Friday, January 19, 2018

On Penn Jillette's "Pain Addict" and Essential Gore

SPOILER WARNING: This post contains spoilers for the Black Mirror episode "Black Museum." If you have not yet seen it and are concerned about spoilers, please do not read on.

Technically I'm done with my deep dive on the latest season of Black Mirror... or as "done" as anyone can be. There will always be more to question or explore, and in the coming months I'm sure to run into friends who spotted things I missed entirely. But for blogging purposes, it's on to other things.

That said, I wanted to look back at a story within a story -- specifically, the "Pain Addict" segment of "Black Museum." The story was originally dreamed up by Penn Jillette, inspired by a hospital visit made difficult due to a language barrier. He wished for a device that would allow doctors to feel exactly what their patients felt... and, well, it escalated from there.

The story was considered too dark for a short story anthology, too dark for Hollywood, but on point for Black Mirror... and so it became an essential part of the "Black Museum" story.

"Pain Addict" is a typical addiction story with an unusual skin over it. The story of a crash-and-burn over anything tends to follow the same general beats: everything's fine, an element is introduced, it becomes addictive, then necessary... then either deadly or negatively transformative in some way. But this story is, to put it bluntly, a lot more on the nose when it comes to its metaphorical depiction of an addict.

Now, a little thing about me: I'm bad with gore. Well, specific types of gore. I can watch some crazy shit go down and be generally fine. But if what's onscreen is surgical or at all medically intelligent, I can't handle it. Basically, if what I'm seeing is something that could happen to me tomorrow, played out the way it would look if it did, I lose it.

I can handle being shown some pretty ridiculous stuff. But if the scene was vetted by a real-life surgeon, all bets are off for me.

In most cases nowadays, gore exists for shock value -- especially in horror. It's not to create a particular effect essential to the story. Just to get the audience freaked.

But then you have stories like "Pain Addict" -- where the gore is motivated both canonically (he's a doctor, he has an addiction, and he knows his stuff) and metaphorically.

It's a rarity to have a story where gore is actually necessary to the end result, let alone sensible to include without having to introduce a serial killer and a garbage disposal. But the way it was carried out -- clinically and with intent -- adds so much to an already very telling piece.

In modern horror, especially indie horror and Internet-propagated creepypasta, The Addict is something of an archetype. They're rarely depicted as someone actually doing something to get chemical or sexual gratification, but rather as someone changing slowly due to a new activity or obsession that makes no sense.

my father's long, long legs and The Minimalist are two of my favorite examples: cases of people who take up something new, something the narrator can't quite wrap their head around. Usually there's a period of detachment, where the narrator has to separate from the subject to keep sane, or where the subject cloisters themselves. Then comes the reveal, days or weeks or even years later: the subject is somehow deformed, either by self-mutilation or via fantastical circumstances, but always as a direct result of their fixation.

We don't have quite the same friend/family tie between narrator and subject in this story, as Haynes has very little regard for his subjects from an ethical standpoint. But we do still see a similar "transformation" -- as our pain-addicted doctor begins carefully dismembering himself onscreen. He's a doctor, we're reminded; he knows how far he can go without actually doing himself irreparable damage.

Just like any addict. He knows when to stop and he can quit anytime he wants.

As with the Addict Archetype in creepypasta, Jillette's pain addict undergoes his grotesque "transformation" as a necessary facet of his story. We do see some unpleasant sights prior, of course -- but it's in a venue that allows, almost demands, that sort of imagery. It still may be difficult to stomach, but used correctly, that's what you're going for. And for very good reason.

Not that I doubted that the combo of Charlie Brooker and Penn Jillette would turn around something both terrifying and smart. I can only hope that, now that this weird little story has broken out into the world, we can see the original in an anthology.


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