Family Friendly Torture Porn
“Watch new blood on the eighteen inch screen
The corpse is a new personality
Watch new blood on the eighteen inch screen
The corpse is a new personality.”
(Gang of Four, “5:45,” from the album Entertainment! )
Television shows such as I Was Impaled (2012-) and 1000 Ways to Die (2008-) appropriate tropes from horror film and re-narrate them into digestible bite-size “safe” forms. I’d argue they have similar voyeuristic pleasures as the horror film, but they are almost entirely shorn of narrative and any sense of morality. In 1000 Ways to Die, “hilarious” stories of death, loosely based on actual stories, are stripped of any humanism, and edited together as a series of graphic and repetitive mini-narratives of sadistic slaughter. It’s all for sick kicks; set to quirky music, sutured together by a wisecracking voiceover narrator. Here, the destruction of the body is almost a postmodern destruction of humanity, with a snuff-like lack of ethos; presented much in the same manner as the “funny” clips from America’s Funniest Home Videos, which themselves often rely on the humor in watching, for example, children hurting themselves.
We live in an era of what I call “family friendly torture porn”: we are surrounded by amoral metanarratives that display our almost complete lack of empathy for others. Our insatiable appetite for the display of excessive pain and banally routine death and dismemberment reflects our embrace of an endlessly warring culture. Our culture is dominated not by Eros, but by Thanatos. We barely acknowledge our own ghoulish depravity as cultural imperialists and warmongers as we continue to support questionable invasions and occupations. We are told to “support the troops,” but we are barely allowed to openly question exactly what acts and policies are we being forced to accept? Our blind acceptance of a culture of war and death, and the big business economy of a warring culture is blithely accepted by most.
For example, we have almost completely forgotten the shocking photographs of the torture in Gitmo and elsewhere, and we ignore at our moral peril our collective ability to find laughter and hilarity in depravity and our fascistic impulses. We seem, as a culture, almost bored by death and pain, and at the same time there is a rise in the fascistic display of sculpted bodies of perfection, the hypermuscular bodies of 300, for example: these are bodies only sculpted in readiness for war and death. Morally, we must take note that fascistic anti-human TV is but a small reflection of our acceptance of the practice of torture and the wider embrace of a culture of death in American popular culture.
In I Was Impaled, things are handled in a slightly less snarky manner than 1000 Ways to Die, but bodily harm and gruesome depravity is still presented with lip-smacking relish, as if the entire affair was some sort of ghastly freak show for our depraved amusement. Impalements, horrifying moments, and ghoulish bodily dismemberments are edited together for shock value, though they become almost boring and numbing as a result of their generic display. We become completely numb and pain becomes dull, we completely lack empathy for the suffering of human beings. The danger of such an amoral lack of empathy is paved over by laughs, sick kicks.
Significantly, in these television programs, (and many similar ones that I simply don’t have time to discuss here), the victims are so fully “othered” as objects of morbid fascination and fun, that in both shows the dominant message is that these Darwinian idiots “deserve to die.” In fact, these shows trade on the hierarchical idiom of the question of who most “deserves” to die.
The idea that some humans are less than human and “deserve” to die should certainly be familiar to anyone with an understanding of mass genocide. A culture ready and willing and able to commit genocide is only possible in an ideology that supports the notion of the “deserved” death. It comes as little surprise then, that the official website for 1000 Ways to Die opens with the most popularly searched online feature, entitled, “The Most-Deserved Deaths On 1000 Ways To Die.” Writer Aaron Ahmadi opens the piece with the following paragraph:
“On 1000 Ways To Die you’ve seen plenty of folk falling into the hands of the grim reaper because they were either just plain stupid or full of vein-popping rage (heck, sometimes both). Many of these imbeciles were just jerks and had it coming one way or another – real jerks. With all these jackasses on the show you’re probably thinking the same thing as us at this point: which of these numbskulls deserved what they got in the end the most? Hmm, do we really have to pick?”
Immediately under the paragraph, the most popular and supposedly “deserved” deaths are available by download for the amusement of the viewer and, interestingly enough, they are presented exactly the same way porn sites present the most popular pornographic “money shots,” which themselves often involve brutality and inhumanity. Currently the most popular porn money shot involves a very young Asian girl being repeatedly punched in the face while she is sprayed with male ejaculate. I mention this casual and popular depravity because it demonstrates that family friendly torture porn holds no higher moral ground than the sadly vile and sadly routine display of a lack of empathy towards the “Other” in porn. No doubt the Asian Other is seen as a Darwinian idiot who supposedly “deserves” such abasement. The viewer laughs and finds sexual pleasure in hearing her pathetic cries for help. Is finding pleasure in her pain and ignoring her repeated cries really any different than finding amusement in the impalements and myriad forms of indescribable pain presented in family friendly torture porn? I think not.
Thus potentially, in comparison with even the most extreme horror films, family friendly torture porn is perhaps far more exploitational by virtue of the fact that it is presented as “all in good fun.” I suggest that even though it may seem like silly innocuous “fun” and perfectly appropriate material for family viewing, family friendly torture porn reduces horror to a series of excessive, interchangeable, violent, bloody and gory thrills shorn of any cohesive narrative, any sense of identification, and any sense of morality. It cheapens human life and frequently appropriates the aesthetics of horror film while selling a product devoid of humanism and one that is indicative of a coldhearted culture of depravity and routine political atrocity, thus positioning the viewer as a sadistic libertine and exposing American culture as one of brutal fascistic pleasure, a culture at home with genocide, pain, torture and death.
I find it fascinating that this same culture, by turn, is uncomfortable with narratives of pleasure and sentiment, love and the nurturing of bodies. The most routinely scorned programming on television is that which embraces Eros and life, and stories of romance, love, and melodrama, specifically the Lifetimes Network, which is signaled out as an object of constant derision. The ideology of bodies “deserving” of love, life, romance, and heart-touching lovemaking and intimacy is routinely met with scorn and outright hatred. We are a culture that seems to hate love; we seem to be oddly disgusted by romance. Any sentiment and feeling for others is frequently viewed as a stupid waste of time. If it is not a narrative of death, dismemberment and indescribable pain, it must be sentimental, melodramatic, sappy, and associated with the female, the overly emotional. She is too compassionate and empathetic: compassion and pathos are rejected in our culture and replaced by the reckless embrace of narratives of torture; genocidal impulses that betray our wider embrace of a warring Thanatopic culture, one that celebrates Darwinian individualism, empathy deficit disorder, and conspicuous communal consumption of atrocity for family fun-time pleasure.
For anyone unfamiliar with the infamous Discovery Fit and Health channel’s program I Was Impaled, I’ll offer here some brief plot summaries. I Was Impaled features people who accidentally end up with foreign objects impaled in their body. While examining how these mysterious items were often initially ignored and later “discovered,” the program carefully reenacts the gruesome impalements and also features faux forensic material popular to any reality programming. Here, in CSI style, we are treated to gruesome reenactments of actors playing medics and surgeons who use the most groundbreaking techniques to extract objects from bodies as a flat voiceover narrative explains what we are watching in excessively bloody detail. Using cutting-edge animation, firsthand testimony and sophisticated recreations, often including CGI, each 60-minute episode highlights the stories of three or four “impalements,” from the time the injury occurs to the moment the person “realizes” they are actually impaled by something, through the euphoric moment when the object is removed, and usually it includes an actor saying “I should not be alive,” or some variant on that idea, in this way gesturing to the trope of the so-called “deservedness ”of death as it is featured on 1000 Ways to Die.
The stories include a woman who was impaled on a five-inch iron spike railing; a man whose esophagus was ripped open by a French fry; a gardener whom fell face first onto his pruning shears; a young man who was accidentally shot with a five-foot long fishing spear; a man who was impaled by a six-foot fence post; a woman who fell directly onto a hooked planter while gardening; a man who had a foreign object mysteriously lodged into his brain; a woman who was impaled through her neck by a Christmas tree; a boy who accidentally swallowed a barbed hook while fishing; a man who nearly died after being pumped full of enough air to blow up a thousand party balloons; a surfer who ended up with his fiberglass surfboard embedded in his skull; a motocross rider who crashed and ended up with a stick in his face; a 64-year-old woman who discovered a bug in her ear and a pencil in her brain; a carpenter who got a splinter in his eye; and an ex-Marine who was left with a pole penetrating his mouth after a car accident (TV Tango).
As you can tell from these plot descriptions, the definition of “impalement” is stretched beyond credulity. The show promises the kinds of impalements one would expect from a horror film, but impalement from within by a French fry, or being pumped up with excess air seems hardly comparable with classic horror movie impalements. A classic horror film, usually a moral tale, often involves the impalement of a vampire by wooden stake, or a villain being impaled on an iron spike, specifically a black wrought iron spiked gate of the type found either in Victorian England, or the Transylvanian countryside. While I Was Impaled may borrow from the classic horror film (one that almost always features a clear morality tale), it leaves behind the moral binarisms of good vs. evil in the traditional horror film. Instead, the program foregrounds a series of impalements and dismemberments without the narrative conscience of a moral center.
Reality horror shows such as I Was Impaled routinely appropriate many of the common tropes of horror films through reenactments that gesture to classical horror as well as more recent torture porn. The musical score, editing, lighting, foregrounding, narrative emphasis upon dread and fear are all common filmic devices appropriated here, but reality TV tends to flatten the horror narrative into simple affect, devoid of romance, sentiment, good guys, bad guys, audience problem-solving, moral conflict and most significantly – emotional involvement. It is therefore difficult to summon any moral complexity, emotional richness, or resolution from a show such as I Was Impaled, except that human beings are idiots who deserve to get impaled hilariously for our amusement.
In I Was Impaled, the frail and permeable human body is reduced into consumable bite-size portions of snuff-like snark and gallows humor, the body in pain as a consumable Other, at the expense of those who have been unlucky or stupid enough to find themselves staked, impaled or otherwise gored. The problem with those who deserve to die or deserve to be impaled is that they are not fascistic impermeable bodies as presented in hyper-muscularized warring culture such as that displayed in 300 and elsewhere in war-obsessed popular culture, a culture of disciplined bodies preparing for endless war. I Was Impaled is more superficially serious than 1000 Ways to Die, but ultimately just as mindless and formulaic, and the careful reenactments have the bizarre effect of summoning indifference; a flattening of what should be a heightened effect. We become fully desensitized to the pain and horror. Interestingly, as Cynthia Freeland notes,
“If the narratives and spectacles of violence on TV are equated with the flat, unreal experiences of reality, this may be because people are actually seeking a more rich and meaningful narrative of violence and evil — one say, more like the ideal for classified tragedy described by Aristotle in his Poetics.” (2004: 257-258)
Lost in the appropriation from tragic and horror films to reality TV is any sort of classical tragedy. If evil is reduced to chance and doesn’t come in the form of a cohesive fictional narrative, it risks becoming empty, indifferent and predictably fascist, like the dark humor that is present in many torture porn films. But even many torture porn films, as specific a genre as it is, usually at least attempt to include elements of classical tragedy, some sort of moral center, some delineation of “good” and “bad” characters, monster, victims, survivors. Cynthia Freeland notes that horror reality TV reveals “contradictory” messages as “such programs are both arousing and deadening, frightening and reassuring, serious and comical, ‘real’ and ‘unreal’” (246). This “contradictory” sense noted by Freeland has a rather flattening effect, especially with regard to human suffering and torture.
It is worth noting that this blasé attitude toward torture is also highly prevalent in other areas of popular culture, particularly in Hollywood films such as Zero Dark Thirty, which fully embraces both a warring culture and the practice of torture, and was, amazingly, nominated for the top Academy Awards.[i] Another example of the many feature films that similarly display a blasé attitude towards death is The ABCs of Death, which is brazenly marketed as a comedy on the official website, boasting “26 directors, 26 way to die”:
“The ABC’s OF DEATH is perhaps the most ambitious anthology film ever conceived with productions spanning fifteen countries and featuring segments directed by over two dozen of the world’s leading talents in contemporary genre film. Inspired by children’s educational books, the motion picture is comprised of twenty-six individual chapters, each helmed by a different director assigned a letter of the alphabet. The directors were then given free reign in choosing a word to create a story involving death. Provocative, shocking, funny and ultimately confrontational, THE ABC’s OF DEATH is the definitive vision of modern horror diversity.”
But, interestingly enough, horror film aficionados have generally dismissed the film as flat and suffering from a lack of moral centeredness. They do not even seem to find the film to be engaging or funny. This comment on IMDB from “jolenewebber” typifies the reaction to the film:
“This is the worst waste of time in the world, Whoever made some of these scenes should seriously be put in a high security institution or be offed with, anyone who displays any type of sick slide where a child is sexually abused, and people crushing kittens with feet..is f**kd beyond ALL recognition, that’s two hours of my life i’ll [sic] never get back, that’s some sick bastards who made this horrible traumatizing crock of sh*t. I hope whoever created those disturbing flicks rolls over dead [sic].”
Freeland is correct. It seems that plenty of horror fans are fatigued by the flattening effect found in morality free horror feature films. They do seek more meaningful narratives of good and evil and stories that feature the moral center associated with tragedy and Aristotle. As “matta-11” comments on IMDB;
“I am not sure if I was expecting the wrong thing […] But I was thinking this was supposed to be a horror anthology with an interesting concept. In the end it felt more like a competition for the segment that is the most absurd, outrageous, ultra-violent, hyper-sexual, or all of the above combined. [---] I would not recommend this to anyone unless you NEED to see it for you self to satisfy your curiosity, or if you are really into senseless extreme movies.”
Ironically, in the competition to be the most repellent, it is the resulting predictable and repetitive flatness of movies such as The ABCs of Death or family friendly torture porn like I Was Impaled that leaves these narratives shorn of meaning, boring and devoid of evil and its attendant tropes, so that ultimately pain becomes parodic and humorous inviting either spectatorial disgust or a complacency and pleasurable enjoyment closely associated with that of the fascistic genocidal mindset in which bodies as Other simply deserve punishment and death. It’s interesting to note that as horror films themselves move away from classic narrative traditions toward snarkier, more supposedly humorous torture porn, for example, and toward less realist and more ridiculous spectacles of the destruction of human bodies – televisual horror “reality” shows similarly trade in ridiculousness, excess and rather mean-spirited humor.
Fans of the ABCs of Death show up in the reviews on Amazon, a typical fan says, “I spent as much time laughing as I did repulsed.” It is interesting to note that hyper-sexuality is something “matta-11” finds repellent and stupid in her review of The ABCs of Death, as sex and death are interchangeable in our Thanatopic culture of excessive depravity. I Was Impaled frequently borrows the use of sexual innuendo from the traditional horror film, especially in the titles of the episodes. In an old horror film from the fifties the first victim of a bad monster is often a couple about to embark on a sexual encounter, but we all know they may pay with their lives.
In a sense, they “deserve” to die, or at least to be frightened by some hairy monster or atomic beast. I Was Impaled gestures back to classical horror films in its constant references to sexuality. The most famous episode is a good example of the excessive and unnecessary references to sex, the episode entitled “Don’t Pull It Out!” obviously refers to the most rudimental form of sexual birth control, even while the episode has little to do with sex. Here, “Don’t Pull It Out” refers to the fact that many people who survive impalements of one kind or another only survive because they have the sense not to pull out the object of impalement and bleed to death.
But frequent sexual references are designed for family friendly viewing here in the way they are constantly deployed in one of the most popular current situation comedies, 2 1/2 Men, a TV show that never misses an opportunity to weave in a sexual innuendo. It is funny to observe that while actual porn is generally consumed in private and is surrounded with at least a modicum of taboo, a family friendly show such as 2 1/2 Men is a prurient show designed for a communal audience. The entire family is expected to sit together on the couch to take in the show, perhaps followed by a marathon of episodes of 1000 Ways to Die and maybe for dessert, a marathon of I Was Impaled. It seems doubly ironic that family friendly torture porn, which employ such a dull repetitive narrative strategy (so repetitive that it results in a sense of numbing), do even better (in terms of viewership) when episodes are run one after the other for hours in the newly popularized practice of marathon television programming. The lack of empathy that is generated by one show is only multiplied exponentially when the show is presented for hours on end in these marathon family friendly events.
An article in The Oregonian posed the obvious question, with “Who’d Watch a Show Called I Was Impaled?” As Kristi Turnquist writes:
“You can keep your Hillbilly Handfishin’, your Here Comes Honey, Boo Boo and the rest of the gator-chasin’, pawnbrokin’, pickin’, storage unit-buyin’ reality shows. Today brings news of what’s possibly the most awesomely insane concept for a show ever: I Was Impaled. What could this be about? Oh, gee, I dunno, maybe it’s stories of people who were IMPALED? And really, who wouldn’t want to watch that while sharing quality time with the whole family? Maybe after having grilled a couple of skewers of chicken and veggies out in the backyard. Yum. Though it sounds like an April Fool’s joke, I Was Impaled is really coming to Discovery Fit & Health, starting Sept. 8. The 6 episodes listed in a press release that must have been a challenge to write, include the lead-off outing, called – and I’m not making this up – ‘Don’t Pull It Out!’”
And indeed, the press release on the home page of Discovery Fit and Health promises, “[we’ve] hunted down the most absurd freak accidents possible! [---] Can’t get enough?” Next comes a list of episodes, the first one another strangely sexualized episode entitled “Penetrations Gone Wrong,” described as follows:
“A glass eye in a woman’s vagina, a man with four Barbie doll heads in his rectum, lined up ‘like a totem pole’ and a whole host of vegetables, light bulbs, tools and cell phones reportedly make it into people’s bodies through whichever orifice they can stick it in. Believe it or not, these kinds of scenarios are extremely common in hospital and emergency room settings. An article by ABC News says that ‘patients with objects stuck in the rectum are more likely to be between the ages of 20 and 40,’ and that men are 28 times more likely than women to be the culprits. Well guys, maybe you should be a little more careful when you’re trying to change things up.” (Wolfe 2012)
Interestingly enough, the press release ends by posing the question, “Why do we think about death? Read on to find out about an entire field of study dedicated to exploring death,” after which links are provided to the Discovery Channel’s program How Stuff Works, including episodes on the “Worst Way to Die,” “I Was Impaled by the Most Bizarre Injuries” and “Can Impalement be an Art Form”?
It’s intriguing to look at the anonymous web postings that respond to episodes of I Was Impaled. Many just coldly state, LOL, “laugh out loud.” In response to the episode “Tree Branch Through the Neck”, someone comments, “Well that’s what I call a deep throat – Hell yeah!” Another commentator is disappointed at the lack of gore. “No showing how they removed it,” he complains. The online comments say a great deal about audience lust for a moral free zone of death and depravity.
In Spike TV’s splatter gore-fest 1000 Ways to Die most of the humor is attributable to the sarcastic voiceover narration by Ron Perlman, who is nimbly able to go from somber description to rather ghoulish punch lines in a heartbeat. His timing and delivery are impeccable. Like the audience, he’s too smart to ever get impaled, and so pain and mutilation becomes hilarious. 1000 Ways to Die, which Wheeler Winston Dixon dubbed “docu-fiction,” is so loosely based on true events that it stretches credulity well beyond the breaking point, becoming nothing more than a porn loop snuff film. The funny thing about 1000 Ways to Die is that at face value it may seem even less moral and less influenced by the tropes of horror film, but at closer inspection it is actually far more dependent on specific horror tropes, traditional narrative storytelling techniques, and, most importantly, the inclusion of the good-evil rubric: these people all deserve to die.
Despite the level of blood, gore, sex, frequently outrageous reenactments and the liberal use of CSI style graphics, the show is always careful to sprinkle the black humor with the distinct message that people deserve to die. 1000 Ways to Die is both jaw dropping and disgusting, but it is so aware of itself that it appears to be a self-reflexive parody. The deaths depicted in the program are so patently absurd that the show quickly becomes addictive, but at the same time you find yourself rapidly moving from an attitude of superiority (in which it all seems hilarious and fun), to increasingly disgusted with yourself and finally you end up turning the show off – not sure if you are more disgusted with yourself or with the producers of the show. Enormously popular, the show provides, just like I Was Impaled, a sort of family-friendly version of torture porn, though it does have a TV rating of TV-14 for graphic bloody violence and moderate sexual content, including women in skimpy clothing and depictions of sexual intercourse, coupled with “language.”
Again, those marked for death in 1000 Ways to Die remind me of teens chosen to die in older horror films for simply being stupid, and more likely, they “deserve” to die for being actively sexual. A few narrative summaries from the series aptly demonstrate this. In “Death Over Easy,” a mushroom-infused trip leads a guy into a fetish orgy and some grisly realizations.” In “Dead and Deader,” “a 30 year old virgin has a deadly reaction to being stuffed into a rubber suit by a bewitching dominatrix.” In “Death Gets Busy,” “a super model eats herself to death,” and “a porn addict gets ‘blown’ away by an exploding tire.”
I am not the first to note that it seems like lesbians and those deemed “stupid” enough to become involved in sexual threesomes seem to die pretty frequently in 1000 Ways to Die. For a show that prides itself on its “cool” outsider status, 1000 Ways to Die proves to be rather conservative and based on right-wing “family values” when choosing the type of people who most “deserve” to die. Family friendly torture porn such as 1000 Ways to Die and I Was Impaled belie the neoconservativism and repression found in torture porn by Christopher Sharrett in his essay “The Problem with Saw: Torture Porn and the Conservatism of Contemporary Horror Films,” as symptomatic of a right-wing culture that glorifies torture, and which threatens to defeat historically progressive aspects of contemporary society.
While traditional older horror films often challenge mainstream societal values, question patriarchy, and disrupt the ideologies of capitalism and the traditional nuclear family, television schlock such as I Was Impaled and 1000 Ways to Die afford a safe voyeuristic thrill-ride through torture, death, capital, and sexism, and promote an empty nihilism and conformism that is closely associated to fascist ideology. This isn’t to negate the possibility of some audience members’ ability to “read against the grain” and see through these shows for what they are, but merely to point out their coldhearted and ideologically brutal fascistic pleasure and how they avoid, perhaps, what is most relevant in horror films, any challenge to the status quo.
An earlier version of this essay was presented at the 2013 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference in Washington, DC; my thanks to the audience members and other participants for their insightful comments.
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is Professor of Film Studies in the Department of English, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and an Editor of the journal Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Her many books include 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011) and the second, revised edition of A Short History of Film (2013), both co-authored with Wheeler Winston Dixon; as well as Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture (2005), Identity and Memory: The Films of Chantal Akerman (2003), and Women Filmmakers of the African and Asian Diaspora: Decolonizing the Gaze, Locating Subjectivity (1997).
1000 Ways to Die Blog, Spike.com. Accessed 24 March 2013.
ABCs of Death, Official Website. Accessed 13 April 2013.
Ahmadi, Aaron (2012), “The Most-Deserved Deaths on 1,000 Ways to Die”, Spike.com, 26 Sept. Accessed 13 April 2013.
Freeland, Cynthia (2004), “Ordinary Horror on Reality TV,” in Narrative Across Media: The Languages Storytelling, Marie-Laure Ryan (ed.), Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, pp. 244-266.
Sharrett, Christopher (2009), “The Problem of Saw: ‘Torture Porn’ and the Conservatism of Contemporary Horror Films,” Cineaste 35:1, Winter, pp. 32-38.
Turnquist, Kristi (2012), “Who’d Watch a Show Called I Was Impaled?”, The Oregonian, 23 August. Accessed 24 Mar. 2013.
TV Tango, I Was Impaled, Official Website. Accessed 24 March 2013.
Wolfe, Jen (2012), “Strange and Weird Things: 5 Freak Accidents and Bizarre Injuries”, Discovery Fit and Health Insider, 24 August. Accessed 24 March 2013.