American Horror Story and Torture Porn

Last night was Fright Night. I had plans to watch the opening episode of the third season of American Horror Story, a show that despite its disappointingly concluded first season and its at times too-lurid second season still manages to hold considerable promise for me. But I was going to watch Paranormal Activity first; somehow despite the hype, I’ve managed to not see this 2007 sleeper hit.   Watching a commercial-separated movie isn’t great, but it was going to run on F/X from 8-10, at which point American Horror Story would kick off.

Two hours later, after I had finished Paranormal Activity, I was only able to stay awake to catch the opening scenes and title sequence of American Horror Story; the rest was DVR’d for another day. But by then, I had already had occasion to encounter yet another instance of a familiar and problematic aspect of modern horror cinema: torture porn. (The Saw and Hostel franchises made torture-porn a talking point, enough of one to inspire a satirical short video in response; American Horror Story flirted with it in the second season.)

The Wikipedia entry for ‘torture porn’ is filed away under ‘splatter film; this, and the titles listed there suggest a broader understanding for the term that I have in mind. I take ‘torture porn’ to implicate those scenes, story lines, and plot devices that rely explicitly on torture carried out on captives (I’m suspect women are the majority of these prisoners.)

In this form ‘torture porn’ relies on scenes of extreme cruelty inflicted on helpless subjects. It is the contrast of maximal power with minimal that unsettles us so, tapping into primeval fears of inefficacy in the face of a variety of forces: natural, political, economic, animal. In the face of sadistic exertions in those domains, we sense we would experience fear and pain only dimly imagined, the kind that would transform us into whimpering, gibbering cowards, begging for mercy;  its cinematic depictions are then, bound to be disturbing to all but the deeply desensitized.

Torture porn can afford to be simplistic in its work. There is little to no suspense, no build-up of supernatural tension; there is little need for supernatural agencies; indeed, most torture porn relies on humans to do the dirty work – on other humans. Which, of course, is what makes it so disturbing: stories of torture are part of our histories, modern and ancient, and there is no evidence our species has grown any less fond of it over the years. Torture porn might thus enable the blending of two genres of cinema, sometimes taken to be distinct: true-crime and horror. For instance, Snowtown, the story of the John Bunting murders in Australia, could be reckoned a torture porn movie. (It is perhaps a little too sophisticated for that, but still my drift should be clear: torture porn enables us to see how horror lurks in the human.)

Is torture porn morally problematic? That is a large and complex question but at the least, I think many of its offerings are just plain lazy, unwilling to do the hard work of story writing, editing, and atmosphere creation that is usually required to effectively and scarily bring horror to the screen.  That’s as big a sin as any.

Note: Paranormal Activity is a very effective little shocker of a movie; with no torture required to creep us out.

5 comments on “American Horror Story and Torture Porn

  1. […] American Horror Story and Torture Porn (samirchopra.com) […]

  2. mikaelaburke2 says:

    I love AHS and I know the exact scene you’re referring to. Your question of is it morally problematic depends on the person. For instance, take a couple different people and make them watch torture porn, some people may get off on it while others are sickened by supposed mistreatment of another human. Afterwards tell these people that the women involved in the torture porn were not held against their will and they even went to a training course for it. I think what it comes down to is, are the people in the film subjecting themselves to something like that doing something morally wrong? I also feel like that question is asked in the scene of AHS because the woman is directing the situation. That was a really interesting post.🙂

    • Samir Chopra says:

      I’m so sorry I’m replying so late to this post. I agree with your complications – and I suspect that diversity is what makes film-makers use torture porn as much as they do. AHS has used it quite a lot this season, haven’t they?

  3. […] American Horror Story and Torture Porn: This post was quite popular in 2013, and sometimes I wonder if it’s for all the wrong reasons: are people looking for ‘torture porn’? I don’t have any to offer, unfortunately, just some commentary on the cinematic laziness and possibly problematic morals of the genre. […]

  4. […] discomfort. Some kinds of violence have simply become too hard to watch on the screen. (The torture porn of modern horror movies is another example.) Perhaps I have gone old, perhaps I have gone […]

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