Penance to the State: Saw and the Abu Ghraib Legacy

Curator's Note

The first film in the Saw franchise was widely released on October 29th of 2004, kicking off an annual tradition lasting for six more years, producing seven films in total, and introducing the term/concept of "torture porn" into the public consciousness. On its own merits, the success of the franchise is understandable. Saw represented an insidiously clever twist on the slasher genre: The Jigsaw Killer was not actually a serial killer, but an engineer who dealt in the production of potentially lethal, but ultimately survivable scenarios designed to test the survival instinct of a given subject. Naturally, this resulted in, in several instances, the grisly spectacle of the human body in states of suffering and destruction, but also instances of characters claiming that Jigsaw changed their life for the better. Given the novelty of the scenarios presented in Saw, and it’s relative narrative depth, how exactly can it be counted as an exploitation film?

An often overlooked/uncorrelated fact: a mere six months prior to Saw’s debut, the infamous Abu Ghraib prison photos were unveiled to the public. While many acts depicted in those photos were egregious derelictions of duty on the part of military personnel, they effectively blew the lid off of the United States’ torture regime, leading to public knowledge of the institutional use of waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques". Though there was widespread resistance and discomfort concerning torture at the time, this poll conducted by Foreign Policy magazine suggests that the American people have become more comfortable with the use of torture since the Bush administration. 

Part of the acceptance could be attributed to a sort of "only Nixon could go to China" logic, but how does the explosion in popularity of Saw and other films in the years following Abu Ghraib bear on the situation? Is torture-porn to blame, or is Saw’s theme of suffering as potential good simply an avenue for mitigating the complex feelings surrounding the use of torture in the ongoing War on Terror? 

Comments

Chris Tokuhama's picture

The Torture of Torture Porn

I think that you gesture toward an overall sensibility with the connection between Saw and Abu Ghraib but I also think that the phenomenon that you are trying to investigate is larger. Part of the challenge here is that the easy comparison is torture to torture but I don’t always know that this approach produces the deepest analysis.

So I think it’s interesting to first recognize that the development cycle of Saw would be such that it was in production prior to the Abu Ghraib scandal (Whannell wrote a short that was release in 2003, for example, so this would be well before Abu Ghraib, not to mention the writing process that would precede that). One question to ask is whether there was some sort of overall position toward the value of human life in the wake of things like 9/11.

Other scholars have done further analysis but I find it productive to talk to my students about themes of vengeance and vulnerability that inform the torture porn genre but also are, I think, linked to the broken superheroes that became popular around that time. Thinking through disillusionment with saviors and the fragility of social order is wrapped up in the popularity of these films.

Looking forward, I think you also could analyze this trend through biopolitical discussion concerning the value of life in America and think about the specific issues that are raised by the treatment of bodies in a wide range of arenas. How does horror help us work through these issues? How do you align films in this genre with instrumental torture scenes in movies and television shows in the same period?

But, finally, if you are going to make an argument about Saw and torture porn being exploitation, I think it would be helpful to situate the film within the larger trajectory of gore/splatter films in order to differentiate what is a staple of the genre and what might be specific to the time period under discussion here.

Mike Van Esler's picture

Regarding your musings about

Regarding your musings about the role torture porn plays in the American public’s (general) acceptance of torture, I think the reality of the situation is ambivalent. Certainly the Saw series and subsequent torture porn films like Eli Roth’s Hostel suggest a fascination with the body-horror aspects of the sub-genre on the part of the movie-going public. However, I’m not certain what role the institutionalized support of torture by the Bush administration (and many members of Congress) actually plays in this.

I do wonder, though, what role (or rather, how much influence) the military-entertainment complex has on our acceptance of these sorts of films. Certainly torture isn’t the focus of Department of Defense-endorsed videogames like the Call of Duty or Medal of Honor series; however, I think when consumers can (perhaps unconsciously) link the military action of these games (often set in the Middle East, particularly in the Call of Duty series) with the images of torture coming out of Iraq and other locales, then we may have a potential discussion on our hands. I realize that this hews dangerously close to suggesting that media consumption causes certain behaviors or attitudes and I hope I don’t come across as advocating for such a position.

Additionally, taking Chris’ closing thoughts of situating torture porn within the larger context of gore/splatter films, I wonder why these modern films seem to penetrate the public consciousness at a much greater rate than their 1960s and 70s forebears did. Perhaps it has to do with the ease of dissemination of information and cultural artifacts in the form of DVDs, VOD, and the Internet (as opposed to attending one of the few theaters in the country that screened splatter films). Regardless, there does seem to be, as you mention Joshua, a post-9/11 fascination with torture porn.

Joshua Christianson's picture

Chris, Mike, thank you both

Chris, Mike, thank you both for your replies. Obviously, I have a lot of work to do on this topic, but your insights are invaluable.

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