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The Death of Torture Porn: What’s Next for Horror? March 24, 2010

Posted by Michael Rennett in Horror Films.
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For the last decade, the horror film genre has been dominated by the ultraviolent “torture porn” subgenre with franchises like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) topping the American box office.  However, as the calendar turned to 2010, torture porn films have been severely outpaced in their gross figures when compared to other horror films.  The Saw series has slowly fallen off from its peak with Saw II (2005) which grossed $87m, to $80m (Saw III, 2006) to $63m (Saw IV, 2007) to $56m (Saw V, 2008) before finally falling off a cliff with Saw VI’s (2009) gross of only $27m.  Other franchises have also seen their profits diminish such as Hostel (from $47m to $17m) and The Hills Have Eyes ($41m to $20m) while torture porn movies like The Collector ($7m, 2009), Turistas ($7m, 2006), and Captivity ($2.6m, 2007) barely made a dent in the U.S. box office.

I tend to usually ignore the numbers when studying cinema (after all, gross has little to do with quality), but the box office numbers for horror films are important since, as Robin Wood finds, horror films demonstrate a “collective nightmare” of society and the numbers can show what is popularly considered scary.  Since audiences are moving away from torture porn movies, it means that the fears provoked by these movies (torture, mutilation, etc.) are becoming less relevant to today’s cultural zeitgeist.  In his thorough examination of torture porn, David Edelstein finds that “Post-9/11, we’ve engaged in a national debate about the morality of torture, fueled by horrifying pictures of manifestly decent men and women (some of them, anyway) enacting brutal scenarios of domination at Abu Ghraib.”  Torture porn movies illustrated this fear throughout the Aughts and become a forum among to discuss these problems in popular culture.  However, the quick declining box office grosses of torture porn films suggests that American society is moving past the fears associated with the War on Terror.

Instead of torture porn, the new popular horror films of the last couple of years include the remakes of supernatural 1980s slashers like Michael Myers (Halloween, $58m, 2007) and Jason (Friday the 13th, $65m, 2009), as well as the extraordinarily popular Paranormal Activity ($107m, 2009).  In the upcoming year, we will see the return of Freddy Krueger (Nightmare on Elm Street) and the Scream series, which is a tribute to the 80s slasher film.  While the focus among all of these movies is still body horror, the location has changed from the foreign countries of Hostel and the desert landscape of The Hills Have Eyes (referencing the regions of Iraq and Afghanistan) into the American home.  Instead of focusing on horrors from afar, it seems as if society is now concerned with problems at home.

Fear at Home in Paranormal Activity

(All movie gross numbers from BoxOfficeMojo.com)


Edelstein, David.  “Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex:  Torture Porn.”  New York Magazine (28 Jan 2006).  <http://nymag.com/movies/features/15622/>.  Online.

Wood, Robin.  “Return of the Repressed.”  Film Comment 14.4 (July-August 1978):  25-32.  Print.