Torture Pornopticon: (In)security Cameras, Self-Governance and Autonomy

In Linnie Blake & Xavier Aldana Reyes (eds.), Digital Horror: Haunted Technologies, Network Panic and the Found Footage Phenomenon. I.B. Tauris. pp. 29-41 (2015)
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‘Torture porn’ films centre on themes of abduction, imprisonment and suffering. Within the subgenre, protagonists are typically placed under relentless surveillance by their captors. CCTV features in more than 45 contemporary torture-themed films (including Captivity, Hunger, and Torture Room). Security cameras signify a bridging point between the captors’ ability to observe and to control their prey. Founded on power-imbalance, torture porn’s prison-spaces are panoptical. Despite failing to encapsulate contemporary surveillance’s complexities (see Haggerty, 2011), the panopticon remains a dominant paradigm within surveillance studies because it captures essential truths about the psychologies of self-governance and interdependency. This chapter will use torture porn’s panoptical spaces and captor-captive relationships as a springboard into examining those broader philosophical issues regarding selfhood. In the torture-space, cameras signify the control to which captives must submit. Since they are threatened with death, the surveillance dynamic appears to entirely subjugate these prisoners. However, the captive must undertake some agency in the oppression. Much of the captor’s implied threat is enacted by the captives, who brutalise one another to save themselves. The captor’s apparent omniscience is translated into omnipotence only because the captives forsake self-control – opting to engage in violent, contra-social behaviours – out of fear. Thus, it is implied that self-ownership is the bedrock of stable, interdependent sociality. To inspire horror, the opposite is depicted: fractured groups comprised of paranoid, self-invested individuals. By submitting to external pressure, these “weak” individuals empower their tormentor. Captives are not only encouraged to enact their own suppression, but also to internalise culpability for the suffering they undergo. Despite being threatened with erasure, torture porn’s protagonists are spotlighted in these films. Abductees dominate the screen-time, and their suffering drives the narrative forward. Torturers are often motivated solely by their victims’ agony. In many cases, torture is designed specifically for each hyper-individualised captive. These forms of emphasis imply that captives are the stimulus for their own victimisation. The captor’s exaggerated interest in the prisoners is perversely flattering: captives are implied to be worthy of the captor’s maniacal attention, which is reified by the CCTV cameras. In torture porn’s scenarios, it is not immediately clear who has greater control over the individual: the captor or the captive themselves. By dissecting how self-preservation, self-governance, and self-centredness manifest in torture porn, this chapter seeks to examine the dialectical qualities of liberty, interdependency and autonomy.

Author's Profile

Steve Jones
University of Northumbria at Newcastle


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