Thursday, July 24, 2008

Hostel vs. Anatomy: The Dangers of a World Devoid of Ethics

Poster of fleshless skull with protruding eyes from German horror film "Anatomy"

Both movies, Hostel and the German production entitled Anatomie, are generic, commercial and rather predictable slasher / horror movies that include gore and violence. Yet they contain an interesting element that separates them from other movies of the genre; surprisingly, they offer food for discussion and reflections about science and human nature.

Hostel is probably the better known, and it has been released to a wider audience. The plot is relatively simple: Young tourists traveling in Europe get caught up in an unimaginable evil scheme where rich people pay for and delight in torturing and eventually killing unsuspecting foreign tourists.

The original idea here is that although one may be horrified about people paying for torturing others with sharp devices, there is a dark hideous part in each of us that may silently, unwittingly accept this premise. According to Freud, we have unconscious desires like wanting to hurt others or to commit evil deeds, which make up the "id" and are “censored” by our executing ego. Given certain circumstances, humans can act like uncontrollable beasts, as war-torn environments, extremist ideologies or situations, such as the cruel inhumane treatment of the Nazis, or cases of consumption of human flesh for survival have demonstrated in the past.

What Hostel shows is not only that given the opportunities humans can perform terrible, unspeakable deeds, but even worse, that they can take delight in them! It is similar to the so-called rush that serial killers purport to feel when killing another person. The fact that I can imagine and accept the premise and scenario of the movie is the most terrifying part of it, and I have heard that tourism in the region has dropped after the release of the movie. A similar feat had been reached by Spielberg with Jaws where many people grew hesitant to go to the beach in fear of shark attacks.

Anatomie is a similar film, but it takes a different angle. A young promising female student goes to an elite university in Heidelberg and finds out that they have a secret "operating" society, an offshoot of the Freemasons called the anti-hippocratic society. In fact, they use living people for live experiments and as such are able to gain more knowledge about human anatomy.

The leader of the group explains that by outlawing such procedures, the Ethics Committee has been counterproductive making advances in science more difficult and cumbersome. In a purely utilitarian perspective, what is the worth of a few individuals versus scientific breakthrough knowledge from which all of humanity would benefit and prosper?

There is an interesting point at debate here. In the past, religion had forbidden any kinds of dissections, whether of humans or of animals, so most philosophers and physicians tended simply to use logic to explain these processes. It was only later through the use of dissections that we have learned not only how animal bodies work but by extension these facts were applied to humans.

There is no doubt that the Ethics Committee puts limits on certain practices deemed immoral in order to protect human rights. And I believe that the research professor in the movie has a point finding these regulations restrictive and constraining for his branch of science. Yet the frightening part about this movie is that such unethical practices and treatments have really existed and continue in our day and age. For another chilling and more realistic treatment of the topic, one only needs to watch The Constant Gardener to understand the modern implications, how pharmaceutical companies used Africans as guinea pigs for scientific experiments, for example.

As can be seen, Hostel gives us a glimpse of our dark nature, whereas Anatomie shows us a utilitarian world where scientific advance is costing people’s lives. Now that is what makes these movies truely scary!

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