Monash University
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"Want to play a game?" torture porn, violence, media convergence and spectatorship

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posted on 2017-02-17, 02:27 authored by Frost, Craig Robert
This thesis examines the contemporary American horror cinematic subgenre torture porn. Consisting of titles such as "Hostel" (2005), "Saw" (2004) and "Captivity" (2007), films belonging to this label have been critically and morally reproached for their graphic and realistic depictions of torture and violence. Despite these negative critiques, the films have proven to be commercially successful, with some titles becoming the highest grossing films within the horror genre’s history. In this thesis, I take a multidisciplinary approach to understanding this contemporary phenomenon of popular culture. In the first half of the thesis, I engage with the criticism surrounding this subgenre of films. I interrogate why they have been popular with audiences both inside the cinema and through new technological platforms that remediate the narratives into new forms of entertainment. As these films all feature ‘set pieces’ in which the central focus is the depiction of the human body in pain, what I find interesting is how they continue the tradition of the spectacle of violence featured throughout the history of popular Hollywood cinema. Although prevalent academic discourse on these films posits them as emblematic of post-9/11 anxiety, this thesis provides an alternative reading that focuses on how audiences engage with fictional acts of violence and torture as a pleasurable experience. I do not deny that torture porn draws on cultural anxieties; they clearly imbue subtexts indicative of the cultural and political landscapes that reflect their period of production. However, the focus in this thesis is how the films’ distinct depiction of violent spectacle, or what will be conceptualised as the set piece, seeks to engage the spectator by locating the source of pleasure in what Linda Williams calls the “on/scene” (“Porn Studies” 3). That is, how these films invite audiences to test their ability to witness acts of fictional violence carried out on the human body. This feature, I argue, elicits a mode of engagement that can be thought of as being the cinematic equivalent to riding a rollercoaster. The latter half of this thesis examines how the phenomenon of torture porn expands beyond the cinema, converging with other multimedia platforms. The films in this subgenre are being remediated – where the film content is remade through different media – to produce new experiences of interactivity and consumption. This shift away from the cinematic experience to other sites forges a new experience of pleasure for the spectator, whether this is experienced at the live theme-park attraction where traps from the "Saw" franchise are brought to life, on social networking sites and video games, or on the television. I argue that this extension of the cinema can be charted from the inception of cinema as a source of technological attraction through to the current advancement of new media technologies and interactive sites of engagement. This new form of digital entertainment and engagement positions torture porn as a contemporary popular phenomenon through these new modes of aligning spectacle, pleasure and interactivity for public consumption.


Principal supervisor

Therese Davis

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

School of English, Communications and Performance Studies


Doctor of Philosophy

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Faculty of Arts

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