I’m Fred Venturini, author of The Samaritan, and I’m going to talk about horror, and tell you about the time I handled a dead body.
Why Do We Like Horror? It’s a question that has been chewed up and examined in tons of essays and interviews. The enjoyment of horror has been called a rehearsal for death, a way to soften the blow of our mortality, a way to inoculate ourselves against the true and real fears in our lives.
A closely related question for anyone who writes dark material: Why do you write the things you write? Here’s a question that Stephen King cleverly answers, “Why do you assume I have a choice?” I can’t steal that fantastic response, but I can tell you a story.
I used to be a Park Ranger at Carlyle Lake in Southern Illinois, which may conjure up thoughts of water skiing and sailing, swimming and barbecues. But dig a big hole somewhere, fill it with water, and let people swim in it, and you’re going to end up with some casualties.
I was in my early twenties, working summers at the lake, writing tickets, thinking I was a hot-shot. Polishing my badge, wearing reflective sunglasses, and thinking my pepper spray was a six-shooter. What a job, right?
Things got real when I learned about how drownings are handled.
All steps are taken to recover a body quickly—dive teams called in, dragging with big treble hooks (yes, hooks) for hours on end. But most of the time, the recovery method that works most effectively is to simply wait for the body to float on its own.
A man drowned during my first year as a bonafide, ticket writing Park Ranger. They did not recover him during the search, so the wait was on. A couple days later, he finally floated to the top, and I drew the unlucky morning shift to recover the body.
I accompanied our lead ranger (we’ll call him Boss) and the local Sheriff on a boat out to the rocks where he washed up on a misty, gray morning. Boss was a veteran, and tried to gird me for what was coming. He put Vick’s vapo-rub under my nose to guard against the smell, told me to double up on my gloves, and then added, “Don’t look at the face. No matter what.”
The victim—we’ll call him Brian—was floating against the rip-rap, his white skin almost glowing against the overcast morning. He slapped the shore with each gentle wave, his porkish back and the top of his head skimming the top of the water.
We hopped out of the boat and onto the rocks. I kept my mouth shut for the whole ride over, and wasn’t talking now. I wanted to stay tough, get done, and get out. No problem.
But what about his face? Did Boss actually want to test me, to see if I’d disregard his order and look? Did something strange happen to drowned people’s faces? What would it look like after two days underwater?
The Sheriff waded out and snagged Brian’s waistband and ushered him up to the rocks. His body was frozen in a reaching position, his one arm extended, his legs bent in mid-kick. He looked like one of those bodies on the History Channel encased in volcanic ash, a snapshot of his final moment of attempted survival.
The skin poking out from the water was white, but now he was face down on the rocks, wearing nothing but tattered jean shorts. His lower back was blue from the pooling blood. Other patches of skin were blistered, bubbled, and peeling, hanging off in flaps and drapes, like the water were boiling him instead of cradling him.
Boss unzipped the body bag and spread it over the rocks. The Sheriff held the loop of Brian’s jeans, waiting for help to move him into the bag.
Even with the salve under my nose, I breathed through my mouth, knowing that even a hint of the scent might cost me my breakfast, and looking tough was priority number one—why go through it if you’re not going to impress the Boss?
The Sheriff scooted him up to the edge of the bag. Boss got on one knee. I wrapped my gloved fingers around Brian’s bicep, ready to help turn him over.
Here he was—an actual dead man. The body now felt like stone, but once, it was limber and alive. And now he was on his back, face-up.
I couldn’t help myself.
Brian’s face was undeniably human, but devoid of eyes and color. His sockets were black holes, his short hair stuck onto his forehead—like seaweed. He looked sad. His goatee looked completely healthy, the hair bristling and vibrant, framing his open, partially frowning mouth. To be honest, I didn’t think it was a big deal at the time. I didn’t gag or have nightmares—but I didn’t forget, either.
In fact, in those years since, I can recall every trace of his features, an image impossible to forget. This wasn’t your made-up-for-an-audience, suit-and-tie-in-a-casket dead body, after all. And I realized that Boss had been young once and made the same mistake—he was trying to help me, but I couldn’t resist getting a glimpse, seeing for myself.
Some people would be able to keep their eyes down. I couldn’t, and those like me are horror fans. They cannot help but stare down terrible things. True horror is not campy or funny; true horror forces us to look the impossible, the dead, the terrifying square in the eye. It makes the dead man’s face real on the page, or on the screen. Part of us doesn’t want to watch. When we are awake at night, or sweating from a nightmare, or truly shaken from that short story or film or novel, we wonder why we put ourselves through the wringer of viewing the horrible, of buying the wares of those who create it. People try to reconcile the appeal, but this is primal, not rational.
But I can save you, can’t I? I can warn you. I’ve been there. I know better. I can tell you not to look at the face.
But you will anyway.