My father was recently rushed to the hospital with abdominal pain and underwent emergency surgery for an intestinal blockage. The surgeon discovered a profusion of cancerous tumors throughout his bowels, and my father awoke to bitter news and a colostomy bag protruding from his abdomen. On our first night home after he was discharged from the hospital, I concealed my dismay as he trod slowly into the living room. His concentration was palpable while making his way down the small step and navigating the edge of the carpet. I shimmied over on the couch, creating an inviting space beside me. As he eased himself down, I noticed a strange color on the thigh of his sweatpants. Blueish grey and chunky, I eyed the foul material with disgust and assumed one of the dogs had vomited.
“Um, Dad, you got a little…” I gestured at the spot, and, concurrent with his own horrified reaction, I realized his colostomy bag was leaking. The poor man was smeared with his own waste. My disgust immediately transformed into the deepest pity, and I grabbed paper towels to remove the offensive matter. I experienced an amazing dissonance; as the vile odor struck my nostrils, I thought, This should be gross, but it wasn’t. It was just sad. My father closed his eyes and I read shame, frustration, and despair in the new lines on his face.
“You don’t have to…” he murmured.
To which I replied, “Oh, don’t worry, Dad, I’m just trying to waste some time.” He shot me a wry smile. While maintaining this thread of dark humor, I continued scooping feces, blotting the stains, and spritzing essential oils. My heart broke for him all the while.
The stench lingered on the couch long after I put my father to bed, and I constantly fought the urge to gag as I tried to clean it off. I wondered (as any overly intellectual, partially traumatized person would) why it was I felt disgust now, but not before when my father was there in the room. Fortunately, I was well-steeped in the literature and theory of unpleasant feelings because of my dissertation research on the poetics of dread in the long nineteenth century. Thanks to Ann Radcliffe, I knew I felt horror — a feeling that “contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates” — upon seeing my father’s intestines pulsing through a tube and emptying their contents in a bag. I recalled Fred Botting’s declaration that horror arises from “direct contact with mortality.” My father’s mortality was made abundantly clear to me (and to him) when his interior organs were egregiously and transgressively rendered exterior. And this exteriorization in turn reminded me of Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection, in which the barrier between subject and object breaks down. My father’s intestine, once invisible and taken for granted as subordinate to his subjecthood, now seemed to be an autonomous actant with its own malevolent agency.
“OK, so this is horrifying,” I told myself more calmly. But why, I still wondered, was the experience ambivalently disgusting? I recalled Silvan Tomkins’s oft-referenced idea that we are loath to handle things we consider disgusting for fear of becoming disgusting ourselves. Accordingly, Sarah Ahmed posits, it is a privilege to consider something disgusting, as this feeling inherently supposes a superiority over the object of disgust.
Mulling over these accounts, I began to form my own theory as to why I did not feel disgust when I mopped waste from my father’s sweatpants. You see, when it comes to loving my dad, I am your classic Gothic heroine (like Emily St. Aubert in Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho). I couldn’t possibly consider myself “superior” to him—whether covered in shit or not—after decades of feeling his care, affection, and support. By contrast, when I thought the substance was dog vomit, I found it disgusting. In all my anthropocentrism, I instinctively saw the bodily waste of my parents’ pet as beneath me.
Yet when my father left the room, a visceral fear of being contaminated took hold of me. I washed my hands several more times than I knew was hygienically necessary. I wasn’t just washing away excrement, but the taint of mortality that it symbolized. I was washing away my father’s impending death and the newly awakened fears of my own.
But by thinking through all of this, by calling on Radcliffe, Botting, Kristeva, Tomkins, and Ahmed, I felt better. These thinkers gave me the language to name what I felt. Moreover, the many Gothic novels swirling in my mind had already offered me helpful simulations of disgust. Take, for example, the popular Victorian story Sweeney Todd in which a “demon barber” murders wealthy patrons and has their bodies baked into meat pies. This stomach-churning yet entertaining narrative provides a low-stakes, make-believe site in which to engage feelings of revulsion. Although the story is saturated with cannibal puns, the reader is not encouraged to put the book down and disengage with the repulsive material. Instead, we are meant to follow the path of Joanna Oakley, the plucky female protagonist who penetrates into the barber’s dreadful mystery in order to save her missing lover. Reading Sweeney Todd teaches you how to endure feelings of disgust in order to pursue truth and justice. While my own real-world experience wasn’t quite so melodramatic, I do believe that I reacted to my father’s accident with composed compassion and mindfully worked through my lingering emotions because I had already engaged so deeply with unsavory feelings in fictional contexts.
Patrick Colm Hogan has suggested that analyzing “the nature and operation of emotions in literature” to develop our understanding of the imaginative act of simulation “may be of more than literary interest, extending to larger psychological processes.” In other words, understanding the conventions of fictional emotions may give us greater insight into how we feel about situations in real life. I didn’t buy that claim when I read it while researching my Sweeney Todd article. But I sure do believe it now.
In the wake of my father’s medical crisis, COVID-19 has ravaged social and economic structures across the globe and created an unparalleled atmosphere of dread. It is no wonder that some of the most-watched movies today on video streaming sites include films that simulate catastrophic pandemic scenarios: Outbreak, Patient Zero, I Am Legend, and Zombieland. On the one hand, it might seem macabre to indulge in these nightmarish fantasies of disease. But on the other hand, I suspect that these films bring a twofold sense of analgesic pleasure to viewers. First, they allow us to attach our present fears to the heightened ones illustrated in the fiction. This experience of sympathy and simulation is inherently delightful, according to eighteenth-century philosophers Adam Smith and Lord Kames. But, even beyond venting our fears, I would suggest that watching these films allows us to subconsciously do something else, which we find reassuring. We collapse our feelings into the storyworld. This integration of real and fictional emotion ultimately enables us to cast aside our darkest concerns as make-believe. In other words, we are not simply attracted to these movies because they dramatically reflect our present experience. More to the point, we are enamored with their very fictionality as a guarantor of our actual safety. We are drawn to these films as talismans that protect us from our most fantastic anxieties of contagion.
In these emotionally disturbing times, I think engaging with resonant fiction can provide solace and insight. But it’s not the stories themselves that give us enduring comfort or wisdom. It’s how we commit to analyzing them, how we attend to the nuanced shades of feelings they inspire. We should contemplate why these emotions reverberate so deeply within us and be mindful of how they influence our actions.
Samantha Morse is a PhD Candidate in English at UCLA. Her articles on the Gothic and affect theory appear in the Journal of Victorian Culture, Studies in the Novel, and Cultural Critique.