Nothing in this article is SFW.
What Is Torture Porn?
Everybody knows what the word "torture" means: To make someone feel intense pain for some reason. Maybe it's for punishment, maybe it's for interrogation, or maybe it's just plain sadism.
The word "porn" is harder to define, although we know it when we see it. When we think of porn, we usually think of media with an explicit sexual nature, primarily designed to stimulate sexual thoughts or feelings.
However, if you look it up in the handy Google machine, you will get a second definition of porn:
Television programs, magazine, books, etc. that are regarded as emphasizing the sensuous or sensational aspects of a nonsexual subject and stimulating a compulsive interest in their audience.
Now, put the two words together, and you get "torture porn", one of the more controversial sub-genres of horror. You can define a "torture porn" movie as one in which the main point is to emphasize brutal violence and sadism, in a sensational manner, to stimulate emotions or interest in the viewer.
Besides making the destruction of the human body the main point of the film, torture porn is different from many other sub-genres of horror because it is much darker and more serious. Earlier forms of this type of movie, which were known as gore films or splatter films, and made by people such as Herschell Gordon Lewis, were really goofy. Splatter films still exist today, but a branch of them broke off and evolved into a seriously dark, confrontational form in the late 1970's, when controversial films such as I Spit on Your Grave appeared. In this 1978 movie, a woman is brutally raped, and then she brutally kills her attackers. That's the whole plot.
In 2004 James Wan gave us Saw and in 2005 Eli Roth gave us Hostel. And that's when I first heard the term "torture porn" - it was connected to those movies. They certainly weren't the first films to fit the definition of torture porn, but that's when the term began to be used. The term was meant as an insult, as if the movies are not real horror, just a pointless exhibition of cruelty, pandering to the lowest human instincts. And to be honest, that is a valid criticism.
However, the term stuck, and fans of the genre embraced it. I love these movies, and I'm fine with the term. It is an accurate term. Yes, the point of those movies is to sensationalize graphic brutality. But that doesn't make them all worthless. Like any genre, the quality varies. Depending on the viewer's mindset, some torture porn films are very worthwhile, indeed.
Why Would People Watch Torture Porn?
In order to understand the appeal of torture porn, we need to understand the appeal of the horror film itself. I think Wes Craven had the right idea when he said:
[Horror movies are] like boot camp for the psyche. In real life, human beings are packaged in the flimsiest of packages, threatened by real and sometimes horrifying dangers, events like Columbine. But the narrative form puts these fears into a manageable series of events. It gives us a way of thinking rationally about our fears. - The Creators Project
Torture porn is the part of the horror genre cranked up to 11. Note: "horror" is not exactly the same as "scary". Horror is fright mixed with shock or disgust. Many torture porn films aren't traditionally "scary", but they can be horrific. If you like cats to leap out of a window to make you jump, you like to be scared, but you don't (technically) like to be horrified. Cats aren't horrifying. But they all fit under the category of horror anyway. It's a big black rainbow.
Torture porn is made for people who have no problem seeing the world as a cruel, random, and violent place. Torture porn gives us an outlet for our existential dread. It makes us confront our terrors. Not the imaginary terrors of the boogeyman under the bed or the demon in your daughter, but the real cruelty that people perform on each other. It's an escape from our own stressful world to a world where worse things happen - but not to us.
Also, by watching the dismemberment of people and unimaginable ways of killing, it's a way for some of us to confront our own fears of dying, even if it's subconscious. It makes us to think about how we could die. It allows us to compartmentalize these thoughts and examine them from a distance, on the other side of a screen.
Torture porn has also had a tradition of making statements, whether political or philosophical. It is able to explore issues that cannot be effectively done any other way.
Are There Any Famous Examples of Quality Torture Porn?
Of course there are.
Even though it was made in 1975, Salo is still one of the most disturbing movies ever made. It took its inspiration from the Marquis de Sade's book The 120 Days of Sodom, and used it as a metaphor for fascism in Italy.
Men Behind the Sun
Men Behind the Sun, made in 1988, is a sensationalized account of actual war atrocities committed by the Japanese during WWII at unit 731, where they performed biological experiments on prisoners of war. Some people think this is an actual documentary. It is not. It's a fictional version of history that focuses on the brutality, not the facts.
Here's the trailer. I couldn't find a version with an English translation, but you don't need it.
Thanks to the New French Extremity movement, French film-makers are masters of the form. 2007's Frontier(s) follows a group of young people fleeing riots in Paris after a far-right president is elected. They attempt a robbery for cash and stop for the night at an inn. The owners of the inn have their own beliefs.
And of course, in 2008 one of the most famous (and best) examples of torture porn ever made was given to the world. Martyrs is a brutal, existential kick to the gut that cuts right to the core of the secret horror that lurks inside every person. And amazingly, it does not contain any sexual violence. It's one of my most favorite movies of all time.
Some people consider this movie too good to be considered torture porn. It's really graphic horror. But let's be honest. It's torture porn. It just has a message with it.
Is torture porn for everyone? Absolutely not. Some people have no desire to inflict those kinds of images and thoughts on themselves. They have different ways to think about these subjects, or prefer not to think about them at all. And that's fine.
Yes, these movies can be hard to watch, and some people hate the fact that brutality is as important as the plot (sometimes it's more important than the plot). But that's precisely why torture porn is such an important piece of the horror genre. If you allow it, it will take you places deep inside yourself that no other movies can give you access to.