A MONS-TER'S MONST -ER//
By Mara Lee Gilbert
It was roughly 3:30am, one October morning years ago, after a late night shift at one of New York City’s most visited Halloween attractions: a warehouse set up as a maze of hallways and rooms, with interactive horror scenes playing out, unique to each new turn the audience would wind through. After eight hours of behaving as depraved and grotesquely as we could fathom; in order to cause feelings of terror, unease, disgust, and intrigue in our guests; we actors were ravenous. Unleashed unto the city, our uninhibited state lingering in our bodies, we sat down at our usual diner to satisfy our overwhelming need to be satiated.
This particular morning, I had a popped blister on my right hand, between my pointer and middle fingers. I had been portraying a pole dancing vampire (a la From Dusk Til Dawn), and one part of my “scare” choreography was to spin around the pole revealing my hideous face exactly when the audience was just close enough to my stage, and just intrigued enough to wonder what was going to happen next. The art of seducing people into a scare was something I had been thrown into exploring, having been cast in this role, with the desire to master it looming large in my soul. The spin was essential; and my hand paid the price. But I had a low thudding thrill at the sight of my injury (one of many during my time there): physical evidence of my willingness to conquer the challenge set in front of me.
The loose skin kept getting snagged on everything I touched, causing pain. Uninhibited as I mentioned we were, I examined it, holding it up, there at the table, glistening with its serosanguinous drainage (the mixture of blood and fluid accompanying open wounds), as we waited for our food to arrive. I was pulling at the skin, deciding whether to rip it off now, or when I got home, when the man sitting on my right side, for whom I had the tingles, grasped my hand, pulling it close to him.
“You poor thing,” he said. “Let’s fix this now.” And before I could blink, he whipped a large knife out of his pocket, cut the gooey flap from my extremity, popped it into his mouth, chewed briefly, and swallowed it; all the while looking directly into my eyes. I drew a quick breath in, wanting desperately to suck on the mouth that had just held this bit of my own sheathing inside of it.
Needless to clarify, the moment was wildly erotic. I think of it fondly to this day, feeling tingly every time. And I believe it would be difficult to find someone over the age of thirteen who would not recognize the powerful sexuality of what I’ve described here, even if the reaction is mixed with horror and disgust. For it is a fascinating phenomenon that moments of intensity; even if they are unstomachable; often lead us into a state of sexual arousal.
Yet, it doesn’t even have to be fantasy, such as the thrill of watching a good (or even a bad) slasher movie. Consider our fascination towards murder, dismemberment, cannibalism, necrophilia. We have entire television networks dedicated to telling us these real life horror stories, in which real people were terrorized, tortured, and killed. We want to know the details. Some of us want to see the photos. We want to see the real blood, the real broken limbs, the real human innards spread across a floor or road. Someone hit by a car. Someone who committed suicide by jumping off of a roof. We can Google those photos and see the gore that makes us flinch, makes us squirm, makes us gasp, makes us clench in our stomachs as our faces grimace. We can even see the similarly grimaced faces of the bodies in many of these photos. We’re safe as the witness in this way. It’s interesting to point out here that the “money-shot” in porn films most often involves the face, particularly if we’re watching a female-identified orgasm, regardless of genitalia. What’s the point of watching an orgasm (faked or not), if we can’t see the expression on the performer’s face? And how do we really feel about porn as a society? Isn’t it most popularly considered disgusting and to be ashamed of? Getting off alone in the dark watching someone else go through something that generally makes us feel uncomfortable. If you have ever been ashamed of your own orgasm from watching porn, did it make you question if there was something monstrously wrong with you? Especially if it was unclear how consensual the scene was as it played out?
I’d like to take a brief turn here and ask what makes us more repulsed: that we might be watching something nonconsensual, or that we are actually watching something highly consensual and in fact enjoyed? Some people will find it more palatable to accept that they’ve witnessed someone else’s real, unwanted pain, even if they were turned on by it, than that they’ve witnessed a person in a state of pleasured acceptance of what they’re doing. This type of aversion gets stronger the more rigid a definition we hold in regards to how things should be. Here is another way we keep ourselves safe: to define what is and what is not disgusting to us according to our larger definition of how things should be. It’s like an invisible barrier, keeping us safe inside of some kind of knowledge we claim as truth.
In biology, the physical response of disgust is there to keep us physically safe; i.e, so as not to eat something that could kill us. It’s not always easy to untangle an attempt to feel mentally safe from this primitive survival instinct of physical safety. Especially as, survival instinct will override our disgust response wherein engaging in possibly dangerous situations may actually serve our survival. Quite a tangled knot, isn’t it?
Cannabalism can fall under here. Drinking one’s own urine (or perhaps another’s) when water is unavailable in emergency situations. Crossing into uncharted territory to find better resources. This is also true of sex itself. Sex can expose us to a myriad of dangerous microorganisms that have the potential to kill us. But sexual arousal kicks in, pushing us into threat territory so that we may survive. So here is a great dilemma many of us face: having the mental definition of something being grotesque and dangerous, yet feeling our sexual turn-on override this, pushing us to engage, in some way, in the behavior. Sometimes a witness feels like the safest way. But that doesn’t leave us safe from being ostracized by our society, whom we believe shares our definitions. Ostracization leaves us vulnerable to things that can kill us. And so we hide in the dark, like a monster.
Let me now offer some imagery: lips parting ever so slightly, so that a bright pink tongue can emerge, moist from the salivation of desire. The tongue undulates forward towards a round, sticky, red head that’s just emerged from its enclosure. Saliva drips from the tongue, mixing with the fluids on the firm, fresh, warm mound of the head as it licks it clean.
You might be turned on after reading that. You might be disgusted. You might be both. It probably depends on what you’ve imagined the tongue is licking. It could be a woman licking the head of an erection. It could be a man doing the same thing. It could be someone of any sex licking the birthing fluids off of a newborn baby.
Some human mothers do feel this instinctual urge, a behavior witnessed by almost all of our mammalian brethren. But does reframing it that way shut down your turn on or not? And what is causing the disgust factor? That such an act could involve sexual desire (rather than the platonic desire of a mother to clean her child, aiding its survival)? Or simply the reframed image of what the fluids are that are being licked? Perhaps a mixture of both coming together in layers while digesting the description. For some people, however, this remains a sensual and erotic image. These are much the same fluids that might be ingested during oral sex after all, especially if the woman is menstruating. (...how does that image land for you?). What level of our sexual survival over disgusted survival dilemma is getting aroused in you?
Here’s a freakier-deaky: Some of us undoubtedly want to name a monster here. There is a natural human urge to destroy that which we believe will cause harm (that sexy feeling of being powerful, remember?). And most certainly when sexual desire is attached to any being that cannot consent, there is the potential for harm. But yet, we then step into the role of desiring something the other human being would likely not consent to. We would be causing harm to another being. We are the monster’s monster - for we are coming for them. We want no place for them to hide. We’re out for blood.
“We like to deem the people who surpass our thresholds as monsters. And yet, we each surpass somebody’s threshold. So we are always somebody else’s monster. And aren’t monsters sexy, in this weird, complicated way?”
But that’s confusing, right? And although I believe most people will recognize the sexual nature of my blister eating experience, I also believe that some of those who recognize it will disagree that something grotesque leads to sexual sensations. Nonetheless, after years of exploration, through my work both as an artist, and a care-giver within psychiatric facilities, here’s where my thoughts lie on it: As sex is a primal need to ensure the survival of the species, so it is once we have survived the moment of disgust, of horror, of possible death, that our life creating instincts get activated (in this period of relief from the fear). Perhaps it is the molecular equivalent of thinking: Oh, right, I will die one day. I better make sure I do my part to continue my species! Relief has a way of creating a sense of safety (true or not); safety feels good - especially after we thought we might die, or be harmed - and so we become uninhibited. Primal.
I will acknowledge here that there is a spectrum of threshold for this response; and particularly that sexual trauma can obliterate it. However, as human nature is as complex as how the universe manages to exist, there is always someone who will be turned on by what surpasses our personal threshold of horror to the point total shut down, or turn-off.
We like to deem the people who surpass our thresholds as monsters. And yet, we each surpass somebody’s threshold. So we are always somebody else’s monster. And aren’t monsters sexy, in this weird, complicated way?
I’d like to point out that I’m not condoning the harm of any other human being or creature. But the human reality we are currently collectively experiencing includes that harming others exists. And to some degree, we all get turned on by this. What I’m referring to here is the universal “human condition,” or the experience of being human. If you were to start to define what it means to be human, would you be able to describe it without including the experience of pain; of being harmed by another (even minutely so), or of harming another? No. We harm others in all types of ways, often without ill intention behind it; but sometimes so - such as to kill an insect we view as an invasion in our personal space, and all the way up to intentional murder. Consider a time you’ve executed intentional harm in defense of yourself, such as standing up to a bully, or telling someone the painful truth of how they make you feel. Does not some part of you feel sexy, or activated in a way? Powerful? Can any of us deny that feeling powerful makes us want to have sex?
A way for us to explore this darker side of ourselves safely, without causing anyone actual harm, is to create fantasized versions of the things we are afraid of, and would label disgusting. Enormous amounts of energy and resources get poured into such endeavors. I paid for a trip to Barcelona doing just that, spinning around that blister-inducing pole. And yes, I had sex during the trip.
“When we’re stuck in our own knot of dilemma between sexual survival and disgusted survival, it’s so much easier to create demons than untangle the knot.”
Now, imagine you’ve hunted down your prey; the great threat to you and your tribe. The rage inside you is surging with the thought of the harm they have done and will do again. And you’ve caught them. You’ve slit their throat, seeing it spread open, spewing it’s juice. You’ve watched to make sure they were completely dead. You could see it in their eyes as the last place life drains from their face in the blood pool expanding around them. You’re safe. The tribe is safe because of you. Life can continue. And suddenly, there’s great relief rolling down through your body, still pulsing from the strength it took to commit murder. It’s quite possible you will now be incredibly turned on and ready to pounce on a different kind of prey. What dark desires get unleashed at this, your own doing? What of your own definitions have you obliterated?
There’s a final turn in the maze here to consider. If we didn’t desire the destruction of our monsters, giving them something to fear, and a reason to hide, might they be able to step forward and ask for our help? Let’s go backwards and say we live in a collectively defined human reality where we do not fear potentially harmful desires. We’ve never feared them. When we discuss what it is to be human, pain isn’t a scary concept (or it might not even be a concept at all). Where “monster” isn’t an idea that we’re aware of to define. Where we’re free to disembowel, play with, consume, and digest the human experience in all its complexities. That doing so allows us to safely, consentingly explore the uncomfortable sensations we relate to harm. There would be little, if any, place for monster-level damage to exist. So then, who is actually the seed of the harm?
When we’re stuck in our own knot of dilemma between sexual survival and disgusted survival, it’s so much easier to create demons than untangle the knot. And as we define these demons, will they not live up to our expectations? We will see and experience the stuff of our life as we have defined it: desirable, beautiful, grotesque, threatening. Perhaps our own vilifying of certain types of desires is the semen entering the egg of our disgust, creating a monster. We have defined something that needs to survive, after-all. If monsters don’t survive, we’d have to untangle our knots. So we move towards sexual survival, it seems, inseminating ourselves with our own repulsive ideas of a threat. And there, inside of us, it grows, causing sensations we may or may not enjoy. Sensations that scare us. Sensations reminding us that we want to survive. And soon enough, it will push out, emerging, sticky and warm, the fruit of our loins. Will we lick it clean after it’s born? Or hunt it down after it suddenly spins round to face us? Either choice has the potential to create more monsters. We desire this to be so, for we are all the monster in some way to some being, and we desire to survive. ⧫