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The Appeal of the Hostel Films

Lots of discussion about Hostel (by which I mean both I and II) seems to center around the films' gore (particularly the accusation that the movies are "torture porn") and the psychology of the films' fans. The latter debate, especially, seems to center on the contention that the fans of Hostel are somehow twisted or warped--that they are desensitized to torture or, worse, get off on seeing people tortured. Hence, people who don't like the films often feel the need to voice moral outrage that the films are both produced and enjoyed. Personally, I find it ridiculous that fans are put into the position of having to defend their character...all because they dared to enjoy a film that someone else did not. (A "someone else" who usually just needs to learn that his/her subjective preferences are just that...subjective!

I am taking the time to offer a rebuttal to all the critics who feel the need to trash these films and attack the films’ fans...instead of simply agreeing to disagree. (WARNING: SPOILERS!!!)


I'd like to provide a number of reasons that one might enjoy or be engrossed by Hostel...reasons which most would agree have no bearing on anyone's moral character or mental health:

NOTE: Most of these reasons are overlapping, so please excuse if it seems repetitive at times.

1. Personal security. Most of us go through our lives believing that seriously bad things (e.g., natural disasters, accidents, illness, violence) are not going to happen to US; they only happen to other people. We can go about our lives, from place to place, including abroad, in more or less total safety! And, if something "seriously bad" does happen to us, it will at least be normal and allow us to keep our dignity. However, Hostel completely undoes that security, at least for a moment. It disrupts our metaphorical bubble of safety, if only on a hypothetical level. We may regain our sense of safety upon leaving the theater or turning off the DVD, but while watching, we are left realizing we're possibly not so safe after all. That has a way of engaging the mind and drawing viewers into the film.

2. Faith in others. We know a lot of people who are close to us--friends, family, classmates, co-workers, religious leaders, etc. And, we tend to assume that these people are normal, in the sense of being basically moral, law-abiding, well-intentioned, and more or less mentally healthy. At worse, they may be a little bit weird or "off," right? We kind of assume they're not into anything that we'd find excessively bizarre, disturbing, or immoral. (After all, do you ever seriously consider that the stranger in front of you in line at the movies, let alone your best friend or mother, could be into some kinda sick, twisted junk?)

Yet, Hostel defies these assumptions. The torturers in the movies tend to be well-respected, affluent family- and career-people and all around upstanding pillars of society. No one in their lives probably suspects that they harbor a secret desire to torture and kill. For many fans, perhaps, Hostel is thought-provoking in that it makes us realize that such could be the case in our own social circles. Perhaps our best friend might be secretly sadistic like the "Elite Hunting" clients! (After all, if they were, it's not like they'd tell us!) If you're open to it, Hostel can really make you think.

3. Reality. Some movies, such as the ALIEN and HELLRAISER movies, depends upon the element of fantasy--in those cases, science fiction and the supernatural, respectively. The events of Hostel, however unlikely, could actually happen! An unethical hostel could serve as a base for abductions of unsuspecting tourists. There could be a "torture facility" in some country. So far, there is no known real-life "Elite Hunting" organization, but that does not mean the existence of one is impossible! Hostel forces us to think about the reality of such things.

4. Identification with the characters' naivete. In many cases, we feel like we are similar to the characters in the films. Indeed, perhaps we could be them. Who wouldn't want to go to Europe and have a blast--especially in a gorgeous little Slovakian town with a fancy hostel! We'd probably go to the hostel, check-in, and even give the desk guy our passports without even thinking! Then, we'd do all the fun stuff (bars and parties) as if it were no big deal. we may criticize the characters for being stupid, but deep down, many of us realize that we'd probably have made the same mistakes.

5. Identification with the characters' terror. We can understand what the characters are going through. From the initial confusion, to the shock of discovering the situation, to the fear, to the hysterics, to the utter sense of powerlessness. After all, if we were in their position, would we not feel the same things?

6. Sense of impeding doom. As soon as the movie starts, we know what the main characters are in for. We know, more or less, what's going to happen to them and that nothing can save them. As human beings, we have a tendency to be captivated by horror or disaster--such as a crime scene, or the aftermath of a natural disaster, or a car accident. We take no joy in it, and we are usually sincerely concerned for the victims. Nonetheless, it is so overwhelming that we, often, cannot take our eyes off of it. I'm sure that few fans, if any, actually WANT horrific things to happen to the main characters; nonetheless, with the knowledge that it's going to happen, the flow of action towards that inevitable moment is mesmerizing--hypnotic, even.

7. Lingering sense of hope. At the same time, there is always some form of hope. Contrary to the constant accusation that Hostel fans enjoy the torture, I think that most fans actually want the soon-to-be victims to ESCAPE, to avoid their fates. We hope that, somehow, the future victim will make smarter decisions (e.g., Lorna from Hostel II), manage to appeal to the torturer's conscience (e.g., Josh from I and Beth from II), or outsmart "Elite Hunting" (e.g., Paxton from I and Beth from II). While the sense of doom keeps us transfixed, the sense of hope keeps us attentive.

8. Compassion. Again, contrary to the numerous attacks on Hostel fans' moral character and mental health, the main characters can arouse our compassion. We come to care about and feel sorry for those who become victims. Our heart hurts when sweet people like Josh in I and Lorna in II pass on. We feel deflated when Paxton, our hero from I, dies in II. In fact, when one of the torturers (Todd in II) has a change of heart ("redemption," even?), perhaps we're sad to see him lose his life as "reward" for deciding not to participate.

To recap, Hostel has several factors that can draw one into the film, such as identification with the characters, a dualism between doom and hope, and an appeal to our basic human compassion. On a more existential level, it makes us contemplate our personal security and our faith in those around us. Finally, it brings all these to the level of reality.

I hope this demonstrates my reasons for considering the films to have legitimate appeal, at least to some individuals. Just because someone enjoys a film that contains torture and/or gore does not mean that they enjoy the film because of those things--or that they regard either of those positively. Rather, the torture and gore can be seen as plot elements that serve a purpose.



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 11th, 2008 04:17 am (UTC)
Great analysis. I loved "Hostel," thought part 2 was trash, but the backlash against Eli Roth always infuriates me. I think people oversimplify the issues in these movies (I just got done ranting about that in my book, actually).
Jan. 14th, 2008 02:53 am (UTC)
Thank you. I agree that part two was horrible. I loved watching the three boys a lot more than the girls and there was much more character development in the first.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )



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