Hi so I had a lot on my mind about violent and horrific things I read today and I wanted to write about them buuuut this piece does concern itself with, naturally, violent horrific things. In fact, it’s about the difference between pictures and videos that shock and the power of text to shock, so it’s nice and meta and potentially painful to read through. I did not originally write this for tumblr but I need to get used to publishing what I think and feel after spending so long convincing myself that doing so is some 8th grade bullshit (see? progress right there!)
So it’s up to you.
I made a mistake.
Instead of watching the Oscars or writing my essays or thinking about anything in this godawful world that I could turn into laughable jokepieces, I delved into a thread on Something Awful (not a shock site, despite the title and what I’m about to discuss) that asked participants to “tell us the most disturbing thing you’ve read.”
I’m not a shock or gore junkie— ever since the halcyon days of Ogrish and Rotten.com, I’ve deliberately avoided that sort of content. Even mainstream adaptations of the impulse, like The Human Centipede, feel like a waste of time better spent on, idk, anything from IMDB’s Top 100. Compounding that natural avoidance, I’ve been a reader since I was a kid; Youtube videos seem to drag on forever compared to a page-long article about the same topic. But here was a collection of textual evidence of humanity’s atrocities, page after page of near-competition between users to introduce examples that each outdid the last. It felt academic to read accounts of club fires or genocides while skipping over links to videos advertising willful genital mutilation and photo galleries of plane crash aftermaths.
There is a difference, now apparent to me, between reading and seeing these moments. A photo of a dead body is an item. It is a real, resolved capture. You feel visceral revulsion, but the action is ceased. A video is also an aftermath. Both are, ultimately, staged. The cameraman (and in the case of victims executed on tape, the filmed subject,) are aware of the presence of recording.
Text is an idea, it is a concept that roils around inside one’s mind and springs up at unexpected points, and the details of those thoughts cannot be “forgotten” the same way the colors or composition of a photo can. One story, as told through the transcript of the perpetrator’s FBI interview, has held me all night.
A young man, plagued by sexual torment and resulting guilt, lures a girl, an upstairs neighbor, into his apartment to play with his pet rat. He kills her and later attempts to dismember the body. It is not a photo of a decapitated 10 year-old that stays with me. (No such thing exists for this case.) It is the unending knowledge that she was watching cartoons when her attacker first struck her in the back of the head with a wooden cutting board, and the inconclusive fact that her first reaction upon receiving the blow was to scream “I’m so sorry!”
Why? Why? Why? What drove all of these components of being people into this configuration that unfolded like this? I have been introduced to a world that has no answers, that, in a moment of maximized terror and pain, damages my understanding of how this shit all holds together. I call her reaction an “inconclusive fact” because we know that it happened but we will never understand every piece of the situation burning through her own thoughts at that moment that resulted in her apology. A little girl should never have to expect cartoons are a trap. She should not think to apologize for the first strike. And a man should not spend five minutes deciding whether or not to go through with it, pacing behind her. It just all seems to oppositional to everything logical and rational in the world. So how did it happen?
I just wrote more examples out but then realized that I had nothing more to prove after this first one. This is a pernicious example, one that has joined a few others to rampage around my mind for the night. It tears and rips at other thoughts about essays and classes that I attempt to dwell on, pushing through the seams of my consciousness because I’m reconciling the space we all live in.
I’ve seen plenty of shock and gore online. I’m an Internet user, missteps happen. I could not describe a single example to you. This story, however, introduces new angles on life. It turns up the imagination to new locations not yet stepped into. It does not just shock, but manifests as a low buzz from here on out.