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Body Horror, Part One: Mondo

Mondo’s house was a half-hour drive away in the Oklahoma heat, through the crumbling downtown and over the Arkansas River. On my first trip there, I tagged along with a trio of small-time criminals and county jail losers, Okies with bad teeth and oil-burning Adderall habits. That’s where Mondo came in.

His quarters were stripped down to a shocking sparseness; dirty mattress, two or three chairs, a metal gun cabinet that held the wares he peddled, and a swollen, bulbous television, a monstrous thing of pre-flat screen manufacture that seemed to eat up an entire wall. To this, he had attached a DVD player and a VHS deck.

Mondo was a nurse by trade, with sticky fingers and access to loosely-monitored drug lockers. He sold various substances – some of them illegal, some of them prescription, all of them illicit — but his drug of choice was one which I suppose qualifies as a timeless classic of the genre; gasoline, huffed hard enough to produce what he said were thrilling hallucinations. He would describe these trips in a bombed-out honk of a voice, bereft of a true speech impediment but impeded and slurred by the battering he’d given his grey matter over the years. When I met him, the deeply whacked-out stare he fixed me with was one part void and one part vacant hunger, like the lively, mindless glint reflected in the eyes of a deep sea scavenger – something that takes its rotting delight in lightless depths.

Mondo had two requirements if you wanted to partake of his wares; the first was that you listen to his stories, which would drone on and on, seeming never to end. His nickname derived from this second requirement, borne of his greatest love. He loved so-called “mondo films,” you see, a genre of dirt-cheap exploitation documentaries and pseudo-documentaries most popular between 1960 and 1990, many featuring real (or “real,” I suppose) bodily mutilations, accidents, deaths, and surgeries. Mondo’s personal collection was all VHS and contained some rare and esoteric items, although I’m sure that torrents have made easily accessible many of the treasures he took such pride in trading for or mail-ordering. His collection spanned a range of years, from the irredeemable Africa Addio to the latter-day, “much faker” (in his estimation) imitation Faces of Death films of the late 1980s. He held the latter group of films in disdain, seeing them as “knockoff shit” compared to the original masterpiece (Faces of Death, 1978, directed by Conan LeClair, an ostentatiously pseudonymous name that I’ve always rather enjoyed).

The summer heat and humidity would roll off of the Arkansas River, through the streets and green, overgrown parks and settle over the city like a shroud. It was oppressive, and air conditioning was harder to come by there than you’d expect in the era we inhabit. Mondo’s house was, I remember, miserably hot, and sweat would roll freely down my neck and off of my flanks as I suffered through one or another of his treasures on the distended old TV in his room. There was a pervasive smell in that house, and, in the intervening years between those days at Mondo’s and now, I think I’ve ascertained what that smell was – at least, what it represented.

Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol opened its doors in Paris in 1897. For more than half a century, up until its closing in 1962, the Grand-Guignol specialized in horror performances that employed flamboyantly realistic and bloody special effects. Private boxes were available at the Guignol – and it was not an infrequent occurrence for guests of the theater to engage in acts of erotic indulgence while they watched the screaming actors lose bowel-buckets of horse intestines, or thrust steel dirks through carefully concealed blood bags, or lose an ersatz eyeball. I’ve come to believe that the smell I noticed in Mondo’s house was pheromonal, an exuded hormone-cloud borne of human arousal at the spectacle of human suffering. It was the smell of the avid and aroused delectation of human frailty.

The taxonomy of horror – like any classification system – is a human construct, and not as neatly ordered or separated into distinct categories as critical shorthand might suggest. Mondo cinema, splatter films, grindhouse horror, all are categories that have characteristics in common with body horror (as does the over-the-top gore style that has come to be known – in honor of the extinct theater – “grand guignol”). Splatter films and fiction that focuses on the mutilation of the human body have often been seen as low-brow, almost pornographic. In fact, the portmanteau “gorno” is sometimes applied to modern variations on this theme. But is body horror really as simple as the prurient – the obscene? Or is it, ultimately, a meditation on the fragility of life, the ever-present threat of total annihilation that all living things endure, but which it is the uniquely terrible lot of thinking animals to both endure AND contemplate?

I watched a number of films at Mondo’s; Basket Case, Re-Animator, Blood Sucking Freaks, and, of course, the infamous Cannibal Holocaust. They made me queasy at first, and some of them still do (I would worry about anyone who could watch some of them with too calm an eye). But beneath the gore and the viscera, behind the veils of veiny flesh and bulging eyes, I think that this kind of horror offers us something of value; namely, a difficult meditation on the violability, mutability, and impermanence of the flesh. In so contemplating, we are offered an opportunity to feel solidarity with our fellow life-forms and an appreciation of the true value of life and health. By inviting us to contemplate the red secret we all hold inviolate within the bony tabernacle of our ribs – to ponder, rather than run from, the carnal mysteries of deformity — body horror puts us in better touch with our species, our self, and our place in the cosmos.

It just might not be a place we care for very much – at least, not when our number is up, at any rate.

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