This week’s cult conversation is with Steve Jones, author of the excellent Torture Porn: Popular Horror After Saw, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Steve’s scholarship is rigorous and bold, and to cap it all off, he is also a wonderful human being. In the following interview, we get into the torture porn fiasco, the state of contemporary indie horror, queries about the constitution of fandom, and other topics. I thoroughly enjoyed debating with Steve, and I hope you all enjoy this installment of Cult Conversations.
Your debut monograph examines the so-called ‘torture porn’ cycle of the noughties. How would you describe the torture porn phenomenon to someone who would like to learn more? Is it a coherent genre, for example? Or more akin to what Jason Mittell describes as discursive or a “cultural category”?
‘Torture porn’ is a label coined and propagated by journalists, which is used to describe a body of mainstream (theatrically released) films, mainly horror films. The journalists who championed the term considered ‘torture porn’ films to contain “extreme” depictions of violence. The films referred to – including Saw, Hostel and The Human Centipede – typically focus on protagonists being held captive against their wills.
The label ‘torture porn’ carries various connotations. ‘Torture’ refers to the physical trials the characters undergo. Sometimes the characters are expressly tortured (as in Hostel). On other occasions, the characters suffer as they attempt to escape from the antagonists. The term ‘torture’ also implies that the films are arduous to watch. Press critics referred to feeling like they were being “tortured” because they were “forced” to endure these films as part of their jobs. The term ‘porn’ also carries multiple connotations. In one respect, it stems from a contemporaneous discursive trend of referring to any “gratuitous” depiction as ‘porn’; e.g. social media posts depicting close-ups of delicious meals are described as ‘food porn’. The implication here is that ‘torture porn’ films focus on violence or gore in such detail or in such a prolonged way as to be gratuitous or unnecessary. A second connotation is that these films are ‘porn’ because they focus on sexual violence (which, broadly speaking, is false). A third connotation is that the antagonists “get off” on torturing the protagonists. A fourth is that the audience for these films find the torture sexually gratifying, and/or that the filmmakers encourage audiences to take sexual pleasure in watching others suffer (again, the films provide scant evidence to support this stance). Thus, ‘porn’ suggests that these mainstream horror movies are morally bankrupt, perverse and corrupting. In sum, ‘torture porn’ was used to disparage these films.
‘Torture porn’ isn’t a subgenre per se. The diverse films referred to as ‘torture porn’ were artificially brought together under that banner by critics. In trying to make sense of the trend, I identified that the films dubbed ‘torture porn’ shared the common traits of a) belonging to the horror or violent thriller genres, and b) depicting protagonists trying to escape from confined locations, but they have little else in common.
It is my hope that the term will eventually be co-opted by fans. Roughly the same connotations surrounded the terms ‘slasher’ and ‘video nasty’, and both have subsequently been accepted by fans. At present, the label still seems to carry negative overtones, which is a shame given that many of these films are worthy of serious consideration. Although the production bubble burst around 2012, numerous horror/thriller films are still being made that would have been swept up in the press furore if they had been released a decade ago.
Can you talk more about these ‘negative overtones’ in press discourse in relation to Torture Porn? What “common traits belonging to the horror or violent thriller genres” do you see as significant in genealogical terms? Can you give any examples of films that historically share these “common traits”?
This is necessarily sweeping – I spend three chapters setting this up in the book – but broadly speaking, the negative discourse suggests the following (and I dispute each of these characterisations):
Torture porn is unique because the films comprised of graphic, gory, realistic, sadistic violence
Torture porn films offer little in the way of narrative and characterisation, because they are concerned only with violence, bloodshed and suffering
Torture porn filmmakers seek to out-do each other, creating ever-gorier depictions in order to shock
Since torture porn films offer nothing but violence and shock, torture porn’s pleasures are one-dimensional
By encouraging viewers to take sadistic sexual pleasure in watching others suffer, torture porn erodes moral values
Thus, torture porn is at best culturally worthless, and at worst genuinely endangers the populace. Thus, torture porn’s creators are greedy and irresponsible
And anyone who willingly consumes these films is mentally deficient, perverse, and/or culturally undiscerning.
Re: the second question, and “the films dubbed ‘torture porn’ shared the common traits of a) belonging to the horror or violent thriller genres, and b) depicting protagonists trying to escape from confined locations” - what I meant is this:
When I wrote the book, 45 films had been called ‘torture porn’ in three or more separate articles in major English language news publications. I looked at those films to work out what the narratives had in common (so that I could pin down what critics saw as the defining features of ‘torture porn’). There are very few traits that all 45 have in common. One is that all 45 films are either horror films or violent thrillers. The second is that in all 45 films, protagonists are depicted trying to escape from confined locations.
What sparked your interest in the phenomenon? Did it emanate from your own fandom? Or was it developed through academic interest first and foremost?
My interest was initially sparked by seeing films such as Saw and the 2003 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, both of which I enjoyed. I wrote several pieces on films that were described as ‘torture porn’, and the opportunity arose to write the book when Palgrave expressed an interest in the theme. It was only then that I started to reflect on the press discourse and that these films were being called ‘torture porn’. Prior to that, I had ignored the label as just another attempt by the press to disparage horror, based on taste judgements and press critics’ insufficient knowledge of the genre. My interest in the press discourse came about as part of contextualising the book, and trying to understand what the critics using the term were objecting to.
I consume horror in my leisure time, and I have done since I was a kid. That relationship with horror precedes my academic interest in the genre (which only began with my PhD). For me, the two modes of engaging with horror – as academic and as consumer – are different. They are intertwined inasmuch as I find the genre intellectually rewarding; it routinely challenges my pre-conceptions, and I return to the genre because I enjoy that challenge. Many of my academic articles originated from that kind of initial stimulation. However, my enjoyment is not itself academically significant, so it doesn’t play much of a role in my academic work. I begin my academic writing with the assumption that the reader either does not know or does not care about the films I am referring to. I also frequently write about films that I did not enjoy and would not endorse to other consumers. Even though I follow the genre personally and professionally, I don’t really consider myself a fan. I don’t identify with the kind of enthused devotion to the genre that fanaticism suggests. I have certainly defended the genre as an academic, but I don’t think of my work as celebrating horror.
I agree wholeheartedly that your work does not celebrate the horror genre. Like the best academic work, be it in horror, cult or fan studies, one can certainly study something that they love without championing or celebrating the genre. But if I may challenge you on the idea that fandom equals “fanaticism”—a highly problematic description—and that this means you do not identify as a ‘fan’ per se. In your previous statement, you emphasize a strong binary between academic and consumer. I don’t mean to suggest that being a consumer of horror and cult media means that your academic identity and research is therefore contaminated in some way—although I would say that the binary between academic/consumer is often much more fluid and dialectical than this kind of semiotic splitting.
Regarding ‘fanaticism’, I'm going by the etymology of ‘fan’ (an abbreviation of ‘fanatic’), so I didn’t consider it a controversial connection. I'm not trying to imply that fanaticism is negative, just that it implies a degree of enthused celebration that I don’t identify in my personal engagements with horror. Perhaps ‘consumer’ isn’t strong enough to describe my bias towards horror over other genres, but I can’t think of another term that captures the extent to which habit drives my engagement with the genre. I look out for new horror films being added to Netflix or new Blu-ray horror releases, and those practices are at least partially the product of routine. Obviously there is nothing unique about that, I'm just trying to pin down the distinction between my engagement with horror compared with the level of celebration and enthusiasm exhibited by people who attend horror conventions, queue to get autographs, have multiple tattoos of their favourite films and so forth. It seems like those individuals are getting something more out of the genre than I do, or are exhibiting their enjoyment of the genre in a way that I don’t. To me, those individuals are fans, and to call myself a fan would be to do a disservice to the cultural practices that those individuals engage in.
Hopefully that distinction will help to explain my other comments about academic and personal engagement. I'm not trying to posit a complete split between my personal engagement with horror and my academic engagement. As I say, there are ways in which they are intertwined. What I'm trying to capture is that (to me, at least), fandom connotes celebration. There are films I love, but I don’t write academic work based on that enjoyment. Again, just as an attempt to pin down what I mean, I have heard some other academics making this kind of statement – ‘I just saw [film x], I loved it, I need to write something about it’ – with the implication that they enjoyed the film as a consumer and want to express their enjoyment of the film via academic writing, even though they don’t yet have a formulated idea on which to base their argument. To be clear, I don’t see anything wrong with that approach. I'm not suggesting that this amounts to intellectualising one’s enjoyment (although I'm sure that does happen). I'd guess that if the individual does write something based on this starting point, they dig into the film to capture and articulate whatever they enjoyed about it. I surge to approach films in that way because it doesn’t cross my mind to write unless I have a grip on the idea/argument. I often think ‘I just saw [film x], and it got me thinking about [idea y]: I might write about [idea y]’. It doesn’t matter whether I enjoyed [film x], what matters is that I have [idea y]. If I only have ‘I just saw [film x], I loved it’, then the trail just ends there.
I hope that clarifies the distinction I'm making when I say that my enjoyment as a consumer doesn’t play much of a role in my academic work.
Your statement about torture porn still carrying “negative overtones” seems like a defence of the films grouped arbitrarily beneath that banner. It is, as you remarked, “a shame given that many of these films are worthy of serious consideration.” In essence, is this not a kind of defensive measure against entertainment journalists’ penchant for ‘disparaging’ the genre?
As I say, I have defended horror – and torture porn in particular – against disparagement. Those defences are about acknowledging the value or cultural significance of a film or set of films in face of negation of that value or significance. That project is distinct from celebration, and the defence does not necessitate enjoyment.
How would you describe your attachment to, say, A Nightmare on Elm Street? Do you collect cult objects, whether blu-ray/ DVD, posters and other memorabilia? Rather than being a fan of the horror genre in general terms, would you identify as a fan, or perhaps some other appellation, of a limited range of texts/ franchises/ objects? Or are you arguing that you have no affective attachment to the texts and objects you study in your academic pursuits?
A Nightmare on Elm Street is my favourite film inasmuch as I’ve seen it many more times than any other film, and my enjoyment of it has lasted nearly 30 years. I have various objects associated with the film – an autographed picture of Robert Englund, a replica glove, Freddy figures, and so forth – but these were all bought for me by people who know that I like the film. I don’t recall buying anything like that for myself. I own multiple copies of the film, not because I collect them, but because access to the film and formats have changed; e.g. I bought a DVD to replace my VHS, then bought a Blu-ray to replace my DVD. I have bought versions of the films to access various extra features (commentaries, documentaries, behind the scenes FX footage), as well as various books and documentaries about the film series. The latter is the strongest expression of my fandom. I don’t own anywhere near as much paraphernalia for any other film or series. It still seems like such low-level engagement that I'm reluctant to call myself a fan: I feel like a “Fred Head” (as the really devoted fans are called) would scoff at the idea that my engagement is sufficient to be considered “real” fandom. I have referred to myself as an ‘Elm Street nerd’ occasionally, so maybe that is a better appellation.
My personal attachment to A Nightmare on Elm Street meant that I had ample documentary material to draw on when writing about the series, but my engagement with the supplementary materials was different when looking at it for research compared with pleasure or personal interest. I have been considering writing something on Elm Street for a while, mainly because it seemed wasteful that I was not using the knowledge I’d accumulated about the series. Without the idea, however, I was stuck.
I'm certainly not suggesting that I have no attachment to the films I write about as an academic. Rather I'm suggesting that my personal enjoyment of a film and my professional engagement with the same film are distinct in ways that I find to be significant. My academic engagement with films neither augments nor diminishes my enjoyment of them. My personal enjoyment does not help me to write academically about films.
You have also written about one of the most transgressive films of the new millennium, and perhaps one that makes popular ‘torture porn’ films, such as Saw and Hostel, seem vanilla in comparison—that is, Fred Vogel’s August Underground (2001). I admit that I have not yet seen the film or its sequels as I was put off by descriptions from scholars and friends, many of whom cautioned me about viewing the film (and I have pretty strong stomach for horror!). What are your thoughts about August Underground? Does it fit into the discursive category of ‘torture porn’? Is there a moral dimension that should be considered in scholarly terms? What do you think the objectives of the filmmakers might be? And do you think the film has a right to exist?
In terms of plot, August Underground is comparable to torture porn insofar as depicts individuals being held captive and being tortured. However, August Underground’s focus is almost exclusively on the antagonists. In contrast to torture porn, the audience does not get to know much about the captives, and the film does not follow their attempts to escape. I personally find August Underground interesting, but it is intentionally “aggressive” towards the audience. It isn’t for everyone, and it doesn’t strike me as being designed to entertain. If you are cautious based on the description, then avoid it; it is almost certainly exactly what you are imagining, except it also contains long-periods where nothing happens. Although it is seldom mentioned (because the violence is so attention-grabbing), much of the running time is spent on the killers driving around, engaging in mundane leisure pursuits. By design, August Underground is as tedious as it is harassing, and that adds to the realism. The monotonous sections are important to the film’s structure, leaving space to process the horror. Vogel’s intention, as I understand it from interviews, was to create the most realistic looking snuff-style film he could. The image is intentionally degraded to look like a n-th generation VHS copy of home camcorder footage, with no hint as to its origins. If one were to watch it on an unlabelled VHS with no prior knowledge about the footage or where it has come from, one would be forgiven for believing the murders to be genuine. Elsewhere I’ve argued that the combination of fictionality and realism encourages viewers to reflect on the ethical implications of what it might be like to encounter genuine snuff (not that such a thing exists) or atrocity footage more generally.
I don’t believe that any film has a right to exist, so August Underground has as much claim to that right any other movie. As far as the moral dimensions are concerned, August Underground is a work of fiction made by consenting adults. The production itself does not raise unique moral concerns (i.e. the same concerns apply to fiction filmmaking in general). The content intentionally flouts taboos, but again the same moral concerns apply much more broadly. I don’t hold a particular moral objection to taboo-flouting in art, although I appreciate that some people will find August Underground offensive or tasteless. I do not see any evidence that the film is, for instance, a form of hate speech directed towards a particular individual or set of people. In that regard, I do not consider the film’s subject matter to be morally problematic, even though the fictional characters in the film commit immoral acts (all of which are contrived).
There are legal considerations relating to distributing (and purchasing) the film internationally even though it is fictional, and these carry attendant ethical considerations. If the film were circulated on unmarked VHS tapes – and this is rumoured to be one of August Underground’s early marketing techniques – then the film’s realism and taboo-flouting content may raise other problems. The film is so realistic that if stripped of context, a viewer might reasonably consider the crimes represented to be genuine. One could imagine a situation in which police time was wasted investigating the footage, for example, and I would have a moral problem with that diversion of resources. Moreover, it could seriously disturb an unwitting viewer, although I suspect that such viewers would turn it off almost immediately. Filmmakers are responsible for creating a set of images, and viewers are primarily responsible for deciding which images they consume. That relationship is problematised if the film were circulated without adequate contextualisation (on an unmarked VHS, for example). In that case, the person distributing the tape (whether that is the filmmaker or another party) would act irresponsibly in leaving the footage in public places. I'm stretching the point, but it is nevertheless a consideration given that the film certainly circulated in bootleg forms among horror collectors (I first encountered it in 2003 via a bootleg DVD rip with only the title written on it).
In press discourse, there are currently many claims being made about the resurgence of horror in cinema and that we are experiencing a new ‘golden age’ for the genre. Do you think this is true?
Pretty much any financial and critical success within the genre is cause for celebration given that horror is so frequently denigrated. I see little evidence that we are in some kind of ‘golden age’, however, at least in the press’s understanding of the genre. Horror is a financially successful genre on the whole (usually because the films are relatively cheap to make). Its visibility in the theatrical context tends to come in peaks and troughs, so I don’t find the current peak especially remarkable. The critical success of films such as Get Out, It Comes at Night, A Quiet Place and so forth again is nothing new per se, and nor are critics’ attempts to suggest that these are “elevated” or “post-” horror films. The same modes of thinking surrounded movies such as The Shining, for instance. The discourse about a ‘golden age’ is driven by press critics who ignore so much of the work being produced within the genre, particularly lower-budget horror. Some of that work is making a much more significant contribution to the genre than these critically lauded theatrical releases are. Much of the ‘golden age’ work is not especially interesting or inventive. For example, although it is well-made, It Comes at Night re-treads ground that should be extremely familiar to most followers of horror. I can only presume that the critics who lauded it as original and fresh haven’t seen many zombie movies and so could not perceive how derivative it is. That said, if It Comes at Night’s critical success helps other horror filmmakers to secure funding, then that is great. If funders and distributors are emboldened to take risks on lower-budget or new filmmakers because of critical and financial successes within the genre, then I'm all for talk of a ‘golden age’.
Has the ‘torture porn’ cycle ended? What do you think of contemporary horror cinema? And what are your thoughts about current cycles, trends and so forth?
As a period of heightened production, the torture porn bubble burst around 2012. However, numerous films continue to be released each year that fit the remit, including Hounds of Love (2016), Escape Room (2017), and most prominently Jigsaw (2017). The press still use the term quite regularly. Various films (such as mother!) have been referred to as torture porn in reviews, and uses of the term in major English-language world publications has not dipped below 100 uses per year since 2006. I won’t say too much more as I have a short chapter about the current state and future of torture porn coming out in an edited collection soon. Suffice it to say that there are plenty such films still being produced, even if they aren’t attracting the same level of negative press (because they are mainly DTV releases). I'm sure there will be a torture porn resurgence at some point.
We are in an odd moment horror-wise. Many of the recent major cycles – remakes, found-footage, zombies, supernatural movies like Insidious – are rolling along but are somewhat played-out. Overt socio-political horror such as the Purge series and Get Out seem to be enjoying some success given the fractious climate, but we also don’t really need political reality represented via horror right now. Twitter is full of people proclaiming that we are living in the end-times, so I don’t know that we’ll see a massive boom in socially-conscious horror. It is just as likely that we’ll see the rise of silly, fun escapist horror, or a continuation of the nostalgia of “classic” screenings (including quite recent “classics”).
Indie horror is looking great at the moment, and that area doesn’t receive anywhere near as much attention as it should. Digital technology is helping filmmakers to create remarkably good-looking films for next to nothing. 15 years ago, microbudget features essentially looked like amateur home videos. Now, even Steven Soderbergh is shooting horror on an iPhone 7. The formal differences between low and moderately budgeted horror are becoming harder to spot in horror-drama (films that are not FX-heavy), and I hope that results in more viewers giving lower budget films a chance. Streaming platforms like Shudder and Amazon Prime are also helping to put an array of films in front of consumers. Browsing through cover images and plot blurbs on Prime video is the closest experience I’ve had to the glory-days of video rental stores, and the stakes for a “bad rental” are so low now. That might mean people turn off very quickly – I’ve found myself abandoning films on Netflix that I would have made myself sit through had I rented the same film on DVD – but it may also mean that hidden gems are discovered by larger audiences.
Steve Jones is Head of Media in the department of Social Sciences at Northumbria University, England, as well as Adjunct Research Professor in Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa. His research principally focuses on sex, violence, ethics and selfhood within horror and pornography. He is the author of Torture Porn: Popular Horror after Saw (2013) and the co-editor of Zombies and Sexuality. His work has been published in Feminist Media Studies, Sexuality & Culture, Sexualities, and Film-Philosophy. He is also on the editorial board of Porn Studies. For more information, please visit www.drstevejones.co.uk