During my period of ‘confinement’ whilst pregnant with my first child, a friend of mine lent me his box set of The Tudors to keep me entertained. It worked, although it also sent me into quiet emotional turmoil as I watched despairingly at the grisly punishments meted out amongst characters. I remember ruminating quite extensively on the fact that each of us, even the most cruel and Machiavellian in history, were once babies—pure and rich with hopeful possibility. I struggled with the idea that, given this original state of innocence, we could do such vicious harm to one another; we find it unfathomable that someone could harm a baby (though of course, people do, and we consider them monsters), so why do we not find it equally unfathomable that someone not only harms another, but inflicts untold suffering?
Ostensibly, I think as a society we do. We find the prospect of people being tortured abhorrent for example, even though states seem to consider it a necessary evil (although according to Amnesty, one in three Brits surveyed think that torture may be justified…). For the most part, we find capital punishment detestable. But by the same token, we seem to have a predilection for horror, a morbid fascination of the most incomprehensible misery, and a voracious blood lust, whether via a fight to the death in the Colosseum, being audience to a public execution or indeed, watching an episode of Game of Thrones (I realise there’s a distinction between fact and fiction here, but this is merely a musing and not a sustained argument). As a teenager, I had a particular penchant for the mad and violent tendencies of the ancient Roman emperor Caligula. I seem to recall something about him beating a man to death with a chain and then complaining about the smell of his decomposing brain. Clearly, I thought reading about that sort of thing made me less history dork and more shocking, though upon reflection I’m not sure that was actually the case.
Michael Hirst has been particularly adept at playing to these proclivities, saucing up history as it were through a machismo lens of sex, intrigue, misogyny and many a grim demise. A recent episode of Vikings (S02 E07) left me with a great sinking hole where my stomach used to be after watching Thorbjørn Harr endure the ritual unpleasantness of being ‘blood eagled’. A rather disproportionate punishment for having made a princess sleep in a barn I thought, but such is the wont of the vikings apparently. (For the record, I was very sad to see Jarl Borg go—contemptible character though he may have been at times he was, in my no doubt unpopular opinion, the sexiest).
The factor which weighs on me the most, and this was particularly so during my marathon of The Tudors, is that each of these devices for pain has an architect. And I don’t mean your commonplace beheadings, but more the strategic use of red-hot pokers, racks, impaling, et al. Are these the brainchildren of sinister men in dark rooms, studying the most hellish features of the Bible and taking them literally, or are they constructions built upon a variety of sources—a little bit of science here, some anthropological observation here, brought together by a touch of sadistic imagination? I remember reading American Psycho many years ago and being horrified by the rat in the pipe scene, rapidly snapping the book shut as I read on the bus to work, crossing my legs tightly in an attempt to close off any sensation the image in my head was causing to the rest of my body. It’s fiction I told myself, and yet the fact that someone had conjured this from his imagination—as well as from research, no doubt—meant that these thoughts were out there, floating in the ether. That people had them. The dark space where such ‘inspiration’ (for lack of a better word) occupies is, as one reviewer of The Human Centipede was quoting as saying, ‘a space where the stars don’t shine.’
My image of some clown-faced Ramsay Bolton jotting down his wildest, gory fantasies in a macabre sketchbook is probably ill-conceived however. During a recent discussion, a friend put to me that horror (as a genre) is a mechanism for exploring human, social and political conditions through the landscape of the metaphysical. The Human Centipede was supposedly conceived out of a drunken exchange between two guys as they stumbled down the road, laughing over ‘imagine if…’. A far more prosaic inception than the film would suggest.
But horror as metaphor is one thing; horror as history is something else. Whether watching contemporary (albeit sensationalised) renditions of historical events or reading about them in a book, the fact is that much horror has occurred and has been inflicted by people upon others. As I said, this is what weighs on me. I understand the meta arguments for torture, though I don’t agree with them. It’s the infliction that I can’t reconcile, the head space of the architect/perpetrator as I said earlier, when faced with the vulnerability—the intimacy even—of the person before them. Everyone is someone’s son or daughter, they say…a phrase that keeps whirring around and around in my head.
Why am I even discussing this? I’ve no explanation other than it seems to be my mental landscape at the moment.
When I was fourteen, I did my work placement in the commercial kitchen at The Regent Hotel in Sydney. I was a vegetarian at the time and I remember being confronted with an enormous tray of whole poached chickens which I was instructed to tear up with my bare hands. The instructions perplexed me for a moment and sensing my apprehension, the head chef chucked the tray down, grabbed a chicken and said to me sternly ‘like this’ as he thrust his thumbs inside the carcass and ripped the chicken in two, right up the middle, and then proceeded to tear the rest of the bird into smaller pieces. ‘They’ve been cooked for a long time so the bones are soft…you’ll enjoy it’ he said with a wink and then left me to it. I stared at the boiled mass grave and felt genuinely ill. Tentatively, I pulled a carcass toward me, put both thumbs up its bottom and with a wince, began to yank. The crack of bones made me gag, yelping quietly as I pulled flesh away from sinew. But as I acclimatised, the birds began to fall apart in my hands far more effortlessly than I expected and with each new carcass, my speed increased rapidly. Before I knew it, I had finished the entire tray and another one was shoved in front of me. ‘I told you you’d enjoy it,’ a voice came from beside me. What had I become, I thought, as I surveyed the severed body parts piled high in front of me.