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Hostel as Perversion Immersion? January 13, 2006

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Morality, Movies, Sports.

I haven’t seen “Hostel,” and most likely won’t. Keep your shorts on though, because I’m not here to bash the movie, the genre, the actors, or the director. However, reading several reviews of the subject matter bring up some disturbing questions for me. Questions that go much deeper than one movie.

Dying to See Something?
The advertisement is gripping. “It’s the #1 horror movie in America.” The images are dark and disturbing. The movie’s web site provides a clever animation of a running chainsaw in the foreground with a woman tied to a chair in the background. The misogynous overtones are unambiguous.

However, if you do a minor amount of research, you get a different picture. The basic plotline is this: American college guys go on vacation in Europe, eager to see anything and everything. Being stereotypical American boys, this includes drugs, sex, alcohol, and so on. From there, they match up with a buddy and wind up in a place that appears to be a cross between a bed & breakfast and eastern bloc house of ill repute.

Unfortunately for the main characters, the joke is on them. In short, they’ve been lured into an old-fashioned house of torture, where the victims are sold to wealthy patrons who entertain themselves in various ways (all at the painful expense of the victims). The picture I have is one of sadism pushed to the extreme. (If you’ve seen the movie, please feel free to correct any misunderstanding I have about the plot.)

Social Studies and Vicarious Violence
Walking hand-in-hand (if not handcuff-in-handcuff) with sadism is masochism, such that you rarely hear one described without the other. Put bluntly, some people derive sexual pleasure from inflicting pain on others, while others derive a similar (if different) pleasure from being the recipient.

Now, I’m not so naive to think that complex psychology and sexuality can be understood with very little formal study (and no relevant experience with the subject matter), and I’m not about to suggest that there are simple lessons to be learned from a treatise as brief as this. I’m simply bothered by some of the questions that have crept into my mind as I’ve read reviews of the story.

For example, if sadism is practiced by someone on someone else who’s not a masochist, is it immediately wrong? In the US, we generally presume that sexual interaction must be consensual, either explicitly or implicitly, otherwise it’s rape. Presumably, this would hold for non-sexual contact as well. For example, professional American football players find a “thrill” from hitting and being hit (more the former than the latter). Few would argue the legality of an NFL player just popping off a huge hit on an average joe on the street.

Going further, some have described NFL spectators as voyeuristic masochists, given that we gain a vicarious thrill from watching the bone-crushing blows delivered from week to week. Fair or not, sick or healthy, there’s not much of an argument that the hittee is there by choice as much as the hitter. Even now, I must wonder, do we cheer only when the hits are “consensual?” Or, are we thrilled (at least occassionally, and maybe privately) by the cheap shot?

Looking into the Faces of Death
Some would argue that this is the same appeal of a movie like Hostel. That we, the audience, are simply getting the vicarious thrill of watching someone else being put into an emotionally intense situation, in which we make the life and death decisions along with them. Is that the appeal, or is it something darker?

For years, the “Faces of Death” series of videos have enjoyed cult status, playing upon the curiosity many of us have about death, and the emotions experienced on the cusp of that moment. (It matters little that many of the scenes were staged for horrific effect, even though the movie is projected as a documentary.) I have always been confused by this movie’s appeal, possibly because there’s not much curiosity about death in my family.

You see, I went to funerals from my youngest years, and as a result see little facination with death and dying. (Having been at my mother’s and mother-in-law’s side moments after they died, and having sat with friends as they experienced the end of this life, I long ago realized that there is no fanfare in the moment.) To be open about it, I have sometimes felt that parents who shield their children away from funerals and from experiencing death are doing their children a grave (so to speak) disservice. As my mother would have said it, “Death is part of life.”

Why are we Watching?
So now I’m sitting here, considering the masses who are (apparently) pouring into theaters to watch “Hostel,” and their apparent facination with death, torture, and suffering in general. What are they there to see or experience? Are they vicariously enjoying the torture, enjoying the suffering that is being inflicted, clearly against the will of the victim? Or is this the same thrill that all other Horror movie-goers are shooting for (shock and vicarious tension resolution), all experienced from the relative safety of a society where death is, less and less often, a part of life?

I’m hoping it’s the latter. If it’s the former, it seems that the audiences are wallowing in the same type of behavior that you would expect to inspire revulsion.


1. Nehring - May 5, 2006

Great site and interesting post.

I’ve seen the film and reviewed it. People go to see the film because they want the cheap thrill, tension and to laugh in the face of death. This is kind of thrill seeking is a commonplace thing. What is interesting (at least to me) is what the audience is now getting for their money. Previously, with the old monster movies which later transformed into the slasher films there was a set morality at play. Those who were morally deviant paid with their lives. The killings were violent to be certain, but they were brief and quickly forgotten. With the infusion of postmodernism into the horror genre we’re now seeing films like Hostel and Wolf Creek which don’t have the moral structure of their predecessors. These films do not differentiate between good and bad behavior since everyone gets it. With the killing, the scenes are drawn out and instead of a quick murder we are presented with scenes of literal torture. The pain of the victim and the gratification of the killer are expressed as fully as they can.

People are paying to see a cheap slasher like film and are getting material that isn’t far off from snuff films. As these kind of horror films (which used to be difficult to find and rarely produced) become more common I expect society will see more and more cruel behavior.

I know I’ve dumped out a lot here in a mere comment but I care a great deal about this kind of thing. If you see the film keep an eye on the worldviews. The three main characters sex it up and do whatever they like whenever they like. When they are captured and another person does whatever they like to them things aren’t so fun. In a sick way, there’s a moral point to be made through this film. Do unto others is touched upon here.

2. timthefoolman - May 5, 2006

Wow… what a facinating treatment and perspective. After reading your comment here, I couldn’t help but read through some of the other reviews of various films (M. Night Shamalamadingdong?… hahahaha!) It’s interesting that you point out the complications that befall the main characters, as this has been one of my comments about “Desperate Housewives.” In the episodes that I’ve seen (far from comprehensive), all the poor moral choices that the characters make reap exactly what you would expect. Instead of happily thumbing their noses at God, you see them paying a very direct price for the choices they make.

Again, you’ve added some facinating commentary here, and my simple entry is richer for it. Thank you! – Tim

3. Shadowman - April 24, 2007

I haven’t seen the film. I won’t. However, if your purpose is to review it- I believe you should. How can you review other opinions?

Saw only trailer to Part 2 minutes ago. As a film maker, I feel sad that people are building reputations and using hard-earned skills to end up doing this. That people like it worries me. I couldn’t watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre all the way through.

I’m old school in my outlook: Hitchcock, storytelling, artform. Postmodernism is just a way to open up and make new and sometimes dubious markets acceptable. PT Barnum got it right: “There’s on born every minute.”

If the Marylin Manson marketing strategy site is still up, they decided that the cheapest and most effective way to get maximum attention and media coverage was to shock the Christians. Works every time.

It’s time for those who believe in old school values to prove they’re better. It’s also time for talented Christians to stop producing those really crap technicolour tracts.

Time for postmodern Christian horror films, perhaps. Wanna see some real horror? Wanna see some real no-escape shocker?

Make ’em pay-at the box office. Then scare the Hell out of them.

Would I watch it. Heavens above- I might make it…

4. Tim - April 24, 2007


I wasn’t trying to review the film as much as the emerging genre, and concerns about what it says about our culture and desire to immerse ourselves in such things. You’ve got some interesting thoughts there, and I’d be very interested in seeing your movie. 😉 – Tim

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