I heard on the news the other day that a Cleveland man is suing NBC television for $2.5 million because their program, Fear Factor, made him vomit when they showed contestants drinking a dead rat milkshake. After he puked, he was so light-headed he ran into a doorway and banged his violated head.
Obviously, this is a frivolous lawsuit. I don’t need to argue how silly it is, or to go into details about how he hand-wrote the complaint (rife with errors) or how he refuses to speak about the suit “unless it is a paid-interview situation” (his words).
Clearly this guy’s case will be laughed right out of court. But I don’t want it to be. I want it to be taken seriously. I want them to make the jury watch the episode and decide for themselves whether or not they feel nauseous. No, better yet: I want the court to make him chug frothing rats directly from the glass blender as a test to see whether or not the jury bumps their heads on their way to the deliberation chamber. If so, give him the same amount that any contestant would get. After all, his case is as much a publicity stunt as any stunt that’s performed on the show itself.
But I have to admit, on some level, I do feel sorry for the guy. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but I can’t stomach some of the things that pass for entertainment on “realiTV” anymore, either. Sure, I can write about people getting their guts hand-twisted in some psychopath’s fists. And I even get a good laugh out of seeing someone spectacularly dismembered in a splatter movie every now and again. But when it comes to real life scatology on TV, I’m often physically repulsed.
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy a good dark documentary once in awhile and they often inspire me as a horror writer. In my line of work, they’re research. When I started getting serious about the genre, I systematically rented every video on the “horror” shelf as a form of self-study, and I remember watching tons of “shock-docs” and pseudo snuff — that whole “Faces of Death” genre. I even try to keep up with these things as they’re released or dig deeper into the archives — and in the past three months alone I’ve screened movies that only folks with stomachs as iron clad as a battleship could possibly enjoy (for the bold and curious, those would be: Sick: The Life of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (Kirby Dick, 1997), The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (Stan Brakhage, 1971), Never Say Die: The Pursuit of Eternal Youth (HBO Films, 1996), and Taxidermy: The Art of Imitating Life (Eva Aridjis, 1998)). Heck, I even browse around websites like showmeyourwound.com once in awhile, just to keep my chops.
I know that half of you are firing up your web browsers right now and typing in that internet address. But stick with me for a minute.
You’d assume from all that I’ve confessed that I would have a strong tolerance for images of grue and gristle on the TV screen. And I do. But here’s the difference: a documentary is a concentrated study, usually with some point to it (one that typically goes beyond just watching people making a spectacle debasing themselves for profit). Plus, once you start the film rolling you know that you’re in for a surprise or two, so you can steel yourself up for it in preparation, almost daring them to make you sweat. But on television, even so-called “extreme TV,” you never expect it to actually go over the top and hit you where it hurts, do you? Due mostly to sponsorship pressure, TV has been mainstreamed to the point of banality and you can hardly expect anything to be more edgy than, say, a PG-13 cartoon.
I know what you’re thinking. If those shows “got” to me, then they must be effective chillers. So why aren’t I celebrating gross-out realiTV? Normally, I’d be a champion for twisted stuff, subverting the public airwaves. And I do like some of it. But today’s reality shows are dumb and they make what I do as a writer look dumb by association. So I’m through with them. They’re what John Skipp calls “Stupography?” — like porno plots, their premises lack the meaning we get from well-crafted storytelling, and they make us more stupid the longer we watch them. Shows like Fear Factor are arbitrarily manufactured nonsense (“hey, let’s make them eat creepy X or dive in a big vat of crawly Y!”) for brain-emptied knuckleheads. It’s almost like the generation who grew up watching characters get buckets of slime dumped on their heads on Nickelodeon’s cult game show of the 80’s “You Can’t Do That on Television” have come of age…only their taste hasn’t grown up at all. Watching these shows, you get the sense that the creative team behind these programs is a bunch of fraternity laddies, cooking up challenges when they’re not watching a Girls Gone Wild video or surfing for BumFights online for something dehumanizing to laugh at. Stephen King’s “The Running Man” was prescient. There’s very little difference between the attraction of these shows and the terrorist decapitation videos we see on the nightly news.
Okay, go ahead — go over to bumfights.com or ycdtotv.com — but promise you’ll come right back once the rush of juvenalia wears off.
I’m being harsh, and probably making myself sound like a defensive media wimp, but there’s more behind my repulsion than just “stupography.” The stuff I like to read and write and watch is art. This stuff isn’t. A lot of people I know think it’s quite ironic that I have a hard time stomaching “reality” shows that feature medical operations, birth procedures, and even animal rescues because what I write is far more disgusting. But you gotta remember that the stuff I write and enjoy is fiction — it applies the imagination in artful ways. I think it’s even more ironic that these same people relish such gore and grizzle under the auspices of “reality.” As though reality makes it more permissible, less taboo. Please. The creepy part of gross-out game shows isn’t the rats in the blender — it’s the willingness of the programmers to exploit people who are desperate for their pinch of TV fame and fortune.
And what disgusts me more, sometimes, is the commercials for dish soap or underarm deodorant that pop up right after the carnage (even though I do sometimes feel the need to clean up afterward).
My wife — perhaps the gentlest person on the planet — hates those exploitative gross-out shows as much as I do, but she enjoys watching reality programs on cable. Discovery Channel or Animal Planet are virtual presets on our remote and she often views educational programs like Maternity Ward or anti-cruelty shows Animal Rescue. I admire her intestinal fortitude, because, for me, sometimes, these are the stuff that screams are made of. I’ll never forget the time she called me downstairs: “Mike! Come down here! You might want to see this!” I leaped from my computer, thinking there was breaking news. When I stepped into the living room, and heard Leonard Nimoy’s voiceover, I thought it might be a campy episode of Star Trek or something. Instead, there on my living room screen, was close-up footage of an “orchiectomy.”
Go ahead and google that one. I dare you.
I still wonder what my wife was thinking. And I’m still very, very nice to her.
Have you seen Extreme Makeover? This is the show that rearranges ugly people’s faces for free. It’s a two-for exploitation that way. Plastic surgery makes for the worst TV entertainment, but I admit that I do find these shows the most compelling to watch, possibly because there is still SOME artistry involved, if only the overpaid doctor’s. Plus I learn some things. A face lift requires literally ripping one’s face off and tugging it back like snuggling up a sock on the skull. I also learned that liposuction is NOT worth it. Doctors wield these long harpoon-like metal vacuum tubes under the flesh like they’re fencing. And while they puree and touche there’s nothing quite like watching the camera pan over to show the clear jars filling up, as the lipids clot out of a plastic tube, clump by bloody clump. The end result looks like an extra large cup of pink custard you’d get at some horrible deli. I’d rather keep it inside for now, thanks.
There’s a lot to be said for showing that which we should not — or cannot — see. One of the things I love about the horror genre is that it dares to look. It dares to probe the unknown, the unreal. I’m not afraid. But I don’t want to actually hurt anybody, except, perhaps myself. That’s the crux of what bothers me, I think. When it’s “real” entertainment, it’s not only not art, it’s also an exercise in giving me pleasure (or even displeasure) at the expense of someone else’s pain. Or even at the expense of all those cute little rats.
One of the many things that good horror stories remind us is that there’s no giving the faces of death a face lift. You can turn the flesh into a mask all you like, but there’s no covering up the truth. It’s all ugly.