For 5-6 years, I’ve taught Jeffrey Cohen’s “Monster Culture” in my classroom in an essay progression focusing on horror film. The unit catered both to my personal credo—that students leave my classroom able to read pop culture forms—and to my love of the horror genre. It fascinates me to no end that the monsters in horror films allow us to assess the cultural and political climate of the time in which it was produced. I am especially intrigued by recent shifts toward “torture porn,” the term coined by Eli Roth regarding Hostel. In these films, great care is taken to depict, as realistically as possible, the inner workings of the human body and how easily it breaks down in catastrophe.
For instance, the Final Destination franchise gives us increasingly convoluted and grisly ways to die, starting with asphyxiation in a shower and progressing toward death by race car tire and escalator belt, each replete with viscera and still-twitching limbs. The Saw franchise, quality-rated by the number of viewers who vomited or had to leave the theater, calls itself psychological horror; in reality it uses torture porn—in the form of mechanical traps reminescent of Rube Goldberg—as a justifiable means to an end. Perhaps at the release of Saw I, the monstrous message was different, but later installments equated traps with pure justice: that is, an individual confronted with a death machine based on his crimes or flaws serves justice unto himself. It’s the old “give him a taste of his own medicine” shtick, only exaggeratedly amplified. The health insurance executive learns how horrible a cost-benefit approach to human life is; the fraudulent self-help guru is forced to undergo the trials he claims to have experienced.
And viewers have picked up on this.Continue reading