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Oh, The Horror: Rise of the torture film

Hana Shafi

One of the most pervasive and totally gross movie trends of the 2000s is the notorious torture film genre—sometimes dubbed “torture porn” or “gorno” (a combination of gore and porno). I may be horror-movie obsessed, but I make it a rule to not watch torture films. They’re the scourge of the horror genre, representing a lack of creativity, dependency on special effects, a creepy desensitization to violence, and some truly grotesque misogyny.

What are torture films? The biggest examples are the Saw and Hostel franchises, and the ever-controversial Human Centipede 1 and 2. However, there are lots of torture films, even among B-grade horror films; it’s a big trend. Remakes of older horror classics seem to always end up nauseatingly gory, bordering on the torture genre. I’ve frequently had the problem of putting on what appears to be a classic slasher, stuck-in-a-house-with-a-serial-killer kind of film, and had it turn out to be a torture film. I immediately switch it off.

First off,  the genre shows a complete lack of creativity. Ghosts and ghouls, hellish dimensions , the iconic images of hockey masks or striped sweaters and fedoras, parasitic otherworldly life forms terrorizing researchers in the Antarctic—now that’s creative. Even the simple black and white silent film Nosferatu changed how we saw vampires forever. That is horror creativity at its finest. Performing surgeries on live people—that’s grotesque. If I wanted to see that, I’d go to one of those bizarre hospital auditorium thingies. If I wanted to see innocent people get brutalized, I can turn on the news. Viewing horror films does have a definite element of sadism, but torture films take that sadism to the extreme.

Torture films are scary, yes. But is being scary the only way we can make good horror? Is profiting on the viewing of extreme pain and suffering healthy for audiences? There’s a difference between paying for creepy thrills and mild psychological scares, and dishing out cash to watch ultra-realistic slicing and dicing of characters wailing in agony. Sure, it’s fictional, but the total desensitization to images of extreme violence is real.

It’s one thing when you’re joking around with your friends cheering for the slasher running ridiculously down the street with an axe and another when people are excitedly taking in graphic scenes of eyeballs being removed and limbs being cut off. Half the time, the freaky part isn’t watching the movie, but knowing that some people are actually truly enjoying this macabre show. I guess some directors figured that the invention of realistic fake blood and advanced special effects meant they could sacrifice good plots, creativity, and subtle, albeit creepy, scares for total violent mayhem.

And on top of that, torture films are notorious for the sexualization of women’s deaths, hence the idea of calling it torture porn. In fact, all horror films are notorious for this, but I see it more deeply in the torture genre, because the women are often tortured whilst naked. Guys die with all their clothes on, women get cut up with their breasts exposed. Guys die in a spree of violence, women are first groped and licked before their horrific demise. Even when explicit scenes of rape are not shown, they are alluded. It bothers me that somewhere, someone out there is getting a sickening adrenaline rush from watching a naked woman undergo brutality.

It doesn’t matter that it’s fictional; it does something to our society. It’s also a direct reflection. Women are brutalized in real life and the murder of women is so frequently accompanied by rape. Patriarchy has normalized this, and film is just as much as a part of that normalization as any other medium. When horror normalizes misogynistic imagery, we internalize it. And if you’re not convinced that we internalize it, then just look at some of the comments and tweets every time there is a news story about a woman getting beaten and raped—hundreds of “she deserved it” and insensitive “jokes.” So despite the fact that this violated and dehumanized character is fictional, I take it personally. As a woman, it feels real to me.

So, excuse me while I impatiently wait for this trend to end. I guess I’m just not into repetitive frames of senseless violence and if that makes me oversensitive, then I’ll gladly be oversensitive rather than utterly desensitized, or worse, salivating over scenes of tortured women. Monsters under the bed, Satan’s spawn, and high-tension slasher chase sequences are more my thing.

Next week I’ll be looking at mental illness in horror films regarding the ever-popular trope of the “psycho” killer and horror’s obsession with psychiatric hospitals.

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