Woman on a Spit

"Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing—may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don't forget." ~ Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag


We live in dangerous times. One mistyped key on a Google search and you can end up in the no-man's land of porn, or gore, or worse.

I was doing research for a story and ended up on a site that first displayed a warning screen, and then made you click on No Thanks or Enter—something about being eighteen, an adult, enter at your own risk. I clicked Enter without reading the rest of the text. I thought maybe some of these sites put up warnings in an attempt to lure visitors in, not to keep them out. 

The warning screen dissolved into a black background filled with micro-sized white text. The name of the site was: Gore Unlimited, and other than the massive amount of text there was just one picture in the top right hand corner of the screen. It didn't even take up a quarter of the screen, but it was in full color and looked like a snapshot or a still from a film, and the image resolution was astonishingly sharp. I kept staring at it for a few seconds assuming it was a film or a .gif, fully expecting actors to enter the scene at any moment, probably dressed up like cannibals in fake grass skirts and long black wigs.

I've googled sketchy words in the past, words like "murder," or "dead bodies," even "XXX" when I'm really bored. This typically results in me scrolling through maybe a screen's worth of thumbnail images until something catches my eye that I know I will not want to see blown up any larger, and I hit escape or go back to the previous screen or just kill the screen entirely. It's like I want to see something, but I don't want to see anything too awful—like playing a type of Russian roulette.

We all have ideas of what would be truly awful to see, to witness, to have experienced, even if it's just an image on our laptop. But maybe you're super lazy and you decide to risk being shocked out of your daily torpor, or, maybe you have a valid reason to be searching for the worst of the worst the web has to offer. You know that live action, or recorded live action, would be much worse than a still photo. You're pretty sure snuff films really do exist, and you're pretty sure you could tell the difference between a woman faking a scream and a woman (because of course they're always women) who is actually screaming for her life; you're pretty sure no one is such a good actress they could convince you it was real when it really wasn't. But just in case those snuff films are either 1. outright fake, or 2. fake, but really super realistic, you avoid live action or recorded live action. You look instead for stills, photos, maybe even black and whites of dead bodies, war dead, something like that. 

You've seen the photos from the Civil War and those weren’t too bad. The bodies are always scattered like a deck of fallen cards, and wear unrecognizable clothes and have unrecognizable faces. Looking at generic war dead you have no clue who those dead bodies used to be. You're used to seeing these types of pictures from high school history books and your father's subscription to National Geographic. That's history. Those people, when they were people and not just a bunch of dead bodies scattered over a black and white landscape, are no one you ever knew, and no one anyone who's living right now ever knew. They are more than strangers though, they are icons, chess pieces, sometimes blurry lumps in mostly sepia-toned photos that have a clear use, have been catalogued, individuated and made available for the purposes of learning. You know those pictures are not used for entertainment purposes, unless you call a Civil War documentary on PBS entertainment—no, we call that history. We understand these are stories about war and to bring the story of war to life we are often shown sepia-tinted photos of dead soldiers strewn across a battlefield. We understand these photos. These photos make sense to us. The violence that created these dead bodies is something we study, usually in the abstract, in hopes of learning more about why it happened, what the real cost was, how it might still affect us today. In this case, the photos of dead bodies are accepted as collateral damage to our constant search for the truth, for history, for the stories that sustain us.

So, let's say one day when you've grown bored googling "dead bodies" and always getting old, out of focus photos from the Civil War, or World War II, or World War I, dead bodies you recognize and understand, for some reason you type in the word "gore" and there it is right up front, the site Gore Unlimited and you blow by the welcome page and hit the first page that is really about three-quarters white text on a black background and the whole top right quadrant of the screen is a full color photo of what is clearly a dead body on a spit. 

Actually, it's a dead, naked woman with long black hair, her hands tied behind her back up on the kind of contraption you thought was only used by Hawaiians to roast pork. An impossibly large spear disappears inside her mouth and clearly travels the length of her naked, full color body, and comes out at the other end. The spit is turned slightly so her head is closest to the edge of the photo, the rest of the spit fading into the distance.

It's impossible to not focus on the details: her hands are tied behind her back with a frayed piece of rope, her ankles are also tied together, her legs are tight against the spit. You can't see her face. Her black hair covers her face. She faces the ground. She is naked. She has large breasts that hang straight down. The sharpness of the image suggests you are actually looking through a camera lens at a live scene, at a scene that is taking place as you are looking at it. 

You drag your eyes past the woman and look into the distance beyond her. Nothing moves. The spit has been placed just outside a large green tent. The dirt around it appears swept free of rocks. There is a line of trees in the distance. But nothing moves. There are no other humans. There are two smaller tents off to the left. The photo appears to be a campsite. But what takes up the most space in the picture is the woman's body lifted somehow off the ground and being suspended, somehow, on a spit. The type of spit you would expect to see a pig roasted on. It's impossible to stop looking. It's impossible to stop trying to make sense of it. 

You think maybe it was a dead body they found or exhumed and put on a spit for graphic effect. You think, maybe this is a very life-like dead body they have trussed up for the purposes of the photo. If this is so, the skin looks amazingly fresh, clean and recently alive. It seems to blush. You whip back around to the worst thoughts—that perhaps this is a dead woman who died in the making of this photo, that maybe she was alive quite recently and for some reason unknown to you (you don’t want to know) she has been placed in this position due to, well, you know, it could be due to so many things; illegal activity, crimes against nature, maybe she killed someone else and this was the revenge meted out to her? 

Most of this thinking is too difficult and you go back to thinking that maybe it's really just a very lifelike blow-up doll a special effects department has trussed up for a site just like this one and the joke is on the rest of us: we can't take our eyes away from her, from it, from the audacity of the notion that anyone would do this to another human being either after they were dead or while they were alive.

And this line of thought also trips you up. All you know is that right now, reading the white text against the black background you realize whoever's site this is has created this site for entertainment. The text explains this specifically. The text is aggressive in its explication of the existence of this site. The text is yelling that if you do not like what you see here on this welcome page, you for sure are not going to like what's further "inside" the site.

You believe the text and kill the screen as quickly as you can. Not quickly enough to ever forget the image of the woman on the spit, and not quickly enough to convince yourself that what you just saw was real or not real. Your brain is in hyper-drive in its attempts to justify you going to that site in the first place. You remember, nostalgically now, the sepia-toned photos of Civil War dead, the bodies strewn across meadows and fields, sometimes out of focus, always unrecognizable, and never appearing like actual humans or anything you could register in your brain as human or made of flesh. Those are antique bodies, symbols we use to discuss history. That makes sense to you.

And the next day and the next you do a good job of putting the image of the woman on the spit out of your head. You forget you ever went to that site. You forget that anything like that site exists in the world. You are absolutely sure that as long as you've been alive you have never put yourself in a position where you might see something you did not want to see and could never get out of your head if you ever did see it. You've been successful all these years of keeping this type of image away from your sight, maybe even convincing yourself that these types of images didn't exist at all. If you never see them, do they still exist? 

And then you're online. Maybe you've watched a movie or a TV show. Maybe you're catching up on the news. You're online and you get bored or you think it would be smart to introduce yourself to the types of images you never had a chance to experience in your past, a past without the internet, without Google. And maybe you google "dead bodies" or "violence" or "gore" and then, there she is again and there she will always be, because once it's online it's out there forever, and anyone can trip into this site, and anyone can fill their eyes up with the image you'd never be able to conjure up in your own nightmares, and it's impossible to forget, impossible to erase, impossible to dispose of those pixels once they're in your brain.

And now that she's in there, she'll be able to get into your dreams, into your nightmares, maybe not tonight or tomorrow night, maybe not even next year, but you know that one night when you've done the best job you could have done of forgetting her, of pretending she never existed or that you never saw her there, then she will come back to you and then it will be you holding the spear, you tearing off her clothes, you tying her hands behind her back, and afterwards, you taking the step or two back to raise your camera, frame her just right and snap her, forever on the spit, and it's you who post the photo and you who writes the warning on the welcome page, and finally it's you who will never be able to take her off that spit, and you who will never be able to take the photo down. Because if you've seen it once, you've allowed it in, if you've pulled up that site just one time you're an accessory and whether that woman was ever alive, was ever flesh and blood, you've aided and abetted the unseen host and all the other visitors who may not be quite as thoughtful or reflective as you, may not understand the irony of the site, the unknown multitude that may come to believe simply that if one woman has been put on a spit, maybe another one should be.