A National Nightmare

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Torture porn as a reaction to real world atrocity.

I am about to tell you something that will not make the travel guides: do not think about Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005/2006) while in Amsterdam. If you are an American traveling with friends, once you begin to think about Hostel, you do not stop thinking about Hostel. It does not matter that Amsterdam is one of the safest cities. It will not stop you from thinking about the Achilles tendon scene in a cafe while eating stroopwafel. Hostel will just be there ruining sugary goodness. But why?

Hostel is about two male college students who get kidnapped while backpacking across Europe. The kidnappers are a group of wealthy Europeans who pay to torture unsuspecting tourists as a type of ultra-rich, low tech, Westworld-style vacation package. For some corporate Buffalo Bills, golfing in Scotland is too nouveau riche, so instead they join the Elite Hunting Club to maim and murder people. You say Viking River cruise; I say Leatherface bloodlust weekend. To-may-toes. To-mah-toes.

As I have stated before, genres live, die, and sometimes evolve. The slasher is no exception. In 2006, David Edelstein, a film reviewer for New York Magazine, expressing distaste for the subgenre used the term “torture porn” to describe films that blend graphic violence and eroticism within the familiar slasher film narrative beats. David Lockwood recognized that, like slasher films, torture porn narratives revolve around:

“The attempts of an abducted character or characters to survive an ordeal…at the hands of their tormentor(s)…Central to the entertainment is the spectacle of young adults, frequently bound or otherwise restrained and often, but not always, female, subjected to an ingenious range of lurid torture procedures and devices in dismal subterranean settings.”

Torture porn plays by the same gory rulebook. A group of unsuspecting victims (read: young, at least mildly attractive, no common sense) gets kidnapped, isolated, and tortured; some die, and one lives. Eli Roth’s Hostel serves as a prime example of this torture porn slasher because it sensationalizes the traditional slasher conventions of the “final girl,” the killer, the terrible place, archaic weaponry, and the notion of the victim. Additionally, it contains visual and narrative aspects of a slasher while not shying away from addressing its political context.

Like the slasher, torture porn takes erotic pleasure in violence against women and features a resilient survivor or final girl. Hostel differs from its contemporaries because it features violence against men by men. The main characters of the film are all male: American backpackers Josh and Paxton and their Icelandic friend, Oli. It is eventually Paxton who becomes Hostel’s final boy. Similar to a traditional final girl, Paxton struggles for his survival. Paxton gets maimed. Paxton comes face to face with “the killer” and is mentally shaken. Paxton, like so many other final survivors in horror, uses a mixture of clever evasion and manipulation of his captors to survive. Through making the final girl a final boy, the expectations of the audience are manipulated and subverted. A horror audience familiar with slashers expects that there will be a final survivor. Roth gives them one but not without drawing upon a method from the proto-slasher film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

As Carol J. Clover stated in The Dread of Difference, “a figurative or functional analysis of the slasher begins with the processes of the point of view and identification.” Like Psycho, Hostel shifts perspective abruptly within the middle of the narrative from that of Josh to Paxton. From the start of the film, Roth codes Paxton’s timid friend Josh with characteristics similar to that of a final girl. Traditionally, (1) the “final girl” is the only character rendered in great detail, (2) she represses her sexuality, and (3) survives.

If a final girl is anything, she is chaste. Final girls represent subdued sexuality juxtaposed to the promiscuity of her friends. As Rick Worland points out in his book The Horror Film: An Introduction observes the final girl is characterized by chastity while “constant devotion to illicit sex, illegal drugs, and general adolescent irresponsibility became the hallmarks of slasher victims.” At one point, Josh is placed into a room with a prostitute and is unable to bring himself to have sex with her. Josh claims his unwillingness to bed the prostitute is a combination of high morals and a recent failed relationship. Contrast to Josh’s friends who not only sleep with the prostitute but pay to watch another patron in sadomasochistic play. Like a traditional final girl, Josh is prudish by comparison. Josh wants to museum tour rather than partake in illicit sex and drug use. Paxton and Oli regularly enjoy both.

Reluctance to have sex is not the only thing that marks Josh’s difference. Josh’s sexuality becomes a key plot point after an encounter he, Paxton, and Oli have with an elderly man on a train through the Dutch countryside. After chatting with the three backpackers for a few moments, the elderly man begins to caress Josh’s leg. Josh’s reaction is that of embarrassment and a forced repulsion, this provokes a viewer to identify Josh as being gay. Josh’s homosexuality is more explicitly dealt with later on in the film when that same elderly man from the train saves Josh from a group of violent children. In the conversation following Josh’s rescue, the elderly man informs Josh that he does not have to lie about his sexuality. The elderly man appears to be imparting his knowledge about the problematic existence of denying one’s sexuality from personal experience as he states: “When I was young, I thought I had to have a family. Now, things are different for people your age.” Josh does not take his elderly mentor seriously and later sleeps with one of the hostel’s many attractive (and ultimately deadly) patrons, Natalya. This choice eventually proves a misjudgment as Natalya works for the Elite Hunting Club. Josh, although coded as a final girl, dies for a very male slasher reason: as Clover states, “[in slasher films] boys die… not because they are boys but because they make mistakes.” Josh has made a mistake and genre conventions dictate he must die.

The audience is urged to identify with Josh visually and emotionally. That connection is severed through Josh’s death. The scene wherein Josh is tortured and killed opens with a point of view shot from the perspective of a hooded Josh. The audience is Josh; Josh dies. Suddenly, the audience has no one to identify with. Paxton fills the void.

Paxton, the text’s true final boy, is guilty of the same mistakes as his friend Josh, perhaps even to a greater extent, yet he lives. Paxton survives through a mixture of luck and ingenuity. After the viewer becomes aware that Natalya and her friend are accomplices to the Elite Hunting Club, the women begin to refer to Paxton as “the American.” All characters that are involved with the Elite Hunting Club refer to him as American. Paxton’s American origin becomes a cipher for his impending doom and, like Josh’s homosexuality, marks him as different. For example, when Paxton goes to the local police with his concerns about his missing friend, the police officer merely asks him where he is from. Paxton responds that he is from California, the Dutch officer responds, “You’re so far from home.” His distance from home and the European location of the film imply a level of xenophobia and otherness within the narrative. One can argue that the reason Paxton and his friends are tortured is that they have ventured into a land in which they are unwelcome. The notion of alienation from local culture and isolation, as a result, are present within the narrative as language barriers between characters emerge as roadblocks to survival. One of the reasons Paxton lives is his ability to speak German. Paxton’s torturer specifically requests that his captive is American. Paxton’s captor does not want to hear pained pleas of mercy in his native German. Paxton, who has proven apt in speaking the notoriously difficult Icelandic, can speak German. This causes his captor to gag him and subsequently un-gag Paxton when he begins to vomit in pain, fear and agony. The pool of Paxton’s vomit becomes the basis for his survival. Thus it is not sexual repression that saves Hostel’s final boy but cultural knowledge.

Hostel’s final boy signifies cultural interloping. It is Paxton who complains that “Amsterdam is full of Americans.” The only time in which Paxton’s American-ness becomes important is when he is chosen for slaughter. Roth uses Josh, Paxton, and Oli as cyphers for American travelers and their abuse of foreign land and custom. In a way, the torture den of the Elite Hunting Club’s layout is not too dissimilar to the brothel the group visits. Each features a narrow hallway lined with dark rooms, as well as men who will not be sharing details of their activities with their wives or husbands back home. Nor is the backpacker’s treatment while in the Elite Hunting Club’s den any different from the “enhanced interrogation methods” committed at Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib. Hostel, to a generation of young viewers growing up during the Bush administration and who witnessed 9/11 on the morning news, can draw the connection between the images of Hostel and these current events. Hostel can then be read as a way to normalize traumatic experience through placing related imagery into a familiar narrative structure while displacing the signified threat from terrorism and ill-conceived wars to a mysterious torture club.

The concept of Americans as a force colonizing foreign soil and their disregard for local culture is an allusion to the Iraq war and Americans’ view on the Middle East. Hostel was released post-9/11 and a few months after after the Abu Ghraib torture scandal.The Elite Hunting Club’s location aids in this connection between the war in Iraq, terrorism, and economic imperialism. Clover characterizes the “Terrible Place” of the slasher film as being “most often a house or tunnel in which the victims sooner or later find themselves…vulnerable to the element of horror.” Hostel creates an atmosphere that turns a whole country into a “Terrible Place.” (Something the Slovakian MP at the time, Tomas Galbvy, was not happy about.) For example, at the conclusion of the film the quant, Frankenstein-esque Dutch tourist village is revealed to be a lure to supply the Elite Hunting Club with victims. The notion that the town’s economic stability hinges upon the buying and selling of people for slaughter ties back into the brothel the backpackers frequented in Amsterdam. This connection between economic body based exploitation and slaughter is present in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Dutch town’s fragile economy is contingent on drawing backpackers in to feed the Elite Hunting Club. Therefore, the act of killing has replaced traditional acts of tourism. The town is an inversion of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre family in that instead of killing to fulfill a void left by a dying economy, they kill as part of their economy. Roth ties Texas Chainsaw Massacre visually by dressing the torturers in rubber bibs similar to Leatherface’s iconic rubber gloves and apron. Furthermore, a sequence of the Club’s cleanup methods features a kitchen with the same layout as Leatherface’s. This connection between the family of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Elite Hunting Club does not end with visual cues.

The concept of the human body as being a commodity is also embedded within Hostel. The elderly man from the train, a member of the club and Josh’s future killer, is shown eating with his hands. When questioned why he does so the elderly man states that: “People no longer have a relationship with their food,” a sentiment mirrored by Franklin in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The irony is that the elderly man eventually forms a relationship with Josh, his victim, throughout the early part of the film. To the elderly man, Josh is merely a cow he has chosen for slaughter to fulfill his needs. In this way at the time of their death the men, like the prostitutes the backpackers frequented, are being sold for their bodies and the ability that those bodies have to supply a buyer with satisfaction. A visual link connects the sexual encounters Josh has with Natalya and his subsequent torture. Josh is fragmented by the camera when he has sex with Natalya and when he is tortured. Both scenes feature shots of Josh’s upper body and face. Through the fragmenting Josh’s body the same way in both scenes the name of the genre proves apt. Tziallas views torture porn as being body obsessed:

Torture porn as a term thus not only refers to its close association with the body but to the way in which the body is consumed by viewers and used in the films. Torture porn goes beyond sexualizing violence; it is hyper-sexualized violence.

Torture porn is thoroughly and unapologetically obsessed with the act of looking at violence in the same way that porn is about the act of sex. The penetration of knives and archaic weaponry of the torturers are linked to sex in the same way that they are when the same tools are inflicted upon women in slasher films.

Both torture porn and slasher films are pre-technological because they have a fascination with the “flesh or meat” within the body. Roth acknowledges this in a scene where Paxton, when dressed in clean clothes and attempting to flee without being noticed, has a conversation with an American businessman who is apart of the Elite Hunting Club. The American businessman, thinking Paxton is a member also, questions him as to how to kill his victim. Paxton urges the man to be quick; this man ignores Paxton and tosses his pistol into a hamper, choosing later to slowly burn his victim. This change in means of torture ties into the idea that “that closeness and tactility are also at issue” in horror. A gun would have robbed the torturer the ability to see the “meat” of his victim. The escalation of gore in torture porn films reflects this obsession with the injured body that Clover noted years earlier. As Clover puts in, slasher, and now torture porn films, “what can be done is done, and… at the bottom of the category, [they] do it most and worst.” The deaths in both slasher and torture porn films are therefore not about “about when [a death] happens but how it happens.” Due to the act of torture being the focus of the narrative rather than the torturer, as in slasher films like Halloween, the identity of killers becomes unimportant in Hostel.

The Elite Hunting Club becomes the ultimate cipher for the killer within the narrative. Clover states that “Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween introduced another sort of killer: one whose only role is that of killer and one whose identity as such is clear from the outset.” Hostel’s Elite Hunting Club killers are unknown throughout the film. Through Paxton’s lack of knowledge regarding the killers and the nature of their threat, he unwittingly delivers himself directly into the hands of the Elite Hunting Club, much to the delight and amusement of Natalya. Through Paxton’s ignorance, the Elite Hunting Club is linked to the slasher killer in that “they are only marginally visible-to their victims and to us, the spectators” (Clover 77). Paxton only discovers the nature of the Elite Hunting Club as he flees the torture den. Similar to the narrative of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the killers are not superhuman but exceedingly wealthy people. Unlike Halloween’s Michael Meyers, the businessmen who pay to torture tourists are not immune from pain or death. For example, Paxton is only able to flee because his torturer slips on a puddle of vomit and amputates his own leg with a chainsaw. In essence then Paxton’s survival is ensured by his torturers innate humanity and potential for error. In this way the “monsters”/murderers of Hostel are, like those of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, recognizably human.

Since the Elite Hunting Club is as much a tourist attraction for the businessmen as the hostel and brothels are to Paxton and his friends, the notion of the fixed slasher killer is withheld, as the torturers are as interchangeable as their victims. The lack of a constant within the Hostel franchise provides a sense of unease. This unease is compounded in Hostel 2 as a viewing audience would most likely know of the existence of Elite Hunting Club and therefore be more horrified by the vulnerability of the new set of female backpackers to capture. According to Worland, in slasher films the fact that protagonists “remain largely oblivious right up to the moment of their deaths” is what makes the their deaths so terrifying to an audience. The foreign location of the Hostel franchise and the interchangeable nature of the victims and killers increases the impact of fear in that both support the sense that, as Worland puts it, “however unfathomable in origin, these events could actually happen in this place.” The notion of terror being inescapable in these films relates to America’s post-9/11 landscape:

“These graphic films use excess to express the trauma inflicted on the American national consciousness. Fear ‐ the fear of being killed in a random terrorist attack, the fear of being watched, or the fear of being kidnapped and labeled a terrorist ‐ has affected the United States after 9/11.

The notion of a revolving door of torture implies that an audience member staying abroad in a foreign land could be next simply because they are American. For young viewers who grew up during the height of 9/11, the Bush administration, and who even in passing pay attention to the news, the concept of foreign organizations preying upon victims abroad is a familiar one. Terrorism has changed the landscape of international foreign policy, the role that federal executive power is wielded, and the physical experience of travel. The fact that two of the victims are American men who venture into a remote foreign land while on vacation provides another layer of abject fear. This fear becomes most clearly presented after the torture and murder of Josh, and the near death of Paxton. We live in a dangerous world. Hostel allows us to contemplate that danger while home.

Writer and law student.