Consuming the Grotesque Body

ABSTRACT - Public autopsies, flayed and preserved human corpses, contemporary 'freak’ shows and 'slasher’ movies are all examples of the 'grotesque’ in contemporary consumption. This paper looks at the nature of the grotesque in performance, film and art, and discusses the application of Bakhtin’s (1984) theory of carnival and the grotesque body as a framework for understanding some of the more extreme examples of grotesque consumption.


Christina Goulding, Michael Saren, and John Follett (2003) ,"Consuming the Grotesque Body", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 115-119.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 115-119


Christina Goulding, University of Wolverhampton, UK

Michael Saren, University of Strathclyde, UK

John Follett, University of Wolverhampton, UK


Public autopsies, flayed and preserved human corpses, contemporary 'freak’ shows and 'slasher’ movies are all examples of the 'grotesque’ in contemporary consumption. This paper looks at the nature of the grotesque in performance, film and art, and discusses the application of Bakhtin’s (1984) theory of carnival and the grotesque body as a framework for understanding some of the more extreme examples of grotesque consumption.


On Wednesday November 20th 2002 the first public autopsy to be held in Britain for 170 years was conducted in front of a live audience of 500, by the German professor, Gunther Von Hagens. Chaos preceded the autopsy as the police tried to control the crows attempting to get into the venue, and the demand was so great (over 2000) that an extra 150 people were informed outside of whether or not they had been given a seat under a public ballot system. The event was accompanied by government warnings, a police presence, a candle-lit vigil and a film crew from Channel 4 television that recorded and broadcast the proceedings in an unscheduled slot the same night. The programme was watched by 1.2 million viewers.

The spectacle took place a mere stones throw away from the haunts of Jack the Ripper in a Victorian boiler house in London’s east End (Connor, 2002). Von Hagens, wearing blue overalls and a Fedora hat, took nearly two hours to conduct the autopsy on a 72 year old man who had died some six months earlier and had been chemically preserved. The procedure involved the extraction of bodily juices with a ladle, sawing open the cranium and extracting the brains, and removing the internal organs, which were then paraded by an assistant for inspection by the audience. Justification for the 'performance’ was given as a 'blow’ for scientific freedom’, the 'demystification of death’, and 'education’. However, as one might expect, reactions from the public and the media were divided. For some the professor was vilified as a modern day Frankenstein, indulging in a spectacle of self-publicity (The Times, 21/11/01), his actions described as 'a travesty of medical science, a grotesque pastiche of a dark, but necessary side of the healers art’ (Blake, 2002). For others, however, he was regarded as a champion of democracy, reclaiming the process from the esoteric, elitist and exclusive medical profession. However, regardless of the 'moral’ position adopted, the nature of the event and the 'mediatised’ coverage, which accompanied it, raises questions regarding our consumption of the grotesque.

The concept of the grotesque has held a fascination for artists, writers, literary critics, theologians and cultural anthropologists for centuries. However, only recently have scholars started to explore its significance to contemporary marketing phenomena. Examples that hint at the grotesque include Brown’s (2001) deconstruction of offensive marketing campaigns, Fitchett’s (2002) exploration of 'Sadism’ in relation to consumer behaviour, and Schroeder and Borgerson’s (2002) analysis of dark desires and fetishism in contemporary advertising. Nonetheless, despite very limited coverage of the subject, the grotesque may well be a useful category for understanding certain types of consumer behaviours, particularly those associated with performance, art, film, and other forms of experiential consumption which are thought to have a 'dark’ side. Indeed, to draw on the work of Skrade (1974), works of the grotesque can engage us in such a way that bafflement, mystery and possibility are all experienced. The fusion of organic and inorganic parts, the distortion of natural forms, and the exaggeration of fundamental aspects of life such as birth, sex, death, scatological processes, aging, size and gender, not only surprise and baffle us, they call forth a mixture of feelings, often contradictory, of fear, dread and repulsion, of fascination, amusement and derision, that provides us with an insight into the darker side of human nature. One might argue that it is this 'darker’ side of human nature that has created a recent wave of controversy over the way in which the 'grotesque’ has been performed and consumed. This paper looks at the concept of the grotesque body, with a particular emphasis on the grotesque in performance, in film and in art. It then introduces some of the key theoretical propositions regarding the grotesque, in particular the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, which may help us gain a more meaningful insight into the phenomenon in relation to contemporary consumer behaviour.


As Russo (1997) points out, the word 'groesque’ itself, conjures up images of the cave, the grotto-esque, low, hidden, earthly, dark, material and visceral. Images that were all evident in much of the early religious art. However, whilst theories of the grotesque were historically confined to the realm of art in relation to 'unnatural’ depictions, by the end of the nineteenth century, considerations of the grotesque were to be linked with experiences (Wright, 1968; Russo, 1997) and in particular, carnival (Bahktin, 1984). Essentially, the grotesque lies on the margin. It has existed for centuries on the margins of Western culture and the aesthetic conventions that constitute culture (Harpham, 1982). Grotesqueries can be recognized by the fact that they do not fit out standard categories of identification and consequently the grotesque is a construction of the existing cultural definitions of beauty and 'otherness’ (Harpham, 1982; Friedman, 2000).


The consumption of the 'grotesque’ has a long history. One might consider the public executions of Christians in Roman amphitheatres, or the gladiatorial contests to the death, as acts of grotesque entertainment. However, it is really from the medieval period onwards, with its market places populated with dwarves, fools and jesters that attention has turned to the nature of grotesque performance (although that is not to dismiss the collective consumption of other spectacles of grotesqueness, such as attendance at public hangings, beheadings and disembowelments). Nonetheless, it is possibly the 'freak’ shows of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries that spring to mind when considering the grotesque in relation to carnival. These included individuals with disabilities who developed skills to attract and entertain a paying public, for which they were often financially well rewarded (Bogdan, 1988). These shows included such acts as Nikolai Kobelkoff, the human 'trunk’ who was born without arms or legs and Violet and Daisy Hilton, a famous pair of Siamese twins who sang and played music. In addition there were dwarf and midget shows, 'living skeletons’, 'Indian rubber men’, and 'fat ladies’ (Fiedler, 1978, Terry and Urla, 1995; Thomson, 1996). Of course one of the best known 'freaks’ of Victorian England was Joseph Merrick, the 'elephant man’ whose deformed face and body led him to being exhibited first in a freak show, and then at the Royal London Hospital where he remained until his death at the age of 28.

Whilst freak shows have been banned for some considerable time, their legacy remains and can be found in latter day reinventions such as 'the circus of horrors’ a collection of performances dedicated to the grotesque. This circus features such offerings as the man who can stretch his skin to unnatural lengths, which are highly reminiscent of the Victorian sideshow. In this postmodern parody, there is a merging of the grotesque (the performanceBaimed at shocking), parody (the publicity material which features a skull with a red nose), and carnival (the circus setting). Other contemporary examples can be found in the media, in television programmes that combine humour and the grotesque. For example, one popular British television comedy, 'The League of Gentlemen’ covers aspects of small town cannibalism, incest, sadomasochistic practices, foul-mouthed priests, and cross-dressing taxi drivers. Even 'everyday’ TV programmes from reality TV to Jerry Springer, have been accused of pandering to a voyeuristic audience and selecting participants such that they increasingly resemble a freak show. On a more macabre note, publications such as 'Bizarre’, 'Jack’, and 'FHM’, tend towards the salacious and grotesque in their graphic portrayal of real life tragedies such as photographs of the aftermath of the Ukrainian air disaster of 2002. Indeed marketing’s exploitation of the grotesque is highly visible in a number of offensive marketing campaigns (Bown, 2001). However, two areas where the grotesque body is possibly most visible are the realms of film and art.


The grotesque body is manifest in a plethora of films, ranging in extremes from Fellini’s 'Freaks’ to Clive Barker’s 'Hellraiser’, in which he takes sadomasochistic urges to demonic extremes (Summar, 2002). Moreover, there are numerous films that deal with the malformed body such as Yvone Le Moines’s 'Le Nairn Rouge’ (the Red Dwarf) in which a dwarf vies for the love of a non disabled woman, and Ken Russell’s 'The Devils’, in which Vanessa Redgrave’s hunch backed nun indulges in sexual fantasies over the local priest. Based on an apparently factual account of 17th century mass demonic possession at a French convent, Russell’s film is an example of extreme oppositions in which the carnal abstinence of the nuns is reversed in an outpouring of orgiastic excess which climaxes in the 'rape of Christ’ a scene which was subsequently cut by the censors.

David Lynch provides a further example of the grotesque body in film with his penetration of the surface of everyday life, revealing in the process the corruption and grotesqueness that lies beneath. In 'Twin Peaks’ he shows us a complex web of grotesqueness, complete with dwarves, an insane woman who talks to a log, a one armed man, and Laura palmer, the 'all American girl’ who harbours a wealth of devious secrets (Summar, 2002). In Tom Shadyac’s 'Nutty Professor’ and 'Big Momma’s House’ the issue of abnormal size is explored, while the psychological grotesque is created through the depiction of the psycho-killer most manifest in Hannibal Lecter’s character in 'Silence of the Lambs’, a film which explores issues of cannibalism and human flaying. David Cronenberg’s film 'Crash’ vividly deals with the 'appeal’ (whether sexual or otherwise) for the central character of mutilated road crash victims. The horror genre also provides a wealth of opportunity to explore the depiction of the grotesque body, form Sam Raumi’s cult classic 'The Evil Dead’ (Summar, 2002), to William Peter Blatty’s 'The Exorcist’ in which a young girl’s body is transformed into a bloated, vomiting, head swiveling, obscenity spewing monstrosity whilst in the possession of the devil.

Clarke, (1991) argues that audiences are increasingly demanding greater and more explicitly shocking forms to portray the postmodern predicament. However, film remains a relatively recent media for portraying the grotesque body. The arts, and particularly the visual arts have a much older tradition which has experienced a number of transitions throughout history.


Howard (1964) suggests that the human eye and man’s imagination have always been fascinated by the bizarre and the unusual and that today’s curiosity about the grotesque can be attributed to the rediscovery of such renowned artists of the grotesque as Bosch, Bruegal, Callott and Goya. Whether this can fully explain the current interest in the grotesque is debatable, however, there is no denying that the grotesque remains a feature of many historical and contemporary representations.

According to Kayser (1963, p2) "grotesque art can be defined as art whose form and subject matter appear to be part of, while contradictory to, the natural, social or personal worlds of which we are part. Its images most often embody distortions, exaggerations, a fusion of incompatible parts in such a fashion that it confronts us as strange and disordered, as a world turned upside down." Depictions of the grotesque body in art can be traced back to the Roam empire of 100BC, with the discovery of designs portraying beasts fused with human bodies with birdlike wings and fish’s tails. These were strange and absurd images, suggesting an 'otherness’ in preposterous form, whilst at the same time effecting in the viewer feelings of fascination, amusement and fear (Wright, 1968; Fieldman, 2000). Following the discovery of these works of art in the 15th century, the term grotesque became the universally accepted category for similar, although not necessarily identical representations of the unusual, the strange, and the bizarre. Many subsequent artists, synonymous with the grotesque, most notably Bosch, with his portrayal of 'The Garden of Earthly Delights’ and the 'temptation of Saint Anthony’, incorporated a strong religious and moral symbolism which can also be found in the paintings of Michaelangelo, Raphael, and Dante. However, the grotesque in art was not purely confined to the realm of the sacred, but found new expression in the 'Romanticism’ of the 18th and 19th century artists and writers (Adams and Yates, 1997). The black and white images of demons and humans depicted by Aubrey Beardsley and the nightmarish expressions of Eduard Munch and Francis Bacon, provide further examples of the grotesque in art. For example, Bacon’s paintings manage to be simultaneously mysterious and suggestive. They engender both curiosity and perplexity and attraction and repulsion. They incorporate incompatible elements where the monstrous and human abound in the imagery (Haphram, 1982).

The grotesque in contemporary art is still evident in art galleries in most major cities today, although its manifestation has taken on a different form, symbolic meaning and representation. One only has to reflect on Damien Hirst’s Turner Prize winning display of a decomposing animal carcass, encased in glass, or Tracey Enin’s 'unmade bed’ complete with the aftermath of a drunken, sex fuelled night, or her canvass littered with swear words and obscenities, speaking of her alienation, to recognize these changes. The performance and conceptual artists known as Gilbert and George achieved notoriety with their exhibit of a large photographic collage of various bodily fluids which was described as follows. "The oversized tableaux, whose narrative structure can be read at several levels, treat such taboos as excrement and sperm and stylize these taboos into elements. In their latest work Gilbert and George are more open than ever about their understanding of the body as a sounding-board for the soul." (Lehmann Maupin, Sonnabend Gallery, New York, 1996). The enormous 15m x 3m photographic tableaux is entitled 'Spunk Blood Piss Shit Spit’.

To return, however, to Professor Von Hagens, the perpetrator of the autopsy described in the introduction, who has also masterminded possibly one of the most controversial exhibitions of recent times with his 'Body Works’ display. This consists of a number of plastinated corpses which has been described as:

"A globe trotting flay and display carnival that has taken 26 preserved corpses and 175 anatomical parts on tour to eight million people in six countries in 37 juggernauts. Once in situ the corpses hang out in a variety of poses with a collective casualness about the dilapidation that makes Gap models look formal. There is a chess player, whose strategy may be kept secret, but whose brain lies revealed, and an anatomical flasher wrenching apart his own skin." Death and a Salesman, The Times, 21/11/02

This exhibition, which has contributed towards Van Hagens’ reported ,45 million fortune, also includes a skinned man sitting astride a skinned horse, with his own brain in his hand, and the body of a young, pregnant woman with her swollen stomach slashed open to reveal an eight month old foetus. One might argue that this takes representation of the body to another level, which raises questions regarding contemporary consumption of he grotesque and the theoretical propositions that might better inform our understanding of it.


The consumption of the grotesque in contemporary art and performance can be analysed in the light of a number of theoretical positions, including those of 'carnival’, 'spectacle’ and what Bakhtin (1984) refers to as the 'grotesque body’. Mikhail Bakhtin, the 20th century Russian philosopher and literary theorist, is considered by many to be one of the key influences on the study of the grotesque (Russo, 1994; Brown, 1998). Indeed his work has been subjected to considerable deconstruction and attention in relation to a wide array of subjects, including art, literature, sociology, and more recently to marketing (see for example Brown’s (1998) analysis of the Moet commercial).

Bakhtin’s (1984) theory of carnival, embedded in the traditions and practices of the medieval carnival and festival, breaks down the distinction between actors and audience and turns the 'taken for granted’ on its head in a reversal of norms, roles, and expectations. For the duration of the carnival the 'normal’ world is suspended as the senses are assaulted. Moreover, as Debord (1970) notes, the spectacle that is carnival is not just a collection of images, but represents a social relation among people, mediated by images. Spectacles present themselves to view; there is little hidden. They fill time and space with colourful, intricate and complicated surfaces and above all the spectacle is visual. Liminality, which is often linked to spectacle, is defined by Turner (1995) as a time and place of withdrawal from normal modes of social structures. For Bahktin, carnival functions as an ideal, an 'Eden’ a golden age from which we have fallen, however, he is optimistic for reclaiming this ideal in his theory that the grotesque discloses the potentiality of an entirely different world, of another order. The existing world suddenly becomes alien and there is the potential for a golden age, or a carnival of truth. The world is destroyed so that it may be regenerated and renewed. Moreover, carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people, rather they live in it and everyone participates because its very idea embraces everyone. While carnival exists there is no life outside of it, it has a universal spirit. (Bakhtin, 1984, p49). Bakhtin’s treatment of Rabelais’ work creates a myth of the people as a whole body. However, outside of carnival, this 'body’ has been privatized and degraded. Bahktin describes what he terms the grotesque body. The grotesque body is a human incarnation of carnival, providing a corporeal site for renewal and invigoration through its orifices. The grotesque body is 'open’ and interactive with the outside world. Openness creates fecundity regenerating the world by creating lifeBin pregnancy and birth, and also by surrendering it. The carnival or grotesque body is in effect the expression of both scatological and sexual activities. The orifices of the body are the focus of attention and the bodily processes of 'eating’, 'spitting’ and 'copulating’ are all exaggerated. Equally birth and death are treated in an irreverent fashion. In the imaging of the body, body parts are juxtaposed and connected, defying easy recognition and leveling any sense of one part as private or public, good or bad, repulsive or attractive (Bakhtin, 1984; Adams and Yates, 1997). If we take the key concepts of carnival, spectacle and the grotesque body, we can start to define parameters for analyzing both the public autopsy and the 'body works’ exhibition.


The concept of carnival and the carnivalesque is evident in both the body works exhibition and the autopsy. The staged events, the public hysteria, the candle-lit vigil, the presence of the media, the police, the sensational government warnings all combined to create a sense of high theatre, which occupied the minds and thoughts of all involved, even for those who vicariously watched. The 'theatre’ where the performance took place, located in the area notorious for the 'Ripper’ killings, ads to the morbid sense of the theatrical, as does the 'travelling’ circus in which the 'body works’ are exhibited globally. All this is reminiscent of earlier carnivals, theatrics, the absurd, parody, and challenges to the norm.


Both the body works and the autopsy are highly visual. They rely on the gaze. There is nothing left to the imagination in either. With the autopsy, internal organs were theatrically extracted and paraded on a tray for close inspection by the audience, thus removing the distinction between actor and audienceBthey participated and became part of the carnival. Each stage of the process was described in macabre detail and the star of the show, dressed to full effect in overalls and fedora hat, acted as the 'ring master’ carefully orchestrating each stage of the performance. Similarly the body works exhibition is extreme in its graphicness and absurd grotesqueness which acts as a parody of real life. The scenes are all 'unreal’, but at the same time real. The suspended corpses, staged in extreme imitations of their key defining activities, invite or compel the audience to leave aside normal definitions of the acceptable and step outside of the boundaries of the 'taken for granted’ everyday.

The grotesque body

The Bakhtinian grotesque body, which is 'open’ is probably at its extreme in both the autopsy and the body works exhibition. Certainly the body that was dissected was 'opened’ in its fullest sense. It was a dead body, but one that had been artificially preserved for over six months. It was systematically dissected and cut into. Each organ was extracted, bodily fluids were ladelled out, the body was literally turned inside out, emptied and paraded for public view. Similarly the body works exhibition is a complete grotesque parody of real life. Here the unacceptable becomes acceptable. Corpses are suspended and frozen in time, continuing their game of chess, riding a horse and so on. They are flayed and stripped of their outer layers to reveal the human form in its most naked and exposed condition. Nothing is kept from the public gaze. Norms are challenged, conventions are flouted and the unexpected becomes the expected in a parody and reversal of human life. Through plastination these mannequin corpses act as a juxtaposition of life and death which perhaps have the effect of reminding us of our own mortality?


This paper aimed to explore the nature of contemporary consumption in relation to the grotesque body. We have examined a number of examples which constitute the grotesque, by focusing on the grotesque body in performance, film, and art. The paper concluded with a brief consideration of some of the key theoretical propositions on the grotesque and in particular the work of Bakhtin (1984). Although this discussion is couched very much at an exploratory and largely descriptive level, it does raise some key questions which we consider deserve further investigation. Most fundamentally, and in keeping with the conference theme of change, is the question as to whether we, and today’s consumer culture, have really changed? Has the 'civilising’ process and the emphasis on political correctness actually eradicated our salacious desire to 'gaze’ upon the extreme, the outrageous, the forbidden and the grotesque. Are we really any different in our motives and experiences from the collective audience t the public hanging? Or, do we just organise our experience of voyeuristic and macabre spectacles differently? Where once we had to physically attend such events, now we can also watch them on television or view them on video. This leads on to the implications for the role of the media and its impact on our consumption of the grotesque. Television coverage of such events as the autopsy sanitize the 'performance’, removing the 'real’ blood and gore and at the same time removing any moral responsibility we may have for our vicarious voyeurism. It allows us to selectively view the unfolding acts and to disengage at whatever point we want. This in itself would make an interesting study into the nature of change as we become an increasingly mediatised society with the world of the internet at our fingertips. However, possibly the most fundamental question, regards the behaviour of the consumers themselves and the motivations and experiences of consuming the grotesque which would benefit from an empirical investigation drawing upon a range of social and psychological theories. These may evolve from a number of theoretical directions as illustrated by Thompson (1982) in his rather eclectic analysis of the grotesque in the Monty Python films. For example we might consider the grotesque as part of the 'imagination at play’ (Steig, 1970). Steig likens the imagination at play to that of the behaviour of naughty children who like to play with fire. Consequently, it is hardly ever free of some taint of the forbidden or evil. Put another way, when we contemplate sinless beauty we get serious. Moral fairy tales rarely stimulate the imagination in the same way as the illicit, the uncanny, the abnormal or the supernatural.

In terms of theorizing such reactions, our fascination with the grotesque may be conceptualized as a means of arousing anxiety by giving expression to repressed infantile fantasies which in turn acts as a liberation from fear (Thompson, 1982; Steig, 1970). Drawing upon the work of Lacan into childhood behaviour and images, Thompson suggests that the repulsion/attraction element of the grotesque may be rooted in the paranoid schitzoid mother/child relationship which involves love and at the same time a fear of being devoured. The work attempted to understand the mental phenomenon known as 'images’ which sometimes represent aggressive intentions centering around castration, mutilation, and dislocation; all images directed at the fragmented body. He illustrates this through the example of children between the ages of 2-5 whose 'play’ behaviour often involves pulling heads off dolls and dislocating limbs; actions which spring spontaneously from the imagination. This is also likened to the images that are presented to the child by adults. For example, the grotesque is often associated with caricature, exaggeration and distortion. It involves amusement, disgust, laughter and horror simultaneously. This caricature which becomes abnormally abnormal, may also be compared to another example of the grotesque; the face that is pulled and distorted to amuse a child. Here delight in novelty can quickly turn to fear of the unfamiliar once a certain degree of unfamiliarity is reached. A child will laugh at a distorted face, but only to a point, after which it will cry in fear. In adults, this may culminate in anger once a certain degree of abnormality is reached and when norms are seriously threatened or attacked. This may be illustrated by the controversy created by such exhibitions as the 'body works’ which would appear to violate the acceptable norms of what is deemed acceptable. However, this would benefit from a much deeper exploration.


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Christina Goulding, University of Wolverhampton, UK
Michael Saren, University of Strathclyde, UK
John Follett, University of Wolverhampton, UK


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003

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