A grieving father gets revenge on the two men that brutalized his daughter by murdering them and baking them into pies, which he then feeds to their mother. A man dying of cancer kidnaps a woman and forces her to escape a “reverse bear-trap” device before the timer runs down and her head is torn in half. One of these scenarios is from a Shakespearean tragedy, Titus Andronicus (1594). The other is a scene from the movie Saw (2005). It is widely thought that Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus as a response to popular revenge tragedies of the era – namely those written by Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe. Revenge tragedies, usually based off classical Greek and Roman ideologies, usually contained a high level of bloodiness. The Saw franchise, and other films that fall into the sub-genre of “torture porn”, rose to popularity in the decade following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and provided a means for movie audiences to escape the violence and horror of the real world.
Across centuries, Titus Andronicus and the films classified as “torture porn” are recognized as examples of unsafe art. These are pieces of an art form that are not identified as bringing anything deep and meaningful to the cultural conversation. Recalling an on-set conversation with the director Rob Zombie, an actor in the “torture porn” film The Devil’s Rejects remembers the moment of filming when he became deeply disturbed by the violent actions of his character and was hesitant about proceeding with the scene. Zombie pulled the actor aside and reminded him that “art is not safe.” The popularity of Titus Andronicus, and the rise of the horror sub-genre called “torture porn” in the 2000s, stand as examples that art is not always safe. Connected across centuries, these examples can show us that the world needs unsafe art.
To get started, we must establish the elements of a sub-genre. The sub-genre that is up for discussion is a direct offshoot of the horror genre known as the splatter film. Between 2003 and 2009, there was a resurgence of the 1970s original splatter film, with a very noticeable difference. The splatter films that were released following 9/11 lacked metaphor and depth. These films did not use horror as a platform for an existential conversation on humanity.
Instead, these new films exploited and ante-up’d on the visceral gore and sexual exploitation. The film critic David Edelstein was the first to use the phrase “torture porn” to describe these new horror films. These films include gratuitous scenes of body mutilation and sadistic sexual violence. It is hard to say if these moments of gore and violence advance the plot because these moments are the plot.
When juxtaposed against the rest of Shakespeare’s canon of tragedy – that include the well-known Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and Macbeth – Titus Andronicus is drowning in viscera and sexual deviance. Critics often refer to the play as “excessively bloody.” In the play’s first Act, “[…] Alarbus’ limbs are lopped / and entrails feed the sacrificing fire, / Whose smoke like incense doth perfume the sky” (1.1 146-148). In the same scene, references are made to the consummation of a wedding bed. Act One finds itself layered in blood and dismembered body parts, as it celebrates royal marriage. There is no deep thematic reasoning behind this action, it is merely the plot of Act One, which also includes the title character killing his own son out of displeasure that his son does not respect the emperor of Rome. It is violence and blood for the sake of violence and blood.
Titus Andronicus is a tragedy that ends with a mother consuming the dead flesh of her sons, in a pie that has been prepared by the title character as a means of revenge. Revenge for what? That is the grisly moment the play is famously known for – the rape and mutilation of Titus’ daughter Lavinia. Captured in the woods as a victim of another revenge plot, Lavinia is brutally sexually assaulted, and has both her hands and her tongue cut off so that she cannot identify her rapists. It’s a violent and gory moment in the play, and when performed with full effects can border on farce in its bloodiness and viscera. This is sexual violence and body mutilation for the sake of violence. The audience is forced to bear witness and becomes farther entrapped in the violence of the narrative.
The most famous films that make up the sub-genre called “torture porn” also exhibit moments of pure gore and violence. Much as the audience is trapped watching the horrific violence unfold on stage in Titus Andronicus, so are movie-goers forced to be tortured along with those on screen. In a final scene from Eli Roth’s Hostel, a character has her distended eyeball cut at the nerve with a pair of rusty scissors. Saw II sees a character fall into a pit of used hypodermic needs, another character dissolves her hand in a jar of acid. Meanwhile, the camera doesn’t look away, making the audience become both the victim and the torturer.
What makes this qualify as art? Is it enough that both are textual examples of story – one a stage play and the other a film script? T.S. Eliot argued that Titus Andronicus was “one of the stupidest and uninspired” plays that Shakespeare ever wrote. While the Saw franchise has been called “crap” by various film critics and audience members. Yet, audiences still attend. Performances of Titus Andronicus were popular, and the tragedy “delighted audiences of the 1590s.” In his play Bartholomew Fair, Ben Jonson referred to Titus Andronicus as a “famous old crowd-pleaser.” The original Saw movie made 103.9 million dollars at the box office, and went on to become an eight-movie series. Hostel made 80.9 million dollars at the box office, and the sequel was even more over-the-top in its violence and sexuality. Does art always need an audience?
While we can never definitively settle on a meaning of art, both Titus Andronicus and the “torture porn” movies of the 2000s pushed audiences beyond their comfort zones. In unsafe territory, these narratives of gore, violence, and sexuality allowed audience members to disengage from reality and become both a victim and a torturer. By making unsafe art, Shakespeare and the screenwriters of a horror sub-genre gave audiences a safe place to find escape into violence instead of continuing to run from it. And that might be the most cathartic art form of all.