Monster Culture, Torture Porn, SENSELESS

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.  

Saw in particular has a rich fan production culture, where users on YouTube create trap scenes in homage to the films.  Some are highly stylized, others highly creative.  “Doing it wrong” isn’t based on production quality but on narrative: the creators of this video, for instance, are reproached for lacking a narrative: “saw isent [sic] about killing inocent [sic] people its [sic] only has people who have killed outhers [sic] that die or survive in it” (Megafinchyboy).  Significantly, films like Final Destination lack the extensive participatory dynamic that Saw has engendered.  While the former chronicles the irrationally cruel and vindictive specter of Death as it persecutes innocent survivors, the latter depicts criminals and/or morally flawed individuals getting their (so-called) just desserts.  The bad guys are punished, and our sense of moral righteousness is appeased.  This lends itself excellently to fan production, and the work that goes into building traps and filming the videos insists that the ideology is culturally sound: an eye for an eye; we only get what we deserve.

The 2008 film Senseless operates under the same elitist, high moral thinking that is ultimately untenable (I want to say Death Note is an exception but my feeling is likely due to its tightly-paced narrative rather than the questionable-at-best ethics of Light/Kira).  The premise is simple: an American businessman named Elliott Gast (Jason Behr), who is part of the international loan system—whereby America loans exorbitant sums to poor countries that cannot repay the debt in order to secure them as allies—is kidnapped for his “crimes” and held hostage in a tiny white-walled suite.  Viewers do not know his crimes at the time of his kidnapping (a few minutes into the film), even though the film begins with a scene from 3/4 of the way in: Gast telling us that we can decide for ourselves whether the punishment merits the crime.

A little heavy-handed in its handling of this idea, the film seems to exist solely to horrify and accuse.  For 1 hr 30 mins, we watch Gast held against his will and tortured in isolation for 40+ days, in a spotless three-room apartment equipped with cameras that track his movements and broadcast his experience in a kind of Internet reality TV show.  Within the film, the same question of ethical spectatorship exists and is put to the fictional viewers watching the broadcast: Should the torturers proceed with the torture or let Gast go?  The votes often overwhelmingly green-light the abuse.  The head torturer is on a quest for ratings as much as he is after making a political statement about America’s corrupt economic stance towards poorer nations (such as his own, though the nation is never specified).

The film does not delve too deeply into the cyberculture element, and not having read Stona Fitch’s novel, I can’t comment on its treatment of the subject.  In the film, however, the focus is on denouncing passive/unethical spectatorship, as Gast denounces the “good” (ethical?) people who aren’t doing enough to save him.  His eyes accuse us as much as they accuse the hordes of 13-year-old boys allegedly swiping credit cards to fund his captors.

What I find most interesting is that the film’s DVD cover advertises it as torture porn, not as the philosophical perspective it is attempting to be: it depicts a bloody spoon in the lower right corner.  On the spoon rests an eyeball.  The tagline: “Removing an eye is easy.  All it takes is a confident man and a coffee spoon” (Senseless).

Gast’s torture, however sadistic, is far from gory a la Saw standards.  He systematically loses his senses, his tongue mutilated, his nostrils burned, his hands soaked in ice water and scraped raw with a cheese grater, his eardrums punctured, and one eye removed with the aforementioned coffee spoon.  There seems to be no reason for the torture, as Gast has nothing to “confess” beyond being part of the system.  (I could draw a parallel to insurance executive William’s trials in Saw VI but I’ll exercise self-restraint.)  As though trying to find a reason for the torture, Gast reflects on his childhood and any wrongdoing he might have committed: stealing $20 from a blind African-American boy is the most prominent memory.

While the torture scenes are not easy to watch, they would bore true gorehounds (I’m thinking Saw, Flower of Flesh and Blood, Cannibal Holocaust, the works).  The DVD packaging designed to appeal to these gorehounds, then, convinces viewers to rent a film for a cheap splatter thrill and tricks them into reflecting on their role as spectators.  We are complicit for watching until the end—but we are just as complicit for looking away.

This being the driving force of the film, I think it’s unfortunate that the Internet broadcast (reality TV show?) was underdeveloped.  Ethical spectatorship and viewer complicity has been addressed in films like Untraceable and Kill With Me, which had a fake website that cast moral judgment depending on a single Yes/No click.  But these films place us with the good guys—the forces trying to dismantle these sites and rescue victims.  The emphasis is hardly the killers’ reasons, and our reasons for watching are clear-cut: we want to see good prevail.

Senseless, however, positions us in the claustrophobic atmosphere Elliott Gast inhabits.  We barely know him as a character before he is kidnapped, simulating moral distance.  But we are outside of what feels like a large part of the plot as well: why this is happening to Gast; why it is happening at all.  The more we try to figure it out with Gast, the less sense it seems to make.  And we are accused, point-blank, of picking up a film that presumably contains graphic images of the body in torment—solely for our entertainment.

I’m not sure what the reminder is.  To fight jadedness and compassion fatigue?  To deny curiosity when curiosity means someone else’s life, even though others are still watching?  That all crimes are equal, all punishments extreme?  That this is cyberculture’s impact on morality and spectatorship?  What does morality look like online?

Inb4 moralfag needs to an hero, but that’s one possible answer right there.

Senseless‘s attempted subversion of the growing torture porn phenomenon is a laudable one, I think, especially in light of the Internet broadcast angle.  Despite its weaknesses (indulgent slow-mo, an underdeveloped ending, etc.), Senseless is surprisingly strong if you can stand it, and I’m impressed by its insistence on interrogating the torture porn genre.  It is exactly because we are entertained by torture for torture’s sake that the very real torture methods utilized in Senseless manage to be so disturbing.

Creative Commons License
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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