I would sit for hours in front of the television. On the weekends they would come on, Friday nights and Saturday afternoons. Due to the graphic nature of the programs, they were edited for content. Whole marathons, one film after another assaulted my vision. I was not scared, but enraptured. Mesmerized by the on-screen spectacles of death. Their names are infamous: Jason, Freddy Kreuger, and Michael Myers; the holy trinity of terror. There were other films as well, The Shining, Poltergeist, Phantasm; George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead, countless tales of vampires, werewolves and zombies. Through this weekly barrage of nightmare inducing television, my love for the horror film was born.
After consuming the classics and their many sequels I started to look for more obscure offerings; films that pushed the limits of violence, gore, and what many consider good taste; often magnificently exceeding those limits of films past. Such as Peter Jackson’s Braindead and Bad Taste, Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and Army of Darkness; the exploitation classics I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left. The gore films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, Two Thousand Maniacs, Bloodfeast, The Wizard of Gore, and Gore Gore Girls. Independent, low budget, direct to video, theatrical, if it was horror I would watch it. I would discover new films in magazines, be exposed to horror that was from other countries; the cannibal and zombie films of Italy, Cannibal Holocaust, Zombie, City of the Living Dead. The classic giallo films of Dario Argento, Suspiria and Deep Red. The infamous Japanese Guinea Pig film Flowers of Flesh and Blood, The German, necrophilia films, Nekromantik 1 and 2. Bored with the horror of the mainstream, the remakes of Japanese ghost stories and the derivative sequels and remakes of classic franchises, I began to search the internet; visiting horror movie websites and joining forums.
Through this exploration I discovered a subgenre of horror, the extreme gore film. These movies were held together by minimal plots that served as filler between scenes of disgusting mutilation and death. These films were not available at the local video store, and certainly would never get released in a multiplex theatre. You had to buy them on –line, from retailers or from the directors themselves, paying usually between twenty five and forty dollars for one DVD. I immersed myself in this newly discovered celluloid world. That of the new horror underground. This movement is global, taking place in America, Britain, France, Japan, Germany and Russia. To me the most visionary and excessive, the most extreme and depraved films of this type are originating in America; specifically the August Underground trilogy,and Slaughtered Vomit Dolls.
The August Underground trilogy, August Underground, August Underground’s Mordum and August Underground’s Penance are shot on video, faux snuff films, which look like home movies, chronicling the exploits of several serial killers. Produced by Toetag Pictures and directed by Fred Vogel, they are not glamorous, romantic, or pretty in any way. These films are dirty, vile, depraved and shocking. Full of degradation that takes the form of dismemberments, castration, self mutilation, incest, rape, pedophilia, putrid corpses, those of the dead, and those of the living, who commit heinous acts for no justifiable reason. This is what is so disturbing about these films, the characters in them, and their actions are never explained, they just are. They exist and kill simply because they can. They just as easily murder as they go to get a piercing or go to the video store to rent a movie.
On initial viewing these films seem to have no plot; they are comprised of random violence, death, and the banal activities of day to day life. The first film exclusively records one person, the second film four, and the third film two, predominately focusing on Fred Vogel’s character throughout the trilogy. The participants are without names, some more unstable than others, constantly committing savage acts of violence that inevitably lead to the victims death, be it man, woman, child, or infant. These displays of violence are realized through special affects work that is unequalled in its realism. If there were not behind the scene photos and commentaries explaining how certain scenes of death were created, some might conceive these images to be real. The August Underground trilogy is disturbing, fascinating, deceptively real, incredibly loathsome, and likely the closest thing to actual snuff that has ever been filmed.
Directed by the pseudonymous Lucifer Valentine and produced by Kingdom of Hell productions Slaughtered Vomit Dolls is the story of a bulimic stripper and prostitute, Angela Aberdeen who is dying and gives her soul to Satan. Her disease has corrupted her physically and mentally and between scenes of her dancing and meeting random johns we are allowed access into her mind. The demise of her personality which leads to her ultimate death is illustrated through scenes of women and men getting murdered; while at the same time being vomited on by a single man or vomiting by themselves. The murder sequences are incredibly brutal, prolonged scenes of violent maiming and equally violent extended purging sessions. The gouging out of eyes, the face ripped off a skull of a still living victim, amputation of limbs, the top of one’s head incredibly removed with a buzz saw allowing access to the brain. All of this mutilation concurrent with seemingly endless geysers of vomit, enabled sometimes by severed limbs, and just as often by nothing at all, occurring in a spontaneous, effortless manner, is audacious in its presentation.
Literally a visual and aural onslaught of grossness, Slaughtered Vomit Dolls is akin to a De Sade novel come to life in Technicolor. A devastating invasion on the senses, disgusting, outrageous, obscene, sad, surreal, and nihilistic, the film paints a picture with blood and vomit on the canvas that is the television screen, a portrait of the destruction of the mind and body of the self. The above trilogy and this film attain a commonality in their depiction of death. These films present various manifestations of extreme physical and mental horror in totally uncompromising fashion, indicative of the new underground horror movement.
These new horror films are transgressive, subverting the horror genre that precedes them, creating films that are unlike anything that has come before them. As a result of their absolute willingness to not follow the current trend in acceptable horror, these films are original visions. These visions illustrate I believe a greater awareness, an acknowledgment of cultural taboo and fears; specifically those of the body and its defilement. These artists of film are not afraid, to create new, offensive, thought provoking works, that are progressive in that they do not play it safe, they take risks, in spite of the possible exclusion from a larger horror community. I am a horror devotee, who traveled to Camp Crystal Lake and Elm Street on the weekends, and discovered the classics of the genre, to eventually bear witness to those few who defile a preconceived notion of horror, being born anew out of the underground.
Through my examination of Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror: or Paradoxes of the Heart and Cynthia A. Freelands’ The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror, I will begin to explore the genre of horror through a philosophical lens. I will focus on several of Carroll’s and Freeland’s notions concerning what horror is and what function or purpose horror serves a form of entertainment. I will also analyze several contemporary horror films, and I will use Carroll and Freeland to buttress my analysis of French and underground American horror films in particular. Noel Carroll attempts to define horror, or what he terms “art-horror,” by analyzing emotions and what he calls the “paradoxes” inherent to the genre. Carroll asks the question: “how can anyone be frightened by what they know does not exist, and… why would anyone ever be interested in horror, since being horrified is so unpleasant?” (8). Freeland argues that horror films offer “fictive or symbolic representations of evil,” as she states that “horror films provide one… large…accessible body of material for symbolizing evil;” however, Freelend is concerned with whether or not the films can accomplish these symbolic representations “interestingly.” Freeland asks if the films are capable of offering “rich, varied, subtle, and complex views on the nature of evil? … [Can they] afford us ways of mediating on death … [on] limitations of the flesh, and our tiny place in the cosmos…?” (2). Freeland argues that horror films offer all of this and more. As she analyzes horror films, she pays close attention to the films conceptions of evil, and how these conceptions are represented on the screen.
In The Philosophy of Horror, Noel Carroll argues that “‘Art-horror’ … is meant to refer to the product of a genre that crystallized … around the time of the publication of Frankenstein … and that has persisted, often cyclically, through the novels and plays of the nineteenth century and the literature, comic books, pulp magazines, and films of the twentieth” (13). This genre gains its title “…from the emotion it characteristically or rather ideally promotes; this emotion constitutes the identifying mark of horror” (14). Horrific works, works which are designed to produce an emotional response, Carroll terms art-horror (15). “Art-horror,” Carroll argues, “names the emotion that the creators of the genre have perennially sought to instill in their audiences, though they undoubtedly would be more disposed to call this emotion ‘horror’ rather than ‘art-horror’” (24). Carroll’s pedantic definition relies on several components, foremost that “… the monster is regarded as threatening and impure” (28). “Feces … spittle, blood, tears, sweat, hair clippings, vomit, nail clippings, pieces of flesh … rotting and disintegrating things … formless … magnifications of creatures … already judged impure and interstitial in the culture” are the staples of the horror genre (32-3). “Categorical incompleteness is … a standard feature of the monsters of horror; ghosts … zombies … without eyes, arms, legs, or skin … are in some advanced state of disintegration … detached body parts … severed heads … hands,” these things are an “un-natural relative to a culture’s conceptual scheme of nature… they violate it… They are threats to common knowledge… horrific monsters referred to as impossible… are in a certain sense challenges to the foundations of a culture’s way of thinking” (33-34). These “‘threats’ come from marginal, hidden, or abandoned sites… they belong to environs outside of and unknown to ordinary social intercourse… what horrifies is that which lies outside cultural categories and is , perforce, unknown” (35). At this point, Carroll’s definition of horror becomes suspect; it is too narrow. His conception of horror relegates horror to only being expressed through certain aesthetic or “uncanny” modes. He does not identify as being horrific anything “science countenances” (38), for example, Norman Bates from the film Psycho. This has the effect of discounting horror that takes a human form, such as slashers and the horror of the human body specifically, which makes Carroll’s definition sound less like a definition of horror and more like a definition of pure science fiction.
Carroll addresses several theories of horror including illusion theories and pretend theories of horror. Carroll states, “if art-horror is crucially comprised of disgust and disgust is an emotional response that does not require existence beliefs, then an emotional response … to horror fictions can be coherently sustained even though we do not believe that horrific monsters exist” (78). He engages Kendall Walton and his notion of “quasi-fear,” which “is generated by beliefs about what is make-believedly the case, and this notion supplies the basis for my make-believe emotion. According to Carroll, “Walton never explains why beliefs about what is make-believedly true only give rise to quasi-fears and pretend emotions rather than genuine fears and emotions” (79). Carroll’s concern with the inadequate nature of illusion theories and pretend theories, and the fact that “our fear … seems inconsistent with our knowledge” (79), says of them, “… illusion theorists deal with this by denying that while consuming fictions we know them to be fictions. Rather, we are under the illusion… The pretend theorist denies the premise that we are genuinely afraid… we are only making believe that we are afraid…” (79). Carroll offers a new theorization of horror, “based on the conjecture that it is the thought … that generates our state of art-horror, rather than our belief… . Art-horror here is a genuine emotion, because actual emotion can be generated by entertaining the thought of something horrible” (80). What is frightening to us is not a certain event, but rather the content of our thoughts (80). One does not want to “entertain the content of the representation as the content of one’s own thought” (81). Carroll argues about the theory behind horror, as he notes that it “can explain the kind of anomalies that the pretend theory could and the illusion theory could not. At the same time, the thought theory also has the advantage of regarding our horror as genuine horror” (82). This theory “relies on making a distinction between thoughts and beliefs, on the one hand, and a connection between thoughts and emotions, on the other” (83). Carroll states that “the thought theory solves the problem of how it is that we can be authentically horrified by fiction at the same time we do not believe in the existence of the monsters” (86). “Without subscribing to its existence, … we can be horrified by the content of that thought,” rather than entertaining “false beliefs,” “make –believe emotions”(86), as do the illusion and pretend theories. Considering the genre of horror, Carroll argues that what enables us to be art-horrified are the thoughts that we have regarding the “fearsome and impure properties of monsters” (88).
Considering the horror genre’s largely revolting nature, Carroll addresses the question of why audiences would choose to bring their attention to the horror genre at all. Carroll states that “the works of horror are in some sense both attractive and repulsive”(160), and this dichotomy, he admits, is “an instance of a larger problem, viz., that of explaining the way in which the artistic presentation of normally aversive events and objects can give rise to pleasure or can compel our interests” (161). Carroll argues that “horror fictions are predicated on the revelation of unknown and unknowable-unbelievable and incredible-impossible beings,” and also that “the genre specializes in impossible, and, in principle, unknowable beings. This, [Carroll notes,] is the attraction of the genre” (184, 191). Carroll proposes a “twofold theory,” the universal theory and the general theory, to explain audience’s attraction to the horror genre (190). The universal theory is one of simple fascination, while the general theory involves fascination and includes certain devices that are meant to heighten and keep the audience’s curiosity (190). He also considers that the “two possible relations between the distressful emotions provoked by a fiction (e.g. art-horror), on the one hand, and the pleasure derived from the fiction (e.g. fascination) on the other: namely, the integrationist view and the co-existentialist view” (191). The integrationist experiences an emotion, and that emotion “contributes to the pleasure we take in the fiction;” the co-existentialist experiences a double–emotional effect, or more than one emotion at the same time, with one emotion having precedence (190-191). Here, Carroll shifts his focus and addresses those in the horror community “who seek horror fictions simply to be horrified” (193). Carroll argues that “those who savor the revulsion in art-horror—but not for the sake of fascination—are metaresponding to their own revulsion; … it involves a kind of satisfaction in the fact that one is capable of withstanding heavy doses of disgust and shock… horror fictions may be endurance tests” (193). Carroll shuns this subgenre of horror, extreme gore, and remarks that “undoubtedly, this is not the brightest aspect of the horror genre, nor are horror fictions that are made exclusively to serve this purpose salutary. However, one must admit that the phenomenon exists” (193). In conclusion, Carroll reiterates his “comprehensive theory” of horror by proposing that “horror is in large measure, identified with the manifestation of categorically impossible beings, works of horror … will command our attention, curiosity, and fascination … further stimulated and orchestrated by … narrative structures” (206). Carroll then advances his “thought theory of our emotional response to fiction, which maintains that audiences know horrific beings are not in their presence, and, indeed, that they do not exist, and, therefore…may be a cause for interest rather than either flight or any other prophylactic enterprise” (206). While I do not agree with Carroll’s limited definition of horror, and his obvious disdain and complete disregard for certain subgenres within the horror genre as a whole, I do agree with his assertion that “horror tends to thrive cyclically” (207). Freeland examines the cyclical nature of the horror genre, and she examines in particular the appeal of horror, specifically the notion of evil, by taking a slightly different approach than Carroll in that she performs close readings of several horror films. While Carroll seems to be too judgmental of certain horror subgenres to consider their philosophical possibilities, Freeland, through her close readings, acknowledges and validates several horror subgenres such as the slasher film, and the more recent extreme gore film.
Freeland’s The Naked and the Undead suggests that that horror films offer “fictive or symbolic representations of evil,” and claims that “monsters are at the heart of horror, and monsters are usually—though not always—evil” (2). The horror film genre is enormous, continuous, easily accessible, and enjoys great popularity; however, Freeland questions whether the horror film has the capability of approaching its subject in an interesting, novel, and complicated manner, that considers facets of evil, ways to confront death, the corporeality of the body, and our existence within a world that is horrible in its magnitude (2). Freeland argues that “evil may be very diverse and shifting: It can be localized in a monster like a six—foot cockroach, or it may dwell inside us humans” (2). She regards horror films “as artifacts structured so as to stimulate both our emotional and our intellectual responses” (3). She maintains “that horror films are designed to prompt emotions of fear, sympathy, revulsion, dread, anxiety, or disgust…they also stimulate thoughts about evil… internal or external, limited or profound, physical or mental, natural or supernatural, conquerable or triumphant” (3). Freeland is ultimately interested in “what the movies say” and “in how they are structured to present certain contents” (4). Freeland engages Carroll, and critiques his Philosophy of Horror, when she insists on “producing more extended readings of individual horror films,” arguing that “the more intellectual aspect of engagement with horror films is focused on issues about evil and that it involves more than plot” (8). She approaches the horror monster differently than Carroll, in that she considers “monsters as beings” which “raise the specter of evil by overturning the natural order: … death, the body, god’s laws, natural laws, or ordinary human values” (8). Freeland clarifies her disagreement with Carroll when she argues that “the spectacles of horror – the gruesome wounds, slimy beasts, undead vampires, or exploding heads – may be more central even than plot to forcing our confrontation with evil” (8). Carroll, while acknowledging these “spectacles”, refuses to take them seriously. Rather, she dismisses them quickly as being able to only excite juvenile film goers intent on proving their manliness in front of their friends; and not as being worthy of serious, philosophical consideration. Freeland finds Carroll’s “attempt to hang his definition of the horror genre on the one central notion of monsters too restrictive” (10). Contrarily, Freeland considers horror narratives “to be centrally concerned with evil,” even though she admits that she does not “aim here to defend this … by developing this as a general definition of horror… . [Horror] blends at the edges with many other genres … [including] science fiction and the thriller” (10). Freeland is also interested in horrors’ “dazzling diversity” which is found in such subgenres as “Gothic, mad scientist, alien invader, slasher-psycho, rape revenge, B-movie, cult film, monster, vampire, were-wolf, possession film, zombie, comedy, [and] Japanese horror” (10). Through her exploration of the many subgenres of horror, Freeland’s approach searches “for meaning in individual films” (10). She “[places] special weight on the interplay between cinematic, emotional, and cognitive dimensions,” and she “[focuses] on their attitudes toward evil” (11). She [explores] their ‘gender ideologies’ or use of ‘gendered concepts’ … to examine how horror films answer questions about evil in relation to issues of gender, sexuality, and power relations between the sexes” (12). While Freeland largely approaches the horror genre from a feminist viewpoint, and does an excellent job at elucidating how feminism is incorporated into the world of horror, I found the chapters that came after this, those which explore the notion of the uncanny and extreme acts of physical violence displayed within certain subgenres of horror, to be pertinent to my own fascination with the horror genre.
Freeland addresses horrors related to the body, specifically those envisioned by Canadian director David Cronenberg, as she remarks that “mental horrors … horrors about personhood … force us as audiences into reflexive awareness of our interest in the spectacles of horror and in the actual ‘mechanics’ or mode of delivery of these spectacles… . [Amidst these spectacles, horror] takes on tragic dimensions … [including] fascinating mediations on the nature of our human identity as embodied” (87-88). In Cronenberg’s films, body horror is represented, “through means that seem excessive or extreme” (90) These means include contrast bodily transformations, realism, and the treatment of horror as a form of shocking and yet pleasurable cinematic spectacle (90-1). Cronenberg’s horror, Freeland suggests, is “horror that … actually erupts from within the person… . Quite extreme forms of horror become more intimate, believable, and unsettling… . [We can] feel or imagine what is at stake in an assault on the very nature of a person and on our human emotional and psychological integrity” (91-2). Cronenberg’s horror revolves around the “relation between the body and emotions, particularly anger and rage” (92). In addressing the violence of several of Cronenberg’s early films, Freeland asserts that “critics feel that a movie with such extreme visions of bodily horror cannot be taken seriously” (93). Carroll certainly does not lend a critical eye to these visions of horror, as she does not believe that this type of horror is a valid subgenre. Freeland argues making horror “requires a delicate balance between the presentation of beauty and an utter disruption of the serenity of the image. In movies like Cronenberg’s, this balance can contribute to the exquisite enjoyment of extremely painful and disturbing material” (120).
Freeland next discusses a monster that Noel Carroll was reluctant to talk about in any depth, the slasher–killer. Freeland argues that this movie monster was turned “into the boy next door… . [He] solicited audience sympathy … [and] invited voyeuristic participation in his gruesome murders” (161). Freeland remarks that “such violence [was] often eroticized … [and] showcased by the camera in increasingly graphic and disturbing ways” (161-2). In the slasher subgenre of horror, Freeland argues that “realism is the key factor that differentiates slashers from their predecessors in horror … [in that] the monstrous killers are … living,breathing men” (162); this human “makes himself an ultimate spectacle of horror” (168). While exploring this subgenre, Freeland focuses her attention on one of the seminal classics of slasher cinema, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. In the film, “murder is not a pretty sight… . Killing is both more repulsive and more banal … because it seems more random, mundane, and matter-of-fact … [like] … killing in the real world” (176). Freeland argues that this film places great emphasis on spectacle over plot, and it is this spectacle which drives the narration of the story. The film “moves the viewer through a gradually intensified spectacle into climax and denouement … shocks and announces its gory nature by its opening graphic sequence of nude corpses … reveals spectacle slowly, and the scenes that depict killings play with … viewers emotions in nonstandard ways” (180). The slasher film, Freeland argues, opens “new forms of realistic or naturalistic horror… . [A] possible, hence a realistic, monster, a psychopathic serial killer … kills for no particular reason” (180). Freeland argues that even though “the graphic spectacle of violence … at the forefront of the slasher genre … sometimes makes it difficult to sustain an intellectual attitude toward it” (182). Freeland, unlike Carroll, views the slasher subgenre as having importance because some of the best examples, “open a path toward critical reflection… films that ask us to reflect on the troubling messages that they present about the nature of evil… its association with men … [and] possibilities of confronting it” (183).
Slasher films, Freeland asserts, “raise hard questions about the nature of audience interest in these … figures of monstrous evil … in spectacles like those … [we] see the films as representations; and their naturalistic monsters are still the creatures of artifice” (183-4). There is a scene in Henry where we are forced “to watch what the killer watches, his own crimes” (184). This, “violates the usual rules of both the horror genre … and the slasher in particular: It offers no audience identification figure, nor … [does it ]depict any righting of wrongs” (184). Freeland argues that “realist horror evokes real, albeit paradoxical, reactions. Such films are emotionally flattening … and disturbing” (188). Freeland asserts that slasher films are “highly constructed artifacts … that effectively carry out their aims of evoking suspense and horror … [and] force us to attend to the very problem of moral perverseness that we may prefer to avoid … [causing] an ambivalent thrill as we react to realistic depictions of horrific events we know to be possible” (188-9). Carroll regards spectacle for spectacles sake with disdain, while Freeland argues that “when we watch the spectacle, our interest may not simply be in what is shown … but also in how and why it is shown” (189). Freeland, arguing against Carroll, maintains that the slasher film does indeed contain valid monsters, and muddles the representative area between fiction and reality, accomplishing these things through, “scenes of tremendous visual spectacle” (190).
Freeland now turns her attention to the representation of the uncanny in horror, as she analyzes the film Erasherhead. The world of the film is “dominated by a foreboding of fate or doom that has no clear, obvious explanation… . The uncanniness … is that even death and ugly dissolution can afford a kind of beautiful fascination” (216, 233). Freeland defines the uncanny, as “what literally exceeds the limits of representation by disappearing from view … [which] always involves notions of what is familiar yet foreign” (234-5). The uncanny threatens to dissolve the self, the meaning of things, and the realm of morality. The uncanny is conceived as anitsublime. In failing to represent, we lose our self to unexplained death and are confronted by evil (237). Freeland argues that “the sublime as traditionally defined was morally elevating because it prompted awareness of our own powers (…reflection…moral reasoning)… the antisublime carries the opposite message” ( 237). We cannot define the uncanny object because “it is too strange, vague, alien, or evil… . Uncanny works encourage not elevation but … ‘dread’” (237-8). Freeland argues that films that represent the uncanny effect an appreciation for the world they present to the viewer. We do not have to agree with their message, but it is valid nonetheless and we can consider and respond just the same. Elements of uncanny film include repulsiveness and dreadfulness, and the uncanny film requires us to feel repulsion or dread , to “see” and reflect about the horrors … it presents” (239). This causes us, Freeland argues, to consider with a modicum of seriousness the world that the uncanny horror film shows to us, that we ourselves have created, by virtue of the film being an artwork, which we respond to accordingly; in a film of this type, “evil [is] relentlessly depicted as an integral part of life in the universe” (240).
Freeland, in the last section of her book, discusses graphic horror films. She argues that these films “blast the viewer with graphic gory visual excess… . Horror in these movies is mainly physical and not psychological” (241-2). Freeland, once again, visits the notion of the sublime in her interpretation of graphic horror, as she remarks that “such visual spectacles can be related to the concept of the sublime … the nonstop visions of blood and gore in these films work like a sublime artwork or natural force … so huge and vast that it overwhelms the rational self… . [Graphic horror] solicits identification with powerful forces of destruction… . The traditional sublime required … aesthetic distance … the graphic sublime is participatory” (243). This nature of participation that is found in graphic horror films is disturbing to Freeland. She constitutes graphic horror as being a “perverse sublime” (243). She argues that the graphic horror films “celebrate evil,” while at the same time endorsing “very conservative value systems,” and providing “aesthetic pleasures to devoted fans of the genre” (243). Freeland points out that graphic horror films are not all similar, and can differ greatly in their “functions and affects or in their moral viewpoints” (244). Freeland argues that a viewer can experience pleasure from scenes of extreme gore, in that, “the graphic spectacles contribute to the plot … [and] the pleasures of graphic visual spectacle are associated with delight in a certain sort of cinematic creativity” (256).
To explain the phrase “graphic visual spectacle,” Freeland uses the concept of “numbers,” which are “sequences of heightened spectacle and emotion. They appear to be interruptions of plot—scenes that stop action and introduce another sort of element” (256). Freeland argues that “visions of monsters and their behavior or scenes of exaggerated violence are the numbers in horror: what the audience goes to the films for and expects, what delivers the thrills they want to experience” (256). Graphic horror that is excessive can, according to Freeland, “produce a fused emotional and cognitive response that prompts us to ponder themes about the nature of good and evil” (257); the numbers in graphic horror effectively “become the narrative… sequences of nothing but spectacle, mayhem, destruction, and disaster: blood, nightmare scenes, explosions, attacks” (262). The monsters in graphic horror, according to Freeland, “take graphic visual spectacle to new extremes… . Their presence is linked to frightening displays of forces of destruction that can simultaneously be disgusting yet enjoyable” (268). Freeland relates graphic horror to another conception of the sublime, that of the “Nietzschean sublime.” Nietzsche, Freeland notes, “considered the plots of tragedies ‘optimistic’ … they testified to … basic human resilience … in the face of an acknowledgement of evil and destruction” (269). This “power of destruction was always presented or accompanied … by a structure and beauty in the plot and poetry of drama” (269). Freeland uses the Neitzschean sublime to illustrate the manner in which graphic horror is both incredibly destructive and meticulously constructed, so as to enable the complete subsequent annihilation of physical bodies (270). Freeland goes on to assert that the more extreme the gore is within a film, the “less believable and convincing” that film is (271). Freeland argues that when we fuse graphic horror with the Nietzschean sublime the result is “a kind of amoral sublime … [where] evil is taken seriously in this subgenre of horror only in the sense that it is combined with powers that enable us to laugh at it and deny it” (271). In her conclusion, Freeland states that “horror movies are about the very picturing of evil … the nature of our very fascination with horror … processes of cinematic depictions … pleasures of spectacle … traditions of symbolic representations of evil and monsters … the allure of horror is that such monsters … entertain, perplex, disturb, and provoke us, as they confront us with a multitude of visions of evil” (275-6).
Extrapolating Carroll’s notion of the cyclical nature of horror and Freeland’s close analysis of specific horror films and their appeal, I want to now provide several examples of what I consider to be the new cycle of horror that is originating predominately from America and France. At the moment of its birth, this new cycle began to transgress all that had come before it, exponentially raising the gore within horror to unseen extremes, and at the same time creatively and destructively subverting genre norms.
In America, in the underground horror movement, there is one film that is an example of the slasher genre that takes what has come before it, most notably Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and totally reinvents the genre. There is a scene in Henry, where Henry and Otis the two main characters are at home watching a movie. The movie that they are watching is a home movie, a film in which they murder an entire family. August Underground’s Mordum is a shot on video, faux snuff film, which looks like a home movie; it chronicles the exploits of several serial killers. Produced by Toetag Pictures and directed by Fred Vogel, the film is not glamorous, romantic, or pretty in any way. These films are dirty, vile, depraved and shocking. Full of degradation that takes the form of dismemberments, castration, self mutilation, incest, rape, pedophilia, putrid corpses, and populated by people, who commit heinous acts for no justifiable reason. This is what is so disturbing about these films, the characters in them, and their actions are never explained, they just are. They exist and kill simply because they can. They just as easily murder as they go to get a piercing or go to the video store to rent a movie. The banality of Henry is taken to the extreme. And there are no explanations as to why these people do what they do. No background information is provided about the characters, there is no definable reason why they murder and rape; it is simply what they do with their time.
On initial viewing this film seems to have no plot; it is comprised of random violence, and death. The film records four people, predominately focusing on Fred Vogel’s character. The participants are without names, some more unstable than others, constantly committing savage acts of violence that inevitably lead to the victims death, be it man, woman, child, or infant. These displays of violence are realized through special affects work that is unequalled in its realism. Forcing a man in a coffin to perform a self castration with a tiny pair of scissors, cutting a woman’s stomach open and then having sex with the wound, headless infant corpses, and the rape of a dead child; all of these atrocities are captured in an incredibly realistic manner, which is unrivaled in the horror genre today. August Underground Mordum is disturbing, fascinating, deceptively real, incredibly loathsome, and likely the closest thing to actual snuff that has ever been filmed.
Directed by the pseudonymous Lucifer Valentine and produced by Kingdom of Hell productions Slaughtered Vomit Dolls is the story of a bulimic stripper and prostitute, Angela Aberdeen who is dying and gives her soul to Satan. Her disease has corrupted her physically and mentally and between scenes of her dancing and meeting random johns we are allowed access into her mind. The demise of her personality which leads to her ultimate death is illustrated through scenes of women and men getting murdered; while at the same time being vomited on by a single man or vomiting by themselves. The murder sequences are incredibly brutal, prolonged scenes of violent maiming and equally violent extended purging sessions. The gouging out of eyes, the face ripped off a skull of a still living victim, amputation of limbs, the top of one’s head incredibly removed with a buzz saw allowing access to the brain. All of this mutilation concurrent with seemingly endless geysers of vomit, enabled sometimes by severed limbs, and just as often by nothing at all, occurring in a spontaneous, effortless manner, is audacious in its presentation. So outlandish and vile, are the scenes of murder and violence, the extended scenes of vomiting, that the film approaches what Freeland terms the “perverse sublime”, and also the “amoral sublime”, or Nietschean sublime”. The film is uncompromising in its willingness to present “graphic visual spectacle” in such a manner that the affect in the viewer is awe. The film at the same time causes laughter, because the violence and purging is so extended, the murders so unbelievable and graphic that this is the only response available to the viewer. The spectacles of violence I do not think can be denied though. Yes, we laugh, but we still are cognizant of what is happening before our eyes on the screen, our laughter is a way to deal with the perverse sublime, not denying the power of the images, but instead being fascinated and shocked, by the physical and mental destruction that is taking place.
Literally a visual and aural onslaught of grossness, Slaughtered Vomit Dolls is akin to a De Sade novel come to life in Technicolor. A devastating invasion on the senses, disgusting, outrageous, obscene, sad, surreal, and nihilistic, the film paints a picture with blood and vomit on the canvas that is the television screen, a portrait of the destruction of the mind and body of the self. The above film and this one attain a commonality in their depiction of death. These films present various manifestations of extreme physical and mental horror in illustrating the sublime, in their presentations of extreme destruction of the human body, which is indicative of the new underground American horror cycle.
The French film Haute Tension, (High Tension), is a psychological slasher film. Realistically gory, extremely violent and brutal, it appeared several years ago, and is the film that is responsible for starting the new cycle of horror that is coming out of France. Two college students, Alex and Marie, arrive at Marie’s family farm to take a break from their studies. In the middle of the night, a man arrives in a dilapidated van, and brutally starts murdering Marie’s family. This occurs right after the beginning of the film in which Alex wakes up from a dream in which she was being chased through the woods. Marie asks who is chasing her and she says that it was, “me running after me”. The film presents the uncanny, or what Freeland conceives as the antisublime, from the very beginning. Only at the end do you realize how extensively the film is concerned with the notion of the uncanny, when it is revealed that Alex has actually killed Marie’s family and the physical manifestation of the hulking killer is but the psychological expression of her psychotic lust and longing for her friend Marie. Alex, the woman, disappears and becomes a nameless, destructive force, remorselessly and unrelentingly killing all those around Marie that are, or would want to be a part of her life. This man relates back to the beginning of the film and the dream sequence where Alex is chasing her through woods, when in reality Alex is chasing Marie through the woods, both as herself and this other, that is bother her and not her. Alex’s damaging and murderous lust for her friend; this psychosis, is represented by the notion of the uncanny. This, uncanniness is combined with realistic gore effects, which involve decapitation, severed hands, barb wire being repeatedly slammed into a face, and an extremely gory scene where a buzz saw literally turns the film lens red. Haute Tension is the progenitor to several films; specifically a film that is extremely brutal, yet equally poetic and haunting, À l’intérieur (Inside).
Inside, from its opening frame is bathed in blood. Sarah, is about to give birth to her child, just after a horrific car accident, in which her boyfriend was killed. The night before she is to go into the hospital a woman gains entry into her house, determined to attack and take Sarah’s unborn child. As in Haute Tension, there is a dream sequence near the beginning of the film. Sarah has fallen asleep knitting, and suddenly wakes up, and starts to cough. She vomits what appears to be milk, and then suddenly a fetus erupts from her mouth, and Sarah wakes up for real this time. There is also a scene at the hospital before Sarah goes home the night before she is to deliver the child, in which a nurse sits down next to her, lights a cigarette, and begins to tell Sarah about her child that was born dead, and how the birth was murder. These scenes serve to foreshadow the brutality that is about to take place, when the nameless woman enters Sarah’s house. Inside is excellent at producing tension, and uses lighting, and deep black shadows to great effect, specifically in one scene, where the woman materializes out of the shadows, and then disappears, as if she was not there at all, behind Sarah, The gore is absolutely devastating; scissors puncture the back of knees, cheeks, testicles, and heads. Knitting needles are used to gouge arms, necks, and eyes, and to perform a self tracheotomy. A gun disintegrates half of a man’s head. Flame melts facial futures, and in the ending sequence blood literally runs as if a river down the stairs as the unstoppable woman, who has killed everyone that has gotten in her way; finally accomplishes her goal removing Sarah’s unborn child, cutting into her stomach with her ever present scissors, in effect giving birth to her child, the child that she never got to have, as a result of the car crash that she was involved in, that also killed Sarah’s boyfriend. The woman is the uncanny within the film, totally destroying everything that gets in her way, both familiar and other, culminating in Sarah’s body being literally ripped asunder. The completely graphic excess that is the violence practiced upon the physical bodies within the film is an expression of the sublime. Where in Slaughtered Vomit Dolls, the reaction you had was to laugh at the over the top violence and purging, when watching Inside, there is no laughter, just continuous awe, at the gratuitous lengths the woman will go to accomplish her goal. The violence is extreme and haunting, at the same time. The camera captures the spectacles of violence in such a way, where you cannot deny the power that they have.
Inside, and Haute Tension are the most recent examples along with August Underground’s Mordum and Slaughtered Vomit Dolls of the new horror cycle that has come to fruition over the past several years. All of these films present the viewer with extreme displays of graphic horror, and at the same time serve to represent notions of the uncanny and the sublime in their depictions of characters and the violence that they inflict upon themselves and those around them. I have attempted to, with the help of Noel Carroll’s and Cynthia A. Freeland’s philosophical studies on the horror genre, to advance certain conceptions about the horror genre that they discuss, showing how horror as a genre in some respects has remained in stasis, as in being constructed largely in the same way within the genre (narrative, plot), and has transgressed certain genre expectations, ( sexuality, excessive violence and gore) and also addresses philosophical notions such as that of the sublime and the uncanny; hopefully there will continue to be horror that lets us peer into the world of its monsters, be they human or otherwise, familiar or strange, excessive or subtle, transgressive or subversive, films that allow us to theorize horror in a new philosophical and conceptual manner.
Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Horror: or Paradoxes of the Heart. Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc. New York, London: 1990
Freeland, Cynthia, A. The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror. Westview Press. Colorado: 2000
Dennis Cooper in his novel The Sluts creates a narrative which consists of queer youth and the violence that is enacted upon their bodies. This narrative revealed through the specific discourse that is found on certain internet websites and forums; depicts a physical violence that I argue belongs to the horror genre. Cooper’s use of this certain cultural medium allows his fiction to engage indirectly a disease, such as HIV/AIDS that has permeated the culture. This construction of the novel as a specific form of discourse, in a certain medium, allows Cooper’s The Sluts to be seen as an extension of Priscilla Wald’s charting of the outbreak narrative in literature and film.
Wald charts the emergence of what she terms “patient zero.” Examining literature and films, she illustrates “the outbreak narrative of disease emergence” (Wald 257). Wald traces through literature and film the emergence of HIV/AIDS through analyzing specific thematic and narrative structures, specifically those that are found in horror films. She shows how these cultural products “animate the language, images, and storylines of the scientific studies and journalistic portraits of the threat of disease emergence” (257). These films and novels, these cultural productions, through their fictional stories of outbreak inform the non-fictional accounts of disease that science and journalism produce. She writes that “speech and images come to life and hypotheses are explored in the extended scenarios that fiction can imagine” (257). The language that comprises the narrative of disease is introduced to the larger culture through this fiction, as are visualizations of the physical effects of disease. Wald claims that these horror films and novels are “doubly reassuring as they depict the containment of viruses that are potentially more devastating than HIV/AIDS and as they restore the promise and authority of science in the heroic service of a threatened “Humanity”” (257). Dennis Cooper, however, in The Sluts creates and imagines scenes of violence, sexual transgression and death, uses certain horror tropes to illustrate what occurs after “the outbreak narrative of disease emergence” (257) has not been contained but remains rampant. The non-containment of the emergence of HIV/AIDS forces a culture to adapt to the disease’s existence and create new and previously not needed communities that in turn create further sub-communities that adapt themselves to living with disease. The “authority of science” is no longer trusted, and “Humanity,” due to the re-conceptualizing of what it means to have a body that is diseased, is no longer threatened by a disease, in that this diseased body is not shut away or destroyed by the virus itself or others. Rather, the body is embraced, at least by those who are themselves diseased, and a new way of living occurs, a new way of what it means to be a carrier of a virus, long past the outbreak. Not only is Cooper’s fiction an extension of this narrative, but because Cooper’s work displays extreme instances of violence upon queer bodies, his work is also part of the horror genre. Cooper’s work engages in a discussion of cultural taboos and transgressive sexual practices. These practices include not only “normal” gay sex, but sex that puts individuals, by their own volition, in direct risk to contract HIV/AIDS through practices such as “bugchasing” and “giftgiving” practices that have appeared in the queer community within the last decade. I argue that these sexual practices are connected in Cooper’s fiction with the descriptions of bodies that are being literally destroyed (from the outside) in instances of violence, including murder and rape, instances that are largely considered to be taboo and that transgress “normal” heterosexual and homosexual erotic practices. The physical violence that is acted out on the bodies of Cooper’s characters correlates with the inner violence that occurs when bodies are diseased. The violence that happens within this community portrayed in The Sluts is possible because of the sub-communities conception of what it means to be diseased and both infect and become infected
As a cultural product, Dennis Cooper’s work, specifically The Sluts, goes beyond the narratives of outbreak emergence, to look at the continuing narrative of horror and HIV/AIDS that comes into existence once the emergence of the outbreak has been established. The concepts of pollution and taboo are directly engaged with what I argue to be a large part of the horror that is displayed in Cooper’s text, and also relates specifically to “bugchasing” and “giftgiving” and HIV/AIDS. My analysis of this certain Cooper novel, along with specific discourses of culture, allows me to critically engage the work of Dennis Cooper, and frame my argument that Cooper’s work is not only part of the horror genre, through its extreme violence upon bodies, but also is a cultural product, one that is only able to exist after the stagnation of the outbreak narrative; a specific discourse in itself, that comprises an underlying narrative concerning HIV/AIDS.
While this The Sluts does not directly concern HIV/AIDS and is not considered to be a work of pure horror fiction, I want to examine in what ways this literature forms a tangential commentary, on HIV/AIDS, through the depiction of a world largely populated with young men, whose bodies or body parts are conceived of as exquisite examples of the human form, while at the same time being literally ripped asunder, torn open, and left gaping. Abuse of the most heinous physical kind is perpetrated against these bodies. The horror of this work is not some fantastical bodily invasion from a creature of myth, such as a vampire, but instead a very physical and mental horror, an invasion of youth bodies that is undertaken by mostly adult males who insidiously, subversively, and forcefully invade the lives of these characters, so the adult males can realize their often extreme and violent sexual fantasies that often end in death. This invasion, instigated by adults, and the resulting consequences suffered by the young men in The Sluts, no longer has to be carried out by vampires, or zombies; instead, this invasion is carried out by the human equivalent of these horror creatures.
The Sluts, in its depiction of outrageous violence upon bodies constitutes a work that is part of a thematic preoccupation with both the interiority and exteriority of the queer male body. These queer male bodies are often invaded or rather raped by physical objects, penises, needles, hands, tongues; this physical invasion potentially leads to another type of invasion, that being the invasion of HIV/AIDS into these already largely susceptible bodies. With this invasion, also comes, the discourse that Tim Dean, engages in, which is one that is created out of the emergence of HIV/AIDS; and subsequently the phenomena of “bugchasing” and “giftgiving.” Dean writes, “Barebacking websites…have spawned intriguing new sexual identity categories, such as “bugchasers” and “giftgivers”: bugchasers are those who fetishize HIV-infected semen and want it inside their bodies; giftgivers are those positive men who are willing to oblige… giftgivers consensually inseminate other men with HIV. They transmit the virus intentionally rather than inadvertently, and they understand their actions as creative rather than destructive” (Dean 84). These “creative” chasers and givers romanticize the HIV within them, constructing new terms to describe their “art” that they create with their own bodies. Cooper offers this specific passage directly relating to bugchasers and giftgivers: “ Gorgeous poz top seeks cute, slender, 18-20 year old neg bottoms for breeding. I’ll pound your throat and ass raw with my fat 11” cock then shoot huge loads of poz cum in your ravaged holes. Sero – conversion guaranteed. Also seek serious relationship with a cute, 18 20 year old poz bottom into pneumonia scenes, death dance, lesion wearing, and grave chase. I pay for room, board, medical bills… funeral?” (159-60). The language is harsh and blunt, expressing in no short terms what the advertiser wants to engage in. Dean Writes “…. If part of the appeal of gay sex consists in its transgressiveness (whether perceived or actual), then barebacking could be considered a strategy for reinscribing eroticism within the sphere of transgression” (81). Barebacking, bugchasing, and giftgiving are considered even greater transgressive acts than “gay sex” and through this transgression, the erotic is allowed to return to the act of sex, which for those who engage in these sexual practices seem to have lost, through regular queer intimacy.
These bugchasers and giftgivers therefore must push beyond those conceived rigid boundaries, in the pursuit of ever riskier acts of passion that they, by virtue of their conception, have complete control over. Dean states:
“In bareback subculture the exchange of semen has become heavily ritualized; getting infected with HIV is now understood as a rite of passage, an initiation into a fraternal community from which one can never be exiled. Electing to become infected with the virus entails choosing a permanent identity; it marks the inside of your body somewhat akin to the way that tattooing marks the outside… Bugchasing and giftgiving involve fantasies about making an indelible connection with someone else’s insides” (86).
This rite of passage, with the exchanging of semen, bonds these two people together, forever. You have an initial choice, but as soon as you take that fluid within your body, this is an action, that can never be undone. The infected body is now new, and attached to its old body and the body that dispersed his gift, in effect, “…establishing a corporeal connection, a kind of bodily community…” (88); for instance in The Sluts when one reviewer says of Brad’s ass, “I recommend doing him with the lights on because you can stretch the elastic and look all the way into his beautiful, pulsing guts” (46). This extreme and invasive peering inside of the body, of this abused and used person allows one to see the beauty in the tangled, living, breathing insides of a body. Dean writes, “What we see in bareback subculture is an attempt to invent the rituals that enable a community to come into existence. One does not enter a community… without rites of initiation, and gay men have had to invent their own” (88). This invention of rituals, and entrance into a community, produces a specific discourse, through which those who transgress the boundaries of a sexuality that is already perceived of as transgressive. This discourse furthers the narrative that continues after the initial outbreak. A narrative illustrated through the writing of Dennis Cooper, who from his unique fiction perspective looks into this sub community and creates a world that exists because certain individuals within this community create and perpetuate modes of living; allowed by the proliferation of certain cultural narratives.
While HIV/AIDS is not necessarily the main focus of The Sluts, it is mentioned several times throughout the novel, in a disturbing lackadaisical manner; always in relation to the escort “Brad” and sexual services. In relating a scene of sex and snuff murder in an online forum, the reviewer “Brian” writes, that “…There was so much blood after a while that I had to step back because I didn’t want that piece of shit whore to give me AIDS. Corey, who I assume was already infected, didn’t give a shit. At one point he sliced off Stevie’s balls and accidentally cut his hand in the process, but he didn’t care, and there was blood splattering all over him and even into his mouth… (149-50). This grossly violent scene, in which the destruction of a body sprays blood over the instigators, is a telling example of the characters in Cooper’s fiction world, and their attitudes towards contracting a deadly virus. In this instance AIDS causes fear and one person, and the other person appears to not have any concern at all, even while inadvertently ingesting potentially infected blood. Bigred says of an escort and “I’d always known Stevie was HIV +. I am too, and all that meant was bareback sex was no problem for him. I didn’t know he’d developed full blown AIDS… I was so horny that it would have taken a lot more than a boney face to soften my cock at that moment” (45-6). This graphic instance of a physical engagement that will likely result in the contraction of AIDS, is indicative of an attitude that is devoid of caring, as is “lovesexy’s” attitude toward physical attraction over any concern for his physical safety and well being, when he states, “I told him that his health issues weren’t a problem as long he looked as cute as he did in his videos” (53). These attitudes exist in the fiction of Dennis Cooper, in his community of escort reviewer’s, connecting Cooper’s discourse of horror and engagement with the continuing narrative of HIV/AIDS just as they do in the specific community of those who engage in bareback sex, and are proponents of bugchasing and giftgiving. This is a function of the discourse that is born out of the disease narrative. When a disease or virus cannot be contained, when one must constantly live in a certain state of fear, or anxiety about possible contraction, the attitude becomes one of apathy; there is an inevitability expressed through the changing perception of a certain discourse. A perception that takes the form of resignation, and then of an acceptance of how things have changed, which leads to a desire to reinvent and push forward the conception of what it means to possibly contract a life altering disease, and what the possibilities are when you are living with such a disease.
This reinvention of the conception of an identity, a self, a “reshaping of the body…is particularly worrying-…” (Rose 21). Already established identities shaped by living with HIV/AIDS through the discourse that is promoted by sub communities such as the bareback and giftgiving communities, force the individuals within these communities to re-identify themselves, to create new, and admittedly disturbing identities and conceptions of themselves. Becoming individuals who willingly want to contract and infect others with HIV/AIDS. Rose writes:
“… we are increasingly coming to relate to ourselves as “somatic” individuals, that is to say, as beings whose individuality is, in part at least, grounded within our fleshly, corporeal existence, and who experience, articulate, judge, and act upon ourselves in part in the language of biomedicine. From official discourses of health promotions through narratives of the experience of disease and suffering in the mass media, to popular discourses on dieting and exercise, we see an increasing stress on personal reconstruction through acting on the body in the name of a fitness that is simultaneously corporeal and psychological. Exercise, reassignment, organ transplantation: the corporeal existence and vitality of the self has become the privileged site of experiments with the self” (26).
Add to this list the fiction of Dennis Cooper. The characters in The Sluts constantly experiment with the corporeality of the body, and the psychological effects that are caused by physical and mental violence. The obsession with the body, the “personal reconstruction” of the individual that is displayed in The Sluts is centered on sexual violence that is enacted upon a body for the pleasure of certain other “individuals”. The “self” is concurrently glorified and worshiped, erased and subsumed by those who wish to promote their specific “individuality” in the form of an extreme discourse revolving around HIV/AIDS. According to Rose, “The re-shaping of human beings is thus occurring within a new political economy of life whose characteristics and consequences we have yet to map…” (32). Cooper’s fiction is one possible mapping out of this “new political economy of life” that is occurring within the narrative of HIV/AIDS. Cooper through his fiction grants access to a construction of the “individual” and the “self” that is possible through the form of the novel which allows the immediate and anonymous “re-shaping of human beings” and serves as a mass outlet for the dissemination of discourse.
The Sluts is a novel whose world is that of the internet. Most of the novel is written as a compilation of reviews that are found on an escort service website, and then on a forum that is connected to the escort reviews. Various clients write their reviews of a specific male escort named “Brad”. What these reviews illustrate is the degree to which a community can objectify, fantasize, and obsess over a certain object. This object is not “Brad” as a person but rather “Brad” as a construct. Essentially only a body whose name or physical appearance none of which matters to them, no matter how bad they want to know him in real life, and how his actual appearance and performance rate against a fantasy that is played out in increasingly violent, perverse, and ultimately murderous fashion.
The reality of “Brad” has ceased to matter, as it has become consumed by fantasies that destroy quite literally the body of a person who might or might not be the “Brad” everyone thinks he is. The reviews quickly escalate into violent, obscene postings; instead of being retellings of one off sexual encounters with “Brad” they have become something else entirely, they are the reviewers extensive, grotesque, most desired sexual fantasies, largely comprised of death and excessive behavior that is characterized by taboo and transgressions, for instance: “…my all time fantasy is to murder a boy during the sex act. I’ve had sex with a number of boys who were perfectly willing to be killed, but something always stopped me from going all the way. Brad provides me with the ideal situation… he is also sexually aroused by what we both have agreed will happen” (16). This combination of sex and death pervades the novel, and is what drives the motivations of the reviewers in their pursuit of the ultimate sexual fantasy, one which involves both the total physical destruction of a young body, through the sex act, and the permanent destruction of the body when it is no longer alive. Ingestion of bodily fluids other than semen is a desire, fulfilled when “Brad” is treated as nothing except an object for others pleasure as when, “… he wanted to eat shit out of Brad’s ass… He also drank Brad’s piss for no extra charge… (21). This ingestion of body fluids acts in effect like the ingestion of semen that could potentially cause the person who has put these fluids into their body to contract HIV/AIDS. This ingestion of bodily waste is considered to be taboo, and also transgresses ideas of cleanness and purity that should be attended to in regards of the body.
In Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, Mary Douglas explores the relation between the body and notions of taboo that are found in various cultures at different periods of time. Douglas writes, “But as we examine pollution beliefs we find that the kind of contacts which are thought dangerous also carry a symbolic load. This is a more interesting level at which pollution ideas relate to social life… pollutions are used as analogies for expressing a general view of the social order…. Such patterns of sexual danger can be seen to express symmetry or hierarchy” (Douglas 3). The content of the reviews in the novel for the reviewers and the escort carry “a symbolic load”. The actions that the reviewers want to engage in have a meaning beyond the purely physical sexual aspect, these fantasies and sexual encounters act as a display of power, the reviewers sit at the top of a “hierarchy” that is directly aligned with the escorts. The reviewers have the power to exercise their wills, and the escorts, through the offering of their bodies, grant the reviewers this power, and also exercise the power of that decision. Douglas writes, “What goes for sex pollution also goes for bodily pollution…So also can the processes of ingestion portray political absorption. Sometimes bodily orifices seem to represent points of entry or exit to social units, or bodily perfection can symbolize an ideal theocracy” (4). The escort’s body functions as literal and figural “points of entry” that the reviewers gain access to, both physically through their treatment of the escorts and also through their writings on the escort website and forums. The “process of ingestion”, in the novel works like this, in that it serves to bring the escorts and the reviewers together, but the attainment of “bodily perfection” in the novel operates in a paradoxical fashion. The “ideal theocracy” is one in which the introduction of HIV/AIDS serves to destroy bodies, but in this destruction also creates “social units” for new discourse and politics to be created.
This discourse and politics is created through the exclusion of an already established “social unit”, those who have HIV/AIDS and choose to protect themselves and others by practicing safe sex, and not intentionally infecting others. Those that do not belong to that “social unit”, the bugchasers and giftgivers, those who intentionally infect others with HIV/AIDS, those who in The Sluts destroy bodies in more ways than one, create a discourse that simultaneously includes and excludes, this discourse provides an “ideal” for those that are infected and want to embrace their status, simultaneously being excluded from and already excluded segment of society, and included in a segment that is able to exist precisely because of this exclusion. Douglas writes, “…The Hybrids and other confusions are abominated…These are people who are somehow left out in the patterning of society, who are placeless” (54, 96). In creating this doubly excluded segment of society, and the discourse that is born out of the fact that certain individuals choose to embrace further an already culturally taboo status, largely promulgated through the internet, while still being “abominated” by the rest of the society allows these individuals to be let in to a certain “patterning of society”, one of their own making, they are no longer “placeless”. Douglas writes, “Certain cultural themes are expressed by rites of bodily manipulation… rituals enact the form of social relations and in giving these relations visible expression they enable people to know their own society” (129). Through the giving and receiving of semen, the giftgivers and bugchasers, the escorts and the reviewers give each other through the transmission of HIV/AIDS, the violence and destruction of the body, these taboo forms of “bodily manipulation”, allowing these individuals to “know their own society”; one that is created and sustained through constant and evolving “cultural themes”. According to Douglas, “… social conditions lend themselves to beliefs which symbolize the body as an imperfect container which will only be perfect if it can be made impermeable” (159). For the individuals in Cooper’s world and the segment of society that he is looking at, it is precisely this “imperfect container” that is the body that is to be embraced and celebrated. A body that is “perfect” precisely because of its permeability.
The Sluts in its fictive world creates reality and fantasy, depicts sex, abuse, and murder, necrophilia, and snuff sex films, such as the scene being described here: “… Noll was already naked, heavily drugged, and sitting in a big metal washtub… one of them poured boiling water over Noll’s body while he and the third man mutilated Noll’s face, chest, and genitals with scalpels until he eventually died from loss of blood… the only way they knew he was dead was when his dick got soft… his face looked like something out of a horror movie… they snorted a bunch of crystal meth and carried Noll’s corpse over to this mattress and gang raped it… helped me dismember the body” (40), and also this section, “Tomorrow, Brad’s penis will be amputated… the following body parts have been reserved and are likely to be heavily damaged… his face… his arms will be amputated at the shoulders… his ass” (244-45). This dissection and commodification, and utter destruction of bodies typify the horror that is found in the fiction of Cooper. Bodies are completely obliterated, and harshly violated, what should stay on the inside, for instance, whole and complete, crumbles and becomes useless: “I kept punching until his nose and front teeth broke… I put my hand inside his mouth and pushed down with all my strength until his jaw broke…” ( 253) , the violence is extreme in nature, rather overdone and always seems to be linked to some sex act: “… I shot him in the back of the head. I shot him again in the mouth to make sure. Then I jacked off on his ass” (259).
And in its most abhorrent display of an extremely violent physical act upon a young male body:
“Pulling his testicles sac taut with my left hand, I began the operation. I cut deeply into the northernmost trunk portion of the sac. I quickly sliced horizontally through the trunk until the sac was separated from the escort’s body… the crudeness of the operation was a key component of my fantasy’s enactment…The escort began vomiting, and lost control of his bowels, defecating into the sink … I emptied the contents of the testicle sac into his mouth then taped his mouth shut… While raping him, I asked the agent to remove the tape from the escort’s mouth but not allow him to expel the testicles. I ordered the escort to chew and swallow his testicles… He chewed the testicles and attempted unsuccessfully to swallow them, and it was this horrible and beautiful image which finally triggered my orgasm” (220-23).
Extreme physical violence is mixed with sexual desire, to create an ultimate fantasy that is at once “horrible and beautiful.” This combination of both horror and beauty, caused by the annihilation of someone who is reduced to base, bodily functions, and forced to suffer the removal of his sexual organs, and then forced to eat them, illustrates perfectly the notion of horror that I find so prevalent in the fiction that Cooper produces. This horror is a product of the fetishizing of youth male bodies, and the apparent ability to enter into an engagement with acts that are defined by their disregard for a cultures notion of taboo and what is acceptable according to the standards of the rest of society. This total dissection of the body becomes much like an appreciated work of art, an “image” that through its eroticized violent nature allows release.
The Sluts becomes a collection of escalating queer horror vignettes as such, illustrating the relationship between queer bodies, cultural notions of the perverse and taboo, and transgressive sexual behavior that is an expression of a sub community that is on the furthest margins of an already marginalized community of individuals. The Sluts, through its fictional depiction of a group of people, and their heinous acts of graphic violence against queer bodies, continues the outbreak narrative of Wald, extending this narrative, to chronicle what changes and mutates, when the disease narrative moves past the possibility of containment and enters into the minds and bodies of the collective mass culture over an extended period of many years.
This entrance into mass culture, allows as Dean and Douglas illustrated, the formation of certain communities that often ritualize certain sexual practices, practices that are often regarded as non-normative and outside of the discourse that is provided by ‘normal’ queer actions and attitudes towards HIV/AIDS. Cooper explicitly is concerned with these communities, which allows him to create a world, that functions through the explicit use of sex and the graphic horror of displayed, open bodies, to illustrate the effects of a continuing, ever evolving discourse when communities and society live with disease.
I have attempted with my engagement with the fiction work of Dennis Cooper to illustrate how one might indirectly tell the continuing narrative of HIV/AIDS that emerged with the outbreak narrative that Priscilla Wald discusses, in regards to the beginning of the epidemic. This narrative is traced, told through the graphic and extreme tropes of the horror genre, specifically the ripping, penetration, and ultimate death of queer youth bodies. Cooper, instead of using the fantastical science fiction, creatures of contagion, appropriates a community that has come into existence, when HIV/AIDS has become ingrained in culture as a whole. This community extends a specific discourse of culture that can be found when one looks at concepts of taboo and pollution, and a notion of living with disease, that while not ‘normal’ exists despite and because of the narrative of outbreak, the changing perception of HIV/AIDS since this narrative was started, and the acceptance of an extreme view of a disease that comes to shape the discourse filtered through fiction horror writing. Cooper’s The Sluts, illustrates the marginalized communities that exist inside of an epidemic and their need to create a discourse about HIV/AIDS. Cooper through his fiction is able to examine queer culture, and the discourse that surrounds that culture, specifically the discourse related to HIV/AIDS and to certain practices of individuals that exist in a sub culture of the larger queer culture. Through this examination he gives insight into how the discourse of HIV/AIDS has evolved since the outbreak, and through his fiction imagines a world where the implications of this evolution are taken to a possible extreme. Where a fantasy becomes reality, and then both fantasy and reality are incorporated into a discourse of a disease that is radically different from the discourse of twenty years ago, but nevertheless possible when that disease has permeated culture as greatly as HIV/AIDS has.
Cooper, Dennis . The Sluts . New York City: Carroll & Graf, 2005.
Dean, Tim. “Breeding Culture: Barebacking, Bugchasing, Giftgiving.” The Massachusetts Review 49.1/2 (2008): 80.
Douglas, Mary . Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Routledge, 1966.
Rose, Nikolas. The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century (In-formation). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
Wald, Priscilla . Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (A John Hope Franklin Center Book). London: Duke University Press, 2007.
In William Faulkner’s Sanctuary , the novel is built upon the framework of a crime and detective novel. The framework of this genre influences the progression of the story and the actions and ultimate violence that is enacted upon the characters within the novel, specifically Temple Drake. This violence and its description, how it effects the characters brings into focus another specific genre type that is operating in a much more subversive way through this particular novel, and several of Faulkner’s novel’s that came before and after Sanctuary. This genre would be one of horror. There are key actions and character descriptions that clearly stem from the horror genre, a genre that evokes strong reactions from both reader and critic. Reactions of disgust, and revulsion that lend a transgressive nature to Faulkner’s work. The horror that is displayed within these novels is a specific type, a human horror, a horror of the body and its expulsions. These expulsions are most notably that of blood. Blood that is leaking out of bodies that are violated by usually sharp objects such as knifes or razors, or in one particularly horrifying violation a blunt phallic corn cob. The blood that spilled mostly by males towards females within Faulkner’s novel is important, as it leaves the confines of the body it becomes meaningful beyond the transgressive violation of the physical violence, and as it dries starts to raise questions of racial purity and masculine/feminine constructions within Faulkner’s novels of the Deep South. The horror genre has as its ancestor in that of the Gothic. Faulkner in several of his novels takes the Gothic genre and humanizes it, giving the apparitions that were a staple of Gothic literature flesh, blood, and bodies that are indicative of the horror genre in that they violate normal social and cultural mores.
Greg Forter in “Murdering Masculinities: Fantasies Gender and Violence in the American Crime Novel” investigates the reception of early criticism and reviews regarding Sanctuary. “Henry Seidel Canby insists that the novel leads to, “the end of all sanity in fiction”. Sanctuary is threatening because, “it gives “flesh” “to …. Creatures almost too sick or too depraved to be called human” (85). Granville Hicks states that the characters in Faulkner’s novel are “twisted shapes in the… wreckage of a mad world” (85). A.C. Ward claims the book goes , “too far” , saying, “there must be limits of sanity beyond which literary experimentation can… produce only pathological documents with no significance as works of art” (85). These early reviewers and critics are repulsed by what I would argue are in Faulkner’s novel instances of horror perpetrated by characters that have transgressed the boundaries of human normalcy therefore becoming ‘creatures’ who are ‘sick’ and ‘depraved’. The impetus (their ‘threatening’ ‘flesh’ or blood and bodies) for their violent actions against their victims place them outside of a world that will accept their ‘twisted shapes’. A.C. Ward seems to posit that Sanctuary is not worthy of being considered relevant as literary art. Much like the horror genre, both visual and textual, it violates certain acceptable standards both creatively and culturally to produce a work that is shocking and uncomfortable. The novel, through its physical violence against human bodies illustrates that Faulkner was invested in a certain type of ‘literary experimentation’ that is deeply rooted in the horror genre.
In Sanctuary, Horace Benbow after witnessing and hearing of the violence committed against bodies both male and female, reflects on the nature of evil: “Perhaps it is upon the instant that we realize, admit, that there is a logical pattern to evil, that we die, he thought, thinking of the expression he had once seen in the eyes of a dead child, and of other dead: the cooling indignation, the shocked despair fading, leaving two empty globes in which the motionless world lurked profoundly in miniature” (221). Cynthia A. Freeland writing about the horror genre, specifically films, in her book The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror states, “In horror…evil…may dwell inside us humans” (2).“…suggest we consider the banality of evil…also offer hints of real-life, and not wildly fictive, kinds of evil: problems like child sexual abuse…racism…”(3). Benbow in this instant is realizing that evil is a very human characteristic, that violence is banal, that to combat this violence is futile because it seems to be a constant and never ending occurrence, evil is, “real… as a condition of existence (197). Freeland when discussing a specific sub genre of horror, the slasher, writes, “horror… occurs within and disrupts the everyday” (91). This sub genre usually, “…depicted “ordinary” men who were unable to connect with the reality around them… an ordinary human man who murders women…whose assumed blood lust drives him to a sort of extreme violence”(161). The violence that occurs in Sanctuary and throughout the other Faulkner novels that I will discuss takes place in small rural southern towns, is graphic to extremes and is driven by preconceived notions about literal blood within bodies and often involves sexual lust, both masculine and feminine, and is largely centered around racism, “It lies in threats both from within and without” (197). Faulkner writes, “On the day when the sheriff brought Goodwin to town, there was a negro murderer in the jail, who had killed his wife; slashed her throat with a razor so that, her whole head tossing further and further backward from the bloody regurgitation of her bubbling throat, she ran out the cabin door and for six or seven steps up the quiet moonlit lane” (114), and later, ‘“Do to the lawyer what we did to him. What he did to her. Only we never used a cob. We made him wish we had used a cob”’. Race in Faulkner is a central thematic concern, less in sanctuary than other novels, but these two passages illustrate evocatively that evil and violence ‘dwell inside… humans’ regardless of race, or the supposed ordinariness of a person (for Popeye is impotent, therefore he must violate Temple with a substitutive phallic object). The blood inside of someone, their racial identity does not stop them from spilling this inner blood onto the outside world that Faulkner has created.
In Worse than Bad: Sanctuary, the Hays Office and the Genre of Abjection, Elizabeth Binggeli states, “Eric J. Sundquist argues, for example, that Sanctuary “places misogyny and racism in a broader climate of brutality”…. I will make the case, however , that Sanctuary is fundamentally shaped by anxiety related to the instability of white identity, and in particular, white female identity” (88). I disagree with both of these readings, as I argue that misogyny and racism do not necessarily have to fit into a climate of violence, for they are largely what causes the violence in the first place, the violence and bloodshed is a product of the particular constructed views on misogyny and racism that were prevalent in the South when Sanctuary was written. And this insistence that Sanctuary is driven by an unstable white feminine identity is reductive. Yes, Temple is violated, but it is not because she is lacking a ‘female identity’, rather I see her as having a fluid identity in that during her violation she imagines herself as a man or boy, “That was when I got to thinking a funny thing. You know how you do when you’re scared. I was looking at my legs and I’d try to make like I was a boy… [or]…if I just had that French thing. I was thinking maybe it would have long sharp spikes on it and he wouldn’t know it until too late and I’d jab I into him. I’d jab it all the way through him and I’d think about the blood running on me and how I’d say I guess that’ll teach you!” (216,218). Temple survives and escapes, in effect she is the horror heroine, the Final Girl who escapes from the monster/psycho/killer, who is usually a virgin. Women- I assume in general- in Faulkner’s words are ““impervious to evil”” (112), (which you could argue Temple is, because she did not have consensual, willing sex). Introducing the notion of abjection, Binggeli states, “According to Julia Kristeva, the abject is that which we are driven to expel from our experience: a horrifying, disgusting disruption of the physical realm (vomit, excrement, the corpse, etc.) or social realm ( the traitor, the pedophile, etc.); the abject is the semiotic excess that will not be contained by the tidy systems of meaning we create in an attempt to order our understanding of the world” (93). The abject is constantly throughout Faulkner’s texts. Characters are constantly vomiting, corpses are everywhere, descriptions of rotting and death abound, and acts of violence profoundly disrupt the ‘realm’ of the body and the towns that those bodies reside in. Binggeli states, “To a friend Faulkner claimed he had “made a thorough and methodical of everything on the list of best –sellers. When I thought I knew what the public wanted, I decided to give them a little more than they had been getting; stronger and rawer – more brutal. Guts and genitals”” (94).
“Guts and genitals” have always been a staple of the horror genre. In Light in August there is a graphic description of a woman, Joanna Burden, being found after she has been killed by Joe Christmas: “She was lying on the floor. Her head had been cut pretty near off…he was afraid to try to pick her up and carry her out because her head might come clean off” (91). “Because the cover fell open and she was laying on her side, facing one way, and her head was turned clean around like she was looking behind her”(92). Joanna is white and Christmas is both white and black, their affair was, in that time, most definitely “something beyond flesh” (180). This lust (for genitals) that socially could not be satiated left “the reek of pollution on them” (384). In fact this union ‘beyond flesh’ allowed the townspeople to, “believe[d] aloud that it was an anonymous negro crime committed not by a negro but by Negro and who knew, believed, and hoped that she had been ravished too: at least once before her throat was cut and at least once afterward” (288). Once again, blood and it’s racial connotations breed an image of lust and violence, blood and sex. This perceived pollution, pollution in the blood, incited an extreme instance of brutality, which Christmas could never escape the consequences of, and in fact was repaid in kind for, when he is brutally murdered:
“When the others reached the kitchen they saw the table flung aside now and Grimm stooping over the body. When they approached to see what he was about, they saw that the man was not dead yet, and when they saw what Grimm was doing one of the men gave a choked cry and stumbled back into the wall and began to vomit. Then Grimm too sprang back, flinging behind him the bloody butcher knife. “Now you’ll let white women alone, even in hell,” he said. But the man on the floor had not moved. He just lay there, with his eyes open and empty of everything save consciousness, and with something, a shadow, about his mouth. For a long moment he looked up at them with peaceful and unfathomable and unbearable eyes. Then his face, body, all seemed to collapse, to fall in upon itself, and from out the slashed garments about his hips and loins the pent black blood seemed to rush like a released breath. It seemed to rush out of his pale body like the rush of sparks from a rising rocket; upon that black blast the man seemed to rise soaring into their memories forever and ever” (464-65).
Murdered in direct correlation to his blood if we are to believe what Gavin Stevens tell his college friend:
“But his blood would not be quiet, let him save it. It would not be either one or the other and let his body save itself. Because the black blood drove him first to the negro cabin. And then the white blood drove him out of there, as it was the black blood which snatched up the pistol and the white blood which would not let him fire it. And it was the white blood which sent him to the minister, which rising in for the last and final time, sent him against all reason and all reality, into the embrace of a chimaera… then I believe that the white blood deserted him for the moment, Just a second, a flicker, allowing the black to rise in its final moment and make him turn upon that on which he had postulated his hope of salvation. It was the black blood which swept him by his own desire beyond the aid of any man, swept him up into that ecstasy out of a black jungle where life has already ceased before the heart stops and death is desire and fulfillment” (449).
His blood made his skin darker, but to those around him he was different, or rather, ‘sick and ‘depraved’. Similar to Popeye who was different because of the fact he wasn’t a completely masculine, virile male, this impotence made him, weak, therefore not as good, and certainly not “ordinary”. Just as Benji in The Sound and the Fury is, mentally handicapped, considered by almost everyone but Caddy to be essentially worthless because he cannot communicate, or rather he cannot communicate like the rest of them, which leads to a disturbing act of violence against this man who has no cognitive ability to understand his own actions or their consequences. Through his complete stream of consciousness narration we learn how he came to be castrated: “I opened the gate and they stopped, turning. I was trying to say, and I caught her, trying to say, and she screamed and I was trying to say and trying and the bright shapes began to stop and I tried to get out. I tried to get it off of my face, but the bright shapes were going again. They were going up the hill to where it fell away and I tried to cry. But when I breathed in, I couldn’t breathe out again to cry, and I tried to keep from falling off the hill and I fell off the hill into the bright, whirling shapes” (53). Benji was trying to connect with another person in some way, in any way he knew how, and the result of this transgression of harmless human contact was for him to be emasculated , in a brutal and violent way as once again in a Faulkner text, perceived violations of a sexual norm are punished with violence resulting in bloodshed; which only furthers Benji’s existence as a pariah of the social and cultural community that he is supposed to be a part of. He is aware that something has happened to him, that something is not right, “I got undressed and I looked at myself, and I began to cry” (73). Benji might not have been “ordinary” but he certainly was not a ‘sick’ or ‘depraved’ character and did not deserve the physical violence that was enacted upon him, making the horror displayed in this instance all the more tragic.
Absalom Absalom! is perhaps Faulkner’s least violent book but one that is nevertheless still grounded in the horror genre, or more specifically it’s precursor the Gothic. In Towards a History of the Gothic and Modernism…John Paul Riquelme, writes, “The Gothic imaginary in its diverse literary embodiments has come to be understood as a discourse that brings to the fore the dark side of modernity” (585). Absalom Absalom! is a novel that is engaged in this ‘dark side of modernity’ and the longing for a return to the ‘imaginary’ grandeur of the past. The Gothic presents, “…an aesthetics that challenges expectations concerning beauty, narrative structure, and realism”(587). I would argue that Faulkner also within his novels presents aesthetics that challenges expectations, definitely expectations of narrative structure as is so evident in The Sound and the Fury, but more importantly expectations concerning the history of The South and its inhabitants mythologizing tendencies that are explored in Absalom; along with its through story of miscegenation, which as we have seen is a recurring theme in Faulkner texts. The horror in Absalom is that of the uncanny. Freeland writes, “the uncanny….is what literally exceeds the limits of representation by disappearing from view” (234). What has disappeared from the characters grasps, what they cannot see anymore in this novel is the past, and they are searching for a way to recuperate a history that consists very much of, “blurred boundaries between past/present, vision/reality, and physical or spatial parameters” (234). Riquelme states: “The crossing of boundaries…is frequent and emphatic. The refusal of conventional limits and the critical questioning of cultural attitudes often proceed within a Gothic structuring of elements or with a Gothic inflection. The transformations, adaptations, and other prominent traces of the Gothic in modern writing indicate the persistence of a cluster of cultural anxieties to which Gothic writing and literary modernism… continue to respond”(589). Boundaries within this novel are crossed on multiple levels, most notably the physical/non-physical. There is a connection between the present and the past, a connection that is created tentatively by Quentin and Shreve as they attempt to reconstruct past lives and events which become, “Yes, shadowy: a myth, a phantom: something which they engendered and created whole themselves; some effluvium of Sutpen blood and character, as though as a man he did not exist at all” (82). These young men outline the bodies of the past, “It would not even need a skull behind it; almost anonymous, it would only need vague inference of some walking flesh and blood desired by someone else even if only in some shadow-realm of make –believe” (118); they trace, then fill in the physical actions and events, they participate in a, “ presentation of doubling …[which] “arises from a cultural situation characterized by oppositions of a violent, destructive kind… the destructive and self destructive character of conflictual doubling(592). This doubling is literally illustrated in the novel as the merging of the present and the past, “Quentin and Shreve, the two the four the two still talking…it was not even four now but compounded still further , since now both of them were Henry Sutpen and both of them were Bon, compounded each of both yet either neither”( 276,280). Quentin and Shreve do not simply remember the past, they become the past, they literally become these historical figures whose lives they are trying to recreate or create for the first time new, reconstructing the ‘cultural situation’ to revision a history that is free of violence, and destruction brought on by ones skin color or the blood that happens to be in one’s body they envision, “two shades pacing, serene and untroubled by flesh”… “the two of them creating between them… people who perhaps had never existed at all anywhere, who, shadows, were shadows not of flesh and blood which had lived and died but shadows in turn of what were… shades too…(77, 243). In doing this, “The veneer of fanstasy and a distance from historical realities has become… thin and transparent… (594), as when one character is described, “ as though she were living on the actual blood itself like a vampire” (68). This is Faulkner’s attempt to meld fantasy and reality within fantasy and reality, while also directly acknowledging his Gothic literary ancestry; while simultaneously acknowledging the cultural/societal concerns of the modern period as when, Henry says to Charles Bon, “– You are my brother. – and Bon replies, No I’m not. I’m the nigger that’s going to sleep with your sister(286), that explicitly revolved around blood and its racial purity or more often than not perceived impurity.
Throughout Faulkner’s work examined in the novels previously stated, there is a significant amount of misogyny and miscegenation that is directly represented by the horror genre. Horror as a genre and its understanding is imperative to the basis and subtext of Faulkner’s literary works. Specifically I argue a human horror that emphasizes the violence that is perpetrated against bodies both male and female for transgressing through lack or excess cultural and societal constructions of gender and race. Through adultery, decapitation, rape and racial tension Faulkner creates a literary world of bloodshed that reflects the literal bloodshed of the Deep South during this time. Through his work Faulkner interweaves the Gothic, the modern and I argue many instances of the post-modern horror aesthetic of extreme and graphic violence towards bodies that are penetrated in various ways with various objects to create the ultimate horror, human culpability.
Binggeli, Elizabeth. “Worse than Bad: Sanctuary, the Hays Office and the Genre of Abjection”. Arizona Quarterly, Volume 65, Number 3, Autumn 2009.
Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. Vintage International, Random House Inc. 1929.
Faulkner, William. Light in August. Vintage International, Random House Inc. 1932.
Faulkner, William. Sanctuary. Vintage International, Random House Inc. 1931.
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom!. Vintage International, Random House Inc. 1936.
Freeland, A. Cynthia. The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror. Westview Press, 5500 Central Avenue, Boulder, Colorado. 2000.
Riquelme, Paul, John. “Toward a History of Gothic and Modernism: Dark Modernity from Bram Stoker to Samuel Beckett”. MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 46, number 3, Fall 2000.
Recently horror cinema has begun to die. It has begun to rot and not unlike a movie zombie dies only to resurrect once again in various forms of unrest. As of late those forms have been tedious, derivative, uninspired, and unoriginal; specifically American horror. American horror cinema is content to pump out remakes and incessant sequels. While these films continue to be made because, they are a marketable commodity, and reliable money makers. These films do not want to offend anybody; they have ceased to shock, especially after the eightieth jump scare. The genre has become infused with horror that is anything but horrifying, and has simply become mundane and safe. I think horror and I think transgression. Horror is a genre and a subgenre of films that push boundaries, which make people uncomfortable and excited at the same time. Certain horror cinema I consider to be art. That is they are not simply made to titillate and terrify, although good horror does both of those things, usually at the same time. Horror that is art exceeds the normal restraints of the genre, attempts to create through its displays of violence and terror something more than trash entertainment. The best horror films, are reviled, seen to be disgusting, and obscene and yet, also beautiful, captivating, are praised, and are important, worthy of study and inquiry. Over the last several years the study of horror cinema and the study of philosophy have met and produced many interesting results. Below I will discuss several philosophies of horror, and examine two films that are examples of horror that I consider to be art ; helped by the writings of certain philosophies, I will engage these horror films and explore their significance in the horror community and their importance as cultural and societal representations. These films I argue offer something new. They are a product of a specific time of genre production, a time in which horror is becoming less fantastical and more real. Where the notion of death becomes not something to laugh at, but becomes as real as real life (this is helped greatly by outstanding, extremely realistic special effects work). Where the body is opened in graphic, brutal ways, and in this opening reveals yes, suffering and pain, but also an awareness of what it means to be human and live.
The most progressive and interesting films of the horror genre that have been released as of late are coming out of France. Specifically two films, Inside (Directed by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo 2007)and Martyrs (Directed by Pascal Laugier 2008). Inside tells the story of a pregnant woman named Sarah. The day before she is supposed to have her baby, a woman who has no name appears at her door wishing to gain admittance. Sarah refuses her, the woman tries once more, at the glass patio door expressing anger and violence and subsequently appears to leave. Sarah calls the authorities and they come to check on her, to make sure everything is fine. They leave, suspecting that whoever was trying to gain access to the house has disappeared. Promising to check on her throughout the night they depart. Sarah is at ease and gets ready for the night, falling asleep on the couch, unaware that standing directly over her is the nameless woman from before, dematerializing in the shadows, as if she was never there to begin with. Sarah wakes and takes herself to bed. Sleeping peacefully she is woken in a horrifying manner. She jerks awake when she feels pressure on her stomach, and realizes the same woman from earlier has gained entrance to her house. This woman equipped with razor sharp scissors wants what’s inside of Sarah. The life that she is about to give birth to. When Sarah jerks awake she is sliced across the face and in her pain and terror she attacks her attacker, managing to get herself to the bathroom and relative safety. So begins a vicious, graphic, disturbing assault on physical bodies that culminates simultaneously in life and death.
Cynthia A. Freeland in The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror writes, “… that horror films are designed to prompt emotions of fear, sympathy, revulsion, dread, anxiety, or disgust…” (Freeland 3). I would say that this perfectly describes Inside. You fear for Sarah’s safety, you sympathize with her extreme situation, you certainly experience revulsion thanks to the display of graphic realistic violence, you dread the eventual scene that the whole movie is a prelude to: the eventual removal of Sarah’s unborn fetus, hence this causes the viewer to feel anxious, and the violence reaches such an extreme level, that you are not long in being particularly disgusted. Freeland asserts, “mental horrors…horrors about personhood…force us as audiences into reflexive awareness of our interest in the spectacles of horror and in the actual “mechanics” or mode of delivery of these spectacles… horror…takes on tragic dimensions… fascinating mediations on the nature of our human identity as embodied” (Freeland 87-88). This embodiment of human identity is to me an important part of this horror film; for what is more connected than the relationship of an expecting mother to that of her unborn child? And this specific filmic instance, tragedy is displayed from the first frame to the very last. From the opening scene, involving a car wreck that claims the life of Sarah’s boyfriend whose child she is carrying, to the hospital scene where the “twat” of a nurse in describing the birth of her own children says, “It’s horrible… oh murder, I mean murder…he was born dead”; to everyone that the nameless woman comes into contact with suffers an excruciatingly painful and brutal death, all because of her unstable mental condition after a traumatic incident. Freeland states, “… horror that… actually erupts from within the person…quite extreme forms of horror becomes more intimate, believable, and unsettling… we can… feel or imagine what is at stake an assault on the very nature of a person and on our human emotional and psychological integrity” (Freeland 91-2).
Inside to use Freeland terms ‘embodies’ this form of horror throughout. The nature of the attack against Sarah specifically and all the other victims requires the protagonist to occupy the same physical space as her victims. The brutality of the attacks, the repetition of the many stabbings and slashings that are perpetrated against bodies is if anything believable and deeply unsettling, we do not necessarily need to feel or imagine these atrocities, for we can see them in all of their brutal detail. The camera lovingly lingers, and never turns away from the excessive opening of bodies and the resultant expulsions of blood and other liquids and viscera. The characters person, their physical body is broken and destroyed; devastated as is their emotional capacity and their psyche equally traumatized. As is the empathizing of the viewer towards the characters facing such violating attacks. Freeland says horror cinema “requires a delicate balance between the presentation of beauty and an utter disruption of the serenity of the image (Freeland 120). There is certainly beauty to be found in this film. The cinematography is stellar, and the subtle use of lighting, and the color - a depressed yellow, and overall dingy atmosphere are at once beautiful in their composition; and ruined when blood starts to pour forth and explode. One wants to think that a film so extremely graphic and detailed in its violence and gore cannot be beautiful; and yet there is a certain beauty, a beauty that is exposed through the rending of bodies and the struggle for life against the insurmountable odds of death. Death that, “can afford a kind of beautiful fascination”(Freeland 233). Fascination in so much as the viewer questions to what extent and how much further he will bear witness to the destruction on screen, or at what point might it be too much and he will turn it off to escape certain images that the mind cannot comprehend or agree with. Freeland writes, certain horror “…requires us to feel repulsion or dread, to “see” and reflect about the horrors…it presents” (Freeland 239). The viewer experiences these emotions on a psychic level, a level in which the images and scenes that he is watching become internalized for later review and contemplation. Freeland asserts that graphic horror films, “…blast the viewer with graphic gory visual excess… Horror in these movies is mainly physical”( Freeland 241-2). Inside encapsulates ‘graphic gory visual excess’: faces are stabbed and slashed, hands and bodies are violently impaled, heads explode open and outward, covering people and large areas with gore, faces are burned, and blood eventually flows as a river. Not even animals are safe, as the nameless woman kills Sarah’s pet cat with her bare hands. Freeland states, “…such visual spectacles can be related to the concept of the sublime…the nonstop visions of blood and gore in these films work like a sublime artwork or natural force…so huge and vast that it overwhelms the rational self… [graphic body horror] solicits identification with powerful forces of destruction…(Freeland 243). I cannot in recent memory think of a horror film that would come close (other than Martyrs) in being an example of a sublime horror artwork. The viewer when watching Inside from the opening credits which seem to be laid against a sea of blood and body parts, to the final haunting frame of a child with a mother that is not its own and one that it will never know is watching a film that is uncompromising and total in its depiction of bodily destruction. Inside has transgressed what has come before it within the horror genre, offering up a work of visceral horror and beauty rarely seen; it is a film that displays the body in its most vulnerable, natural states, those being right before death, during death, and after death.
Tony Magistrale in Abject Terrors: Surveying the Modern and Postmodern Horror Film writes that, “The art of terror, whether literary or celluloid, has always addressed our most pressing fears as a society and as individuals. Like any other art form, horror cannot and should not be viewed as separate from its social and historical context; it is nothing less than a barometer for measuring an era’s cultural anxieties” (Magistrale XIII). Inside addresses the fear of vulnerability of extreme bodily attacks, and the sad but true desperate lengths that some will go to obtain what they believe should be theirs. Two months ago in Oregon a woman cut the fetus out of a pregnant twenty one year old and attempted to steal it and pass it off as her own child. The woman and child subsequently died. Martyrs displays the sometimes extreme lengths zealots, religious and otherwise will go to obtain their fanatical goals. Magistrale asserts, “the body’s assault and display become a core element in evoking postmodern terror” (Magistrale XV). Inside is one long assault and display of graphic horror violence and terror. Magistrale says, “Horror art…most often reveals to us truths that we do not care to know” (Magistrale XVI). These truths, in horror are depicted in uncompromising visual displays of human suffering. Magistrale writes of Noel Carroll in relation to his influential study of philosophy and horror, The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Human Heart, “Carroll constructs formulations that link horror art to the religious experience. The horror film puts the spectator in a vulnerable position, taking her out of her own immediate and mundane experience and into a situation that inspires awe , the paralyzing sense of fear, of being overpowered by forces larger than the self” (Magistrale 5). This ‘awe’ which evokes religious experience is similar to the conception of the sublime and its effects in regards to overpowering nature of a force that is out of your control, bodily and mentally. Magistrale asserts that the focus in most horror films is directly, “ on the open wound of the broken body, the resplendently appointed corpse that opens out, to display itself as a visual feast” (Magistrale 16). A ‘visual feast’ that, “reveal[s] something of what is troubling us, and in return we get the opportunity to explore its meaning to our lives …future horror films will continue to provide us with insights about what it means to be human… the horror film demands a certain thoughtfulness, a critical appreciation of its form and meaning as art” (Magistrale 18). Inside and especially Martyrs are films that ask to be watched not cursorily but with a focused, attention to detail and to decipher the meaning of the voice that screams through the body that is being brutalized and broken.
Martyrs concerns Lucie and Anna and their connection with one another throughout their lives; when Lucie was a young girl she was kidnapped and tortured horribly. Finally managing to escape she is placed in a home for rehabilitation where she meets Anna who is the only person that she lets into her life. She begins to be plagued by a violent apparition who attacks her physically. This apparition is a manifestation of her unstable psyche and signifies the physical and mental torture she endured, and the guilt she feels because when she escaped she could only save herself and not other victims of abuse. This apparition follows Lucie into adulthood, where fifteen years later, she attacks and violently kills a whole family, husband, wife, son, and daughter, who she is sure, is responsible for her torture when she was a girl. Anna rushes to help her friend, not convinced that Lucie has succeeded in identifying the true people responsible for her suffering. Anna arrives when Lucie is in the midst of being attacked by the apparition that has plagued her for all these years, cleans her up, and cleans up the mess that Lucie has caused. Lucie, thinking that with the deaths of those who tortured her she will finally be allowed some rest; saying, “They’re dead, they won’t hurt you anymore. It’s over”. She cannot bear the attacks of her psyche and takes her own life. This is where a drastic shift in tone and story take place, changing the course of the movie completely, from an apparent simple revenge story to something much more profound and harrowing.
Anna discovers a passageway that leads to a hallway lined with pictures depicting various people who have been martyred. She discovers a subbasement with of all things a chained and shackled, emaciated prisoner with a metal blindfold stapled into her head. She frees this barely recognizable as human woman and begins to mend her back to health. Shortly after being rescued the woman has an episode where she cuts her arm badly to apparently dig out what was bothering her presumably underneath her skin. She is in a state of high agitation and begins to attack herself violently when she is suddenly shot to death, right next to Anna. A group of people come into the house and capture Anna, taking her down into the recently discovered hallway area and chaining her to the wall. Here she meets the Mademoiselle who explains the tenants of the groups’ philosophy in relation to the extreme torture they conduct and also reveals that Lucie, fifteen years ago was one of their first experimental subjects (confirming that Lucie was correct in her conviction that she was killing the right people).:
“Lucie is only a victim, like all the others. It’s so easy to create a victim. You lock someone in a dark room. They begin to suffer. You feed that suffering methodically, systematically, and coldly…make it last. Your subject goes through a number of states. After awhile their trauma makes them see things that don’t exist. People no longer envisage suffering. That’s how the world is. There are nothing but victims left. Martyrs are very rare. A martyr is something else. Martyrs are extraordinary beings. They survive pain. They survive total deprivation. They hear all the sins of the earth. They give themselves up. They transcend themselves. They are transfigured.”
This group proceeds to torture Anna in a sequence that lasts almost half an hour. It is brutal, violent, unrelenting, and excessive, and within the time of the film lasts several days, if not months. Finally, they deem Anna to be ready for the final stage, and proceed to flay her of her bodies’ skin and set her under halogen lights, amazingly still alive but catatonic, her face expressing a look of rapture, they wait for her to die or survive. Anna survives, is put into a sterile environment, where the Mademoiselle visits her. Apparently the desired stage was reached, for a congregation of people arrives at the house and is greeted with this speech: “Anna…was martyred…an exceptional being. She is only the fourth to have attained that sage and the first…to relate what she has seen…clearly saw what lay beyond death… her state of ecstasy lasted two hours and fifteen minutes. This was not a near-death experience. She experienced authentic martyrdom”. The coda to the film is a definition:
From the Greek “marturos”
Richard A. Gilmore in Doing Philosophy at the Movies writes, “One way of reading horror movies is as katabasis, as a kind of descent out of the ordinary, everyday world to a place where on must confront the reality of death” (Gilmore 127). In Martyrs Anna and Lucie both in their own way ‘confront the reality of death’. Influenced by the philosophy of Horkheimer and Adorno and their conception of the trajectory of laughter in which there is dialectic: laughter at first, then a sudden switch to horror and death (Gilmore 127), Gilmore asserts that, “ The confrontation with death, like laughter, is a confrontation with the “beyond the law” and so helps us to recognize a way back to our authentic selves…the reality of death, its banality, its real horror; death is not something to romanticize or wish for before its time. This…is the lesson that gets one past the horror of death” (Gilmore 128-29). This dialectic that Gilmore sees is comparable to the above mentioned switch that takes place in Martyrs from revenge tale to something wholly different. The organization very much romanticizes death and while they do not necessarily wish for it before their time, they are greedy and are searching for what they hope will be the answer to death in life in other peoples, victims, bodies and minds. Using the philosophy of Freud and Nietzsche in relation to the horror film Gilmore claims that this allows, “a more primal way of understanding the nature of death, a way through experience” (Gilmore 131) Freud said, “the aim of all life is death” (134). I see both Inside and Martyrs exploring this Freudian death drive, but I believe rather than Freud, the philosophy of France’s own Georges Bataille is perfect for an examination of the graphic depictions of horror and death that are to be found in these two films that aspire and succeed to be so much more than a films considered to be part of a specific genre.
Georges Bataille in Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo writes, “we achieve the power to look death in the face and to perceive…the pathway into unknowable and incomprehensible continuity- that path is the secret of eroticism… Eroticism opens the way to death” (Bataille 24). While I am not suggesting that these two films are in any way erotic, I see the extreme physical violence enacted upon bodies in these films to be the horror film equivalent of being able to ‘look death in the face’ and to gain access to a certain ‘continuity’ that is expressed through the constant struggle in these films of life and death and what this means. There is perhaps a certain eroticism in the lingering camera on the open, wounded, destroyed flesh of the bodies in these horror films. Bataille writes, “It is the common business of sacrifice to bring life and death into harmony…Here life is mingled with death, but simultaneously death is a sign of life, a way into the infinite” (Bataille 91). In Inside Sarah’s death, gives life to the child she fought so hard to keep, and in Martyrs , after Mademoiselle speaks to Anna, and is aware of what she perceived in the final stage, she proceeds to blow her brains out, stating what Anna saw, “admitted of no interpretations”, asking, “could you imagine what there is after death”? “No” is the reply and her response is to “keep doubting”, her death, ‘a sign of life, a way into the [supposed] infinite’. Bataille writes, “love and …sacrifice. Both reveal the flesh…The urges of the flesh pass all bounds in the absence of controlling will. Flesh is the extravagance within us set up against the law of decency…Underlying eroticism is the feeling of something bursting, of the violence accompanying an explosion” (Bataille 92-3). Flesh in these films is degraded and violated, it is burst open and explodes in instants of life mixed with death, as the blood is expelled the victims are still alive, but not for long. Both the flesh and blood at the instant of severe rending are beginning to die, simultaneously at this moment the victims are alive and already dead for, “we cannot avoid dying nor can we avoid bursting through our barriers, and they are one and the same” (Bataille 140). Bataille states, a desire to die…is at the same time a desire to live to the limits of the possible and the impossible with ever-increasing intensity. It is the desire to live while ceasing to live, or to die without ceasing to live, the desire of an extreme state” (Bataille 239-40). This ‘extreme state’ a constant in regards to these horror films, very rarely are there moments of serenity and calm. The abhorrent violence that is put on display is constantly being one upped by the next scene of death and dying of spilt blood and tears. These films push the genre of horror forward, in which, “life is the trap set for the balanced order, that life is nothing but instability and disequlibrium. Life is a swelling tumult continuously on the verge of explosion” (Bataille 59). Inside and Martyrs upset the balanced order of the horror genre. They are not afraid to explode onto and into the genre producing in themselves and hopefully in other future horror films what Bataille calls “unlimited transgression” (Bataille 65). These films, transgress the genre to combine extreme physical violence, beautiful technicality, and philosophical meditations on what it means to live, die, and be human; and I for one cannot wait to be martyred, to witness that is, the next evolution in transgressive French horror cinema.
Bataille, Georges. Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo. Arno Press. A New York Times Company. New York.1962,1977.
Freeland, A. Cynthia. The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror. WestviewPress, 5500 Central Avenue, Boulder, Colorado. 2000.
Gilmore, A. Richard. Doing Philosophy at the Movies. State University of New York Press, Albany. 2005.
Magistrale, Tony. Abject Terrors: Surveying the Modern and Postmodern Horror Film. Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., New York. 275 Seventh Avenue,28th Floor, New York, NY. 2005
James Joyce’s Ulysses is especially transgressive in its depiction of the body. The body in the novel is illustrated explicitly: its expulsions, secretions, and smells are meticulously recorded, and offered to the reader through the minds and physical actions of the three main characters: Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, and Molly Bloom. These characters’ bodies are put on display in instances of body horror. Ulysses obviouslyis not a horror novel per se, but in exploring the relationship between bodies within the text as a site of horror allows us to approach the novel from a different, overtly human perspective.
There are many types of horror: slasher, extreme gore, supernatural, and those involving undead monstrosities such as vampires and zombies, comedic, sci-fi. It seems like there is constantly another subgenre within the horror genre being created, and horror that involves the body, in very specific ways is one of these subgenres. This horror is usually graphic, grotesque, disturbing, and violent, hyper – violent. The destruction that is done to bodies in these films at a certain point reaches preposterous levels, and is depicted in ultra-realistic fashion. Skin getting ripped off, sharp objects being shoved into torsos, heads, eyes, legs and arms, babies being ripped out of expecting mothers, castration, irreparable bodily damage. Body horror also is largely about the mind, and what the effects of this extreme body trauma have on the mental faculties of those who suffer. Horror of the body is intimate in its devastation, and has extended the art of horror, both in literature and in film.
In contemporary post-modern horror, especially body horror, the horror film has become something altogether different than what it was. This horror transgresses all the rules, obliterates them in fact. Yes it is horror, it is extreme, but it is also art. As Joyce did with Ulysses in 1922 recent horror has continued to explode the limits of its medium, constantly pushing further and harder to create something new, disturbing, and genre defining. In 1988 a Japanese film, part of the Guinea Pig Series came out called Mermaid in a Manhole. An artist finds a mermaid in a sewer tunnel and brings her home. He begins to paint her, only to realize that she has some strange disease that is causing her to grow giant pustules over most of her body. He paints, as her body begins to rupture. He starts to use the contents of her body to paint his work. She soon starts to deteriorate rapidly, expelling worms and maggots from her body as he hurries to finish his work before she completely dies. The mermaid literally becomes his art, her body fluids the paint, which he puts on the canvass. The mermaid becomes grotesque and horrifying, while what she gives of herself, her literal body, becomes a beautiful, disturbing piece of art.
The pseudonymous Lucifer Valentine in 2007 released Slaughtered Vomit Dolls, followed a year later by ReGOREgitated Sacrifice.These two films follow the life of Angela Aberdeen, a bulimic stripper who is dying. We witness her disintegration and it’s anything but pretty. Vomiting, decapitations, dismemberment, face skinning, urophagia (urine drinking). As Angela dies, so do her ‘personalities’ who are killed off by a man who graphically murders them while repeatedly vomiting, all over and into everything, arms, faces, heads, cups. As Angela dies we see flashes of her previous life, and of her current existence, stream of consciousness put to film. These films push the boundaries of what horror is. Extreme body horror has never been so revolting or realistic.
In these films body horror is intensely intimate. The violence that is perpetrated against bodies in these films, while destructive in its brutality connects the viewer as a witness to the humanity that is displayed through the extreme suffering of the characters. In Mermaid in a Manhole the mermaid of the titleis dying in the most painful of ways, literally exploding and liquefying , in this explosion of life into death, her body becomes the basis and the components of the artists work; memorializing in its image and construction the beauty of this creature that is both human and other.
In Slaughtered Vomit Dolls and ReGOREgitated Sacrifice Angela Aberdeen is dying a wretched, sad, and pathetic death that is mainly brought to fruition by her own hand. Her habits and diseases: prostitution, drugs, stripping, bulimia are complicated by her psychological and physical disintegration at the hands of herself (her eventual suicide) and the man that is murdering her in a mental sense through the excessively violent deaths of her several personalities.
Body horror in these two films is played out in their display of a body (Angela) and bodies (her personalities) that are in pain, a pain that festers on the inside of a person and when released explodes in a self destructive manner that destroys the body but reveals also something else. The horror in these films through the trauma that is caused against certain bodies functions to reveal the humanity of the characters. Their physical and mental suffering eventually gives way to the inherent humanizing experience. They constantly transgress boundaries; body expulsion is displayed on a massive scale, vomit, bile, piss, blood-piss. The destruction of bodies is brutal, devastating, and horrifying. Genres are collapsed, Are these films art? Are they utter trash? Regardless, they transgress the horror genre like few films have before or since.
Body horror in these films is trangressive in that the physical and mental destruction that is displayed pushes the boundaries of reality. While obviously these films are fiction, the emphasis is on the body and the microscopic detail that is lavished on the their complete sundering, which is perceived at a certain level as real even though the audience knows that the damage to these bodies is only an elaborate special effect. Most of the time at least, for the first film in the Guinea Pig Series, Flowers of Flesh and Blood was reportedly confiscated by the FBI after the actor Charlie Sheen turned it in, believing it to be a real snuff film, where actual people were being tortured and killed.
These extreme films in their violence attempt to convince those who watch them that what they are seeing before them is real, that the atrocities displayed are actually happening. They transgress the notion of what horror is. In these films horror is first and foremost connected to the bodies of the characters and those bodies graphic openings and discharges, ending in the loss of their physicality and form, and in the case of Slaughtered Vomit Dolls and ReGOREgitated Sacrifice the loss of one’s mental faculties which is directly linked to the displacement and disintegration of one’s body. The body and mind becomes the site of trauma, a trauma so obliterating that the viewer is witness and discoverer to a reality that while completely destructive, because it is destructive allows the self to be recognized.
In Ulysses through his three main characters (bodies), Joyce depicts what I see as body horror. Body horror is a horror about people, a horror about the self, a horror that is within the body, of the body. The self is under threat by ambiguous dichotomies. The notion of time becomes suspect and the perception of what is real cannot be trusted. Bodies cease to be divisible, death and its preceding physical violence bring them together.[i] Leopold, Stephen, and Molly are intimately connected to bodies; their own and others. Their identities are largely shaped by their perception of bodies.
These are bodies that excite, repulse, excrete, and expel; they are disgusting. Joyce, in these embodied characters, illustrates certain social and cultural meanings given to the body throughout the novel and, these meanings; incite horror and eruptions of the body and images connected to the body. These eruptions occur most noticeably in Stephen in “Telemachus”: “In a dream, silently, she had come to him, her wasted body within its loose graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, bent over him with mute secret words, a faint odour of wetted ashes” …Her hoarse loud breath rattling in horror…“Ghoul! Chewer of corpses!” (U 1.270-78). Death separates one’s body from their soul. The form of the body decays. In this decay there is a never – ending repetition. Those who have ceased to breathe meet the breathing, as when Stephen meets the vision of his mother.[ii]
This vision is a dream of horror, brought on by feelings of guilt, concerning the death of his mother. This vision is also a premonition of the future to come, for in “Circe”, when Stephen is incredibly drunk, who should appear again, but his mother, speaking almost exactly the same words as before, “The corpsechewer! Raw head and bloody bones” ( U 15.4214-15). Throughout the day this disturbing vision constantly assaults Stephen, albeit from his own consciousness which is admittedly inebriated but completely within his head. This vision is horrifying because Stephen, unlike Leopold and Molly, tends to detest physical bodies and is much more concerned with the ‘soul’ of things. This concern results in a state in which a sudden manifestation of his dead mother’s rotting desiccated corpse repulses him in its physicality and its connection with his guilt over his mother’s death. This vision of Stephen’s produces a confrontation and presentation of self that Stephen is trying to represent to others in the creation of his poetry. Body horror involves life and death, and the physical, the fluidity that appears when the body breaches its own form, performing a reversal of a graphic kind. Body horrors graphic displays and incitement of disgust for the viewer become intellectualized.[iii]
Ulysses, while presenting body horror, also presents horror of the uncanny. This horror, this obliteration occurs in the longest chapter of the novel, “Circe”. This chapter is bizarre, graphically violent, surreal, hallucinatory, and full of horrific expulsive body imagery. There is no shame in regards to one’s body, and it’s most private functions: rotting liquid escapes the body, extreme violence is enacted upon bodies, “(caressing on his breast a severed female head)” ( U 15.2620).
Taboos are broken; Life is expelled at the moment of death. Objects are inserted into bodily orifices, in effect feminizing Bloom. In fact, Bloom’s body becomes an “example of the new womanly man” (U 15.1798-99). Both Stephen and Bloom lose themselves, become frightened, and horrified when their representations of the things around them begin to break down and distort. “Circe” is a perfect uncanny example of a fascination that can also be disgusting. Horror is an intense experience, in which the uncanny can raise the feeling of disgust.[iv]Bloom and Stephen in “Circe” at the whorehouse were certainly not in control, and they are definitely being haunted by various apparitions of disgust and horror while the dichotomy between past/present and vision/reality were being torn down. The uncanny can destroy the tangent link between what is real and what is imagined.[v]
To return to body horror, specifically the body of Leopold Bloom, is to know the body in a way that Stephen possibly can never know. Bloom takes pleasure in his body, all of its vile excretions: its emission of fecal matter, the release of semen, the aroma that certain parts of his body exude. Bloom likes to, “Wallow in it” ( U 15.2366) - his own body that is. Our bodily wastes accrue meanings in society and culture. These can be violations of norms. Orifices pass waste that corrupt bodies. One no longer suffers ejection, but rather becomes an active participant who is prideful of (in) his products of waste.[vi]
In the “Penelope” episode Molly is falling asleep graphically thinking about her body and the pleasure she has received from someone that is not her husband, and the displeasure that her husband’s sexual (taboo) peculiarities cause her: “too much blood up in us…its pouring out of me” ( U 18.1122-23). Both a corpse and fecal matter, (menstrual blood) are obscenities. The bodies orifices and sexual organs are the store places for sewage.[vii] Molly has let her pleasure for her body, for her flesh, take control of her ‘proper’ behavior: She likes pleasuring her body, enjoys immensely the ‘urges of the flesh’, but at the same time questions her body, and her ‘big hole’. Food and the body reappear when she thinks of Bloom sucking the milk out of her breasts and putting it in to a beverage. She also thinks of masturbating, pleasuring herself, She moves from self pleasuring to public exhibitionism; ironically she imagines pleasuring Stephen orally and how clean his manhood would be. This in turn gets her thinking once again of Bloom and his proclivities. Molly, in thinking about Bloom being disgusting tries to stop thinking about him, but she can think of nothing else. Molly finds pleasure in her own body, but horror and disgust about her own body when other people want to violate/love her.
Ulysses can be read much like the above film texts. I see in the novel a preoccupation with bodies, the mind, and their various expulsions. This preoccupation correlates with the transgressive nature of body horror and what I argue is the humanizing effect of this violent and disgusting sub genre of horror. The novel constantly pushes the boundaries of reality expressed in Joyce’s stream of consciousness style which is predominately used for the characters of Stephen and Molly. These sections of the novel, especially “Circe” and Molly’s chapter “Penelope” are filled with experiences and happenings that question the validity of the characters statements and actions.
The surrealist “Circe” with its pronounced violence against bodies, and many images of death and “Penelope” with Molly’s intense self awareness of her own body and its secretions constantly reiterate the importance of one’s body within the novel. Bloom also pays the minutest attention to his body and what comes from it, taking great pleasure from his excretions both physical and mental. Throughout the novel reality is obfuscated and damage is done to bodies both real and imagined. While Ulysses is not nearly as graphic as the films of the body horror genre in its depiction of the lives of several characters that inhabit Dublin I see it as transgressive in that it is not afraid to put the bodies and minds of its characters on display in graphic, uncensored fashion and through this exposure illustrate to the reader the humanity in Joyce’s novel that was so startling on its first release and continues to remain just as powerful today.
“Ulysses is an epic of the body” (Bernard 93), I would add horror, after body, for, this is also what Joyce’s novel is. A series of responses to experience that are incredibly body oriented, where for instance, “through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read…in bodies” (U. 3.1-4). Stephen and I would argue Joyce also through his eyes saw the ‘Signatures of all things’ and attempted in Ulysses to impart those signatures upon the reader. For Joyce understood the “joy of creation” (U 10.1074-5). Using, “a kind of language between us” (U 13.944), that transgressed what had come before it and has never really been attempted since.
Joyce wrote, “especially about the body … what we have inside us” (U 18.180-81). He offered in literature an example of “the new flesh”.[viii] Through his text he wanted to“tear asunder. Death. Explos. …Human life” (U 11.802-4). Life is not stable or for long balanced. It is not content to be quite, but rather is always on the edge of an explosive release.[ix] Body horror whether manifest in film in literature, is a response to everyday life and its innumerable perspectives.[x] Joyce in Ulysses pushed the literary limits to create something new. Joyce attempted to explode through, “unlimited transgression” ( Bataille 65), what the novel was and what it had the possibility to be.
[i] For more information on body horror see Freeland Cynthia A. The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror. Westview Press, 5500 Central Avenue, Boulder, Colorado. 2000. Specifically the chapter titled “Monstrous Flesh”.
[ii]For more information the notion of death and the soul see Miller, William Ian. The Anatomy of Disgust. Harvard University Press. 1997.
[iii] For more information on disgust and the various reactions disgust causes in people see Miller, William Ian. The Anatomy of Disgust. Harvard University Press. 1997.
[iv] For more information on the philosophy of the uncanny see Freeland Cynthia A. The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror. Westview Press, 5500 Central Avenue, Boulder, Colorado. 2000 and Miller, William Ian. The Anatomy of Disgust. Harvard University Press. 1997. Freeland in discussing the horror films Eraserhead says of the uncanny, “The uncanny… is what literally exceeds the limits of representation” (Freeland 234). This exceeding of limits I see in Ulysses as Joyce strove to depict the everyday and represent his characters in a way that was new and transgressive.
[v] Cynthia A. The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror. Westview Press, 5500 Central Avenue, Boulder, Colorado. 2000. The uncanny blurs “boundaries between past/present, vision/reality, and physical and spatial parameters… it always involves notions of what is familiar yet foreign, gruesome, ghastly, or concealed” (Freeland 234-35).
[vi] For more information on Disgust and the cultural and societal significance see Miller, William Ian. The Anatomy of Disgust. Harvard University Press. 1997.
[vii] For more information on obscenity and taboo see Bataille, Georges. Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo. Arno Press Inc. New York. 1977,1962.
[viii] Cynthia A. The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror. Westview Press, 5500 Central Avenue, Boulder, Colorado. 2000. Referring to David Cronenberg’s horror films that “have plots revolving around…”the new flesh”…reconfigured bodies with new gender identities and combinations, new sexual capacities, and naturally, new psychological experiences and desires” (Freeland 89).
[ix] See Bataille, Georges. Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo. Arno Press Inc. New York. 1977,1962.
[x] See Mc Elory, Bernard. Fiction of the Modern Grotesque. St. Martins Press Inc. 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY. 1989. “the grotesque is… a spontaneous intuition of the world, a version of reality, a way of responding to experience” (Bernard 184).
Julia twitched in her sleep, a grimace on her face. Her closed eyes, moved at rapid speed. She saw the young boy on the corner; the one with the blue eyes, which streamed tears, and the stitching in his face. It was always the same. The crying damaged boy, who was screaming nothing but silence.
Cole saw her; she was staring at him intensely but something was wrong, her eyes were moving at great speed. This was horrible to look at, and he wondered why he was seeing her again. He was crying and his face hurt, from stitches that the bad man put in his cheek. He screamed violently.
The man thought of the little boy, his favorite so far. Blue glistening eyes, flawless skin, face of an angel, his angel. He was perfect, his best doll yet. He had been lucky to find this one, vulnerable, when he grabbed him he happened to notice the girl, across the street, her eyes, moving, black.
Julia found them; the stench led her to the house, in which there were atrocious spectacles of pain and suffering. Boys, girls, women, men, some animals, reconfigured by his hand, into vile simulacra of what they once were. She found the boy with the blue eyes on the table, his mouth an open, bloody horror.
Cole was crying and screaming. His mommy was there, trying to comfort him, instinctively knowing that her husband should not be the one. He had yelled at Cole earlier and frightened him. He was angry at his eldest daughter, and had lashed out at his little one. He did not know where his daughter was.
Right after dinner, a news bulletin had come on. Apparently one of Laurie’s friends, Julia, had been found in this old man’s house, details were vague, but supposedly he cut his victims up and put them back together to create “works of art”. Cole started to scream, he was in the doorway, silently watching television.
“shh, shhh!, it’s o.k. baby, you just had a nightmare. Mommy it was horrible, daddy was in it, cutting me up, like that girl on t.v., she was in it too, but her eyes were moving really really fast, and were empty, black. Its fine sweetie go back to sleep. Daddy would never hurt you”.
She walked back to the bedroom after comforting her son. “Hey sweetie, Cole’s alright, he just had a nightmare. About that girl on the news, Laurie’s friend. Weird honey, so did I. I was hurting him, when I took him to do horrible things, she was watching me”.
Just then, their daughter walked in the bedroom. “Sorry I’m late, I fell asleep at Tiff’s after the movie, I had the most horrible dreams. Have you seen the news sweetie?”
I pulled him from the dark, into the harsh antiseptic light. Through my gloves he was cold to the touch, and smelled of chemicals, and underneath this, the beginnings of rot. Hands by his sides, the top of his head was gone, obliterated into a senseless conglomeration of skin, hair, eyes, and brain. The intact lower half of his face was unblemished; his mouth was slightly open, and strangely beautiful. I picked the scalpel up to begin the process of anatomization.
He was now open, exposed. His various organs seeming to pulse in the halogen light cast down from above. I knew this was impossible, these organs had ceased to function properly several days ago, long before he had arrived on this steel bed. The illusion was disconcerting, especially with his mouth being open; giving the appearance that he was about to speak, possibly to object to this invasion being conducted on his now defenseless body.
I reached into his chest, lightly touching his malleable insides. I gripped his heart and that was when he began to talk, and the blackness enveloped me.
Come in, come in. I am going to teach you a lesson, one that you should have learned long before now. A lesson about life, but more importantly about death. You dissect people every day, through this cutting you have come to know those that lay before you from the inside out. But what you do not know or really care to know is the way in which I have come to lay before you, splayed for your pleasure. You keep your emotional distance, otherwise you would not be able to do what you do, day after day, corpse after corpse, man after woman, after child, repeat. You disassociate the past with the present, all that matters is there is a new body in front of you, waiting for the conclusive, official stamp of death.
I am here to close that distance, to meld the past and the present, to be your guide as you bear witness to the, way, the truth, and the light.
The sun is almost too bright, at the same time making everything around him become more focused, but also appear fake. The cars, the children and parents, the businessmen, the corner food vendors seem to exist in some hyper reality. No one is yelling or screaming for they have not yet noticed him walking down the sidewalk; have not noticed the shotgun that he is carrying in his right hand, not holding it up yet, but down along the length of his body. He is almost there, just a few more feet. He begins to raise the gun, and that’s when people start to become aware of the handsome man in the expensive suit with the large, dangerous weapon, now those around him begin to run and scream, leaving him alone. He comes to the sign, leans against the pole, sticks the barrel between his eyes, and pulls the trigger blowing half his head off, gray brains splattering against the red sign. STOP.
I understand now. It all seems so simple. Now I can begin again, reeducate myself; learn like I never have before. I can finally appreciate what I have neglected all along. I start with the heart, slicing a small section neatly out with my scalpel, putting it to my lips, hesitantly at first tasting it with my tongue, and proceeding to swallow.
When they found me, I was consuming what was left of his brain, after having finished off his internal organs; mumbling that now I finally see the truth, and thanking the eviscerated man in front of me, for showing me the way and allowing the light to gloriously shine down on his humble disciple of the body.
The knife caresses
Above the navel.
Whispers of the serrated blade
The gloved hand begins to push
Resulting as the blood starts to spill
In the automatic inhalation of breath
The realization that you had captured me
As the crisp white sheets become saturated with escaping life.
Your mouth and lips
Are sweet and sticky.
Your breath warm.
Those others from the past
Flash across my mind.
Images from all those Italian zombie gut - munchers
Putrescent shells, their rotting hands grabbing my face,
Not to kiss, but rather to consume me.
As if I were the vampire
And they the ones with the stakes
Their aim to puncture my chest
And still the beating of my heart.
After all the
Stabbings by knife
Impalements by protruding metal
Bisections with chainsaw
After all of this death,
A faint flick of the hand
And a strong exhalation of breath
AS you pick up your chosen implement of destruction
And a smile cracks the skin of blood on your face, as you begin to walk forward
As blood - spattered and near death
As you may be
You are still my Final Girl.
I look into the mirror
My face erased.
And in its place
When cut into
Not skin and bone
But a structure of gears and pulleys
Caught in a constant loop.
Forever contorting my mechanical lips
Into False smiles.
My eyes are vacant
Like a certain toy doll
Bought, only to be neglected once it is home.
Thrown in the corner
To be constantly pissed on by a cat.
Smiling, enjoying this indignity.
Behind these unlit panes
Lurks another, waiting
When I break and am frozen
A grimace upon my countenance
As when I have inhaled an
And feel as though my head is now corrupted and impure
I find myself only being able to cry
When I realize
That we are from the same
Assembly - line manufacturer
The same - for our consumers’ pleasure
The church that is euthanized
Spreads their message to the masses.
“Thou Shalt not Procreate”!
Population reduction is simple
All you have to do is follow four easy steps
To combat the horrendous explosion of the human
You must practice:
And last but not least
I would think numbers one and four are easy enough to understand.
To many people, not enough room?
Just don’t let anymore in, or if you have already slipped through
Just do us all favor and be an upstanding citizen, for a second, at least,
Until you are lying on the floor, gone from this world, that is full by the billions.
Two and three are a bit more tricky.
Pederasty is still frowned upon, but anal and oral are acceptable
Just as long as you do not procreate.
And you can not just eat anybody
Preferably, snack on the ones that are already dead,
They are just going to go to waste anyhow.
It only makes sense!
You might have seen the churches leader.
A transvestite vegan holding a sign
“Eat A Queer Fetus For Jesus”
Witness the shuddering frame,
Pain escapes, once released, becoming pleasure to excess.
Desire becomes God.
To wallow in filth,
Is the highest expression of worship.
The repulsive, secret waste of the body is so much sweeter, when morals no longer matter.
Sacrifice existence through the erotic.
Attain the inevitable, and embrace death.
To orgasm, spilling dead seed
Existing inside dreams
Is pure reason
As memory escapes
And utopia is found.
Awaken into this Abyss
The beauty is broken
Despised and disgusted
Defiled and death - less.
Escape into enlightenment
Faithless, forcefully fucking as,
God gasps in front of the gaping wound.
His hatred, exposed as he thrusts hard into her darkness.
Indecent actions, irrefutable, as her voice attests
Just like before, killing through excess that which he cannot control.
Loving her strained grimace.
Maybe , she is already defeated and accepting.
Naked and nihilistic, exposing nothing,
Oppressed opinions are liberated.
Queasiness gives way to ecstatic release.
Secrets are screamed (or are they only whispered)?
As the whip kisses her flesh, inviting total abandonment,
In this depravity.
I kiss his plastic lips,
My transformation is complete.
Now our journey can begin, as
Death blooms into love
Each time a breath is exhaled for the last time.
Decide what is appropriate
Images cannot be marketed and visions cannot be watched,
Before being approved, for the masses.
Your rules are nothing but censorship
What is appropriate? And who are you to decide?
A dictator for the morally confused, you control all.
Mutilation and death,
Copious amounts of blood, puke, and shit,
An obese man eating an infant,
An audience should be able to see these things,
Not be told that we can’t by a facist organization
That is supposed to be protectiing innocence.
Your attempts have failed,
When every weekend we go to see yet another display of atrocity, that is restricted seventeen and up,
And have to sit next to an eight year old.
When lying down to close my eyes to sleep
I start on the journey to meet a fate
Though, I do not know it yet, I will weep
For I am haunted by my screams of late
Listening to her voice to guide me through
Standing in front of a single dead tree, lost
I turn around and hope to see behind me, you
I know then that this choice would dearly cost
Like a monolith from the gods it stands
An encompassing cloud of horrid death
pouring down to attack you when they land
To steal from me forever your last breath
But, then I wake to see your peaceful face
Warm beneath the sheets, safely in your place.