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  • Elizabeth Phillips

"Hostel" and Our Attraction to Torture Pornography

Updated: May 1, 2023

Throughout recorded time, humans have always had an innate attraction to gore and the grotesque. This draw to horrific entertainment has been prevalent from the Roman Gladiators and guillotines to modern day boxing matches. Yet, it wasn’t until the screen began to depict more graphic scenes of violence that society began to question the psychological impact these films could have. It also begged the question, "how far is too far?” Hostel was one of the first films to break the barrier of what the audience was allowed to see. The extremely violent and controversial film paved the way for a new subgenre of horror: torture porn. As Hostel and other graphic films have become increasingly popular, many continue to question why we are attracted to such horrifying imagery, if our society is desensitized to that level of violence, and what impact that has on the psyche.

2005 changed the trajectory of Horror with the release of Hostel. The movie follows two American college graduates and their Icelandic friend as they travel throughout Europe to pleasure themselves with drugs and sex (Roth et al.). The trip takes a turn in Slovakia where they find themselves as targets of the ‘Elite Hunting Club’, an organization that charges people for the “privilege” of murdering someone through whatever means desired (Roth et al.). Hostel leaned into its disturbing plot and did not shy away from the violence. Unlike past films, the horrors of Hostel didn’t take place off screen, but rather the audience was forced to spectate the brutality (Benshoff, 346). For the first time in cinema the audience was witnessing people being bound and tortured right in front of them. Since the 1930’s torture has been prevalent, but this new take on the classic trope garnered for the new subgenre of torture porn.

“Torture alone does not make a horror film a work of torture porn. Torture porn refers to a specific cycle of ultra-violent films that dominated the box office between 2004 and 2008, film that focus on the capture and torture of sympathetic characters who are subjected to extended and graphic torment, shot in spectacular close-ups that dwell on the details of injury” (Benshoff, 357).

Although the term ‘torture porn’ came about in the 80’s, Hostel was the genre’s push into a new and more violent age. With it’s enormous return on investment, the film inspired others to produce their own form of torture pornography, thus leading to the popularity of the Saw franchise and other Blumhouse productions (Benshoff, 346). Many suggest that the trend surged after 9/11, and was representative of American’s fears of terrorism and “our own ambivalence about torture” (347). Society was in a disconcerting time. America was divided over whether the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation” practices on civilian Iranians were ethical (356). Eli Roth, the Director of Hostel, confirmed that the film was politically charged. He used scenes that replicated footage of American soldiers mercilessly torturing Abu Ghraib prisoners. Eli wanted to accentuate the S&M aspects of these images, “dog collar and leash, bondage, masks– and the sexualized violence [Abu Ghraib photos] depict, such as forcing prisoners to simulate sodomy” (356).

The question remains: why are humans attracted to disturbing violence? Many researchers conclude that “unreality gives a protective frame to experience everyday emotions” (Benshoff, 347). Meaning that it’s a safe space to process and understand emotions that are not normally accessible. Roth explains this phenomenon perfectly when describing a private screening of Hostel for 400 American soldiers, “all of that fear gets stored up day after day and there’s no release for it. But when they put on Hostel, it says for the next 90 minutes not only are you allowed to be scared, but you’re encouraged to be scared. It is socially acceptable” (356). Others believe that the attraction is more politically charged. The slasher films of the early 2000’s critique American torture tactics through the torture victimization of white, cis, middle-class men (356). Hostel demonstrates that whether through the government or personal means, torture is not to interrogate but rather to whither away a captive’s sense of self using “sustained and excruciating pain and isolation” in order to restore power to the torturer (358). Despite one’s stance on “enhanced interrogation”, the film was a way to process the trauma and violence witnessed by the whole nation.

“As Kristiaan Versluys characterizes it, 9/11 (and I would ass here the torture sanctioned in its name) is an event that can be expressed only through ‘allegory and indirection’ (2009:14). Indeed the torture porn cycle gave voice to the fascination with, unease toward, and fear of torture…It escalates to compete with with photographic evidence of real violence in order to maintain its shock value. And in the process, it helps us process violent and traumatic collective experience” (Benshoff, 358).

For viewers who didn’t live through these events, it’s a way to feel history or even to defy their personal limits. Yet, many people disagree with this stance stating that viewing graphic imagery actually increases apathy towards gore in reality.

For several years the effects of viewing violent entertainment were not examined. That was until 2007, when the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology conducted an experiment using the General Aggression Model, a comprehensive analysis of social, cognitive, personality, developmental, and biological factors on aggression (Carnagey et al.). This experiment defines physiological desensitization as, “showing less physiological arousal to violence in the real world after exposure to violence in the virtual world” (Carnagey et al.). The results of those who viewed virtual violence before real-life violence demonstrated a lower heart rate and galvanic skin response. Whereas, those who did not view virtual violence before experienced normal bodily fear responses when viewing real violence. Although further research is needed, the scientists concluded that the results showed in favor of a physiological desensitization to violence. Desensitization towards grotesque imagery correlates to apathy towards pain and suffering (Wiedeman et al.). Apathy is dangerous because it may cause people to delay assistance to those in need. It can cause one to not process or be as startled by a violent event than their sensitized peers (Wiedeman et al.). That longer response time and inability to assess the severity of the situation can be debilitating when immediate care is needed.

Hostel, Saw, and other films classified as “torture pornography” are created as a representation of current events (Kerner). The term pornography is used to stigmatize these films and supplant critiques of repugnant cultural practices with uproar about fictional demonstrations of said torture. This displacement of criticism is why many are unable to appreciate the relevance and intricacy of these films. Perhaps one’s anger should not be directed at the reenactment/ dramatization of the violence, but rather the violence that galvanized it. Since 2008, pornography of violence in film has declined along with the War on Terror. After Osama Bin Lauden was killed, American torture practices were no longer available for public viewing, thus making this subgenre a thing of the past. With modern tragedies such as the Russian and Ukraine war, one can only wonder what kind of violence will make it to the screens next.

Works Cited

Benshoff, Harry M. A Companion to The Horror Film. Wiley Blackwell, 2017.

Carnagey, Nicholas L., et al. “The Effect of Video Game Violence on Physiological Desensitization to Real-Life Violence.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Academic Press, 17 July 2006,

Kerner, Aaron Michael. “Torture Porn in the Wake of 9/11.” De Gruyter, Rutgers University Press, 24 Apr. 2015,

Roth, Eli, et al. Hostel. Lions Gate Films, 2006.

Wiedeman, Ashlee M., et al. “Factors Influencing the Impact of Aggressive and Violent Media on Children and Adolescents.” Aggression and Violent Behavior, Pergamon, 1 May 2015,

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