It was with great pleasure that I received your letter dated 26 September, 2011. As you know from having spent some time here yourself, this can be an isolating environment. Some part of me knows that life lurches ever forward out there, but it all seems so damn far away. The life you ask me about in these questions seems like a life I’ve read about or perhaps the sort of delusional tale that someone in here would ramble on about. I’m flattered, of course, that any of the endeavors that once meant so much to me would still be of interest to you and, presumably, your readers. Alas, and with great regret, I feel that the person I am now, here, with them, is not the person you’re sending this interview to. Even from when you were here — mercifully so briefly — I’ve changed in ways that would render me unrecognizable even to the family I once loved and the friends I thought I’d know forever. It’s not just the rock (cold, ever dripping) or the nearly subliminal crash of the waves on the coast (forever grey and roiling), it’s also — hell, mostly — those I’m in here with. I sometimes forget what side I’m on and why I’m here. And so I’ve elected to take an approach you probably weren’t anticipating and one that I most sincerely hope won’t cause offense to you. I’ve decided to ask them the questions you posed to me. With no context, I presented a question to each of them and copied down their responses verbatim, or as well as my shorthand skills would permit. In some cases I know they didn’t even listen to the question and in all the responses I sensed they were doing what they always do, which is tell variations on their stories in the hope that someone will listen and understand them. I once thought that was my job, but so many years within these walls, these cursed walls, and I can no longer say for certain what my job is and what purpose I truly serve for them.
In closing, I again ask for your forgiveness for my indulgence and I send along the hope that you now find yourself where you should be: In the arms of one who loves you, praised for the fine work you must surely be engaged in and far from all that came before. I hope you’ll remember me not for who I am now, but for who I once was, all those years ago. If I am remembered at all by any of you, I hope you recall that I once took delight in this life and found each day so beautiful.
With great affection,
Joseph A. Gervasi
How did Exhumed Films form?
Sarah, age 38
After it happened, I knew I had to get away. I paid little mind to what I packed in my rucksack. I only needed to get out there, to get out walking. There was transport to the borderland, so I made haste to reach it. The journey there took longer than I anticipated, but at length I arrived at the edge of the forest and began walking inward, stopping only to remove the worst of the brambles that gathered on my clothing and to brush the spiderwebs from my face. There was no path to guide me, but I felt an almost magnetic pull as I stumbled over mossy stumps, shallow streams and thick clusters of mushrooms that squelched around the sides of my boots. When night fell, I found myself assailed by the noises of the creatures that moved around me in the woods, above me in the tree canopy, and below in the teeming underbrush. When I’d rest to eat some bread or drink from my dwindling supply of water, I could feel them draw nearer, all eyes reflected in what moonlight could penetrate the reaching trees. Morning found me still on my feet, though just barely. I was moist with dew and I felt leggy life moving through my hair. I had reached the place I felt compelled to see. It was a field, a grassy expanse dotted with trees set far enough apart from each other that the dawn sunshine was allowed full vision. From each tree there hung a massive chrysalis twice the size of a man. It was comprised of countless strands of silver webbing. So thick was the outer coating of the cocoons, I could not make out the shape of the forms within. But then I saw the movement, the pulsing, straining movement. First a tear and then, from within, a burst of luminosity that blanketed the field in a spectrum of gauzy color. They strained forward in tandem, drawing breath into their great lungs and issuing forth a breeze that dried my clothes and suffused my body with warmth. I saw their antennae sense the air then stiffen somewhat as they surely detected my presence. I tensed up, apprehensive at being perceived, but soon relaxed again as I felt, somehow, their indifference. They wasted little time concerned with me. I was but a small form on the edge of the field and they were soon to extend their wings and sail skyward, at first somewhat jerky, but soon in command of their new bodies. When they were gone, the colors faded and the light resumed its assuring but common morning glow. Having crossed the border, I turned around and felt the pull of the place I once called home. Know this if nothing else: In doing what he did to me, he tried to take part of me away. He almost succeeded. All of you here have attempted to do the same thing, though with different instruments. But he couldn’t and you can’t. I’ll tell you why. I saw something you’ll never see, something so wonderful that it showed me that there’s so much more than this. You, all of you, you surround yourselves with such ugliness. But I saw it and the only part of me I’ve ever given up is the part of me that will always be there, among them.
What is your role in Exhumed?
Brendan, age 42
It was a city. I know it was a city because I took the train in from the hunched hushed outskirts where we resided. I was immediately made to feel even smaller by those towering buildings and all those people looking through me on their way to important places. I was of a size and an age where I could easily be pushed aside. But I want to imagine it as a forest, not a city. A forest of massive trees thriving with creatures compelled by imperatives that I didn’t figure into. The person I would set out to see was a man, surely. He could only be a man, with what he wanted, what I — we — gave him. But I see him as a woman, a storybook crone. Like Baba Yaga in a chicken-footed shack nestled in the deepest clusters of thorn-thistles. It was she, not he, who demanded we bring those parts of ourselves to her. The others whispered about what she did with our offerings. What to do with the fouled undergarments of young men? Why, she would draw the scents deep into her lungs and find herself fevered by what we left of ourselves. She’d shift nervously about the hut, drawing our attention from the heaps of garments she kept bagged in corners, ever ready for her days and nights alone and hungry. We did this because there was money to be had, perhaps a gold coin for our troubles. She didn’t have to touch you, but there was more to be made if she did. She’d try to meet my eyes, to see if there was something of her in me; to see if she could make me respond to her out of desire. Her hands thin, pale, veiny. They looked like winter, but there was a humid warmth coursing through them and the pulse would meet and match my own when she took me in her hand then to her mouth. In these afternoons after school no one knew I was in the forest. She could take me in and swallow me alive and I’d be but a rumor back at my school. We all went there, but it was essential that no one outside of us knew we went to her, what we brought her, and what she gave us. That was all before her discovery. The villagers found her cottage and saw what she hoarded in it. They knew what she did to us, many more of us than I ever thought. So many like me went in to the forest. Most of us came back. She had a disease, they said, and we may have it, too. We’d been raised in homes of praise and schools of duty. Surely she’d cast a spell upon us, for no boys brought up in homes like ours would ever elect to consort with one such as her. They took our blood and looked for telling sores. For some, what was sought was found. For others, it coursed unseen through our dreams and into our wakings. Now I live here, so far from the forest. But the door to her cottage remains open. I know she’s inside. A slight bow, body quavering, anticipation already rising, the smile slight so as not to show the yellow teeth, the palm extended to draw me within.
What are the roles of your collaborators?
Gunter, age 92
Collaborator, you say? How many times have I heard this over the years? How many times has this been shoved in my face, once so literally? I can’t recall. You see an old man. And I am. I am an old man…but I wasn’t always. Many of the fools who called me a collaborator would have been angry if their lights or gas went off. I helped keep the country running when they held power. I did my job because I did not know what else to do. I swear, I have heard the stories of the resistance and I think so many of them are old men’s tales to cover their guilt from doing nothing more than I did. I was trained as an engineer, not a soldier and not a politician. Assigned a task, I did it because I saw what happened to those who refused. They were there with me; then they were gone. I did not know what I was helping to design. I just did it and I did it well because that was what I was trained to do. I may have wanted to design things of great beauty once, but that did not mean I could not at least show pride in what I was compelled — and I was compelled, do not let them tell you otherwise — to do. As I found out what my work was really being used for, what they were putting my designs to use to create, I tried to find some hope that perhaps in my plans there could be an efficiency that would make it a little easier on them. I never hated them. Truly, I did not. I bought from their stores when they still ran them and would tousle the hair of their children when they ran underfoot. I know…I know they suffered greatly. But then I did not know. And now you see this old man and I prepare to die here so far from all those I loved. And do you think I did not suffer? All these years, did you think I did not feel it? Do you see what one of them did to me when they found out my work, my so-called collaboration? See, look here: I did not lose my teeth from age. She looked me in the eye before she brought that brick into my face. And you know what she called me? This lie, this lie…this lie of a word you call me now.
What is your most memorable Exhumed event?
σίβυλλα , age unknown
Even here they come to me with their questions. I’ve lived in more opulent settings and, over so, so many years, environments even more dire than where we presently converse. The price I’ve charged for my sight has always been dear, be it on offer to kings or tradesmen, paupers or priests. The currency was the pain of the sacrifice, for the objects — all those objects that meant so much to them — were but trifles to me. Dig deep enough in certain places around this world and you’ll find troves of the rusted remains of what they strove to acquire and died desiring. Here, in this place filled with those you are so very certain are mad, I must demand compensation of a more intimate nature. They’ve no riches here, only their bodies. What they seek in my memories of what has already passed is some assurance that they are not alone; that what they’ve witnessed, what they’ve perpetrated, can be understood. In cells like mine they use their rude tools to sever the digits and appendages I demand as my due. Many die in the process, their final moments spreading over the stone floors, the release at last upon them. Others bow humbly before me with their pitiful offerings. And so I tell them what I’ve seen, what will be. Alas, for them, it’s what they’ve always known. As it is now, so shall it be. When I move on, you’ll see what I’ve left in my wake. By then, picked clean by rodents and insects, you’ll find the heaps of bones I took as my due. Of the questioners, nothing at all will be known.
Caetlyn, age 22
I probably saw that band, but I saw a lot bands those two years I was out there. I spent so many nights fucked up in basements that I don’t know who I saw now. I bet there are kids who’d be, like, so psyched to know what bands I saw play and I’d be like, “Yeah, they were good, I guess.” But really I’d be like, I don’t even fuckin’ remember. We’d do whatever shit was around, y’know, and just party. You get off those trains, you gotta get fucked up. You just gotta. Come into town and it’s like, fuckin’, where’s the show? Where’s the warehouse we can crash in out of the rain, maybe get some halfway decent food. See who else is in town, what they’re up to, how shit’s changed since the last time. The guys I was with were cool, most of them. We all came from fucked up lives, but we were cool together. We’d share our shit and watch each other’s backs and if someone wanted to get up in our faces we’d gank the asshole and take what they got to make it evens. The problem was with a guy we didn’t know, some guy in Philly, probably some rich poseur playing summer vacation crusty. He thought ‘cause I was a woman that I’d want to fuck him just because. Because, like, he had on the right uniform with the right amount of dirt and the right patches. Fuckin’ dick. How’d you like to wake up to some guy trying to shove that thing in your mouth? I screamed, yeah, but not like a girl, but just because I woke up to, like, what the fuck? The others, they heard. It was late. Passed out or not, they heard me and came to see what was up. I was like, “This fuckin’ asshole tried to rape me!” Look, it’s not like we could call the cops. You know the cops hate us. They see us and they see a bunch of freaks begging for money and scaring the good little shoppers. Maybe he didn’t deserve all he got, but it’s not like I feel bad about it. He coulda done this to other girls before. He probably did. But he wasn’t going to do it again. When K— and H— held his head down and I started kicking his face, it felt good. It felt really good. I don’t know about that band, but that asshole…we took him all apart.
Do you have any memorable recollections of an audience reacting to a film you’ve shown?
Paul, age 59
Look, I liked to get high then. Shit, I’d like to get high now if I could. But back then, man, it was different. The fuck if you or any of these freaks would understand. I took the job because I knew any goof-off could do it and the fags in the theatre wouldn’t give a shit how badly I projected that crap for them. I don’t even know much much they bothered looking at the screen. They were so busy sucking each other off and whatever the hell else they were doing down there that an out-of-focus feature was the least of their concerns. And my thing was like not having to clean up after them. They had some Puerto Rican or Mexican or whatever lady mopping that place up. The big Israeli who owned the place didn’t give a shit. We’d barely even see him. Man, no one gave a shit. I think the idea was to keep them in the theatre and then they wouldn’t be out on the streets. Not that most of these guys would be a threat to anyone. They didn’t fuckin’ bother me. Nah, some of them were even okay, in a way. I don’t really hate fags, it’s just not my scene. Some of them would catch me here and there and share a little dope. The poppers weren’t for me, but I’d smoke a little weed with them. They give me a look, some of them, like to see if I was up for it. But I’d let them know I didn’t do that shit. The thing, the thing you ask me about… That’s why I’m here, but you know that. I told it again and again and who the hell believes me now? I don’t know if I believe me. It was just another goddamn fuck flick. You see ‘em playing and it’s like, who really cares? Same shit every time. But this…I don’t know. I had a smoke earlier and I was pissed ‘cause it was dusted. I knew the fag’s face, but I’d not talked to him before. Creepy fucker. Like a little rat, all twitchy and shit. But my head was pounding — I do remember that — and I thought a smoke would take the edge off, get me through a day of overseeing a theatre full of queers stroking each other off. The shit was fucked, though. I mean the weed. I got the first film on and just sat back on the wobbly folding chair the cheapshit Israeli was so generous to provide. I remember my head was fucking rolling. And then I remember the titch, titch, titch of the film on the reel. I didn’t know how long ago it ended. I didn’t think anyone would give a shit down there. Something wasn’t right, though. Headache and all, I knew something was fucked up down there. I don’t know why I went down. No, really, I just don’t know. But I did. I did. And I saw what they did to each other. I don’t know why. Shit, if I knew maybe I wouldn’t be here. The movie? The dude with the rat face? The fuckin’ air in that place? They were sick and all, but not sick like that. Not sick like what they did. It was a mess, man. A fuckin’ mess. It was all like parts and blood everywhere. Bits of their bodies splat all up on the walls and the seats. There was so much blood it ran down the aisles like streams. But not a sound. They were all gone, all of them. Like one big mess. My god, my fuckin’ Jesus Christ. I saw it…I fuckin’ saw it. And I can’t stop seeing it. I just can’t.
M., age unknown
You want a hint and I’ll give you a hint. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to get out of here. Soon. This Arkham place, it has only given me time to think. And plan. I’ll get out of here and I’ll find you, all of you. In your safe little homes. In your smart little cars. Talking on your phones. Eating in your restaurants. I’ll find you and I’ll kill you. All of you. You fucking dogs. You little fucking dogs. Nothing you say, nothing you do, will ever stop me. I will slaughter all of you. Every eye blinded. Every begging tongue removed. All the hearts that pump cowardice through your bodies ripped free. You saw redemption as possible. In redemption you thought you’d find your own forgiveness. Weak. So weak. Your mercy shows the palsied hand you try in vain to hide away. Behind me stands my sons and daughters who saw what you’ve done to me, what you’ve done to us, and have vowed to take from you your children and the feeble faith you think protects you. Listen now, you. You sent me here and you’ll pay. Now do you have any more questions?
Top photo by Kathie Leck.
Painting by Helen Uger.
Additional photos by Joseph A. Gervasi.