Written by James Steaton-Pritchard

In 1964 the court case of Jacobellis v. Ohio was taken to the supreme court in America in an attempt to prosecute a theatre manager for distributing obscene materials by screening Louis Malle’s The Lovers. The charges were thrown out when the court ruled censorship as unconstitutional, the first amendment was said to cover all but hardcore-porn, and when attempting to define porn the judge wrote “…perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it”. That statement has become the anthem of those defending or decrying the perverted arts ever since.

Then, 42 years later and the New York Times published an article by David Edelstein titled – Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn and a new sub-genre title was thrust upon the public and largely unimpressed horror fandom alike. I have never had a problem with the term personally. I think it gets to the heart of a very specific sub-genre, but completely understand the view that a lot of people take, that this term is disrespectful, reductive and insulting to a genre which has always been creatively pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable for public consumption.  

Horror has been plagued by this catchy moniker ever since it’s appearance on the scene fourteen years ago, but gore and violence have always been a staple of the genre. So the big questions are; does the term really belong in a world where cinematic sensibilities are forever progressing and growing? Is pornography as reductive a classification as people perceive, and what harm can terms like these have on public perception of the audiences who enjoy them? 

It’s a commonly wheeled out observation, that a hunger for viewing gore and violence seems to be an innate human trait that satisfies all manner of evolutionary psychological buttons. Public executions used to draw crowds out in their droves back in ye olde times looking for the cathartic release of aggression it delivered. Since then, every art form imaginable has depicted grotesque torture in some form. Blood-drenched paintings litter art history and Dante’s Inferno frequently relishes in describing any number of gruesome eternal punishments, all in the name of proselytising the author’s religious and political beliefs.

Un Chien Andalou 1929 An Andalousian Dog Luis Bunuel Salvador Dali

Extreme horror progressed through such mediums as the Grand Guignol theatre of Paris in the 1900s before finding it’s way onto film as early as 1929. The eyeball cutting scene from Chien D’Andalou is still among one of the most iconic shots of extreme gore ever captured on film and still shocks audiences today. From then, the art of the disgusting continued to evolve through the works of Herschell Gordon Lewis and Pasolini’s Salo, through to the Asian extremes of the 80s and 90s, before the 00s ran with the ball, kicking off the New French Extremity movement and the rise of American torture set-piece cinema. 

When David Edelstein used the term in his 2014 think piece, he did so as a derogatory reaction after watching Hostel, and although the term has long outgrown its origins, its impact and stigma still resonate throughout cinema. Looking back, there are a number of unsettling red flags in the article which call into question Edelstein’s point of view. He holds up The Devil’s Rejects, Saw, Wolf Creek and The Passion of the Christ as his prime examples, before decrying that, unlike in 80s slashers where victims were void of personality and mere fodder for the killer “…the victims here are neither interchangeable nor expendable. They range from decent people with recognizable human emotions to, well, Jesus.” which seems to suggest he can’t get his head around feeling sympathy for horror movie victims. He is arguing these modern films are pornographic before then stating he doesn’t want to have to humanise the soon-to-be-dismembered. Dehumanisation is the greatest criticism raised at pornography and the absence of it in Torture Porn is apparently his whole problem. The schadenfreude which slashers provide by showing vacuous teen campers getting torn apart by a masked killer being replaced by genuine humanity and emotional connection is apparently too much to handle, “I didn’t understand why I had to be tortured, too. I didn’t want to identify with the victim or the victimizer.” 

It’s also hard to go without raising the fact that the article also contains the question “Is there a masochistic as well as a sadistic component to the mayhem? In the same way that some women cut themselves (they say) to feel something…” Maybe it was the overreaching of a reactionary journalist looking to shock an audience, the irony of which I hope isn’t lost, but it says something that the most stomach-churning moment in an article decrying obscenity is a sexist statement devoid of empathy by the journalist themself.

Traces of Death 1993 extreme disturbing horror movie

I guess it’s easy to tear apart a fourteen-year-old article written by a middle-aged film critic, butt-hurt about being forced to sit through another gore-filled hour and a half, but there is a certain amount of validity to some of his views. Hostel is a movie which openly and explicitly draws a connection between sex-work, pornography and violent torture. It’s a movie which depicts acts of torture and porn, asking the audience to consider how they consume and exploit human bodies for entertainment. 

Also, he’s right, there is a certain element of masochism in the brains of a lot of extreme horror fans, he just could have worded it much better. The drive to forever push your own boundaries as a viewer is the same one that drives the filmmakers. Maybe it is a form of cinematic self-flagellation to sit through scenes that are objectively disgusting, but it’s a process which can be fortifying and cathartic.

Probably the most glaringly obvious argument for the misnomer of Torture Porn is, it’s not real. Hardcore pornography would be very strange and unsatisfying if there wasn’t at least some degree of genuine sexual intercourse going on, in whatever shape or form that might be. Conversely, if a horror movie was real it would be a crime. More than that though, fans of extreme horror are able to simultaneously hold the opposing views at the same time that an on-screen act is both horrific and synthetic. It’s something we all do when taking in any form of fiction, but maybe horror fans are more attuned to suspend disbelief and revel in the facade at the same time. 

That’s not to say there aren’t people who push the gore envelope that one step further and indulge in videos of real-world blood and guts. Reality gore sites can easily tempt those whose curiosity isn’t satiated by prosthetics and fx. It’s not just slowing down as you drive by a car crash but driving extra miles just to see one. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I pull out my phone and google image search every time The Last Podcast on the Left told me there were some gory serial killer victim photos to be found online, hell, I’ve even watched Traces of Death, but these are historical documents (to be incredibly generous).  The line is crossed when someone creates some original real-life pain for the sake of entertainment. I will, as the vast majority do, always caveat my love of Cannibal Holocaust with an “apart from the animal abuse bits”. The only film I have ever turned off and refused to go back to, for reasons of disgust and not taste, to date is Squirmfest (1989). A film which Torture Porn describes pretty well.

Another important element is the impact extreme horror has on its audience in comparison to porn. Porn has been heavily blamed for the modern perception and expectations of sex, and as much as people may argue it is a sign of the degeneration of society, torture porn does not do the same for violence and human empathy. PornHub has arguably done more to endanger the safety of modern society than the Saw franchise or A Serbian Film ever could. Porn often promises a chance for fantasy fulfilment where horror is the fulfilment itself. 

I am by no means looking down on pornography at all. Far from it, porn’s great, but there is also a greater challenge in assuring disbelief is dropped back to the ground after being suspended for the length of a Kink video. Responsible BDSM porn will go to lengths to depict the consent and level of role-play needed when performing more “dangerous” sex, horror movies by their very existence, side-step the need for it. No-one truly believes they would see a real death in their local Cineworld.

Hostel wasn’t the last movie to investigate the link between sex-work and torture too. Snuff 102 (2007) and Red Room (2019) continue the legacy, pushing subtlety even further out of the window when marrying snuff, sex-slavery and the privileged upper class’ dehumanizing capitalist nature. Pete Cashmore in The Guardian even went so far as to ask “Will this new movie kill off torture porn for good?” after seeing A Serbian Film (the answer to which was no, of course), another film which depicts blurred borders between pornography and violence but never expecting it to appeal in a pornographic way. 

Japanese Guinea Pig films extreme cinema The Devil's Experiment

Torture Porn is a term which isn’t going anywhere soon, but it will hopefully be reserved more rightly for films which genuinely indulge in torture for the sake of its own indulgence. For a long while, any movie with a touch of extreme violence has been tarred with the Torture Porn brush, marring the entire film for what may be a tiny minority of the running time. This isn’t the case for a sex scene in a drama, it doesn’t get classified as porn. The Guinea Pig films, both the originals and American collections have entries which are arguably very deserving of the brand. Mostly plotless and depicting torture and dismemberment for extended periods of time for the sake of a prosthetic artists flex. Even the later Saw movies which became more and more about the traps and pain than the twisting plot were arguably deserving of being called Torture Porn. 

The line between pornography and art will forever be in debate and “Torture Porn” will always be in the back pocket of anyone looking to insult a horror movie they think lacks any artistic merit. Rarely with any real justification. Regardless, horror will continue to push boundaries, and peoples buttons as a result. Let’s face it, if it’s pissing someone off, it’s probably doing something right.

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