Historicizing "Hostel"

Eli Roth's Hostel: invoking a plethora of images of torture that circulated during the second Bush administration.

“One might say that the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses, its reemergence dramatized, as in our nightmares, as an object of horror,” writes Robin Wood in “The American Nightmare: Horror in the ’70s.”  Wood, writing in 1986, makes a convincing case for the value of approaching horror films ideologically—i.e., for resisting the temptation to dismiss horror as something unworthy of critical attention, and for thinking about the horror genre as the royal road to the political unconscious.  Although it has become far more common to look critically at the horror genre in the years since Wood’s landmark essay, our critical faculties still risk being numbed by horror’s power to disgust us.  When faced with the ugliest of horror films—those that offend not only our aesthetic taste but also our liberal political sensibilities—our instinct is still to run away screaming. 

"Innocents" abroad: Josh (Derek Richardson) and Pax (Jay Hernandez).
Nevertheless, it’s important that we attempt to engage with even those cultural texts that seem most despicable.  Eli Roth’s Hostel (2006), for instance, would seem to be the last cultural object on which one would want to lavish any kind of critical attention.  It’s gratuitous, juvenile, xenophobic.  Its scenes of torture are nauseating.  Its obnoxious American frat-boy protagonists objectify women and are casually homophobic and basically go tromping across Europe like they own the place.  But it’s here that Hostel lends itself most readily to critical interpretation.  The film appeared at the height of the second Bush administration, as many Americans (whether rightly or wrongly) feared international travel due to the anti-American sentiment understood to be on the rise since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  The Abu Ghraib torture scandal, which proceeded to unfold in early 2004, inspired further anti-American backlash.   Hostel can be seen as a rather neat expression of American fears and anxieties regarding its global reputation.  Its politics are more complex than one might assume: it both feeds America’s persecution complex and shows an embarrassed awareness of America’s irresponsible behavior abroad.  Our “heroes,” all-American brodudes Josh and Pax, are in some sense innocents who fall prey to monstrous Slovakian torturers (and are sold at especially high prices; see below), but we’re also led to believe that the pain they suffer in the film’s second half is a kind of karmic reward for the rudeness, entitlement, and cultural insensitivity they display in the first.  A running gag involving a gang of street urchins underscores the film’s insistence that it pays to be nice to the locals. 

American tourists fetch a high price in Hostel's Slovakia.

In other words, Hostel might best be understood as perpetuating right-wing hysteria about the threat of anti-American violence at the same time that it wags its finger at those Americans who conduct themselves on the world stage like culturally ignorant frat boys.  But however we wish to read its politics, being able to see the film in these terms requires that we push past our initial disgust or discomfort with its subject matter, vile though it may be.  Let us resist the urge to turn up our noses at those cultural texts that disgust or offend us: as Wood reminds us, it’s there that we stand to find valuable truths.              

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