Bright Lights Film Journal

Retro Virus: Did AIDS Perform Nensha?

“Be aware: there are forces at work here of which we have no knowledge.”

The cassette again revealed only that strange word, spelled out slowly by the psychic: “T-O-X-O-P-L-A-S-M-O-S-I-S.” — Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On (1987)1

When reporters asked Minoru Yamasaki, architect of what was New York City’s World Trade Center, why he went with two monolithic and identical 110-story towers instead of one 220-story tower he said that he “didn’t want to lose the human scale” and also, that he’d designed the Twin Towers with their very narrow windows because he was terrified of heights and wanted to reassure future tenants that they couldn’t fall from the upper floors. The Twin Towers’ steel lattice, “tube” design was engineered to provide high-altitude wind resistance and shift load bearing responsibilities to the structures’ central cores, maximising office floor space, but regardless, the events of September 11, 2001 retro-burned new meaning into Yamasaki’s throwaway joke about the windows.

The climax of 1977’s King Kong, where Kong (played by make-up artist Rick Baker) battles hostile airplanes that buzz around the building’s upper floors, and sometimes crash into them and burst into flames, is hard to experience as deluxe disaster movie fun anymore, just like previously fabulous moments in Deep Impact (1998), when shrapnel from a meteor strike impacts the upper sections of the Twin Towers, or Independence Day (1996), when the Empire State Building is shot (by the fire beam of an alien spaceship) from above and cascades to street level, sending panicked New Yorkers running away from a surging cloud of flame and debris. The September 11 shockwave roared all the way back to the early 1970s where it met the sorry history of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis, an ill-fated urban renewal project completed in 1955 that was Minoru Yamasaki’s first major American contract. The high-density complex was an exemplary piece of modernist architecture (an apartment factory made up of 33 near-identical towers), but it rapidly turned derelict and became a claustrophobic concrete ghetto of homelessness and gang-related drug crimes. The towers of Pruiit-Igoe collapsed to street level in clouds of dust and asbestos when their complete demolition by controlled implosion began in March 1972, two months after the first tenants started moving in to the WTC2, the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

At one minute after midnight on September 27, 1956 in the remote region of Maralinga in the South Australian Outback, the British Military detonated a 12.9-kiloton nuclear device code-named One Tree. Sam Mold, a then 25-year-old Royal Air Force officer, stood with his colleagues seven miles away from the detonation tower. Just before the detonation, the soldiers were ordered to turn their backs to the explosion site, shut their eyes, and cover their faces with their hands to guard against flash blindness. Against orders, Mold opened his eyes at the moment of One Tree’s detonation, and for approximately two seconds, he says, he saw the bones of his hands, iridescent and flashing like a strobing X-ray image.

Maralinga is contained within what is now called the Woomera Prohibited Area, a 50,000-square-mile wasteland roughly the size of England that is still off-limits to the general public. Cleanup from the British tests were still being carried out in the year 2000, and the Australian government paid compensation to the area’s long-displaced traditional owners, the Maralinga Tjarutja, in 1994. (No compensation was offered for the insult-irony of calling the area Woomera, which is an Australian Aboriginal word for a weapon of superior range and force.) The resemblance of the name Maralinga to the word malignant seems cruelly appropriate too, considering the deaths from various cancers of thousands of local and British military personnel exposed to the tests (a class action from 800 survivors from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Britain was underway at London’s High Court in January 2009 after secret British tests on the thyroid glands of Maralinga-dwelling animals came to light); and also considering the fate of Sadako Sasaki, who was two years old when she was blown out of her exploding Hiroshima house on the morning of August 6, 1945 when Little Boy, dropped from the Enola Gay, detonated above the city, one kilometer from where she lived.

Sadako suffered no serious injuries and didn’t join the crawling legions of the fatally wounded who limped toward the shores of the Ota River in the following days, to die among piling mounds of corpses. On the contrary, she grew up as a bright and healthy girl who excelled at sports and showed no apparent after-effects of the Hiroshima bomb. In February 1955, though, after suffering from swollen glands and myriad other odd come-and-go symptoms for around a year, Sadako was admitted to hospital. She tried to fold 1,000 paper cranes, an endeavor that, according to Japanese legend, would bring healing, and she folded 644 before her death, on October 25, 1955, of “atom bomb disease,” a form of slow-motion leukemia triggered by proximity to a nuclear blast or high levels of nuclear radiation that was first described and so named by the Lancet medical journal in 19462 and reported again in Science magazine in 1969. In the five-to-ten year dormant period of atom-bomb disease, sufferers displayed no symptoms. The onset of symptoms was unpredictable but once underway, rapid and incurable.

Atomic explosions may or may not generate tachyons, tiny particles that travel faster than the speed of light and that therefore would be observed (with microscopic superspeed vision) traveling into the future and the past simultaneously, but they definitely do create freaky and transient death images in the still-living, such as Sam Mold’s fleshless skeleton hands, which flicker through temporarily invisible skin during the screaming first moments of fission. Also, they make physical objects like people, ladders, and bicycles disappear without a trace and then, in a fraction of an instant, re-form as shadows seared onto concrete walls (above). And they leave behind ghosts who walk, phantoms who continue to live but whose premature death is plotted, inevitable, and undoable. Ostensibly a cheery young girl and lucky survivor of Hiroshima, in hindsight Sadako skipped through her youth as an oblivious zombie whose fate was sealed moments after Little Boy’s wave of thermal radiation scorched through her body and dropped a time bomb deep inside her bone marrow on its way to the outskirts of the city, where it eventually petered out. Long before she started folding her paper cranes, she was already (the living) dead. In this context, then, when we look at a picture of the living Sadako, we could be looking at what is known in Japan as shinrei shasin (spirit photography), the enigmatic phenomenon of ectoplasmic shapes or ghostly human-like forms appearing in developed photos.

Another Sadako, Sadako Takahashi, was one of the subjects of Fukurai Tomokichi, an assistant professor of psychology employed by the Imperial University of Tokyo in the early twentieth century. Fukurai published the results of his studies of three Japanese mediums as Clairvoyance and Thoughtography in 1913. Over a period of several years, he conducted independent, controlled, and repeated tests under varied circumstances on Sadako Takahashi, Nagao Ikuko, and the enigmatically named Miss Chizuko, three Japanese women who claimed to be clairvoyant.

Fukurai found that the trio could (for starters) consistently divine random words or images that had been concealed inside various materials including tinfoil envelopes and lead-lined boxes, as well as silk and thick wool wraps, then placed in random locations around Tokyo. Show-offs, they could also talk at length about the history of the materials used to conceal the card, and its location. Nagao Ikuko’s pièce de résistance proved to be her description of the topography of the dark side of the Moon, which had yet to be photographed by satellites. Once it had (after her death), Nagao’s mapping of the moon proved to be correct down to the last crater.

More central to Fukurai’s research was Sadako Takahashi’s ability to burn an image from her mind onto photographic film. Just after a blank sheet of photographic film — stored in a steel box or in another room altogether, or even a location across town — was lowered into developing fluid, Sadako would announce the word or image she’d been visualizing the minute or two before. Each time this experiment was conducted, the exact same word or image appeared on the developed film.

Fukurai named this paranormal power nensha (thoughtography, or projected thermography). Fukurai conducted hundreds of nensha experiments measured in controlled, methodical conditions “magic-proofed” with precautions such as random participants or the substitution of different types and brands of undeveloped film stock and different tubs containing different tubs of developing fluid at the last minute without his or Sadako’s knowledge. Rumour has it that in one experiment, the blank photographic film was lowered into a tub of water, yet ten minutes later, Sadako’s chosen symbol appeared on the film, which had developed without any of the necessary chemicals required. Likewise the sheets of plain paper lowered into developing fluid then developed with Sadako’s image clearly visible upon them.

Fukurai concluded that a person or entity invested with major psychic voltage could burn a message from their mind — using nothing but their paranormal powers — onto a surface for all to see. Fukurai attempted a public demonstration of nensha in front of dozens of curious journalists and scientists. Unfortunately, the trio of clairvoyant women were unable to perform nensha during this presentation, and they were subsequently dismissed as frauds and witches. Disgraced, Miss Chizuko took poison and Nagao Ikuko fell into a delirious fever — both died.

The discredited Fukurai was soon removed from his position at the University of Tokyo but published a second edition of Clairvoyance and Thoughtography in 1931, where he reasserted the theory of nensha with this introductory sentence:

In face of all the opponent scientists in the country, I make the following declaration: That clairvoyance is a fact, and that thoughtography is also a fact.3

Ringu — the 1998 Japanese movie remade in Hollywood as The Ring in 2002 — was loosely inspired by the work of Professor Fukurai and was adapted from Koji Suzuki’s novel Ringu. In that novel, the character called Sadako was based on Sadako Takahashi, while in the movie adaptation, the Sadako character is translated as one of the unnamed clairvoyants’ daughters. (Also in the novel, Sadako had a condition called testicular feminization syndrome — she was anatomically male, with an XY chromosome and external testes, but no penis, uterus, or ovaries. And, the novel implies that Sadako is the spiritual daughter of a sea-dwelling witch-deity, but these details were not transferred to either film adaptation.)

In an early scene in Ringu, a Fukurai-esque doctor-character is trying to demonstrate the psychic powers of a clairvoyant woman, who cannot “perform” for a cynical audience, which brands her a fraud. Watching is Sadako, the clairvoyant’s daughter, who’s inherited an extremely powerful and very evil version of her mother’s paranormal gifts. After witnessing one murderous prank too many out of their malevolent horror of a daughter, Sadako’s fearful parents throw her down a well where she survives for 33 years until a holiday retreat is built over the top of the well, at which point her physical form dies.

The movie then follows a journalist on the trail of a string of random deaths connected only by a mysterious videotape, held in the media library of the holiday retreat, which is said to bring death in exactly seven days to whoever views its creepy, abstract contents. The journalist takes this tape from the retreat and makes a copy.

Using nensha, Sadako has burnt a cryptic message onto the tape, a short film made up of a series of abstract, disturbing images including an eye staring at the viewer with Japanese characters that spell SADAKO reflected on its dead, black iris.

The doomed viewers of Sadako’s televisual curse die exactly seven days after they see the tape, when their telephone rings. At that point, Sadako herself crawls out of their TV screen, makes her way across the floor toward the viewer, then kills them instantly with one glance from her bulbous evil eye. Once the journalist views Sadako’s message, the curse is upon her and all her loved ones. To break the spell, she has to make another copy of the tape and leave it for a stranger to find. Sadako’s tape is a virus, dormant unless disturbed, at which point it becomes a deadly epidemic.

The American bicentennial celebration of 1976, with its shiploads of foreign sailors docked in New York Harbor for one very long, very horny weekend, is often earmarked as the arrival point of HIV/AIDS on American soil, but in fact, the virus had made stealthy landfall almost two decades previously. HIV was found in tissue samples taken from a Haitian immigrant who died in Manhattan in 1959. It was also found in tissue samples from Missouri teenager Robert R. (surname suppressed), who died in 1969 from a multitude of symptoms including Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions in his rectum and anus. Plasma samples taken from a Bantu man who died in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1959 tested positive for HIV-1. David Carr, a printer from Manchester, died the same year from what came to be identified as AIDS, and Arvid Noe, a Norwegian sailor who died in 1976, was also recognised, in the 1980s, as an early AIDS death. But even these scattershot cases were just the tip of a very old iceberg: the so-called “new disease” had actually been lurking around for centuries, if not longer, before it made its grand entrance in the 1980s when circumstances aligned to allow it to take epidemic form.

Research presented at the 13th International AIDS Conference in Durban in 2000 by Dr Anne-Miecke Vandamme of Belgium’s Riga Institute found that human HIV-1 separated from SIVcp2, a chimpanzee virus, somewhere between the years 1675 and 1700. In the early 1970s, dozens of American IV drug users died from what was called the Junkie flu which is now recognized as an early AIDS mini-epidemic. It has never been concluded whether HIV passed to humans via the eating of infected animals, bites from infected animals, or as Luc Montaigner, co-discoverer of HIV, theorised in his book Virus, evolved as a mutation of various previously separated anal-oral pathogens when the practice of rimming became widespread in the 1970s.

One morning the set burned to the ground with no one in the studio, causing us to shut down for two months and rebuild the set. To this day, there is no explanation for why this occurred. There are so many more similar stories that I could occupy this chat for the next week or so. — William Friedkin, participating in an online The Exorcist fan forum4

Ringu’s Sadako is an onryo, a ghost devoted to vengeance. Her appearance through the television is typical of Japanese ghosts, who are said to use electromagnetic energy to manifest physical form and to bridge the afterlife and the present. One of the most famous onryo of Japanese folklore is Oiwa, a poor but beautiful woman devoutly in love with Iemon, until he poisons her to be able to marry the younger, prettier granddaughter of wealthy merchants. Hideously disfigured by Iemon’s poison, Oiwa drops dead the moment she glances at her reflection in a mirror. Iemon nails her body to a door and throws it into a river, but Oiwa haunts him with increasingly malevolent appearances until he loses his mind and is killed by his new brother-in-law. Oiwa’s story is told in Yotsuya Kaidan, an ever-popular tale first staged in 1825 and often marked with mysterious deaths, accidents, or injuries on stage or set. It’s now common practice for any director and his cast preparing to stage a production of Yotsuya Kaidan to travel to Oiwa’s burial temple near Tokyo to ask the spirit of Oiwa for her blessing. Traditionally, the actress playing Oiwa is required to plead for an especially strong blessing, lest her performance result in her possession by Oiwa.

Like Sadako, the ghosts of Poltergeist establish initial communication with humans via the television, when tiny Carol Anne, up way past her bedtime, notices whispers coming from the snowstorm of early dawn post-programming. She becomes absorbed in the talking TV, and at one point an electric zap in the shape of a hand — reminiscent of Sam Mold’s Maralinga hands — darts out of the screen and touches her. Soon, a paranormal specialist called Tangina Barrons is called in and claims she senses a powerful, ancient force of evil is tormenting the house and its tenants, something that proves to be true when an enormous papier-mâché skull comes flying out of a cursed bedroom in one pre-CGI scene. There were two sequels to Poltergeist, and Heather O’Rourke (Carol Anne) and Zelda Rubenstein (Tangina Barrons) were the only performers to appear in all three films.

During a photo shoot for Poltergeist 3, Rubenstein was seen to startle and lurch, and both the director and the photographer called an instant stop to the shoot. Rubenstein claimed something must have happened to her mother, and a phone call came to the set within seconds — Rubenstein’s mother had just died. Rubenstein left the set, and when the photos were developed, the image that captured her at the moment she had became distressed was marked by an ectoplasmic shadow across Rubenstein’s body and face. Heather O’Rourke, who played Carol Anne, fell mysteriously ill after filming wrapped on Poltergeist 3 in 1988 and died of renal failure and burst intestines, aged 12. She is buried at the Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles, just near Dominique Dunne, who played her older sister in the first Poltergeist. The daughter of novelist Dominick Dunne (who was a producer of The Boys in the Band), Dominique was dragged out of her house by her then boyfriend who strangled her until she lost brain function. She was taken off life support later that week, in early November, 1982.

In The Exorcist, an open bedroom window, rather than a photo or televisual medium, was the portal through which that movie’s time-travelling ancient demon enters the picture at the then present-day and infects young Regan MacNeil (the author of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty, was born on January 7, 1928, 15 years to the day before Sadasko Sasaki was born).

Linda Blair, who played possessed Regan in The Exorcist, suffered a similar series of fates. She injured her back when a harness used to shake her violently up and down on a bed came loose, and though receiving an Oscar nomination for her performance, Blair has never been fully believable in any subsequent role that doesn’t have her swivel her head or projectile vomit pea soup. Blair, though, was far more fortunate than Dana Plato, who claimed to have turned down to role of Regan in The Exorcist because her mother didn’t want her exposed to the film’s subject matter, enjoyed TV stardom in Diff’rent Strokes, only to commit suicide by drug overdose in 1999, aged 35.

A talented figure skater in her youth, Dana was almost selected for a U.S. Winter Olympic team spot but went into show business after being picked up by a talent scout when she made a brief appearance on The Gong Show. In between rejecting ice skating, The Exorcist, and her death, Plato had a boob job and did a 1989 Playboy spread, and in 1992 starred in a video game called Night Trap, which features a young girl in a nightgown being slaughtered. In 1991, she was arrested for holding up a Las Vegas video rental shop with a pellet gun, was bailed out by entertainer Wayne Newton, and given five years probation, which she violated in the first month of the next year for forging a prescription for Valium. She spent five months in jail and then, in 1997, starred in the soft porn film Different Strokes: The Story of Jack and Jill . . . and Jill. Before all that, she overdosed on Valium at age 14 and spoke later of having been bombed on pills and booze throughout her time on Diff’rent Strokes. She later told lesbian magazine Girlfriends that despite being married twice, she had actually always been a lesbian. She died from an overdose of prescription drugs in 1999 the day after giving an interview on The Howard Stern Show.

She crossed orbits with Linda Blair again in 1977 when she landed the small role of Sandra Pahlor in Exorcist Two: The Heretic, in which, as an inmate of the medical facility where Linda Blair/Regan is undergoing psychiatric tests under the supervision of a doctor played by a drunken Richard Burton, she and Blair share this dialogue:

REGAN: What’s the matter with you?
SANDRA: I’m autistic.
REGAN: How do you mean?
SANDRA: I’m withdrawn. I can’t talk.
REGAN: But you’re talking now. Yes, you are. I can hear you.
SANDRA: You can hear me? What’s the matter with you?
REGAN: I was possessed by a demon. It’s OK. He’s gone.

Anissa Jones, who also auditioned for the Regan role, committed suicide by drug overdose in 1976, aged 18. Jones had child stardom via the role of Elizabeth “Buffy” Patterson-Davis on the popular sitcom Family Affair. Elizabeth, sent to live with relatives after her parents are killed in a car crash, believed her doll, Mrs Beasley, could talk to her, and the doll was the biggest-selling doll of its era at the time. (Dana Plato’s ears may prick up at the word doll, slang for tranquilisers and painkillers such as Valium.)

Her parents divorced, and in 1975, custody of Jones and her brother Paul went to their father, who promptly died of a heart attack. Paul moved back in with his mother, while Anissa ended up in a children’s home after she ran away and stopped attending school. On August 28, 1976, she died after an extended bout of heavy partying. As with Dana Plato, her ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.

Margaret Hamilton, who played The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, suffered second- and third-degree burns during the filming of her flaming departure scene early in the film after she threatens to “get” Dorothy. This is why in the film’s finished version, the trapdoor Hamilton drops through is visible, as the smoother take where she caught alight (as a result of being covered in copper-based flammable makeup) could not be used.

Never able to escape her most famous role, the apparently kindly Hamilton — who was a former kindergarten teacher, a member of Friends of Animals, and did a series of Public Service Announcements for the Humane Society in the 1970s — was interrogated by angry children for the rest of her life as to why she had been so mean to Dorothy and Toto.

Almost always they want me to laugh like the Witch. And sometimes when I go to schools, if we’re in an auditorium, I’ll do it. And there’s always a funny reaction, like Ye Gods, they wish they hadn’t asked. They’re scared. They’re really scared for a second. I guess for a minute they get the feeling they got when they watched the picture. The picture made a terrible impression of some kind on them, sometimes a ghastly impression, but most of them got over it, I guess . . . Because when I talk like the Witch and when I laugh, there is a hesitation, and then they clap. They’re clapping at hearing the sound again.5

She suffixed her autographs with the letters WWW (Wicked Witch of the West), and when cast in Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud, she played a wealthy woman who wears ruby slippers and is crushed by a large birdhouse.

Like many fairy tales and fantasy stories, The Wizard of Oz has a dark, occult edge and is saturated with witches, magick, and the paraphernalia of the supernatural. In the story, an evil pair of witch sisters seem to have entire populations of enchanted dwarves and animals under their spell. Drugs, potions, and the constant threat of pestilence and death are kept at bay by the filmmakers’ seizure-inducing, soft-texture colourscapes, fantasy glades full of musical numbers and benevolent good fairies — deliberately emphasised by the film’s producers at the expense of Frank L. Baum’s much darker original novel to avoid scaring off the film’s intended audience of children and their parents.

The black-magic essence of the story — which comes replete with armies of evil flying monkeys and scenes of bizarre deaths — seems to be lost on many gay fans of the film too, as gay dialogues around the film invariably lean toward the diabetic. Presenting a eulogy at Vito Russo’s funeral, Simon Watney lovingly said that the gay film writer had to have been born “under the sign of the ruby slippers”;6 coffee mugs and T-shirts owned by gay men throughout the world bear the slogan “We’re not in Kansas anymore!” Gay-authored analyses of the film are invariably loyal to what they see as the film’s immutably gay-friendly subtext. The film is an anchor some gay men use as a parable of their own struggles to find happy, stable adult identities out of the ruins of their often turbulent, ostracised teenage years. And reflections on a childhood love of the film are often used to demonstrate a perceived permanence of gay identity, stretching back contiguously to infancy. Reid Davis’ lovingly nostalgic scholarly paper “What WOZ: Lost Objects, Repeat Viewings, and the Sissy Warrior — Psychology and the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz,” is a good example of how gay-oriented dialogues around the film frame it as a unifying piece of pro-gay nostalgia. Reid writes, “I’m guessing that every white middle-class gay man has his own Judy Garland story. This is mine: One day when I was five years old, and living on Guam, my mother told me Judy Garland had died. I panicked. I said to my mother, ‘But that means they’ll never show The Wizard of Oz again.'”7

But Rick Polito of the Marin Independent Journal summed up an alternate — and in my opinion much more appropriate — reading of the film with this sentence: “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.”8 Beyond the colour and movement, The Wizard of Oz is a pitch-dark tale, and, though it sits nearly fifty years away from the AIDS hypocenter, is a remarkably prescient AIDS text speckled with what look to be AIDS “scratchings,” such as how AIDS is always just one letter away from appearing in near-perfect acrostic form via the film’s main character names:

A untie Em
t I n Man / w I zard/ l I on / m I ss Gulch / w I cked W I tch
D orothy
S carecrow

Why oh why can’t “I” be in the right place? And what’s the faint little zephyr floating here and there trying to spell out AIDS in Wizard, Glinda, rainbow, Emerald City, Cowardly Lion, heart’s desire, Charles Grapewin and Clara Blandick, or damsel in distress? Is it whispering through Jack Haley’s mouth when he says “Oh well, about a year ago I was chopping that tree — minding my own business — when suddenly it started to rain . . .”?

The Wizard of Oz features a witch who speaks proprietarily of time (“I’ll bide my time”) and trades in bugs that “take the fight out of” people because they cannot be defeated by any normal weapon or existing medical treatment. And does the combination of the Wicked Witch’s green skin and her army of hypnotised flying monkeys predate the infamy of the African Green Monkey, a delightful creature who is often unfairly fingered as the human-biting instigator of the crossover of HIV from chimps to humans?

The movie begins in sepia doom and gloom, and it’s no wonder that minutes into the film Judy Garland, strapped into a painful corset to flatten down her breasts and hips — is longing to fly away to an idyll somewhere over the rainbow, where she can get the fuck out of a drab-as-shit place where her haggard teacher Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) threatens to have Dorothy’s beloved dog Toto killed by lethal injection, where scores of incubated chicks are dying, where a natural disaster is about to strike, and where a fortune teller arrives with a crystal ball warning Dorothy that her Auntie Em is about to die and that “there’s a storm blowing up — a whopper.”

Dorothy should have been careful for what she wished for as she is soon whisked away (by a cyclone) into a new and unfamiliar world, where her house has landed on a Witch and crushed her to death. (Note, however, that the Wicked Witch of the East, crushed by Dorothy’s house, is not completely dead, but merely, has been sent to a well of morbidity — down where the goblins go, below, below, below, below — where, presumably, she can still operate, much like Ringu’s Sadako sealed deep down in her well.) Shortly, the incredibly malevolent Wicked Witch of the West, the sister of the crushed Witch, arrives and threatens revenge on Dorothy — i.e., she’s gonna hunt her down and kill her.

Totally alone and told that only a dangerous quest can bring her her one wish — to return to the safety of her Kansas home (which is in the throes of some sort of bird flu and a cyclone) — Dorothy is told that she’s “made rather a bad enemy of the Wicked Witch of the West” and that the sooner she gets the fuck out of Oz, the safer she’ll be. Glinda, however, offers no escape route for Dorothy, but merely sends her on the long hike to Oz, telling her she’ll have to walk as she doesn’t have a broomstick. Dorothy sets off on her treacherous journey, and events grow darker by the day despite her new alliances with a rag-tag group of eccentric and loyal friends. Courage and fortitude win the day when Dorothy and her team protest inside the very heart of the Oz government, where power and policy are revealed to be a fraud and Dorothy is finally given the treatment she requires to return her to something resembling her pre-crisis state.

Awarded a patronising miniature statuette for her performance as Dorothy, Judy Garland called her pint-sized Oscar the Munchkin Award. According to several Garland biographies, when she was widely expected to win a legitimate Best Actress Oscar in 1954 for her role in A Star Is Born but lost to Grace Kelly for her role in The Country Girl, she was so disillusioned and depressed that her pre-existing spiral of self-destruction began accelerating apace. (Garland couldn’t attend the ceremony as she had just given birth to her son Joey Luft, so camera crews had been dispatched to the hospital and had her fully wired for a live tele-crossover of her acceptance speech.) Hedda Hopper — somehow infiltrating the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences infamous secret vote-tallying process — claimed that only six votes separated Kelly and Garland,9 while Groucho Marx sent Garland a telegram after the awards declaring her loss “the biggest robbery since Brinks,”10 a reference to the Great Brinks Robbery in Boston in 1950 that had been known then as the crime of the century. For her part, Kelly grabbed her Oscar and abandoned Hollywood the very next year to become Princess Grace of Monaco, only to drive off a cliff and die there in 1982, aged 52, leaving two daughters and a son. Garland died in London of an accidental drug overdose in 1969, aged 47, also leaving two daughters and a son.

Arriving in Hong Kong in May 1964 just as Typhoon Viola hit, Garland encountered Australian singer-songwriter Peter Allen the night after she awoke from a temporary drug-induced coma and uttered the cryptic phrase “Spyros Skouras choreographs the Rockettes.”11

Allen and his stage partner were performing at the Eagle’s Nest, the rooftop lounge at the Hong Kong Hilton, and when he started playing the introduction to “Over the Rainbow” on his piano, Garland slowly walked from her seat onto the stage, where she sang the song. After the show, Garland and Allen went drinking on the other side of Victoria Harbour and returned after the ferry service had ceased on a hastily leased rowboat, where Garland insisted Allen serenade her and was impressed by his singing voice. She picked him up as a protégé, and he later became her son in law when he married Liza Minnelli in 1967. Toward the end of his life (he died of AIDS-related throat cancer in June 1992), Allen was workshopping a new Australian musical called Darlinghurst Nights with scriptwriter David Mitchell before settling on an adaptation of the life of gangster Legs Diamond for which he composed the ballad “All I Wanted Was the Dream.” In March 1986, he premiered his multi-night sellout at Radio City Music Hall, soon after he’d completed a walk-on role in Miami Vice and bumped into his ex-wife Liza Minnelli at the Mondrian Hotel in Hollywood (he’d been staying at the Mandarin in Hong Kong when he met her mother). A year before they both died (in February 1987), Liberace and Andy Warhol attended Peter’s promotion dinner for Legs Diamond at Bud’s in New York and Peter soon holidayed in Port Douglas aboard the yacht Shaolin. After his final travel adventure — an African Safari centred around the Zambesi — he gave his last performance in Sydney on Australia Day in 1992, then recovered from radiation treatment in his home at Leucadia, near San Diego.

When Little Boy detonated six hundred metres above the the Aioi Bridge — just off its target due to crosswinds — almost every structure, person, and object within a kilometre of the hypocenter was vaporised or catastrophically damaged, while the shockwave radiated eleven kilometres in thirty seconds, causing lessening degrees of destruction, kilometre after kilometre, as it roared away concentrically from the center. While all communication with the inner city was lost, Hiroshima district railway stations sixteen kilometres away from the hypocenter were unaffected and radioed Tokyo reports of a “terrible explosion” in central Hiroshima.

Similarly, the radial tsunami waves generated by the Great Sumatra-Andaman earthquake of December 26, 2004 — the second-strongest earthquake ever recorded, shaking for nearly ten minutes and generating around 1,500 times as much energy as the Hiroshima blast — wiped out nearby villages of coastal Indonesia and Thailand, devastated nearby Sri Lanka and India, but washed up across the Indian Ocean on the shores of Africa as violent but generally manageable King Tides. Two hundred thousand lives were lost to the tsunami in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand; less than two hundred died west of India.

Though the first scattered cases of what grew into the AIDS Crisis began appearing in New York and San Francisco in 1981, the crisis didn’t detonate until four years later, during the last week in July 1985 when Kiss Of The Spider Woman opened in a Manhattan cinema and the dying Rock Hudson flew to Paris on the Concorde to try the experimental AIDS treatment HPA-23. Hudson returned to California and was immediately hospitalised at the UCLA Medical Center, from whose front steps his doctor Michael Gottlieb announced that “Mr. Hudson is being evaluated and treated for complications of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.”12 The buzzing press choppers overhead and the pyrotechnic flashing of press camera flashbulbs probably generated comparatively little physical energy, but the cultural energy unleashed by Dr. Gottleib’s announcement was enormous.

The diffuse energy unleashed by the announcement that Rock Hudson was suffering from AIDS (and the correct inference that he was also gay) took the form of public hysteria and media saturation: plague had come to 1980s America. As a year or two passed, ACT-UP arrived, as did discussion of anal sex on nightly family television programs, extraordinary advances in medical treatments and so on until the detonation wave of AIDS petered out into the Queer Eye and Will And Grace era, and its debates about gay marriage, Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, and so on.

Tennessee Williams went along with his mother when she authorized a lobotomy on his sister, Rose, an act that plagued him with guilt until he choked on an eyedrop bottle cap at the Hotel Elysee in New York in 1983. (Like Andy Warhol, who died of a heart attack — also in New York — after a routine gall bladder operation in 1987, Williams was one of a number of gay legends who died during the AIDS Crisis, but not of AIDS.) The recurring mother-son motif in Williams’ work, usually involving a mother character who is simultaneously celebrated for her magnificence but punished with madness and guilt, may have been due to his guilt over the fate of Rose and mixed feelings toward his mother, who he revered but never forgave for the lobotomy. This mother figure is sharply drawn in the character of Violet Venable, who would rather see her niece’s prefrontal cortex severed by a scalpel, pronto, than hear a bad word about her cherished son.

The film adaptation of his play Suddenly, Last Summer, with a screenplay by Williams-Vidal opens on the words “Lion’s View State Asylum,” where Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift), a neurosurgeon, is performing a lobotomy. The procedure takes place in a facility so old and underfunded that the lights flicker and plaster falls spontaneously from the walls. Medical students watch from a balcony. Later, Dr Cukrowicz complains that he is “not a witch doctor,” and that he cannot work under such “primitive” conditions. An extremely wealthy but borderline-insane local widow who travels from one level of her mansion to the other in an ornate wrought-iron elevator, Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) offers to fund a brand new neurosurgery wing on the condition that Dr Cukrowicz lobotomize her niece, Catherine, who’s currently imprisoned in a convent after suffering an emotional breakdown and falling into amnesia after witnessing the mysterious death of Violet’s cherished son, Sebastian. Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor) has been raving about strange things, casting suspicion on Sebastian’s sexuality and the apparently ghastly nature of his death. Violet, who is appalled by Catherine’s “hideous stories” that throw shade on Sebastian’s memory, suggests a lobotomy is necessary to “cut [the hideous stories] out of her brain.” But there’s truth behind Catherine’s ravings, and with the help of some sodium pentathol, Dr Cukrowicz liberates the homosexual and tribal-cannibal heavy truth from Catherine’s traumatized memory.

Sebastian was a covert homosexual, who used his mother and Catherine to “attract” men that he then seduced, paid for sex, or, it is suggested, raped. In a surreal sequence, Sebastian, who is only shown in fragments and whose face is never seen, is chased by Spanish gangs, who corner him and tear him limb from limb, eating parts of his flesh. In a macabre scene, we see parts of Sebastian’s body as he is being ripped limb from limb to his death, shortly after Elizabeth Taylor’s character has hallucinated seeing a smiling skull that looks every inch like the grinning hag that nearly runs Father Merrin over in the opening sequence of The Exorcist. It’s not difficult to line up a visceral event like the AIDS Crisis with a Grand Guignol Gothic story like this one, but Suddenly, Last Summer is a particularly good fit.

Future AIDS-activism deity Elizabeth Taylor was hopelessly miscast, as there’s simply no way that the horny Spanish youths would be interested in spindly Sebastian’s dandy appeals with the buxom Liz, at the time considered the most beautiful woman in the world, constantly at his side, her well-tanned watermelons continuously ready to fall out of her skimpy white bathing suit. Scatty, neurotic Catherine — bullied and overshadowed by Violet — would have been a role more suited to one of Taylor’s more gamine contemporaries like Audrey Hepburn or Shirley MacLaine, who might have handled Catherine’s highly dramatic scenes a bit better than Taylor, who was the first to admit she became shrill and overacted when the stakes were high.

Nevertheless, Catherine’s friendship with the robustly hard-partying but ultimately sickly Sebastian mirrors Liz’s friendships with Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson, both of whom lived large before dying savage and premature deaths (one from AIDS). As Catherine, Liz performs the same role she would later play in real life, as she tries to defend her increasingly feeble buddy from the “devouring hordes” that surround him in his final days, and she bears witness to her dead friend’s dignity when others try to maliciously rewrite his identity.

Apart from Sebastian’s murder, Suddenly, Last Summer treats us to tales of pestilence and bizarrely romanticised mass deaths that take in a garden of horror (see above) containing plants and organisms from ancient periods, and a devouring organism (a Venus fly trap) called Our Lady is about to die of hunger if it is not fed soon by insect victims that “never get away, the Lady exudes this marvellous perfume which attracts them, they plunge into her chalice, and they never come out.” In another nightmarish monologue, Violet relates the tale of thousands of baby turtles trying to waddle their way to a hopeful future only to be torn apart and devoured by waiting packs of birds:

We saw the Encantadas but on the Encantadas we saw something that Melville hadn’t written about. We saw the great sea turtles crawl up out of the sea for their annual egg-laying. Once a year the female of the sea turtles crawls up out of the equatorial sea onto the blazing sand beach of a volcanic island to dig a pit in the sand and deposit her eggs there. It’s a long and dreadful thing, the depositing of the eggs in the sandpits and when it’s finished the exhausted female turtle crawls back to the sea half dead. She never sees her offspring. But we did. Sebastian knew exactly when the sea turtle eggs would hatch, and we went back for it . . . in time to see the desperate flight to the sea. A narrow beach, the colour of caviar was all in motion the sky was in motion too full of flesh eating birds and the noise of the birds, the horrible savage cries as they circled over the narrow black beach of the Encantadas while the new hatched sea turtles scrambled out of their sandpits and started their race to the sea to escape the flesh eating birds that made the sky almost as black as the beach. I looked and saw the sand all alive, all alive as the new hatched sea turtles made their dash to the sea while the birds hovered and swooped to attack, and hovered and swooped to attack. They were diving down onto the sea turtles and turning them over to expose their soft undersides and tearing their undersides open and rending and eating their flesh. Sebastian guessed that possibly only a hundredth of one percent of their number would escape to the sea. Nature is cruel . . . we are all of us trapped by this devouring creation.13

Liz gets her chance, too, to deliver a remarkably prescient passage of dialogue after her character has been shot up with truth serum and she becomes dreamily hysterical:

He never reached the end. They stop nowhere, never, except at the very top of the hill something of . . . ruin . . . broken stones . . . like the entrance to a ruined temple . . . ancient ruined temple which he entered and, and they overtook him there in that . . . I heard Sebastian scream. He screamed just once and then I . . . I ran, they didn’t even see me . . . all these people ran out of buildings back up to where, where cousin Sebastian . . . he was . . . lying naked on the broken stones and this you won’t believe, nobody, nobody, nobody could believe it — it looked as if, as if they had devoured him! As if they tore or cut parts of him away with their hands or with knives or with the jagged tin cans they made music with and they’d torn bits of him away and stuffed them into their gobbling mouths! There wasn’t a sound anymore, there was nothing but Sebastian lying on those stones, torn and crushed!

Back in Sydney at the height of the AIDS Crisis, local artist William Yang photographed his late-twenties friend Allan’s death from AIDS. Yang captioned the photo:

I was in Ward 17 at St Vincent’s Hospital, that’s the AIDS ward, visiting someone else, when I looked through one of the doors and saw Allan. I recognised him immediately, but he had changed. He seemed like an old man. I had a strong desire to burst into tears.

Referring to the long-dormant period HIV spends in the body, the slow, often years-long process of a death from AIDS, and the frustrating — sometimes retrograde — sociopolitical waves generated by the epidemic, Simon Watney referred to AIDS as a “slow-motion epidemic.”14 Hitherto rapidly-evolving gay dialogues and exciting social and civic improvements to the status of gay people were pushed backwards by the epidemic, as pre-Stonewall bugbears such as the medicalization and pathologization of homosexuality, and calls for homosexual lifestyles to be policed and curtailed, returned to front pages and civic debates. In this sense, AIDS lurched the gay movement backwards in time.

Imagery of the AIDS epidemic reintroduced the sight of mystified doctors wearing protective clothing, and an ostracized, doomed segment of the population marked by ghastly external symptoms and cared for only by the pious. Andrew Sullivan wrote that during the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, gay men lived as “medievals among moderns,” besieged by death and visceral rot amidst the high-tech 1980s U.S. metropolitan world of sterility and health. Describing the atmosphere of American gay communities at that time, Sullivan wrote of the “dead [who] clutter the address books of the dying as bones once festooned the charnel houses of medieval city-dwellers.” His description almost matches Kermode’s description of the experiences of real and fictional victims of demonic possession: “[they] were adolescents, living in modern urban surroundings, whose conditions evoked a cure more usually associated with the Middle Ages than the sanitised 20th Century.”15

Randy Shilts set a gothic tone in the early pages of And the Band Played On with talk of scattered early victims drowning in “primeval protozoa that had filled their lungs,” Danish doctors working in primitive conditions in the “fetid equatorial climate” of Africa returning to Northern Europe to die of mysterious symptoms of hitherto extinct diseases. Shilts begins the book with a passage from Revelations, the section of the Bible that deals with prophecy, and in an early chapter, documents a Virginian psychic spelling out the word “toxoplasmosis” — an obscure cat disease that would become one of the surprise human infections of AIDS — while she was in a trance in 1980.16 A death from AIDS was often marked by severe physical and mental decline, which sometimes included blindness and dementia, a loss of strength and mobility, and the need for mechanical respiratory assistance. A main opportunistic infection of AIDS was Kaposi’s Sarcoma, an antique and unusual skin cancer previously only found in very old, Mediterranean men. In the early-mid 1980s, the average American male lifespan was 73 years.

In 1971, Morris Kight, Los Angeles gay activist, protested outside the Hollywood premiere of The Boys in the Band. Speaking to Variety columnist Army Archerd, Kight explained: “Look, there is not a single character in the film I don’t know. I know the drunk. I know the pill head. I know the pimply queen. I know every one of them. They’re very real. But they’re only a part of this community — and happily they’re a dying breed.”

Guileless Kight — who, like Sadako’s parents, had secret daughters hidden away, Carol Kight-Fyfe and Angela Bonin, from his earlier married life in New Mexico — only told close friends about the wife and the girls as he feared it may diminish his credibility as a gay activist. He couldn’t have chosen his words more presciently, as of course, the actors who played the drunk (Michael), the pill head (Donald), and the pimply queen (Harold) were due to leave the earth prematurely, along with half the cast. Kight’s hope that such gay identities would “die” and leave behind a politically engaged, achievement-oriented gay community was to be realised a decade later, and in no uncertain terms.

In the cast picture, above, from the top row extreme left, Kenneth Nelson (Michael) died from AIDS October 7, 1993 aged 63; second on the left, Leonard Frey (Harold) died from AIDS August 24, 1988 aged 50; third from left, Keith Prentice (Larry) died from AIDS September 27, 1992 aged 52. Robert La Tourneaux (Cowboy), sitting on the arm of the couch, died from AIDS June 3, 1986 aged 41; while Frederick Combs (Donald), sitting next to him, died from AIDS September 19, 1992, aged 57.

A product of the Stone(wall) Age adapted from the 1968 play by Mart Crowley, directed by William Friedkin, and released in 1970, The Boys in the Band is a wholly pre-AIDS text that follows a group of New York gay men as they celebrate their friend Harold’s birthday with a party and, via litres of alcohol and endless forked-tongue dialogue, confront aging, loneliness, and emotional displacement.

The movie’s first conversation (between best friends Michael and Donald) is about a cancelled doctor’s appointment. Donald’s doctor has come down with “a virus or something. He said he was just too sick.” Michael and Donald chat on and off for the film’s first twenty minutes, during which time they use the following words and phrases:

catatonic fit
doctor
doctors
virus
sick
sicker
doctor (again)
terrible trouble
not good
not the greatest
sick
syndrome
waste, waste, waste
finis
freakshow
plane crash
I didn’t think I could survive
anxiety
guilt
struggle to survive
die
I thought you’d perished

In a subsequent scene, Donald and Michael talk under the silent lips of a print of Man Ray’s Les Amourex that hangs on a wall in Michael’s apartment.

Man Ray was born Emmanuel Radnitzky in (future AIDS-film city) Philadelphia. In creating his pseudonym, the “aidz” that his surname contained has been concealed (see also, The W izard of Oz). Man Ray was also a Dadaist, a word that also has a-i-d-s.

The red lips of Les Amourex seem to usher in a whispery phone call from Alan, Michael’s college roommate who is in town and wants to meet up with Michael about “something important.” Michael is already frantic with preparations to host Harold’s party, and the idea that foreign element Alan may blow in unexpectedly and ruin the party gives Michael the creeps. Michael’s happy when Alan agrees to visit another time. Alan has called Michael from a public phone booth, and as he leaves the booth and crosses the street, car headlights and neon signs form out-of-focus balls of light that encircle him, like cells. He is obscured from the foreground by a flashing hazard light affixed to a yellow and black warning post, and as the phone-booth scene ends, concentric camera lens circles converge on his body like a target, and sirens wail in the distance.

With Alan out of the picture, everyone relaxes, and the party gets going. Conversations about the Club Baths in San Francisco and past trysts on Fire Island take place, music plays. The guys start to dance, one of them cheers — everyone’s having a ball. Then unexpectedly, Alan does arrive, and when he enters Michael’s apartment, the Boys freeze. The music is switched off immediately, and Michael is visibly unnerved.

Alan announces: “I really feel sorry about barging in on you this way.”

AIDS and Alan seem similar — as words they’re the same length and start with the same letter, they’re both very comfortable in black and white (tuxedo clad Alan, AIDS and newspaper print), and both come slinking into gay New York and caused upsets. If conflated, the logo A*** could be used to represent them both.

Though he recently gave up smoking and drinking, Michael immediately retreats to the kitchen and gulps down a large drink. Then, he and A*** go upstairs to the bedroom, where Michael sits on the bed and A*** circles him with dominant, lion-like pacing. Michael, suspicious and a little frightened, asks A***: “Why are you in New York?”

When A*** returns downstairs, it starts to rain. Then A*** and the flamboyant Emory have an argument that ends in a violent fist fight, a very disturbing scene that leaves Emory with a bloody mouth that is revealed when he falls onto his back and screams in pain. His friends help him to his feet, but Emory collapses onto the lounge and his friends step back as his blood spatters in all directions. Swooping camera movements and jerky editing give the scene the feel of a major medical emergency, while dialogue includes Emory pleading “get away from me” and “I can’t breathe!” while A*** barks barely intelligible pejorative at Emory and has to be physically restrained. Emory describes A*** as “a beast.” During this scene, Emory is helpless, frantic, physically ruptured, and in crisis, while his panicked friends attend him.

Harold arrives and Emory cowers, embarrassed that his friend will see him bloody and bedraggled when he had dressed up for the party and bought Harold an expensive present (a hustler). Harold instantly identifies A*** as a foreign element and witheringly asks: “Who is she? Who was she? Who does she hope to be?”

When he receives his gift, Harold tells Emory: “I’m so thrilled to get it I could kiss you. But I don’t want to get blood all over me.”

A*** says that he feels sick. He goes to the bathroom, where Emory is patching himself up. Emory screams and falls onto a nearby bed when A*** bursts in.

In further party banter, Michael tells Emory that “one could murder you,” but with A*** locked away being sick in the bathroom upstairs, a sense of pre-A*** tranquility returns to the party. Like the infected alien/husky dog of The Thing, though, A*** soon returns and creeps through the party, at which point the rainstorm intensifies with (Dorothy) gale-force winds and torrential rain that knock shelves off the terrace walls and leave Harold’s birthday cake — crowned with a dancing man candle — upturned on the floor.

As the partygoers get drunker, Michael confronts A*** about his secret homosexual history, accusing A*** of having a lengthy affair with Justin Stewart, a college buddy that A*** claims “made him sick.” Michael claims that A*** left Justin with “scars.”

The film ends with A*** leaving and Michael collapsing, crying “I won’t make it! I won’t make it!” and “You show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse.”

Rock Hudson died of AIDS in 1985 aged 59, and the 1978 disaster film Avalanche was one of his last films. Replete with Jacuzzi-hopping ski instructors, tense fur-pelt wearing divorcees, and an angry, rumbling ice mountain, Avalanche stars Rock as David Shelby, an ambitious developer who’s built a luxury ski resort at the base of an enormous snow-capped mountain range in Colorado. Shelby invites the A-list to a gala opening, but disaster strikes when a massive avalanche levels the resort.

The narrator of the film’s trailer barks that Shelby “built a vacation paradise to match his dream!” but that his “mistake started the avalanche!” During the trailer we hear Rock, as Shelby, say, “I opened up this magnificent country for myself and anyone who wants to join me.” Though an environmentalist friend keeps warning Shelby that the resort is located in a dangerous place, and though Shelby’s secret campaign donations to sympathetic Senators threaten to emerge, Shelby is completely committed to his belief that the ski resort is a worthwhile and noble endeavour. Shelby passionately believes in the principles of capitalism and the beauty of his new slalom idyll, and basically wishes that the naysayers would simply shut up.

As Rock became symptomatic in the early 1980s, we could surmise that he was most probably infected with HIV when he filmed Avalanche, and this thought exponentialises the easy metaphor of the film’s imperiled hyper-macho paradise, a highly sexualised place about to be struck by a devastating disaster from nature, that most assume, incorrectly, has come out of nowhere.

A meeting between San Francisco gay community members and officials from the San Francisco Department of Public Health in March 1984 discussed the potential closing of all gay bathhouses in the face of theories that the bathhouses were facilitating the nascent AIDS epidemic. Incensed gay protestors waved placards reading “Out of the Tubs, Into the Shrubs” and the more dramatic “Out of the Baths, Into the Ovens”: references to gay community fears that bathhouse closures would be an early step in a rollback of their civil rights and sexual freedoms. Many gay men who’d found homes in San Francisco weren’t native Californians and had, like Shelby, “gone west” to find their dream lifestyle. Despite warnings and warning signs for the best part of half a decade that their dream lifestyle had an unhealthy edge and may have a deadly sting in its tail, a commitment to gay sexual pride and freedom was Rock hard.

When Avalanche’s cautious environmentalist Nick Thorne (played by Robert Thorne, whose first big-screen role was as the naked horse rider who arouses Marlon Brando’s latent homosexuality in Reflections in a Golden Eye) warns Shelby that there is a hazard, and that his resort is “risking the lives of everyone [invited] here to share it,” Shelby responds with frustration, “I want people to enjoy this . . . not bury them in it!” Shelby says that he’s “fought like a son of a bitch” to get the resort open. Besides, it’s too late — everybody is already there, the resort is packed, and ice dancers are already out front entertaining the media and the A-list. To pack everything up and scuttle away would be a complete humiliation and probably a permanent regression for Shelby.

Rock’s first appearance is akin to Mrs Bates’ first appearance in Psycho. He stands behind a first-story window, unobserved and looking out and down at the people below, cut off from the hubbub by the glass and the height. Howling winds blow. This strangely creepy introduction to Rock melts into a warm indoors scene, where he reconciles with his ex-wife Caroline Brace (Mia Farrow). Lines from their early dialogue exchange, when read on the page and out of context, sound awfully AIDS-eque:

CAROLINE: You’re looking well, maybe a little tired.
DAVID: This is the big one.
CAROLINE: Well I guess you got it.

Later in the movie, Thorne notes that “things aren’t normal. There’s a heaviness growing,” to which Shelby replies, “You wanna panic the whole population because there’s a heaviness?” In And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts writes of the Summer of 1984 where bathhouses around San Francisco begrudgingly closed down, with the Sutro’s closing-night party marked by the indignant burning of safe sex pamphlets around the pool. “If we can’t pass them out, we may as well burn them,” the Sutro’s owner said.

Some sexual guilt breezes through the film, with a two-timed ski babe screaming then running into the snowy night wearing only her underwear when she finds her boyfriend in bed with another woman. In her next scene, she tries to kill herself with a sleeping pill overdose. Newly divorced Caroline keeps accidentally using her married name, then catching herself and tentatively mouthing her new single-woman identity. Shelby conducts a clandestine business call while having a bubble bath with a partially seen naked woman who is covered in bubbles but who isn’t shown sharing the bath with Shelby. This particular scene echoes the bubble-bath scene from the Hudson/Doris Day film Pillow Talk, where Hudson and Day exchange double entendre via telephone while enjoying separate bubble baths. Hudson’s popularity as a matinee idol, exemplified by his three collaborations with Day, was what made his illness and death from AIDS, and the corollary revelation that he was homosexual, a media sensation. Avalanche prefigures this detail, too by placing Hudson in an incongruous heterosexual bubble bath/telephone call scene.

The film’s title is an all-capitals word starting with “A,” and the surnames of Shelby’s ex-wife and best friend warn him to Brace for a Thorne. Avalanches tend to be associated with falling Rocks, and look at the spelling of Rock Hudson’s character’s name: D-A-V-ID S-H-E-L-B-Y.

Ten years after the release of The Boys in the Band, William Friedkin made his other gay-themed film, Cruising, an abstract thriller about a homosexual serial killer, based on the novel of the same name by Gerald Walker.

The film opens with the crew of a garbage scow on the Hudson discovering a decomposing human arm floating in the river, the towers of Manhattan filling the background. The second scene of the film shows two patrol cops cruising the gay area of town and noting that “One day this whole city’s gonna explode,” and a creepy song (by the LA punk rock band The Germs) playing diegetically in one of the gay bar scenes contains the lyric “When I close my eyes I see blood.” Al Pacino plays Steve Burns, a cop who’s enlisted to go undercover in the New York gay leather scene to try and track the killer, who preys on types who resemble Pacino’s character. His supervisor, played by Paul Sorvino, asks Burns if he’s ever had his dick sucked by a man before sending him undercover.

Cruising’s gay killer is a quasi-human foreign element that strikes horny gay guys and that only comes alive during sexual encounters where it torments then kills its partner. Filmed from behind and speaking with an unnatural, HAL-9000-style voice, the killer haunts gay sex venues such as cruising grounds and peep shows or selects his victims from gay bars. “Where are you from?” an early victim asks. “Mars,” the killer responds. A refrain the killer keeps humming is “Who’s here? I’m here, you’re here.”

Later, when a victim is tied face down to a bed about to be stabbed to death, we get a dialogue cluster of a-i-ds:

KILLER: Are you afraid?
VICTIM: Should I be?
KILLER: I can’t believe you’re not afraid.
VICTIM: Now I’m afraid.

Elsewhere in Cruising, separate tabloid newspaper headlines announce HOMO KILLER ON THE PROWL and GAY KILLER STILL AT LARGE. In Cruising, these headlines lay adjacent to a sports article on Arthur Ashe, a top-ranked tennis player of the day who died of AIDS in 1993. The headline of the sports article is “ASHE K’OD” and the subheading, “ASHE’S PAST IS DUST.” In the next scene, a blinking neon sign outside a hotel where the next killing takes place advertises RADIO SHACK, a brand name that contains words like AIDS and ADIOS, ROCK.

The clandestine killer of Cruising navigates the gay milieu at will, silently selecting its victims, who hang out at the bars and cruising grounds unaware of danger until it’s too late.

A prime suspect is found to be innocent, and gay victims fall at random and often in clear view of their peers — killer and victim appear blurred or fused, as if retro-virally recoded so that they or no one else can tell one from the other. Burns finds that the fragmentary descriptions of the killer could apply to almost any of the guys packed shoulder to shoulder in New York’s cavernous leather bars, and the film’s ending introduces the possibility that it is Burns himself who may be the killer.

Early theories about Cruising’s killer center around ideas of sexual perversity, the malignancy of the rectum, sexual malfunction, and the danger of irregular (“queer”) male sexualities. In one scene, a forensic scientist performing an autopsy on an early victim makes the following observations: “Anus was dilated at the time of death. Slight rupture above the anus indicating intercourse. We found semen but I couldn’t identify it. Aspermia. No sperm. Your killer’s shooting blanks. Maybe he has some physical aberration or a malfunction. Could be his testes are infected.”

Compare that dialogue to this excerpt from the 1981 New York Times article “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals”:

The cause of the outbreak is unknown, and there is as yet no evidence of contagion. The reporting doctors said that most cases had involved homosexual men who have had multiple and frequent sexual encounters with different partners, as many as 10 sexual encounters each night up to four times a week. Many of the patients have also been treated for viral infections such as herpes, cytomegalovirus and hepatitis B as well as parasitic infections such as amebiasis and giardiasis. Many patients also reported that they had used drugs such as amyl nitrite and LSD to heighten sexual pleasure.17

Friedkin had come under fire from gay activists who disrupted the shoot by flashing mirrors to disrupt the film’s lighting and blowing whistles during sound checks. Two months after Cruising opened, a man entered The Ramrod, a leather bar featured in the film, and opened fire with a submachine gun, killing two patrons and wounding twelve others. But it’s worth remembering that the leather bar scenes of Cruising were populated with extras who were members of New York’s leather community, and that they’d been instructed to tone it down for the movie to avoid landing an X rating, and also that the film (and originally, the novel) were inspired by the New York “bag murders” of 1977-8, in which the mutilated and dismembered remains of six males wrapped in black plastic garbage bags washed up on the shores of New Jersey or Battery Park. Around the same period, the same number of gay guys went missing, never to be found. Tatters of clothing identified some of the victims with a Greenwich Village shop, and a tattoo helped identify one victim as a missing gay guy. The murders have never been solved, but on September 14, 1977, gay film critic Addison Verrill was beaten in the head with a frying pan and stabbed in the heart with a carving knife in his New York apartment. Paul Bateson, a radiology nurse, confessed to the murder. While in custody for this murder, Bateson talked of having killed and cut up six other gay men and dumping their bodies in the Hudson river.

Reportedly, he said as much to William Friedkin, who visited him for research purposes during the filming of Cruising. Friedkin and Bateson had met before — Bateson had been the assistant to the radiologist who created the brain scan images for The Exorcist.

In his analysis of The Exorcist, Mark Kermode notes that much of that film’s terror is generated by its unsettling deployment of temporal alchemy. The film’s spectral presence-from-the-past is able to bend the rules of time and space at will and leap from ancient Mesopotamia to 1970s urban America, leaving a trail of stopped clocks, dead priests, and transposed ancient relics in its wake. The characters of the film are yanked into mortal combat by a malicious force of destruction that is impervious to time and space, controls the playing field, and turns its victims every which way but loose.

Kermode observed that “The Exorcist presented a credible portrait of the modern urban world ripped apart by an obscene, ancient evil” and that “the suggestion is that time has stopped, that the normal flow of the present has been interrupted by a force from the past.”18

The 1982 film Making Love follows the plight of yuppie fiancés Zach (Michael Ontkean), a young doctor, and Clair (Kate Jackson), a television producer. Their romantic idyll is annihilated when Zach explores his burgeoning homosexual urges by having an affair with footloose and fancy free gay novelist Bart (Harry Hamlin). Zach and Bart meet when Zach is filling in for a regular doctor who has called in sick: Bart arrives for an appointment, and Zach examines him. Bart is flirtatious, but Zach is intimidated and also, intrigued by Bart’s mysteriously enlarged lymph glands. The two go out for lunch, and one thing leads to another. Zach wants commitment, Bart doesn’t, and Zach ultimately confesses all to Clair, who immediately drops a casserole dish on the floor. Eventually all three are left single, heading off with uncertainty into the 1980s.

Making Love was released on March 5, 1982. On July 27 that year, the acronym AIDS was coined at a stakeholders’ meeting in Washington DC. With new non-homosexual cases emerging, GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) was considered too limited a name for the syndrome, and, according to Randy Shilts, who documented the scripting of AIDS nomenclature in And the Band Played On, the suggested ACIDS was considered “grotesque.” And so AIDS, a gender-neutral “snappy acronym” was chosen.19 Production Making Love must have started around a year, then, before the letters AIDS meant AIDS. The film’s script would have almost certainly been written before July 3, 1981, when the New York Times published what has become known as the “birth certificate” of the AIDS epidemic, the page 20 article “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals” referenced above (subheading: “First Appears in Spots”).

Yet, in one sequence in Making Love, a potted history of the epidemic-to-come rolls out in perfect chronological order in one curious moment after the next. The sequence reaches an uncanny climax when the word “AIDS” pops into the center of the screen and hovers above the two gay characters’ heads.

The sequence begins 14 minutes into the film, with Bart consolidating his workout at the gym with some press-ups at home. He checks his shirtless torso in a three-way mirror, then gets dressed in macho clothes, pops a pill, and heads for the bars. Once there, Bart schmoozes with some regulars and cruises a new guy and goes to his place. They have sex, after which Bart can’t wait to leave. The next day, Bart is inspecting his body again when he notices swollen glands in his neck. He settles into Suddenly Last Summer co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in Raintree County, but, in between scoffing popcorn, keeps pensively rubbing the swollen glands. He visits the doctor, to find that his regular GP Dr. Bloom is away and that Zach will be examining him. Earnest Zach is dressed in a white doctor’s coat, and the sombre clinic is mostly white, too. Bart is a slash of pizzazz, dressed in blue denim and using confident and flirtatious language, referring to Zach at various points as Dr. Jekyll (a demon who takes over the mind and body of an experimental pioneer and ultimately kills him) and Dr. Doolittle. Zach asks Bart: “Any new symptoms that I should know about?” and Bart indicates his swollen glands. Bart confesses that he occasionally uses drugs and has multiple sex partners, but he tries “to be on the safe side” and is “very conscious of not fucking up [his] system.” Zach dismisses the swollen glands and the unidentified virus that must be causing them by saying: “Don’t worry about it. It happens all the time.”

At a bookstore, Bart buys Zach a copy of his latest novel, Good Intentions, and they say their goodbyes in front of a hearing-aids shop. Their stances cut the word HEARING out of our view, so that of the shop’s lit-up, all-capitals sign, only the word AIDS is visible, right there between their heads. When Zach leaves and Bart takes a step forward, another shop sign, BAMBOO BASKETS moves into the shot so that BAM is cut off.

Did AIDS perform nensha?

  1. Shilts, Randy. And The Band Played On. (New York: Penguin, 1987). []
  2. Quoted in Miller, Robert W. “Delayed Radiation Effects in Atomic-Bomb Survivors.” Science, 31 October 1969: Vol. 166. no. 3905, pp. 569 – 574. []
  3. Fukurai, Tomokichi. Clairvoyance & Thoughtography. Ayer Publishing, 1975. []
  4. See here. []
  5. Harmetz, A. The Making of The Wizard of Oz: Movie Magic and Studio Power in the Prime of MGM. New York: Hyperion Books, 1998. []
  6. Watney, Simon. Imagine Hope: AIDS and Gay Identity. New York: Routledge, 2000. []
  7. Davis, Reid. Film Quarterly, Vol. 55, Issue no. 2, pages 2-13. []
  8. See here. []
  9. Ibid. []
  10. Ibid. []
  11. MacLean, Stephen. The Boy from Oz: The Peter Allen Story. Sydney: Random House Australia, 2006. []
  12. Shilts. []
  13. Vieira, Mark A. “Horror Queens: Divas from Hollywood’s Golden Age Rampage Through the Sixties.” []
  14. Watney, Simon. Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS, and the Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. []
  15. Sullivan, Andrew. Gay Life, Gay Death: The Siege of a Subculture. []
  16. Shilts. []
  17. Altman, Lawrence K. “Rare Cancer Seen In 41 Homosexuals.” The New York Times, 3 July 1981. []
  18. Kermode, Mark. The Exorcist (London: British Film Institute, 1999. []
  19. Shilts. []