Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay on I Was Impaled and similarly warped “reality” TV shows in Film International.
As she writes, “television shows such as I Was Impaled (2012-) and 1000 Ways to Die (2008-) appropriate tropes from horror film and re-narrate them into digestible bite-size “safe” forms. I’d argue they have similar voyeuristic pleasures as the horror film, but they are almost entirely shorn of narrative and any sense of morality. In 1000 Ways to Die, ‘hilarious’ stories of death, loosely based on actual stories, are stripped of any humanism, and edited together as a series of graphic and repetitive mini-narratives of sadistic slaughter. It’s all for sick kicks; set to quirky music, sutured together by a wisecracking voice-over narrator. Here, the destruction of the body is almost a postmodern destruction of humanity, with a snuff-like lack of ethos; presented much in the same manner as the ‘funny’ clips from America’s Funniest Home Videos, which themselves often rely on the humor in watching, for example, children hurting themselves.
For anyone unfamiliar with I Was Impaled, I’ll offer here some brief plot summaries. I Was Impaled features people who accidentally end up with foreign objects impaled in their body. While examining how these mysterious items were often initially ignored and later ‘discovered,’ the program carefully reenacts the gruesome impalements and also features faux forensic material popular to any reality programming. Here, in CSI style, we are treated to gruesome reenactments of actors playing medics and surgeons who use the most groundbreaking techniques to extract objects from bodies as a flat voice over narrative explains what we are watching in excessively bloody detail. Using cutting-edge animation, firsthand testimony and sophisticated recreations, often including CGI, each 60-minute episode highlights the stories of three or four ‘impalements,’ from the time the injury occurs to the moment the person ‘realizes’ they are actually impaled by something, through the euphoric moment when the object is removed, and usually it includes an actor saying ‘I should not be alive,’ or some variant on that idea, in this way gesturing to the trope of the so-called ‘deservedness’ of death as it is featured on 1000 Ways to Die.
The stories include a woman who was impaled on a five-inch iron spike railing; a man whose esophagus was ripped open by a French fry; a gardener whom fell face first onto his pruning shears; a young man who was accidentally shot with a five-foot long fishing spear; a man who was impaled by a six-foot fence post; a woman who fell directly onto a hooked planter while gardening; a man who had a foreign object mysteriously lodged into his brain; a woman who was impaled through her neck by a Christmas tree; a boy who accidentally swallowed a barbed hook while fishing; a man who nearly died after being pumped full of enough air to blow up a thousand party balloons; a surfer who ended up with his fiberglass surfboard embedded in his skull; a motocross rider who crashed and ended up with a stick in his face; a 64-year-old woman who discovered a bug in her ear and a pencil in her brain; a carpenter who got a splinter in his eye; and an ex-Marine who was left with a pole penetrating his mouth after a car accident (TV Tango).
As you can tell from these plot descriptions, the definition of ‘impalement’ is stretched beyond credulity. The show promises the kinds of impalements one would expect from a horror film, but impalement from within by a French fry, or being pumped up with excess air seems hardly comparable with classic horror movie impalements. A classic horror film, usually a moral tale, often involves the impalement of a vampire by wooden stake, or a villain being impaled on an iron spike, specifically a black wrought iron spiked gate of the type found either in Victorian England, or the Transylvanian countryside. While I Was Impaled may borrow from the classic horror film (one that almost always features a clear morality tale), it leaves behind the moral binarisms of good vs. evil in the traditional horror film. Instead, the program foregrounds a series of impalements and dismemberments without the narrative conscience of a moral center.”
This is where television is today; essential reading. Click here to read the entire essay.