Long has horror been regarded as a fringe genre by the most straight laced of critics and cinephiles. These last few years, the genre has permeated the mainstream, gaining a more immediate acceptance by audiences and critics alike. There remains the elephant in the room, a term that has entered the mainstream lexicon that many in the horror community view as an attack on the genre. Let’s talk about the term “torture porn.”

As defined by the Oxford dictionary:

Torture(noun)- 

  1. The action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or in order to force them to do or say something.
  2. Great physical or mental suffering.
  3. A cause of great physical or mental suffering.

Porn(noun)-

  1. Pornography.
  2. Television programmes, magazine, books, etc. that are regarded as emphasizing the sensuous or sensational aspects of a non-sexual subject and stimulating a compulsive interest in their audience.

When you combine the two words together, it implies that such content was made with the express intent of fulfilling a fetishistic interest in its viewership(not necessarily sexual).  While there may or may not be a demographic of viewers who seek media labeled as torture porn to fulfill such a need, the majority of people who watch such films are not. The term feels more like an attempt to devalue a form of entertainment that many people do not understand.

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While it is true that many of the films that have been labeled torture porn often neglect character development, comprehensive narrative, and tend to lean too heavily on gore and shock value, there are some films who unfairly get lumped in with the lot. Before the franchise became a formulaic cash in, the original Saw movies offered more than violence for violence’s sake. Jigsaw, the serial killer who served as the franchise’s main antagonist, was a compelling villain, seeing himself as a teacher who abhorred violence despite placing individuals in the most elaborate of death traps.

Martyrs, a New French Extremity film about two orphans seeking revenge on a cult who subjects individuals to extreme acts of violence in order to be closer to god, is legendarily hard to watch and one of the most intense movies to be put to film. It subtly touches on a lot of themes such as obsession, revenge, self-torture, guilt, and religion. However, because of how graphic the violence can be it has been labeled as torture porn despite having a poignant and far reaching message. This film is a different type of horror. It does not relish in its sadism. It throws its violence in the audience’s face not to make the viewers a complicit participant, but rather to engage them emotionally.

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Torture can have a meaningful narrative purpose. When you need an obstacle for your characters to overcome or even be defeated by, torture is a good option. It can fundamentally change your characters, whether they survive or not. If a horror film chooses to use that device, it should not be lambasted for being something dirty. While these type of horror movies aren’t my particular cup of tea, people should be able to make and enjoy them without being shamed for doing so. I think the term torture porn should be buried six feet under, and there may it stay.

How do you guys feel about the term “torture porn?” Do any of you enjoy movies that have been given that label? If you don’t enjoy these type of movies, why not? Let me know in the comments below.