m glad that’s not me” feeling. Like that roller coaster ride that keeps adding more and more visceral twists and turns to overcome our sensory-saturation by upping the shocks.

    Tough call here, but I certainly don’t want the horror genre get mired in it just for commercial reasons. I’ll take a good old scarefest like The Uninvited over Hostel any day. But will the audience?

  • Eric Enck

    being a writer of torture porn with ” Snuff.” I find it is the most disturbing of the genre, because it can really happen. I sometimes wonder if people who look down on it are really scared by it.

  • Brad Schader

    I wrote thisin an article here a while ago, but it applies and is exactly what I was going to say.

    I understand this move towards showing gore in movies today and it actually has everything to do with the war in Iraq, to be honest. If one looks at the history of horror movies one cannot help but notice that it always reflects the political atmosphere. The ’50s gave us stories of people being controlled by evil aliens at the same time we were afraid of people secretly being communists and invasions from outer space while we feared another global war. Movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Blob played perfectly on those fears.

    The ’60s saw a rise in the gore and torture films such as Bloodfeast just as Vietnam was getting more and more unpopular. In fact, the gore and torture only increased as the decade wore on. The ’70s saw us no longer having faith in our government so naturally the Devil became a major villain with religion no longer being able to protect us in such classics as The Exorcist and The Omen and the ’80s saw the birth of the personable killer because the ’80s were all about style over substance.

    It really is no surprise to me that in the days of Abu Ghraib we are seeing a return to the torture/gore movies. I just wish they would do original stories like Hostel and Saw and leave our classics alone — no matter how non-classic they may be.

  • http://lottd.blogspot.com ILoz Zoc

    Hey Eric,

    I can say that watching torture porn too close to reality scares me quite a bit. Being helpless as anything can be done to you is about as terrifying as you can get.

  • http://nickcato.blogspot.com/ Nick Cato

    As silly a film as 1970’s THE WIZARD OF GORE is, the antagonist, Montag the Magnificent, rants on and on about participants coming forward to his on-stage nightmares for the sake of satisfying their fellow humans’ lust for blood. Despite the horrendous acting, the message was clear: director HG Lewis was continuing to make these films because there was a DESIRE to see them. Of course, I’m sure he didn’t think his first effort, 1963’s BLOOD FEAST, would snowball to the point it has today, but suffice it to say there will always be fans of “extreme” horror who simply want to SEE this kind of material, regardless of plot or film quality. Surely people aren’t sitting through pointless filmfare such as the mainstream Hostel films, to the underground ‘guinea pig’ series for their artistic value.

    While I personally don’t care for horror this graphic (unless it enhances the story, such as with Jack Ketchum’s ‘The Girl Next Door’ or is done slapstick-style as in ‘Dead Alive’), perhaps the demand for these things speaks of our inherited-depraved nature . . . or just our obscure curiosity.

  • http://lottd.blogspot.com ILoz Zoc

    Nick, I think it’s our inherited depraved nature. When torture porn becomes absurdist, it loses its terrifying effect and moves into disgusto territory. Disgusto sells, too. Bottom line; if there’s a payin’ audience, it will be done.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Back in the 80s I remember watching a few examples of the semi-illicit genre known as the ‘video nasty’.

    Looking back, the gory ‘delights’ on view then seem positively tame compared to some of the stuff that’s now on offer in your friendly neighborhood movie theater.

  • http://www.downinthecellar.com Nick Ozment

    Fascinating discussion. I found especially insightful the distinctions of fear, specifically “aversive fear” as the main driver for these films. I just reviewed _The Strangers_ for Down in the Cellar, and though it did not have the gorey excesses of some of its recent ilk, I gave it a low rating because of the protagonists. They were blank ciphers who seemed to be there just to be terrorized. The film’s approach was naturalistic, yet the leads were as one-dimensional as any teen fodder at Camp Crystal Lake.

    I was more impressed by _Vacancy_, which featured protagonists who reacted with the fight rather than flight response, and showed themselves to be resourceful and self-reliant in harrowing circumstances. This made me identify with, and consequently root for, them more.

  • ss

    hi

    the horrors this time ur sited responsed her any timed

    thank