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Why Do We Love Being Shocked and Disgusted?

The appetite for blood porn, zombie flicks and sicko sideshows in America is endless. Is capitalism to blame, or is it a natural extension of a free society?
 
 
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Hooks pierce her flesh. Ten steel hooks, stout as the tops of coathangers, jut through her knees, thighs, waist and arms. They link to chains that suspend her in midair, her shaven head arcing, fairytale-pretty mouth making an O. A rod skewers both of her breasts: straight through their cores. You think of metal shearing lobes and ducts and slippery fat. You cannot help but picture shish kebabs. Blood courses past her ribs. It seeps into the black wrap on her crotch.

Applaud.

Because nothing shocks us anymore. We pick our favorites from among real photos of real feces at ratemypoo.com: blood-streaked; posed in pretzel shapes; smeared to spell HI. With a click, we watch decapitation videos. And nearly every new movie has a puke scene. Haven't noticed that yet? Now you will.

We've raised the bar so high on what we can stand to see, what we want to see, and will pay to see but seize upon for free, that we'll even watch those videos at work. Click. He's screaming.

Were the hook-girl hanging in another context -- say, a prison -- we would call for a war-crimes tribunal. But it happened at a London club last Christmas. Part of an act staged by Finnish body-mod artists Samppa Von Cyborg and Baawo Bee, it competes for your leisure hours with countless sicko sideshows -- from Dallas's Circus Della Morte to Seattle's Zamora the Torture King -- that let you watch real people nailing things to themselves and scarfing broken glass. For years, sideshows were declassé: slackjawed-yokel relics. Now they're back and so middle-class.

Saying this, I sound like such a priss. But hey. I didn't find out about these shocking things on some arcane research mission. I know about them because I look at them. I'll leave you in a minute and view suicide-scene photos at ogrish.com, pictures of goiters at rotten.com. I've got both bookmarked. We all have our limits; I refuse to rate poo.

We have our limits, but average them out and the collective bar, our median gross-out flashpoint, will be higher than that of our parents, who fainted watching John Waters films or pictures of the Holocaust -- even higher, I would wager, than that of the kids who babysat us.

Somehow, sometime, our aesthetics got grosser. A priss would say they've been poisoned. But by whom? And why?

Annalee Newitz blames capitalism. In " Pretend We're Dead," the Wired writer asserts that this system so alienates us from each other and our true selves that we create -- and consume, and become -- ever-more-shocking pop-culture symbols of our own misery, from the zombies on "Night of the Living Dead" to Ted Bundy to vampire games.

"Capitalism creates monsters who want to kill you," Newitz contends. Our North American pop-culture murdering-machines and their real-life counterparts "tell us more or less explicitly," she writes, that "capitalist work implies a symbolic death. It is the death of individual freedom, of pleasurable, rewarding activity, and of a rich social life." Salaries spawn zombies. "Identity constructed under capitalism is a nightmare."

This nightmare haunts even doctors, who earn some of the system's biggest salaries for doing some of its most crucial and morally implacable work, but whose role in Newitz's view is now that of the "menial mind drone," alienated like the rest of us, "forced to sell his own thoughts on the market." Thus we surround ourselves with mad-doctor movies, explicit surgery shows, and a mainstream fixation on forensics. We tell ourselves it's educatainment, watching tweezers and rubber-gloved fingers prod blood-glutted tubules in a facial reconstruction or maggots beading a corpse. Sheer fetishism, fed by our own sense of deadness, in Newitz's view.

Although fond of academicspeak -- e.g., "contemporary audience reception theorists posit a dialectical relationship between ideological change and material change" -- and although she squanders at least two opportunities for scoring two different kinds of cred by mispelling the names of both Snoop Dogg and Bertolt Brecht, Newitz assembles bold ballast to bolster her thesis. When dismembered crack whores wreak havoc on the anatomy buff who murdered them, "the body parts ... develop a kind of class consciousness, acting as a group to get revenge." Zombie films are about imperialism: self-examination at a moment when "the supremacy of whiteness seems about to rot away" as "whites ... are haunted by a knowledge of a distant past when people of color were free and powerful. And they anticipate a future when whites have become ghosts." The ancestral memory of slavery is a "stain" -- and "is certainly what seems to have saturated the flesh of the rotting, cannibalistic, undead whites in George Romero's 'Night of the Living Dead.'"

Certainly?

It's not race or class that informs Romero's films but specieswide sin, argues religious studies professor Kim Paffenroth in " Gospel of the Living Dead," his discourse on zombie films as warnings about how low you can go: "We, humans, not just zombies, prey on each other, depend on each other for our pathetic and parasitic existence, and thrive on each other's misery." Romero's jump-cut shock shots of shopping malls packed with the undead are actually visions "of hell on earth" -- of what would happen if we were even greedier, more selfish, more secular. "More than any other monster, zombies are fully and literally apocalyptic," writes Paffenroth, a liberal Christian scholar who adores Judas Priest. "They signal the end of the world as we have known it for thousands of years," as they "bring the complete breakdown of the natural world of food chains, social order, respect for life, and respect for death, because all those categories are meaningless" after we transgress too many thresholds and lose sight of each other and what matters most.

Collectively callused, we stomp through a world of agony and effluent, where art meets gag reflex, in which "A Clockwork Orange" has come true. "Zombies dehumanize humans," Paffenroth mourns, "by eliminating their chance to experience normal feelings of grief, mortality or sacredness, and forcing them to substitute callous, unthinking, reflexive violence."

He notes that American flags pop into the foregrounds of Romero films as if they were trying to tell us something. These films are "a strong indictment of life in America" as selfish-materialism headquarters, he writes. In that vein, he echoes Newitz, who limits her basilisk gaze to North American creations as well. Our serial killers, fictional and real, enact "the enraged confusion with which Americans have come to regard their late 20th century economic and social productivity." Bounty hurts. "The serial killer's hideous relationship to labor" is what spurs your John Wayne Gacy, your Ted Kaczynski, your matricidal necrophiliac cannibal Henry Lee Lucas, Newitz maintains.

Right. But what spurred the "Rostov Ripper," Andrei Chikatilo -- the literature teacher and factory clerk convicted of killing 52 women and children in Russia before the Berlin Wall fell? "Murder-Set-Pieces" is based on him. Capitalism has no monopolies on either mad killers or mind-numbing labor. The reason we haven't seen 20 years' worth of slasher flicks from China and Myanmar is that no one has been permitted to make them. Our American expressions of consensual suffering and casual puke are themselves luxuries of the system that Newitz laments. Our day jobs alienate and anesthetize us, but at least we're lucky enough to say so.

Both Newitz and Paffenroth suggest that our grossest imaginings are really about self-loathing. The "stain" of slavery, Newitz declares, makes whites maim themselves and presage their extinction with every Robocop and Blacula. Zombies "are us, and we are them," Paffenroth mourns. With these assertions, both authors presume that viewers identify not just with victims but with monsters. As we have been taught to do. We are the gutted and the devourer, the rapist and the pretty-mouthed woman hung by hooks.

In which case, is body modification a means of maiming ourselves and adorning the "stain"? At the farthest extreme are the self-amputators, the self-castrators, those smooth-groined members of the "nullo" movement. But even on the street, on the bus, what passes for standard body-mod might be art that doubles as punishment that we imagine we deserve, the rods and rings through our flesh saying Stab me. Chain me. Hang me.

Those rods and rings mirror the rising shock bar. Remember the first eyebrow-piercing you ever saw? My ear is pierced five times, but that is retro now. I walk past girls with forked tongues, boys with sharp steel spikes studding their scalps. I pass as if this does not register. Only dorks flinch. We play this so-what game, but they know. Pain got them this way. To find them sexy means imagining their pain. The membrane, cartilage, cut. Their blood.

Their sidelong glances implore: Tell me I yanked you out of your comfort zone . No. Yes. But no. Right on this screen an hour ago I watched a slide show about surgery for gunshot wounds.

These thrills are a one-way ride. The more we want, the more we get, the more we see, the less we squirm. Show us a John Waters film and we will yawn. Watch Baawo Bee get a chickenwire pattern carved into his face. We play these games and think we're brave.

But shock has a lot of market share. When the Marquis de Sade was plying his trade, the share was minuscule. Sometime since then, someone -- several someones, in ivory towers -- said nihilism might be fun. Or functional. As an experiment. Spark a revolution. Say: nothing is forbidden . Fair enough. It catches on. Kenneth Anger, the Church of Satan. Johnny Rotten spitting, safety-pinned. If I said How gross , I would be a Valley Girl. Not cool. Vampires. Heroin chic. The floodgates flung wide and a lot of men have been getting rich ever since, making the films, the fake puke, steel rods and rings in a world where skulls are the new smileyfaces.

Capitalism didn't start this, but it will not bite the hand that feeds it. Shock is product. Somewhere in China, right this minute, laborers -- or prisoners -- are working long shifts making Jesus fridge magnets, I LOVE TUCSON seatcovers and ashtrays shaped like severed heads: hyperrealistic, with real human hair.

Anneli Rufus is the author of several books, including " Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto ."