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Torture Porn: Why This Horror Genre Moniker Is A Misnomer

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This tale starts with the horror movie Hostel, directed by Splat Packer Eli Roth. When Hostel premiered on January 6, 2006, it ushered in Eli Roth as a true blue horror director who possessed competency and confidence. In a New York magazine article by film critic David Edelstein entitled "Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn", the dubious term “torture porn” was first coined and in subsequent articles about Hostel was picked up and used to describe the revitalized horror sub-genre the film belongs to.

From the outset, I could never understand the title they were ascribing to Hostel and its brethren. Let’s examine each part of the Edelstein’s term, shall we? First up is torture. Torture is defined as “the act of inflicting excruciating pain, as punishment or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty.” I take no issue with this part of the term. It is accurate. The next part of the term, porn, I completely take issue with. Not only does porn have nothing to do with what is going on onscreen, when placed alongside torture, it has nothing to do with the definition of either word.

Porn is a shortened form of pornography, defined as “…sexually explicit pictures, writing, or other material whose primary purpose is to cause sexual arousal.” Seeing a naked ass on screen isn’t explicit, especially since you could see five asses per season on the television program NYPD Blue, which aired on ABC, a television network that Disney owns. And a breast isn’t explicit or sexually arousing in many situations, especially if the possessor is being hacked to pieces by a fictional serial killer with a prop knife.

This brings us to the question: Does the presence of a naked breast or an ass make a movie porn? Is Trading Places comedy porn? Is Old School? What about American Beauty? Should that fall under the genre of drama porn? What should we call the Halloween franchise under the Edelstein criteria? Since the films star Michael Myers, involves knife torture, terror, copious nudity (which is porn in the minds of some non-dictionary owners), and a serial killer who suffers from the Curse of Thorn, the Halloween franchise should be called Thorn porn.

In your garden variety porn film, there is usually some kind of sexual stimulation or penetration. Where is this present in the horror movies (the Saw franchise, Cannibal Holocaust, Hostel I and Hostel II, Wolf Creek, Ichi the Killer, Baise-moi, etc.) the torture porn moniker has been capriciously applied to? There is no sexual climaxing or getting off (for real) in these films. It’s all fake and make believe. So once again: Where is the porn? Where are Teagan Presley, Hanna Hilton, Bobbi Starr or Sunny Leone? I don’t see them.

Maybe the pejorative torture porn moniker was created to describe the fact that the directors of these horror films (James Wan, Ruggero Deodato, Eli Roth, Greg McLean, Takashi Miike, Virginie Despentes, etc) are getting off “mentally” from what they have created and filmed. If that’s true, how is that pornographic? A person who enjoys his work is a lucky person. A newscaster who enjoys his evening newscast doesn’t have his work considered broadcast porn (well, not unless there is something lewd going on underneath the table we’re not privy to, like in Police Academy). The same is true for a torture horror movie that may or may not contain nudity. It’s not porn or a sexual fetish film of any kind. It’s a horror movie that involves torture that contains nudity. The correct moniker for this horror sub-genre should not be torture porn. It should be torture horror.

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About Reginald Williams

  • http://blogcritics.org/video Lisa McKay

    Interesting viewpoint, Reginald, although I think your objections take the term way too literally.

    I think Edelstein was making the point that this particular sub-genre has no particular moral point of view, and therefore no artistic value (and a commonly agreed-on component of pornography is that it serves only to titillate, not to illuminate). I don’t think he meant to equate the term “porn” with nudity or any other sexual aspects of such films. I think he meant it in a much broader sense.

  • http://www.Darklady.com Darklady

    As someone who’s worked in the adult entertainment industry for nearly two decades and seen how little respect sexuality gets from most everyone, especially those who haven’t addressed or embraced their own, I’m not shocked that people who clench their assess and jaws over one form of visceral entertainment that they don’t approve of automatically slap the word “porn” on the end to make it seem “really” nasty. When people make other people’s business their own non-consensually, they’re generally outraged when others aren’t obsessed in the same annoying ways. When all one needs to do in order be a “sex addict” these days is have a sex drive, everything is “porn” to the truly compulsive and impulse-control limited.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    “I could never understand the title they were ascribing to Hostel and its brethren. Let’s examine each part of the Edelstein’s term, shall we?”

    That’s part of the problem. The words are used together to convey an idea, so your exercise in deconstructing them completely misses the point. It’s like complaining about Bill Cosby sitting down when he is performing stand-up comedy.

    I agree with Lisa’s comments since it doesn’t come across like you read Edelstein’s piece because he doesn’t refer to sex at all.

    Plus, you only use a definition of pornography that fits your argument where another “obscene writings, drawings, photographs, or the like, esp. those having little or no artistic merit” completely fits what he is saying.

    Lastly, I thought Roth showed “competency and confidence” with “Cabin Fever.”

  • http://film-book.com/ Reginald Williams

    Its nice to see my opinion piece is generating some conversation.
    El Bicho, I deconstructed the term Torture Porn because I wanted to examine the term from all possible angles not because I wasn’t aware that it was a term. Lol. Also, I did read Edelstein’s article.
    I chose to refer to sex because that is one of the issues implied by the term Torture Porn and since simulated sex occurs in some horror films, including it in my Torture Porn article didn’t seem like a stretch.
    It is true Ms. McKay, maybe I did take the term too literally but that is the problem in itself. A term that was not meant to be taken too literally has now become the official title for a horror genre.

  • http://www.cinemaviewfinder.com Tony Dayoub

    To use your rather literal-minded logic, if you combine the two separate definitions you quote for the words torture and porn, you do get a reasonable description of the content in such films.

    “the act of inflicting excruciating pain, as punishment or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty in sexually explicit pictures, writing, or other material whose primary purpose is to cause sexual arousal.”

    The evisceration of Heather Matarazzo’s Lorna in Eli Roth’s Hostel: Part II comes to mind as a good example.

  • http://blogcritics.org/video Lisa McKay

    It is true Ms. McKay, maybe I did take the term too literally but that is the problem in itself. A term that was not meant to be taken too literally has now become the official title for a horror genre.

    But your primary objection seems to be the inclusion of the word “porn” and I think the term fits the genre rather nicely. The fact is that the word “porn” has evolved from its primary meaning so that now we also have (probably among other things, but these are two examples I’m familiar with) real estate porn and food porn, both of which have to do with obsession and lust and neither of which have to do with sex. At least not directly.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Real estate porn sounds hot.

  • http://culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    Reggie, I have to ask–are you a complete idiot?–or do you spend way too much time alone rationalizing your skewed versions of how language works?

    By your way of thinking, a term like “fashionista” or “glitterati” should be barred from the lexicon, since fashionistas have nothing to do with Nicaraguan political upheaval, and glitterati have nothing to do with disseminating literature.

    What I glean from uour (ahem) article is you enjoy films like Hostel and its descendants. I think it makes you uncomfortable that you like the pornographic aspects of such films–i. e. “no redeeming social value–and that’s all well and fine. But if you have to go into a rambling rant to justify your tastes, you have no point.

    It gets down to this. Pornography is something with no redeeming value. And if torture floats your boat,well, that’s your issue, isn’t it.

  • http://film-book.com/ Reginald Williams

    This is funny. Wow.
    “What I glean from uour (ahem) article…” Use spell check next time.
    The main idea of the article is that in my “personal” opinion the genre shouldn’t be Torture Porn but rather Torture Horror.
    It is possible I was in error when I took the term too literally.
    And Tony, by using those two definitions, it encompasses almost 75% of all Action Movies ever made. In how many of those films are the “ingredients” we’ve mentioned present and accounted for? Are you beginning to see how ill-fitting the title is?
    I love the sarcasm in your comments folks. Keep them coming.
    And spell check.

  • duane

    Once again, the wonders and joys of internet communication are on display. Christ, Ray … less caffeine.

    The word “porn” has also (and earlier) been applied to books involving dangerous encounters with Nature — “adventure porn” — The Perfect Storm, Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, and so forth. The word “porn” is invoked because of the ‘voyeuristic’ aspect. The implication is that people are drawn to these books because of a lurking desire to read about others in pain or in danger.

    Taking as an example the morons who slow down to ogle traffic accidents on the freeway, there is a titillation factor (‘accident porn’), and the connotation is that it is something that we shouldn’t really want to witness. And there is an audience for that, as evidenced by the ridiculous TV shows featuring police chases. And doesn’t every TV news program take great pains to broadcast police chases if they happen to have their helicopter on the scene? Why do you suppose that is? ‘Accident porn’.

    Reginald, you should probably hunt down Iloc Zoc’s recent article on this topic here at BC, which was fairly extensive.

    Anyway, it’s just an expression.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    “Its nice to see my opinion piece is generating some conversation.”

    Your next piece should be that the Earth is flat. You’ll probably get some conversation out of that as well.

    “I chose to refer to sex because that is one of the issues implied by the term Torture Porn”

    No it isn’t. Porn has long been used outside of a sexual connotation has had been mentioned previously.

    Considering your article has a sentence that doesn’t use proper punctuation for possession (“Since the films star Michael Myers”) and you incorrectly wrote “it is” as “Its” in a comment above, you really are in no position to call out anyone’s spelling when you can’t handle an apostrophe.

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

    If somebody were to make a movie about a struggling family of Australian shrimp fishers from Victoria’s Surf Coast in the 1930s who decide to sell their boat and emigrate to Oklahoma to begin a new life as farmers, only to be uprooted once again by the Dust Bowl, and they filmed it in a titillating, exploitative way, would it be ‘Lorne Forlorn Prawn Windborne Corn Gorn Porn’?

  • http://film-book.com/ Reginald Williams

    Keep the comments coming. Very funny by the way Dreadful.

  • duane

    Oh, sure, don’t mention it. Any time.

  • Gavin

    Here in the UK, we have the term ‘Property Porn’, referring to the property development and home improvement TV shows and magazines that have proliferated in recent years.

    Maybe it’s time somebody wrote an essay deconstructing this term, and to berate the people using it for the disappointing lack of gratuitous sex in these shows?

  • http://film-book.com/ Reginald Williams

    Take it easy with the berating in that essay you write Gavin. You don’t want to come off as being too cynical.

  • http://www.cinemaviewfinder.com Tony Dayoub

    “And Tony, by using those two definitions, it encompasses almost 75% of all Action Movies ever made. In how many of those films are the “ingredients” we’ve mentioned present and accounted for?”

    The fundamental problem with your argument above is that you don’t cite any examples. 75% of all Action Movies? Really? Should I apply the same literal-minded analysis to your argument as you applied in your story?

    I can cite examples to bolster your response. Lethal Weapon and the recent Rambo sequel could be seen in that light. But honestly, more action movies attempt to get viewers off by means of explosions and pyrotechnics moreso than torture.
    Die Hard and Terminator come to mind.

    And when some “mainstream” films do depict torture, it generally isn’t to evoke arousal like in “torture porn”. Casino and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, are two notable examples.

    “I love the sarcasm in your comments folks.”

    I, and a few others here, don’t seem to be sarcastic at all. But your own defensiveness and sarcasm seem to betray an insecurity regarding the strength of your argument. It actually seems designed to prolong and provoke a rather interesting debate on what is essentially a weak thesis.

  • Max

    The article uses a one of several definitions of porn. Porn is also used as a term for anything of no moral, social or artistic value. It can also be as general as anything designed for the purpose of arousal. Meaning if you take a photo of a girl fully dressed in a cheerleader outfit, for the purpose of arousing people with a cheerleader fetish, it’s porn. However, the same photo taken for the purpose of a college newspaper is not porn. Yep, it’s weird and complicated.

    The concept of porn can be applied to anything. Porn movies might dress up the sex in their movie with a plot and some acting, but the real purpose is to get to the sex scenes. The default usage of porn is for sex, so we don’t say ‘sex porn’. A movie like Hostel puts in some plot and characters, but it’s really about showing brutality and shocking people. Thus, ‘Torture Porn’.

    Porn comes in all the flavors.

  • Anon

    So the author of this thing doesn’t understand the term, does it really deserve a whole writeup like this? “Torture Porn,” you either get it or you don’t.

  • Jim

    Who is this guy kidding? Of course it isn’t porn in the true sense of the definition, but everyone gets the idea; torture porn.

    It’s saying fans of genre get off on watching torture/horror movies. Sheesh, this guy must not have had any inspiration to write when he came up with this stupid defense of mainstream snuff.

  • http://film-book.com Reginald Williams

    You guys are rough. “I like that.” – The Joker, The Dark Knight. But some of you are correct, so correct in fact that I re-examined what I wrote and re-wrote some of it to reflect that.

    @18. Very constructive and informative. Porn does come in all the flavors. My mistake.

  • Emkay

    If this thread’s still awake, I’d just like to add that the root of the word pornography (as if it even matters) is (ISTR) Greek, and means ‘the depiction of prostitutes’ – which, in my view, anyone directing or appearing in mindless torture porn is. More to the point, nobody seems to have picked up on the fact there there are people out there for whom the sight of torture is sexually arousing, whether or not there’s any skin on display. Torture Porn. Yes. Clever moniker for a sick genre.

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