Do We Need Graphic Torture in Our Dystopias?S

Welcome back to Horrorhead, a column all about the connections between horror and scifi. On Battlestar Galactica, there's an ongoing theme of torture: humans gang-rape an imprisoned Cylon; the Cylons beat a man so badly he loses his eye (not to mention all the humans they kill outright); and there's even a little human-on-Cylon washboarding early in the series. These are not scenes that take place entirely offscreen. We see beatings; we see the bloody, freaked-out face of Six the Cylon after she's been raped so many times she can't stand up and has lost the will to eat. The question is, do we need to see these scenes? Would this series be as powerful without them? And by extension, would any torture-laced scifi flick like The Hills Have Eyes or Cube be as enticing if it lost the mutilations or the razor net that falls from the ceiling and reduces living humans to little cubes of flesh? (Spoilers ahead.)


The answer is obviously complicated. For some people, torture puts any story beyond the pale: a couple of weeks ago, scifi writer Karen Joy Fowler told me in an interview that she refuses to watch Battlestar Galactica because there's too much torture in it. But millions of movie fans have turned near-future flick Hostel, about an imaginary Eastern European country that houses a torture-entertainment center for the rich, into a cult hit and franchise. And the TV series 24, which is also a near-future dystopia, also has millions of drooling fans who don't seem to mind that superspy Jack, our main character, is constantly torturing people with everything from ugly lamps to fists.

Enough has been said about torture porn that I don't need to repeat the arguments too much here. They all boil down to one question: Does watching torture make us more likely to tolerate it in real life?

I had a brilliant professor in college who always answered that question with a roll of her eyes. "Look," she would say, "If it were true that we always did what the media told us, then every single advertisement would work. We'd buy everything we see advertised." Because she's right about that, we know it's not the case that everything we see in the media leads to behaviors in real life. The question of torture then boils down to whether it's necessary for a given story.

Do We Need Graphic Torture in Our Dystopias?S

Let's look at one of the most famous examples of torture in scifi. Canadian flick Cube, which came out in the late 1990s, was your classic, Saw-style "a bunch of strangers trapped in a weird place have to solve puzzles to escape horrible grody death" kind of flick. For people raised with videogames, a form of entertainment where you solve puzzles to avoid dying, the scenario was familiar. And the puzzle was even pretty cool: the characters have to figure out a sequence of prime numbers in order to escape from a giant cube building full of rooms that move around all the time. As they're figuring out the prime number sequence, they venture into rooms that stab them, poison them, chop them up into little cubes, and generally spew gore everywhere. Do we need the torture along with the cool math game? I'd say yes. The entire movie depends on the audience understanding the characters' urgency, but at the same time the scenario is surreal enough that bringing in the torture enhances our sense of bizarre otherworldliness.

Do We Need Graphic Torture in Our Dystopias?

But how about Wes "Scream" Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, a classic cult movie from the 1970s that was just remade into a less-than-amazing franchise? In the original, gritty-freakout movie, a family whose truck breaks down is waylaid by atomic cannibal mutants in the desert. The torture is campy and hideous at the same time. In fact, the entire point of the movie is really the torture, and the escape, of our normal American family. Like Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes is literally about torture and what it can do to you. So the movie couldn't exist without torture, and in fact the torture itself is the point. How will people be dismembered? Where will the blood splatter? Will they really DO that? Without torture, there would be no movie.

Let's return to Battlestar Galactica's torture with these two examples in mind. Unlike The Hills Have Eyes, BSG is not about torture. It's about a horrific dystopia where torture has become part of everyday life. Like Cube, BSG uses torture to explore the urgency of the situation its characters are in. So do we need the torture to feel that urgency?

One might ask the same question about a scene in Iain M. Banks' novel The Algebraist, where we are treated to an intense scene of torture in order to show how evil one particular character, Luseferous, really is:

[Luseferous] had decreed that the final punishment of the assassin should be his own teeth . . . Accordingly, his four canine teeth had been removed, bioengineered to become tusks which would grow without ceasing . . . These great finger-thick fangs had erupted out of the bones of his upper and lower jaw, puncturing the flesh of his lips, and had continued their remorseless growth. The lower set curved up and over his head, and after a few months worth of extension, came to touch his scalp near the top of his head, while the upper set grew in a scimitar-like paired sweep beneath his neck . . . Both sets of teeth then started to enter the assassin's body, one pair slowly forcing themselves through the bony plates of the man's skull, the other entering rather more easily into the soft tissues of the lower neck . . . The fangs burrowing through his skull and into his brain were the ones which would shortly, and agonizingly, kill him . . . This unfortunate, nameless assassin had been unable to do anything to prevent this because he was pinned helpless and immobile against the wall of the chamber . . . his nutrition and bodily functions catered for by various tubes and implants . . . The fellow's ears and mind still worked.
Could we have learned that Luserferous was a twisted person, as well as a dictator, without that passage? Did it need to be so detailed and creative?


Perhaps it could have been less detailed, but I would not have remembered it so vividly if it had not. Similarly, I would not have felt the horror of the humans' and Cylons' situations without seeing Six tortured by humans, and Baltar tortured by Cylons. I am not sure if making something memorable is justification, but it is certainly emotional realism. And in a genre whose entire narrative substance is the unreal, the science fictional, a dose of emotional realism can be potent indeed.