Science Rules: Brad Efford on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Episode 23: "Blood and Circulation"
The science guy mixes a shotglass worth of white grape juice into a beaker of red grape juice to better visualize the number of red blood cells and white that make the body work.
You want some? he asks the full-scale anatomy model seated at the table beside him, offering the beaker. The model has no skin—its face is only angry red muscle and bulging eyeballs, its torso armless. Someone has pinned a cloth napkin to the base of its neck for full comedic effect. It’s good. Really. The science guy takes a sip, really playing up the scene. He and the flayed body are seated at a table for two in a dimly-lit restaurant filled with quiet, close background chatter. The science guy turns to the audience.
The grape juice is more of an illustration, you know, than actual blood, I mean it’s sort of a joke, he says. And so is Chris, the rubber person—he gestures to the model—it’s sort of a gag we’re going for. He takes one more sip of the juice, looking the camera right in the eye.
He’s given the game away, for better or for worse, but to the service of the larger point: there’s a lot that goes into keeping the body going. And what is a lesson if not a glorified body? The structure sometimes only metaphor, the design and bones premeditated.
Hey, the science guy’s young assistant says to the camera, to you. Did you ever want to see your blood going through your veins? You can’t help but think: not really, no. But the assistant’s indifferent, the question rhetorical. She is preparing to perform an experiment, as usual. Well, you won’t actually see your blood. But you’ll know it’s there ‘cause you can see a pulse.
She takes a pair of scissors to a drinking straw, cutting a small incision at the bottom. She then places the straw on a plastic bottle cap, sliding the incision over the edge so that the straw sticks straight up into the air. Put your arm on the table and put your new Pulse-O-Meter on a vein, she says. Try to find a really big vein, like on the inside of your elbow. The assistant demonstrates the way the straw rocks back and forth each time her heart beats and the blood pumps out through her veins.
Unlike a number of people you know, you don’t mind the sight of blood. You’ve given it and lost it, seen it hanging in tough plastic bags from IV carousels and Pollocked across pavement in splotches, and felt your stomach as steady as ever. Senior year of high school, in fact, you collected gore flicks. Not like “gory,” like a descriptor—gore, like the genre, like movies built around the purely uncomfortable shock value of blood (and guts and bone and insides). This was a difficult subject to broach with others at the time, and has only become uneasier. Most people expect a certain kind of person to seek out these films, namely one that gets a sick kick out of them or at the very least is interested in how bodies break. You understood this expectation from the very beginning, and you recognize the impulse now.
But for you the fascination was a mixture of other eccentricities. Usually, you found the movies funny. With the ones that weren’t, you found yourself doubly fascinated by the technical aspects of the filmmaking and the limits of your own emotional and gastric strength. Not often—but more than once—a movie would turn a corner into a deprivation so heavy, so too-far-gone, that you’d start crying and think, Ah. There: the limit. There was something to be said for that kind of self-testing. For looking over the edge and seeing how long it took before you went over. It was, admittedly, a very high school thing to do. Your favorite book at the time was American Psycho, so.
You’d splurge on gore on eBay, then binge. The Guinea Pig series was Holy Grail material. Hyperrealistic Japanese gore intended to bring manga to life. Flower of Flesh and Blood, the second in the series, convinced a young Charlie Sheen to call the FBI and report it as snuff. The FBI told him they had already investigated the filmmakers and were taking them to court to prove the movie was in fact only a movie. That’s the kind of story publicity can’t pay for. Mermaid in a Manhole, the fourth, was about a man who finds a mermaid in the sewer and keeps her in his bathtub. The lesson this man learns involves the different stages of graphic decomposition a mermaid’s body goes through on land. And so on.
This is where the collection, the near-obsession, began in earnest. Sometimes it was the stories behind the films as much as it was anything else—but sometimes it was just the films. In Riki-O, the standard for kung-fu gore, a man punches a hole clear through another man’s stomach. In Dead Alive, title-holder for most fake blood used in a film, the protagonist uses a lawnmower to bring the zombie horde in his foyer to its demise. In Naked Blood, a woman tears her own ear off and eats it. In Slaughtered Vomit Dolls….well. There’s a lot of vomit and slaughtering. The August Underground series made you question who you were, why you were doing this, if you were a terrible person after all. Pigs is about flesh-eating pigs.
Your blood is pumped all over your body, all day, all the time, your whole life, the science guys says. Now that is amazing.
And it is, absolutely, amazing to consider the ways our bodies more or less run themselves most of the time. We need to feed and water and keep them clean, like house plants, but this is tending more than scrapping for survival. You haven’t decided yet if this fragility is frightening, enlightening, or simply is, no caveats, but asking the question feels significant. It feels like an act of day-to-day defiance, of proving you and your body belong here in a world that otherwise moves without considering. You catch yourself sometimes with your hand on your chest, checking your heartbeat. Not checking that it’s there, at least not necessarily, but reminding yourself that you are, all day, all the time. Amazing.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.