‘Heavy Splash,’ a Horror Short Story

[Trigger Warning: some sexual content of a disturbing nature.]

Ayumi Suzuki shouldn’t have been driving. She was about to peak on a combination of ecstasy, ketamine, and acid as she, naked, drove out of the front yard of the country home where the party was still in full swing that summer night. The other partiers, her associates in the porn industry, were too wasted themselves to notice her having sneaked out after a trip to the bathroom…not that they cared. ‘Yummy Sucky’— her stage name—was important to them only insofar as she made money for them. The waves of her thoughts rose and fell like this:

I’ve got to get out of there! I’m just too high. I love to party, but they just don’t know when to stop. All those pills. All that snorting. All that fucking. I’ll die if I keep doing drugs in there. I washed the come off my face and left immediately after. I didn’t even bother to get my clothes. I’m surprised—and lucky—none of Phil’s musclemen stopped me from leaving. I may be naked and stoned, but at least I got away from them. It’s safer to leave now, and to risk it on the road, than to stay, and risk letting them just get crazier and crazier with me, till they kill me. Gotta escape…escape…Drive, drive far away…just keep driving…

She was driving alone down a gravel road lined with trees on both sides. Besides what little light the half moon and stars were giving overhead, her high beams were augmented by the dazzle the drugs were flashing in her eyes.

Are those trees I’m driving past…or are they people, blacks with their hair dyed green? They all look like punk rocker clones of Leon, one of the porno studs who were just fucking me in that bedroom. Man, am I ever stoned!

Her little car was swaying left to right, but mostly staying on the gravel. The tires crushed the bordering grass during the extremes of three sways. Her head was swaying all the more from the mental massage of the high she was now peaking on.

Great party! A way-too-crazy one, but a great one! I’m really fucking high. Now that I’m away from all those fuckers, I can just relax and enjoy my high. Leaving them was kinda like leaving home in Sacramento. I’m so glad I left my parents’ home to live this party life, here in Washington State. I don’t always know which way I’m going, but I’m glad I left that hell of a house back in California last year. Escape…the great escape…I just drove and drove…got far, far away from them…I just kept on driving…

Going through the forest, she took a wrong turn to the right, and then went down an inclining dirt road. She thought she was still on the right path, even though it was a bumpy, downhill one. The descent made her want to slow down, which of course was a good thing. If only she’d been willing to stop.

The road doesn’t seem level anymore. I don’t remember going up or down any hills on the way to Phil’s house. Must be the drugs making me think I’m going downhill.

She was tingling all over from the ecstasy, and the drugs made her vision too blurry to see the difference in roads. The tingles cancelled out the bumpy feel of the road so well that she hadn’t noticed the end of the smoothness beneath her tires, either; the drugs she was on were better than the best of shock absorbers. The darkness of the overhanging trees was beginning to envelope her. There was a small spot of light at the bottom of the incline, where the dirt road was leading to God-knew-what, a kind of light at the end of the tunnel.

Is this a straw I’m looking through, with pure, white cocaine at the bottom, waiting to be sniffed up my lucky nose, or am I driving through a tunnel? Yes, it’s a tunnel! How did I get from the forest to a tunnel? I don’t remember there being a tunnel anywhere on the road from my place to Phil’s house.

Indeed, her high was making her think she was driving through a tunnel at the moment, with a grey glow at the far end. The trees—or the greenish-brown curved tunnel walls, as they looked to her—were rippling like the waves of a serene lake, a peaceful escape from the smut business.

So I’m doing porn now: so what? As a twenty-year-old who didn’t finish college (I’m so glad I dropped out—I’m sick of school!), I didn’t have many other options after running away from home; but even if I had, why should I be ashamed of fucking in front of a camera? I’m freely exploring my sexuality: what’s wrong with a girl doing that? At least I’m not chained to a desk anymore, always pressured to get next-to-perfect grades for my parents. I do whatever I want now. I get high whenever I want. I escaped from home…I just need to escape from the partying and the sex, for a while…Just keep on driving, far, far away…

She drove down to where that light was, and came out from the trees. Dots of blurry light flashed in her eyes: was it the stars, or was it the drugs? Still peaking on her high, every inch of her body sizzling with pleasure, she didn’t notice how the road had ended, and she was now driving slowly on a long wooden pier, one wide and sturdy enough to support the weight of her car, but leading into the middle of a lake—one with as many cans, plastic bags, and chocolate bar wrappers as there were dead fish. For a moment, she stared at the dark spaces between the planks of wood on the pier. The spaces were going straight ahead, in the direction she was driving.

The dirt road looks different. Why are there straight, black lines on the light brown dirt? Are they lines of black cocaine, all chopped up for me to snort on a wooden table? Is there such a thing as black cocaine? I’ll bet black blow gives a freaky buzz. Still, no way! No more drugs for me, thank you. Is that dirt I’m driving on, or is it wood? The sides are black and wavy: where’s the grass? Wait a minute: everything is wavy. Where’s the road?

The car swayed left and right, almost going off the side at one point. To her eyes, that sturdy pier seemed to be as wobbly as the waves of the lake, as did the swaying trees. Everything seemed to be an ocean, as if she were underwater: there was no sense of separation or distinction between her and her environment, or between anything around her…it was almost primordial Chaos, a dark world of death, before the creation of the universe, before the pain of life had even begun, as waste and void as her mind was wasted and void. It was beautiful. Her spirit was about to hover over the face of the waters. No, everything already was water, and she was in it, Ayumi, a drop of water mixed in with her surroundings, indistinct from them.

I’m free now, I’m out of the darkness and into the light: it’s like having found Jesus, and dying with Him on the wooden rood, the Word at the beginning of time; unlike in Mom’s and Dad’s church, those hypocrites and their phoney, conniving pastors. The family preacher never helped me when I complained about Mommy’s and Daddy’s coldness when I was a child, always pushing me to slave away at school, and never letting me have any fun.

Though she was driving slower and slower, she was too stoned to notice how the edge of that pier was getting close.

Well, I’m twenty years old now, and I can go wherever I want, do whatever I want. Neither Mom nor Dad can stop me. No one can stop me. I hate the family’s posing as ‘respectable’ Japanese-Americans, the way they carry on the social lie about us as the good, Christian, Suzuki family, with their religion, a drug for the masses, and my only drug to ease my suffering when I was still living with them. Oh, what bullshit! But I got far, far away from them. I have much better drugs now. I just need a break from Phil and the porn moviemakers, and from the sex, for the moment. I just have to keep driving, driving to safety…

She didn’t even notice herself drive off the end of the pier: it was as if she were going down another dirt road incline. Her car plunged into the lake. The water, fanning out in all directions around the front of her car, was like a great flash of light blinding her. Because everything had been waves in front of her eyes, the sight of undulating water outside her car wasn’t a surprise to her.

Am I being baptized? Yes! I’m being bathed in holiness and redemption.

The car sank diagonally into the water as if it were quicksand, for there was such a mountain of junk dumped into the lake, it managed to slow the car down. The window to her car door, to the left of the driver’s seat, was open by an inch or so. As the dirty water poured through and splashed all over her, she turned her head towards it, letting it splash all over her face. She smirked as she got soaked.

It’s like my last bukkake film. I had so much come all over my face, my mouth, my nose, it was hard to breathe. My director, Phil, got so mad at me for ruining the scene when I asked for help, instead of giggling like the little slut he wanted me to act like. Why couldn’t he just help me? Nobody helped me. I thought I was going to die!

She moved her head back to the front to face the windshield, and took a breath while looking through it. It was so dark out there. She couldn’t see any kind of road. Instead, the outside looked like a forest of giant fungi, dark green mushrooms the size of trees, swaying left to right. She blinked her eyes, still too dazed to be thinking about the water filling up in her car, already a pool with her feet submerged.

What are those orange things floating about? They look like…are they dead fish? No, they can’t be. This is one intense high. Am I no longer driving? Am I dreaming? Am I in an aquarium? I sure am far, far away now. My head is swimming: is my body swimming? What’s with all this water? Why is it so dark outside?

The car thudded against something and stopped moving. Her head jerked forward, almost hitting the dashboard. It was a good thing she had her seatbelt on.

Did I hit something? What is that in front of me?

Some dark, thick mass had bumped against the windshield, cracking the glass slightly. For a second, the thick mass looked like a giant, fidgeting, black octopus, about to wrap its swaying tentacles all over her.

Are those Leon’s hands on my arms? Are we filming another fuck scene? No!

Then she looked again, and saw what looked like a large tree stump. Actually, it was a thick branch, and another, thicker and stronger branch, one parallel to the first, was under the car, holding it in its diagonal position. More dead fish, and the corpses of one or two frogs, were floating by the ajar window, through the top of which the water was pouring in like a waterfall. The water in the car had risen to her knees now.

I’m cold. Now I wish I’d grabbed my dress. Why am I so wet?

She looked to her left, and felt the dirty water splashing on her face again. As it went all over her nose and mouth, she looked out the ajar window and saw a frog’s corpse almost slipping in: its front limbs, having slipped past the glass, were fluttering at her, as if wanting to touch her face. The limbs were inches away from her nose. She could see the frog’s face seeming to stare right into her eyes. She blinked her eyes, and for a second she thought she saw…

Are those my father’s hands reaching out to slap me, the way they did whenever he saw me not studying?

She jerked her head away, shook it for a few seconds, and looked back at the windshield.

No, that can’t be Daddy. I’m far away from him now. This trip is getting just too intense for me. I’m seeing things.

She looked back at the window, blinked and tried to focus. She saw the frog. She sighed with relief, swatted at it to make it float away, and looked back to her front.

I knew it. It wasn’t Daddy. When will that bastard get out of my head? Can’t I just enjoy my high in peace?

The water was a swirling mix of turquoise, brown, orange, and yellow. The face of a large, grey, dead fish approached the windshield, its wide-open mouth kissing the glass. For a second, it looked like a shark about to attack: she saw huge, sharp teeth shining from its widening jaws. She jerked her head, looked again, and saw just the fish. She let out a heavy sigh, and waited for her pounding heart to slow down. As she calmed down, she focused on the waves of pleasure her high’s massage was giving her brain.

Please, no more scary sights. Just let me enjoy my high.

Indeed, her whole body was vibrating, undulating with her high. Had it not been for the scary surroundings, it would have been the best feeling she’d ever had in her life. It was as if she were at one with the water: the boundary between her and her soaking surroundings was as blurred as her vision. It was like death, an annihilation of her ego, but it was also a beautiful oneness. It was peaceful, an end to her suffering. She was one with the waves of the world.

Am I taking a shower? This is like that time three months ago, when we did that film and I fucked that white stud, Jim Johnson, in the shower. I was on really good ecstasy the day we filmed that scene, too, almost as good as the ecstasy I’m on now.

She saw that fish head again, and for a second, it looked like her father’s face. She shook at the sight of it.

Oh! Wait, no, it isn’t Dad yelling at me. That reminds me of when Mom and Dad caught me with a small bag of marijuana in my purse, which my nosy aunt found. I’m so glad I don’t live with my family anymore. I’m safe now, far away from them. It’s good to drive away, to escape from the pain.

The pressure against the windshield caused it to crack into longer crooked lines. The crack was like a giant, emaciated, white spider, wanting to crawl inside the car and onto her face. She thought she saw glowing eyes in the center of the crack, the ‘head’ of the spider.

Ooh! That isn’t a spider, is it? I hate spiders, especially big ones.

Her mind was taken off of the ‘spider’ when a set of six-pack rings, whose plastic had disintegrated somewhat, leaving only two distinct rings, darkened by dirt, slipped through the window crack and landed on her hands. She looked down at them. They looked like grey handcuffs.

Am I doing another bondage film? Phil promised me he’d never make me do that again! Well, he makes a lot of promises he doesn’t keep…bastard. He—Phil Sakamoto—kind of looks like my Dad.

The six-pack rings were washed off her hands by the continuous influx of filthy water, which she was way too stoned to give serious thought to. She looked back down at her hands.

Oh? The handcuffs are gone. Good. Wow, I guess Phil does keep his promises sometimes. Hey, what’s that slapping me?

A few skinny dead black fish slipped through the opening in the side window and slapped against her left cheek as the water continued to pour in. She was up to her waist in water now.

Is that a tree branch in front of me? Where am I? What keeps swatting my left cheek? Something long and black. Is it Leon’s dick slapping my face after I blew him? It sure feels that way. He was doing that at the party tonight, wasn’t he? I hate it when he does that during filming, but when Phil tells us to do a scene a certain way, we have to do as we’re told. I’ll bet Leon likes swatting my face with his cock. Asshole!

The windshield cracked again. That ‘spider’ was growing into a monster, looking like a nuclear mutation. The acid she was peaking on made the ‘spider’ seem to move. For a second or two, the spider seemed to be crawling a bit, then stopping and watching her. Those glowing grey eyes she saw seemed to be staring right into her soul. She jumped at the sight of them, then looked again, and realized the ‘spider’ was just a crack in the glass. The relief wasn’t reassuring, though, for the darkness and freaky visuals were ruining what could have been an amazing buzz.

Oh, shit! I hate spiders. I really didn’t need that hallucination.

The water was up to her belly now. Was she vibrating from her high, or shivering from the cold? The dead black fish were floating in a circle around her, almost touching her skin. She looked down at them, and thought she was wearing some kind of chain around her waist, links of black rotating around her.

Has Phil chained me to a wall? I guess I’m doing a bondage film again, after all. I hate him. What’s that pouring on my head? Is he having someone piss on me again?

She looked back up at the windshield, then back down at her waist. The black fish had floated away.

Oh, wait, I’m not chained up—good. But what’s that smell? Piss? Dead animals? I’m really fuckin’ high, like that time I was snorting cocaine at that other party last week, and I heard Phil and Jim talking about climate change. Jim was warning about the dangers of pollution and shit like that. Phil ignored him, said it’s a liberal myth made up so the government can tax us and interfere with our lives more. I tend to agree with Phil. My dad never believed what the environmentalists say: I hate Phil and Daddy, but I agree with them about that.

Some of the filthy water got in her mouth. She spat it out and coughed.

Did Jim just piss in my mouth?

She looked to her left, but didn’t see Jim’s dick.

No, it isn’t him; but fuck him and his green politics, anyway. Fuck Mother Nature. She’s a whore, like the whore my misfortunes made me into. My mother’s nature was never any kinder to me than Daddy was; she always ignored my childhood need for hugs and love, instead barking at me to finish my homework. Fuck Mother Nature. Fuck everything. We’re all going to die one day, anyway. Death is beautiful. Death is escape. Getting away, far away. Finding peace of mind. We’re all polluted, and we can never un-pollute ourselves. There’s no hope for redemption. Just die, and escape from it all.

The windshield cracked again, making a small hole through which water sprayed like a shower nozzle on her face.

What’s that? More bukkake? Or another shower fuck scene we’re filming? Damn, why am I so wet? This is such good ketamine! It’s as if something terrible is happening to me, but I feel perfectly safe from it. It’s like I’m shielded in armor, or in an electric field of energy, or something. Flashing rays of light are shooting out in all directions around my eyes. Nothing can hurt me, though everything is trying to. I see horrors before my eyes, death everywhere, but a bubble of protection will keep me safe. I’m too high to care, anyway.

The water level was up to her breasts now. Her nipples were freezing and erect.

Am I in a swimming pool? I did a porno shoot in a swimming pool a month ago. I was swimming around, then Leon walked by the poolside naked, his big black dick pointing at me, then I came out of the pool, as naked as he was. Then we fucked. His dick is too big, but I was high on ketamine, so I didn’t feel the pain during the filming. I sure was sore afterwards. Still, I’m not complaining. Fun times!

The water was up to her neck now.

As bad and Phil and his boys get, at least it’s not like life at home in Sacramento, being repressed by my parents after they’d taken me to church services, when the preacher warned of the kind of sins that led to the Great Flood, sinning that Daddy ignored in himself–with his hands on me–even as he punished me for my imperfections, and the pastors ignored my cries for help. Bastards! And when I complained to the preachers about my parents’ strictness, they said that potheads deserve to be treated with strictness! And they all talk of God’s love and forgiveness. Hypocrites, all of them!

The glass of the windshield finally broke. Shattered pieces of glass flew at her face, cutting tiny holes in her cheeks. Tiny pieces of plastic, like scattered rice, but glowing because of the drugs, were flying at her face, too. The tree branch’s jagged front hit her in the face like a fist, giving her a nosebleed. All her blood got diluted in the water that was enveloping her, swirling about her face like fumes from marijuana cigarettes, only they were red.

Who punched me? Was it Daddy, after he caught me in my room smoking pot, the day before I left home? Was it Leon, after I finished blowing him? I remember Phil wanting him to do that, but I refused to let him. Phil is such an asshole sometimes. My jaw gets so sore from blowing Leon’s big cock. Speaking of blow, is this cocaine going up my nose, or is it more bukkake? Sometimes it feels like a glass powder, sometimes it feels like…water…water turned to red wine by Jesus…

She blacked out. Deep black. A far, far away kind of black. It was a bottomless pit of black, like Jonah going into the mouth of the great fish. She phased into unconsciousness, a place where the border between unconsciousness and death was blurred…a peaceful place, beyond the pairs of opposites, those of life and death…shifting back and forth between those opposites…like…waves…

Am I awake? Am I…dreaming? I can’t breathe. The water…is beautiful. Red. Is it wine? Are those…dead, pink fish…floating about me, or are they…severed cocks, Jim’s and Leon’s, after I…bit them off, with their blood…flowing everywhere? I’d sure…like to bite them off. Phil’s, too. I had to…get away from them, far away. Too many drugs, too much fucking, too much sucking, too much partying. It was fun, but it was…dangerous fun. I ran out…of the house, completely naked, with…only my car keys…I had to…get out…of there. I thought I’d…die there.

The line between life and death was, for her, like the surface of the ocean, rippling up and down, up and down…

But out here, dying is better. It’s beautiful…to die. It’s like sleeping. Dreaming. Escaping. No more abuse. No more being…exploited by Phil. No more pain, no more filth…polluting my body. No more drugs…to fuck my head up. If my…body isn’t…getting fucked…my mind is…This is better…Just sleeping, forever. Escaping the world. Getting away…from the filth. The Great Flood, washing away…the sin of the world. With the end…comes a new beginning…a new creation. I’ve found…redemption…through blood…Christ’s blood. Peace. Feeding me…with fish, the Jesus fish. All I’ve…ever wanted…to do…is to get away…to drive away, far away from all the…

Analysis of ‘Caligula’

Introduction

Caligula is an erotic historical drama film made in 1979, based on the rise and fall of Gaius Caesar, and starring Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, Helen Mirren, Teresa Ann Savoy, Paolo Bonacelli, Guido Mannari (his English dub voice done by Patrick Allen), and John Steiner. It was produced by Bob Guccione for Penthouse magazine, in an attempt to fuse a feature film narrative, with high production values, with the explicit, unsimulated sex scenes of pornographic films.

Gore Vidal produced a screenplay for the film, for which Tinto Brass was the original director, but both of them disowned the film after constant fighting and a falling out. Guccione added hardcore pornographic content, which with the violence of many scenes resulted in a film that created a storm of controversy on its release. Accordingly, the uncut movie was, and still is, banned in many countries.

Here are some quotes from the film:

“I have existed from the morning of the world and I shall exist until the last star falls from the night. Although I have taken the form of Gaius Caligula, I am all men as I am no man, and therefore I am a god.” –Caligula (McDowell)

Caligula: Tell me, how is the emperor?

Nerva (Gielgud): Old, like me.

Caligula: I mean, how is his mood?

Nerva: Like the weather.

Caligula: The weather is good today!

Nerva: Changeable.

*********

Caligula: You are a god, lord.

Tiberius (O’Toole): No I’m not, not even when I am dead.

Caligula: Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar, they are gods.

Tiberius: So say the senate, and so the people prefer to believe. Such myths are useful.

*********

Nerva: For a man to choose the hour of his own death is the closest he will ever come to tricking fate, and fate decrees that when you die, Macro will kill me.

Tiberius: I’ll arrest him and have him executed.

Nerva: You can’t. He controls you. [Looks at Caligula] Anyway, even with Macro dead, how could I go on living with this reptile?

*********

“If only all Rome had just one neck!” –Caligula

“You see how I have exhausted myself to make your wedding holy. My blessings to you both.” –Caligula, after raping Livia and fisting her groom, Proculus

“As if there ever could be an antidote against Caesar!” –Caligula, after having Gemellus arrested for treason (because the boy’s breath smelled of medicine…a poison antidote?)

*********

Caesonia (Mirren): They hate you now.

Caligula: Let them hate me, so long as they fear me.

Caesonia: They are senators and consuls. They are important men.

Caligula: So important that they approve all I do? They must be mad. I don’t know what else to do to provoke them.

Despite Caligula now being a cult classic, as well as the performances of McDowell, O’Toole, Gielgud, and Mirren being praised, it always has been critically derided…which leads me to my next point…

Why Analyze Caligula, of all Films?

Normally, I write up film or literary analyses of classics, or works otherwise considered ‘great’ in some sense. Now, I’m about to analyze something of the (dialectical?) opposite: a film widely considered among the worst ever made.

Why? Have I, like the Gaius Caesar of legend and rumour, flipped my lid? Am I ascribing immortal, divine status to a film generally deemed a monstrous travesty, like the man the movie’s about? I’ll answer the last two questions in reverse order: no, and I certainly hope not.

As for the first question, here is my answer. There’s something about the movie, in spite of (or rather, because of) its many flaws, that makes it a perfect representation of today’s political world.

I’m going beyond the obvious theme of the corruption of power, as well as beyond a rationalization that the pornographic aspects of the film symbolize the obscenity of all this political corruption. My point is that this movie is a sensationalization of the crueller moments of history for the sake of titillation, the same way much of the reporting of current events is meant more to entertain than to inform. These shocks are a distraction from the real evil of class antagonisms, past and present.

You’ve heard of ‘fake news.’ Now, let’s read about fake history.

An Ahistorical Historical Drama

Any serious historian knows that Tiberius and Caligula, as bad and hated as they were during and immediately following their reigns, were nonetheless nowhere near as depraved, perverted, or mad as they are portrayed in the writings of Tacitus and Suetonius, the latter’s Twelve Caesars especially being, in my opinion at least, little more than glorified gossip. So when Guccione (in the documentary ‘Making of Caligula‘) tried to justify the excesses in his film as necessary to give an “historically accurate” portrayal of the wickedness of these two emperors, you know he was being as ignorant as he was being pretentious.

Now, this Penthouse production was of course not the first one to take Tacitus and Suetonius at their word. The author of I, Claudius, Robert Graves, was known for his scholarly but mischievous renderings of historical events; when he wrote the historical novel (and its sequel, Claudius the God), while he tried his best to remain true to the narrative of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, he also felt free to invent wherever the historical record was doubtful. The dramatically superb (though low-budget) BBC miniseries of 1976 that was based on his books sometimes played fast and loose with the history in ways that went beyond even Graves’s own indulgences (compare Graves, page 342, to the end of this I, Claudius episode).

Let’s now consider the excesses that Caligula and Tiberius have been accused of. First, the notion that Caligula committed incest with his sisters, especially Drusilla, is highly doubtful. Roman historians often slandered the emperors they hated with claims of sexual perversity or madness.

Young Gaius grew up watching his family members taken from him, one by one: his father, Germanicus, died when Caligula was a boy; his mother, Agrippina, was banished by Tiberius to the island of Pandateria, where she starved herself to death (G.P. Baker, page 277); his brother, Nero, was also banished (to Ponza), and his brother, Drusus, was imprisoned for treason and left there to starve to death, reduced to chewing the stuffing of his bed (Baker, page 276). Gaius’ sisters were all he had left of his immediate family–it’s only natural that he’d have been more than usually close to them, but in the normal, loving sense. Anything beyond such closeness is gossip.

“With his brothers and parents dead, and without a compatible wife, it might be expected that Caligula would have looked for affection from his three sisters. The enormous favours that he heaped on them at the beginning of his reign had a political purpose, but they also suggest considerable affection within the family. It was doubtless this affection that led to the stories of incest with all three sisters. Such reports are to be treated with scepticism. Suetonius claims that Caligula was actually caught with Drusilla when they were staying at Antonia‘s house, but admits that the story was hearsay. Neither Seneca nor Philo, contemporaries of Caligula who both adopt a highly moral tone, make any mention of incest. Also when Tacitus deals with Agrippina‘s incestuous designs on her son, the emperor Nero, he makes no hint of any improper relationship with her brother–although the context was certainly appropriate–and attributes her moral corruption to her association with Lepidus. The charge of incest has been traditionally levelled against despots, from antiquity to Napoleon.” (Barrett, page 85)

Tiberius was accused of being a lecherous old goat of a man, yielding to such vices as child molestation. Again, it’s mere rumour, with Suetonius giving all kinds of salacious details (Suetonius, ‘Tiberius’ 43-45). The fact is, old Tiberius lived out the remainder of his years on the isle of Capri, unmarried (Augustus forced him to divorce his beloved Vipsania to marry Julia [Baker, page 51], from whom he later separated [page 66]) and alone, brooding over his son Drusus‘ murder by two-faced Sejanus (Baker, pages 268-269), among the few people whom Tiberius had once trusted; the emperor even called Sejanus “the partner of my labours” (Tacitus, pages 157-197). He should have been in Rome, managing the affairs of state: what was the old man doing on Capri? Behaving as some lechers do with underage girls in Thailand and Cambodia today?

Was Caligula’s claim to be a god evidence of madness? A man speaking of himself in such a way today would have been such proof, but not so much a king or emperor in the ancient pagan world. It was a fairly common practice to deify ‘good’ emperors, even to have temples dedicated to them when they were alive. (See Barrett, Chapter 9, ‘Divine Honours,’ pages 140-153; in particular, “Among the Romans the distinction between man and god was not a sharp one. While this blurring is usually associated with the phenomenon of emperor worship in the Imperial age, its origins go back to the republic.”–page 140)

What of his making his horse, Incitatus, a senator? Again, a mere legend. If he did so, he may have meant it as one of his many insults to the senate, not out of a mad belief that his horse had a senator’s abilities.

And Caligula’s occasional cross-dressing? Did that indicate madness? Apart from how offensive such a judgement is today in light of the experience of the transgender community, Barrett notes, “Caligula certainly did have a predilection for dressing up, as Alexander, as a triumphator, even as a woman. To dress up as a god was a natural progression. Suetonius mentions his dressing up as gods or goddesses in the general context, not of his religious ideas, but of his exotic costumes, and Dio notes that dressing up as Jupiter was a front adopted to seduce numerous women. Such behaviour was not unique to Caligula.” (Barrett, page 146) Furthermore, Josephus claimed that Caligula’s apparent devotion to the goddess Isis involved dressing up in women’s clothing and a wig…to perform as a priest of Isis (Barrett, page 220).

Then there was Caligula’s bizarre invasion of Britain, apparently to collect seashells. Again, Barrett notes, “This episode has provided much grist for the scholarly mill. Most scholars assume that a real invasion was planned, but cancelled at the last minute. [One scholar suggested]…that the Britons united in the face of attack, while…[another scholar claimed, perhaps] the soldiers were simply afraid to undertake the crossing of the Channel, and that the emperor ordered them to pick up the shells as a form of humiliation, which, to say the least, would have been a courageous gesture on Caligula’s part.” (Barrett, page 135)

Anyway, to make a long story short (if it’s not too late), the corruption in power in ancient imperial Rome wasn’t all that much more shocking than it is today: the rich and powerful oppress and exploit the poor. As Marx said in The Communist Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

In today’s world, that class contradiction is between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the oppression being in the form of wage slavery. In the ancient world, class conflict was between masters and their slaves. Though the forms of class war have changed over the centuries, the basic material conditions remain the same: the land-owning rich get away with the enslavement, rape, and murder of the poor. This contradiction must be seen beyond the veil of sensationalism seen in Caligula.

The Beginning of the Movie

It’s ironic that such a sinful film should begin with a quote from The Gospel According to Mark, 8:36: “…what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

We see Caligula and Drusilla (Savoy) openly displaying their incestuous love out in the country, near a shepherd and his sheep. Apart from what I said above, about the dubiousness of the classical sources on this brother/sister relationship, given the particularly strong taboo against incest in the ancient world (consider the Oedipus story, for example), we should find it most unlikely that they would risk revealing their forbidden love to anyone they know fortuitously passing by the scene.

Mixed in with some original music composed by ‘Paul Clemente’ is an excerpt from the Adagio love theme of Spartacus and Phrygia, from Aram Khachaturian‘s Spartacus ballet. This theme is used repeatedly, at sporadic moments, throughout the film. Also featured is the “Montagues and Capulets” (or, alternatively, the “Dance of the Knights“) theme (during the credits), from Sergei Prokofiev‘s Romeo and Juliet ballet.

In all likelihood, these famous themes (from two of the most famous of the Soviet composers, incidentally) were chosen only for the emotional force of the music, and without any thought for their programmatic content. Indeed, that programmatic content seems diametrically (or dialectically?) opposed to the content of the movie’s story. Still, I find it irresistible to find some kind of connection–however consciously unintended, however dialectically antithetical–between the music and the movie.

The Spartacus ballet is about the lawful love between its title character, the once King of Thrace, and his once queen, Phrygia, who have been conquered and enslaved by Crassus. Antithetically, there’s the taboo love between Caligula and Drusilla, he originally being a prince fearful for his life–because of Tiberius’ caprices–then ascending to absolute power. Finally, while at the end of the ballet, Spartacus dies (having tried to free the slaves) and Phrygia mourns him, Drusilla dies and Caligula mourns her (but rather than try to free the slaves, he just insults and offends the other men in power until they get sick of him and kill him).

The “Montagues and Capulets” theme is meant to dramatize the tension and hatred between the two feuding families in Romeo and Juliet, as well as that hate between Caligula and the Roman senate. If, Dear Reader, you’ll indulge and forgive my deforming of the Bard’s immortal opening verses, you’ll see how one can relate the thematic content of the greatest love story with, arguably, one of the most outrageously depicted (if not simply one of the worst) love stories.

“Two classes, both alike in dignity,/In fairest Roma where we lay our scene…” By classes, here I refer to the conflict between the imperial family (i.e., the Julio-Claudian dynasty) and the senatorial class.

Another reading (and another butchering of the Bard, if again you’ll pardon me, Dear Reader) could be, “Two classes, both unlike in dignity,/In fairest Roma where we lay our scene…” By classes, I now refer to the conflict between the masters (i.e., imperial family, consuls, senate, patricians, plebs) and their slaves. This second conflict, often bobbing up to the surface from the hidden depths, is the one I urge you to pay more attention to.

Classes Unlike in Dignity

Just as I argued in my Analysis of The Omen, the violence in Caligula (as well as the sex) can be seen to symbolize the material contradictions between master and slave in the ancient world, contradictions as apparent as those between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat today. The slaves in the film, typically naked, are exploited in sexual situations, beaten, or subjected to other forms of sadism. Caligula is like Salò (in which Paolo Bonacelli also appeared) in this respect, except for the problem of the clashing visions of feuding Guccione, Vidal, and Brass, among so many other obvious issues.

Nakedness for the slaves represents their vulnerability and utter lack of possessions. I recall Act IV, Scene vii of Hamlet, when the Danish prince has returned, surprisingly, from a boat trip to England, and in a letter to his uncle Claudius, Hamlet says he’s “naked.” He doesn’t mean he isn’t wearing any clothes; he means he hurried off the boat without belongings or means, for a pirate ship has attacked his boat, and the pirates are holding him for ransom. (See Crystal and Crystal, page 292)

When Caligula arrives in Capri, we see a row of male slaves with hammers breaking rocks into smaller pieces–these men are all naked. At first glance, we’d assume that seeing all these musclemen frontally nude is just one of many examples of the film’s soft-core, indulgent titillation; but consider what I said above about naked slaves.

This observation is especially true of the naked slaves Tiberius uses as his “speaking statues,” who “do more than speak…they do.” What they “do” is engage in all the acts of debauchery that the classical sources spuriously accuse the emperor of indulging in.

Then, there are Tiberius’ “fishies,” the naked swimmers–with shaved pubes–in his large swimming pool; his “minnows,” as Suetonius claimed the emperor called them, are supposed to be the children he molested. Again, as history, there’s no reason to believe this sexual abuse was true of Tiberius in particular; but in a world where masters could do anything they wanted with their slaves–including getting sexual favours from them and getting away scot-free without even an investigation to be then acquitted of–there is merit in using the myth of Tiberius the pervert in a metaphorical sense.

Classes Alike in Dignity

As the emperor–covered in welts, sores, and scabs from all of the sexually transmitted diseases he’s said to have been covered in (another obvious symbol of his moral corruption–Howard, page 57)–talks with Caligula and corrupts his mind with a tour of his speaking, screwing statues, he warns the prince of the wickedness of the senate. Recall the many treason trials in which Tiberius had men executed on trumped-up charges from Sejanus; this is where the emperor got his cynicism about Roman politics.

Of course, slaves weren’t the only sufferers of the whims of those at the top. Wrongly-convicted senators suffered, as did soldiers (in the film, consider loyal Proculus, or the misfortunes of Roman virtue; also consider the guard Tiberius kills for being suspected of drinking wine while on duty).

Finally, even the men at the top suffer. In the movie, Macro strangles Tiberius in his bed (other versions have the emperor smothered with a pillow by Macro [<<<John Rhys-Davies] or Caligula [<<<John McEnery…at 36:00). Caligula was assassinated in a conspiracy led by Cassius Chaerea (Bonacelli), Claudius was fed poisoned mushrooms by Agrippina, and Nero committed suicide when he fell from power.

The fall from power of those at the top reminds us of Hegel‘s master/slave dialectic. Caligula, with Macro’s help, rose against his master to become the new master, as Spartacus attempted to do. Caligula’s constant provocations of the senate and army represent the power struggle between them and his family, ultimately leading them to kill him, as Spartacus was killed.

My point is that, in spite of the emperor’s ‘absolute’ power, there’s always a dialectical tension between the ruler and the ruled, the latter struggling to be free of the former, and the former struggling to be free of the danger of assassination. Hence, once Caligula becomes emperor, he must be rid of Macro, then Gemellus…even if they don’t actually pose a threat to him, for always is the emperor paranoid.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’. —King Henry IV

(Incidentally, the film’s depiction of Macro decapitated by a kind of giant lawnmower, so to speak, is more fake history: Macro, having been falsely promised the governorship of Egypt, committed suicide after falling out of favour with Caligula. See Graves, page 341.)

Drusilla’s Death, Caligula’s Despair

With Drusilla’s death ends Caligula’s own will to live, so everything he does after his mourning of her is to provoke the wrath of the senate, the army, and the Praetorian Guard in so blatant a way that it must be the expression of a death wish comparable to that of CamusCaligula (“Les hommes meurent et ils ne sont pas heureux.“–Men die and they aren’t happy. [Act I, Scene iv]). His wife, Caesonia (Mirren), warns him not to provoke those powerful men, but her words fall on deaf ears…or rather urge him further.

Devastated by his loss, he disappears from the sight of the Roman nobility, as does the Caligula of Camus’ play (Act I, Scenes i-ii). He wanders among the common people in a blue robe, looking as if he were one of them.

He watches a group of actors putting on a show, standing on a triangle representing the social classes of Rome: the slaves, the people, the army, tribunes, senate, and emperor. None of this display offends Caligula, because he of course benefits from the hierarchy; but when an actress portraying Drusilla mockingly sings of her wish to make love with Caligula, the grieving emperor is infuriated. He shoves the actors off the triangle, making them fall to the ground.

His mingling with the poor, including sharing a jail cell with them (where he meets the ‘giant’ [Osiride Pevarello]), suggests his sympathy for them, but it shouldn’t. As emperor, Caligula only feels antipathy for the other powerful men of Rome, as Tiberius did. Beware of politicians who, however hated they may be by the establishment, only pretend to care for the people.

Fatal Provocations

When Caligula returns and appears before the senate, he begins his fatal string of provocations by declaring himself to be a living god and requiring the unanimous support of the senate, annoying Longinus (Steiner) and Chaerea. His next insult is to make cuckolds of the senators by making whores of their wives.

The soundtrack of the Imperial Bordello, again with naked slaves dancing about, includes an amusingly ironic use of an excerpt from, of all pieces, Prokofiev’s Cinderella ballet! At the moment in the music when the clock strikes midnight, and Cinderella must go home, in the movie we approach the money shot!

I can’t help thinking this choice of music was a private joke of the film’s producers. Hearing music programmatically representing the ending of the traditional girl’s fantasy is juxtaposed with seeing the ending of the prurient man’s fantasy: one of the many ways the ruling class divides us is to promote male and female fantasies that are diametrically opposed to each other.

And just as the slaves and senators’ wives are degraded, so were the Penthouse Pets in the pornographic scenes in the movie. Consider the sad fate of “Anneka Di Lorenzo” (playing Messalina) to see my point. Consider also how Proculus (and the actor who plays him) is degraded: cuckolded before his eyes, then fisted, on his wedding day (in Howard’s novelization, Caligula sodomizes Proculus [pages 154-155]); stripped frontally naked before laughing Messalina and Agrippina (Lori Wagner), then stabbed to death slowly and sadistically; then after he passes out, he’s pissed on and emasculated.

Caligula’s provocations continue with the ‘invasion’ of Britain; he has his soldiers run naked (i.e., he degrades them to slave-like status) into some water and make war…with papyrus. Later, at a banquet, he displays the spoils of his ‘conquest’ of Britain: oysters and pearls placed in naked slave-women’s genitalia are presented by slave men carrying the women.

Caesonia warns Caligula that the “important men” of Rome now hate him; he replies, “Let them hate me–so long as they fear me.” In an provocation comparable to that of Camus‘ Caligula, he confiscates “the entire estates of all those who have failed Rome.”

He then discusses, with Longinus and Chaerea, a conspiracy against him that he’s heard of; he and Caesonia laugh when he brings it up. Caligula finds the notion of a plot against his life amusing because he no longer cares whether he lives or dies. Life is painful, absurd, and meaningless, because happiness–even as lord of the whole world–is impossible to attain. Camus’ Caligula is cruel to everyone for the same reason: even emperors are Spartacus-slaves in life, liberated only by death.

Caesonia still fears for him, and when she sees a bird flying about their bed one night, she screams at the omen–while Caligula looks at it and gives a slight smirk. He’s glad his death is coming soon, for he can then join Drusilla in Tartarus…a happy hell for them, since at least they’ll be able to suffer together.

Finally, Chaerea assassinates the emperor, who defiantly says, “I…live” as Chaerea’s sword cuts into him. He falls down dead, as do Caesonia and their daughter when the latter has her brains dashed on the steps. In death, Caligula is finally happy, as were Cleobis and Biton (Herodotus’ Histories, 1.31), and as Tiberius claimed was the soldier he killed for drinking wine while on duty.

The idea that Longinus and Chaerea choose Claudius (Giancarlo Badessi) to be the next emperor is more fake history, for it was the Praetorian Guard who chose to make him Caesar (as the last man living in the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Claudius as emperor was the only way to avert civil war). Claudius would have Chaerea executed for the killing of not only Caligula, but also Caesonia and the child.

In any case, we see–in replacing Caligula with Claudius–the unchanging reality of the contradiction of master vs. slave. Even if Tiberius and Caligula weren’t the depraved madmen/perverts that Suetonius claims they were, they were still masters oppressing their slaves, as ‘virtuous’ Claudius would also be: this latter evil is the one we should be paying attention to…but we don’t.

Conclusion

My original curiosity in this film (as I suspect is the case with many, if not most, other viewers) came in spite of–or rather, because of–its bad reputation. I had a morbid fascination with the thought…just how bad is this movie? How outrageous is it? How shocking? How disturbing? How revulsive? I sure learned how much. (Furthermore, I’d be dishonest if I were to claim that I had no interest in the sexual content in the movie, having written much erotic fiction myself.)

Having already been familiar with other dramatizations of imperial Rome under the Julio-Claudians (the I, Claudius and A.D.–Anno Domini TV miniseries), as well as writings on that period of history (Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio, and Robert Graves’s Claudius novels), I assumed the depravity of the emperors was true. Then, after reading such writers as G.P. Baker and Anthony A. Barrett, I learned otherwise.

Therefore, I have concluded that if we’re to take a serious look at the wickedness of imperial Rome (and, by extension, of the ancient world in general), the best way to look at it is in the class antagonisms of the time…just as we should focus on the class antagonisms of today. The masters’ brutal exploitation of their slaves is what should be focused on, not dubious reports of sexual perversity or madness in individual emperors.

However virtuous Augustus, Claudius, or Marcus Aurelius may have been in the eyes of their fellow nobiles, and however vile Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, Nero, or Domitian may have been in the ruling class’s opinion, what the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emperors had in common is far more important than what was different between the two groups.

History would have been kinder to Tiberius–who had been an excellent general, and never wanted to be emperor–had he died around AD 23, for that was before the treason trials. Caligula, far from being the ‘anarchist’ that McDowell portrayed him as, actually strengthened and enlarged the personal power of the emperor, as opposed to the power of such men as those of the senate, directing much attention to construction projects and beginning the building of two aqueducts in Rome.

What must be emphasized is that the ‘bad’ emperors were vilified for injuries to the senate and other powerful men in Rome; both ‘bad’ and ‘good’ emperors kept the practice of slavery going unabated, with at best, only minor reforms to address the issue of their oppression. We must learn to ignore the sensationalist narratives, the fake history, and focus on the banal evil that really happened, just as we should turn our heads away from the sensationalist fake news of today (i.e., what naughty things did Trump say last week?) and focus on the real wickedness committed all the time, year after year, regardless of who’s the leader or which political party is in power…a harsh reality that is largely ignored by the mainstream media.

We rightly condemn the Nazis for the roughly 11,000,000 people they murdered, but wrongly forget King Leopold II of Belgium, whose regime was responsible for the killing of up to ten or fifteen million black Congolese. We remember the former killers, because their victims were white; we forget the latter killers, because their victims were black. Similarly, we remember the wickedness of Tiberius and Caligula because their victims were fellow members of the upper classes; we forget the wickedness of all emperors and the other upper classes because their victims were slaves.

The sensationalism of Caligula is tasteless in the extreme, but in a way, appropriately so; for it reminds us of how unhelpful sensationalism and fake news are in understanding the true, everyday, unchanging reality of oppression in the world.

William Howard, “Gore Vidal’s Caligula”, Warner Books, New York, 1979

Robert Graves, I, Claudius, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1934

Albert Camus, Caligula, suivi de Le malentendu, Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1958

Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, Penguin Classics, London, this translation 1956

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Penguin Classics, London, translation first published 1957

G.P. Baker, Tiberius Caesar, Emperor of Rome, Cooper Square Press, New York, 1929

Anthony A. Barrett, Caligula, The Corruption of Power, Yale University Press, London, 1989