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Poked in the Eye: A Brief History photo

Soon after I received my first eye injection a decade ago, the movie list began. “It reminds me of that scene in Halloween II,” one person said, emitting a slight shudder. “It makes me think of The Birds,” said another. Other people mentioned supposedly artsy horror films, titles and directors I'd never heard of, complex and ridiculous scenes of eye harm unlike anything I had watched. Others mentioned obscure art-house films. But most people said “A Clockwork Orange, A Clockwork Orange,” over and over. People told me how it was burned into their minds: the scene with Alex—the stylish young sociopath who leads of a gang of misanthropic dandies—strapped to a chair, eyes clamped open, being overloaded with images of horrific violence.

At least based on the standards of today, most of the scenes people mentioned to me weren't especially gruesome. But their reactions were so strong, so visceral. People remembered the scenes with such precision. I'd experienced this with the injections: It wasn't like it was open-heart surgery, it was just a shot, and yet my reactions were oversized, wildly emotional. I thought there had to be a connection between my experiences and the similarly oversized reactions people had to eye violence on film. So I looked for clues.

I started before the age of motion pictures, reading the end of Grimm's “Cinderella,” where Cinderella's evil stepsisters come to her wedding, trying to ride her good fortune. But as they accompany her and the prince into the church, “the pigeons pecked out one eye from each of them.” Then, as they walk out of church after the ceremony—somehow sitting through an entire wedding with the open wound of a pecked-out eye—“the pigeons pecked out the other eye from each of them. And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness as long as they lived.”

I read pieces of Greek mythology: Oenopion stabbing out Orion's eyes after Orion sexually assaults his daughter. Odysseus getting a cyclops drunk to escape his capture and, when the cyclops falls asleep, stabbing him in the eye with a stake heated in the fire, blinding him. Athena sprinkling cursed water into the face of Tiresias after he sees her bathing, blinding him. Oedipus, after killing his father and marrying his mother, gouging out his own eyes.

I read King Lear for the scene where Cornwall rips Gloucester's eyes out of his sockets, saying, “Lest it see more, prevent it. Out, vile jelly!” Which leads me to researching how theater companies have figured out how to portray the eyeball's vile jelly being removed, everyone worrying over who is watching, how much to show.

I read Nutcracker author ETA Hoffman's 1816 story “The Sandman” about “a wicked man, who comes to children when they won't go to bed, and throws a handful of sand into their eyes, so that they start out bleeding from their heads.” Not the Mr. Sandman of '50s pop music, this Sandman, “puts their eyes in a bag and carries them to the crescent moon to feed his own children, who sit in the nest up there.”

I read Freud's essay “The Uncanny,” which in part works off Hoffman's Sandman, where he claims that, “A study of dreams, phantasies and myths has taught us that a morbid anxiety connected with the eyes and with going blind is often enough a substitute for the dread of castration.” While I laugh when I read this, I'm also excited to find a popular theory that sees the anxiety we feel around our eyes as larger than just blindness—as some kind of loss of control or identity.

Eventually, I start to watch. I imagine that by watching eye harm on film, I can better understand our aversion. I begin by revisiting Un Chien Andalou, the 1929 silent surrealist short by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, the likely origin of eye violence on screen. In its opening scene, as a cloud cuts across a full moon, a woman's eyeball is sliced in half by a barber's straight razor, its gelatinous insides neatly popping out. It's the scene I watched over and over the night before my first eye injection ten years ago, the scene I watched until I could sit through it without flinching. That opening is just one minute of a twenty-minute film, but it's the scene most people define it by. “The weird short where the eyeball gets cut open,” friends have often said, trying to remember the title. The film is cultish—David Bowie began every show of his 1976 tour with it, it's the inspiration for The Pixies song “Debaser”—and its largely disconnected scenes seem loaded with symbolism, but Buñuel insisted that, "Nothing, in the film, symbolizes anything.” I watch it again, late at night, in my basement room, and when the eye is sliced, I flinch. I watch it again and—though I've seen it dozens of times before, though I know that it's really the eye of a dead calf that isn't experiencing the pain of the cut—I flinch again.

I ask a friend to have eye-violence movie nights with me. In his old studio apartment, movie posters covering the walls, Mason jars of red wine at our sides, we take in two or three films at a time. We tell a friend about the nights and she calls it, “the worst themed-movie night ever.” We laugh, dismissing it, but she's right. Each time I leave his apartment, taking the long walk to the late-night bus line, I feel vaguely awful inside. Not sickened, not castrated, but stripped of something essential.

Between the movie nights and my at-home “research,” I watch dozens of films, trying to identify the variations of the "eye scream" trope, the "injury to the eye" motif. I watch May, a twisted version of an awkward indie rom-com where the film's namesake rips out her own eye. I watch the dystopian romance The Lobster, where a man decides to blind himself to be united with his newly-blinded lover. I watch the modern classic of stoner philosophy, Waking Life, where a man in a jail cell tells his captors of the elaborate eye torture he'll subject them to in Hell. I watch Slumdog Millionaire, where a boy in India, collected off the street by a corrupt orphanage that makes money off child beggars, gets his eyes burned out because “blind singers earn double.” I watch the film adaptation of Denis Johnson's cult story collection Jesus' Son, where a man (played by Johnson himself) walks into a hospital with a hunting knife in his eye—stabbed by his wife for “peeping on the lady next door while she was bathing.” I watch Event Horizon, Only God Forgives, Theater of Blood and realize I've barely scratched the surface.

I watch a series of films where the loss of sight turns a person villainous and cruel: the Sandman-inspired Child Eater about a man who goes blind due to macular degeneration and begins “eating the eyes of kids to keep from going blind”; the below-B cult classic The Headless Eyes, where an artist goes mad after losing his eye and goes on the hunt for women's eyes, which he then makes into “art”; and Anguish, where an ophthalmologist's assistant suffering from diabetes-related vision loss, under the hypnotic control of his mother, begins murdering people and removing their eyes to somehow delay his blindness.

As I watch these films, I feel I'm onto something. With each new recommendation, I imagine I'm that much closer to solving it, to understanding. I have no idea what that understanding will be, but I tell myself a revelation is on its way. I just need to put in the hours, absorb the images, figure out how they're operating, what they're saying about our relationship to the body. In brief moments of self-aggrandizement, I imagine what comes out of it will be an eye-violence reference point for years to come. But exactly who would reference such a thing, I'm unsure.

I'm pointed toward Italian horror, which evidently has a fondness for eye violence. I watch a man fire a gun into a peephole and blow a woman's eye and brains out. I watch a zombie gouge a woman's eye out by slowly pulling her head into a long splinter of wood. I watch a different zombie in a different movie by the same director gouge a woman's eye out by slowly pushing the back of her head into a protruding piece of metal.

I google “eye scene,” “eye gore,” “eye violence,” “eye harm.” I watch a head get stomped, the eyeball fly out and land in a screaming woman's mouth. I watch a woman, strapped to a doctor's chair, get her eye scorched by a laser. I follow YouTube suggestions. I watch a woman's eye droop wildly from its socket and get gingerly snipped with a pair of sewing scissors. I think about how many of the eyes belong to women, the persistent wet-dream misogyny of male directors, and I wonder what I'm absorbing, how I'll be changed by this.

* * *

I read Lina Meruane's autobiographical novel Seeing Red. While the narrator awaits an eye surgery to clear her blood-clouded vision, she flies to Chile to be with her family. On the plane, her partner in a drugged sleep, she runs her fingers over his closed eyelids, separates the lids and touches the “damp, rubbery, exquisite” cornea, before she finds herself “licking the whole thing.” She says, “I was sucking softly, with my lips, with my teeth, making it mine, delicately, intimately, secretly, but also passionately.”

I read George Bataille's absurd 1928 counterculture erotica book Story of the Eye, a tale of teenage lovers engaging in “debauchery [that] soils not only my body and my thoughts,” but soils “the vast starry universe,” a book where gouged-out eyeballs, eggs, and other eye-shaped objects become sex toys.

Reading these reminds me how, for a few years of my mid-twenties, eye-touching was a minor kink of mine. I asked lovers if I could touch their eyeballs, or if they could touch mine. It was never an early-in-the-relationship request, but always something that came after a host of other kinks had been explored—experiments had been conducted, and a certain amount of trust had been established. The request wasn't for it to happen the moment before orgasm, or even during sex at all. I just wanted the moment of intimacy. It was such a vulnerable thing, such an expression of faith in the goodness of the other person. But again and again lovers, understandably, reacted in slight horror.

One lover briefly touched my eyeball before immediately recoiling in disgust. Another agreed to let me touch hers, but each time my finger got close, her eye closed. She kept saying, “Okay, this time I've got it.” Then, as soon as my finger came near, her eye closed again. Eventually we collapsed in laughter; the sheer ridiculousness of the moment undeniable. “I want to,” she said through the laughter, “but my body won't let me.”

* * * 

I begin watching compilations of eye violence—scene after scene, all narrative tension and context removed, every chance to look away gone. I watch scenes of thumbs going into eye sockets from a couple dozen different movies. Knives going into eyes from a dozen others. A half-dozen scenes of hypodermic needles in the eye. I watch an eye stabbed with a shard of glass, eyes getting gouged by a wide variety of antiquated tools I'm unfamiliar with, I watch a cannibal pull out a living man's eye and eat it, I watch a woman take her own eye out with a butter knife and a fork. I watch one clip after another, unsure and uninterested in which films they're attached to or who these characters are beyond victims. I don't even like violent movies.

After a few nights of this, I realize I'm watching just to watch, I'm not learning anything. I'm simply putting myself through this strange, self-imposed punishment: viewing the most disturbing scenes from a series of movies for no other reason than to say I did it. My eyes feel like how I imagine Alex's did after his treatments in A Clockwork Orange—in some way changed, harmed, done wrong. Or maybe it's my body that feels wronged by my eyes, angry for letting these images in.

In my anger, I wonder if the answer I've been looking for is the one I've had all along: We're protective of our eyes because no one wants to be blind. We flinch more around an eye getting gouged than an ear or a nose because we prize vision over all other senses. Eye gouging is also so immediate—so often the end of vision entirely, not just an injury or a partial impairment. Maybe it's as simple as this. But, still, I doubt it.

Later in Seeing Red, Meruane writes, “There were no eye banks, because no one donated dead eyes. It was believed, said [the doctor], that memory lived in them, that eyes were an extension of the brain, the brain peering out through the face to grasp reality. Some people thought the eyes were depositories of memory, he said, and others still believed that the soul was hidden there.”

I declare myself done a half-dozen times. But then I find impossibly long lists of scenes I haven't yet watched, or a new recommendation piques my interest, and I watch another, which inevitably leads to another. When I finally turn it all off, calls it quits for good, I think daily about these gooey, strange balls, in continual motion, like sugar-fueled children. How alien they seem, but how basic they are to human connection. I think about what confidence they bring, what comfort, what security. And then I think again about their loss.


image: Betsy Agosta