I’m teaching Saw (James Wan, 2004) and Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005) right now—and, since I have a pulse, I also can’t help but spare the occasional thought to last week’s US presidential election and to Donald Trump’s stunning victory. Shortly after the election, I ran across Michael Moore’s prescient article predicting exactly that eventuality. Moore described a possible “Rust Belt Brexit,” claiming that Trump would do well in four traditionally Democratic states—Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan—home to many “angry, embittered working (and nonworking) people.” And indeed, against all expectations, Trump won all four of these states. There’s one sentence in Moore’s piece, as he’s describing this part of the country (as well as the Midlands of England), that resonated profoundly with me, not only because I’ve lived in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and grew up in the industrial Midlands of England, but also because I’m teaching Saw and Hostel: “From Green Bay to Pittsburgh,” Moore writes, “this, my friends, is the middle of England – broken, depressed, struggling, the smokestacks strewn across the countryside with the carcass of what we use to call the Middle Class.”[i]
This evocative image of things broken and depressed, of smokestacks strewn across the landscape, of human carcasses—made me re-think what Saw and Hostel (and their sequels) did in the first decade of the 21st century. While they were certainly commenting on a post-9/11 political landscape (terrorism, fundamentalism, war, torture, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay), they also, it seems to me, dramatically represented the death of manufacturing over the last decades of the 20th century, as well as the economic vice that had trapped those workers who were left behind—left out—in the death throes of industry. Two of the most striking things that both Saw and Hostel have in common is that they are both set in the ruined shells of industry—abandoned warehouses and factories—and they both focus on the torture and death of men, an innovation in a genre that until the early 21st century put the victimization of women front and center.
The settings of Saw and Hostel, the places where the torture takes place, are abandoned and derelict warehouses and factories. Both films update the centuries’ old Gothic trope of the haunted castle by trapping their characters in factories haunted by the corpse of manufacturing. The latter’s horrifying, uncanny return is figured particularly effectively, in the Saw films, through the mechanical traps that represent a perverse continuation of the grinding wheels of industry. And in Hostel and Hostel: Part II, it’s the Slovakian locals, thrown out of work by the disappearance of industry (as the taxi driver tells Paxton, Josh, and Ollie); they return as the network that entraps unsuspecting tourists in the abandoned factory-turned-torture-chamber.
That the landscape of these films is like that described by Michael Moore is made still clearer in the smokestack that dominates the exterior shots of the factory in the Hostel films. “Smokestacks strewn across the countryside,” as he puts it.
And while the victims in the Saw and Hostel films are certainly not literally the abandoned working class or the “carcass of what we used to call the Middle Class” (in fact, in the Hostel films, the victims are relatively well-off tourists), the victims in Saw and Hostel are male: it is men’s bodies that are trapped, mutilated, and killed—a distinct shift within the horror film tradition and perhaps a refraction of the plight of the male worker entangled in the demise of manufacturing. The victims of Hostel, moreover, are tortured by what one could read as the new service economy—wealthy businesspeople and the Elite Hunting Club that caters to their pleasures. All have managed to succeed in the new post-industrial global economy.
One character from Hostel seems a particularly explicit representation of the (former) working-class male—the “butcher” employed by the Elite Hunting Club to dispose of the bodies generated by the sadistic corporate elite. He is a poor Slovakian local, one who may well have worked in the factory when it was still in business. Now he plies his trade literally on the bodies of those discarded by the global service economy; he literally carries out the waste produced by (and symbolic of) the death of local industry.
Indeed, the butcher of Hostel evokes the earlier butchers of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), a film that spoke to and of the 1970s recession in the US—that pointedly showed how workers stripped of their means of employment did what they had to, using their now obsolete skills, to continue, nonetheless, to support themselves in a changing economy.
It is also telling that this character in Hostel is a butcher, since, in an insightful opinion piece about how Hillary Clinton lost the working class, historian Stephanie Coontz points to the steeply declining wages of the meatpacker—a job that for decades, through 1979, provided a decent wage and a promise of upward mobility but which, from 1980 on, saw only a long, slow decline and only the death of any promise of a better future.[ii]
Saw, Hostel, and their many sequels, then, all of which defined horror in the first decade of the 21st century, are not only about the post-9/11 political landscape but also the smokestack-strewn landscape of the post-industrial economy; in addition, the tortured male bodies within these films’ abandoned factories can be seen as trapped and mutilated substitutes for the men who used to work in them.
[i] Michael Moore, “Five Reasons Why Trump Will Win,” MichaelMoore.com, http://michaelmoore.com/trumpwillwin/
[ii] Stephanie Coontz, “Why the White Working Class Ditched Clinton,” CNN.com, November 11, 2016. As Coontz puts it: “Between 1947 and 1979, real wages for an average meatpacking worker, adjusted for inflation, increased by around 80%, reaching almost $40,000 per year, a salary that could support a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. But between 1979 and 2012, the average meat packer’s wage declined by nearly 30 percent, to about $27,000.”