Columns > Published on January 29th, 2013

LURID: Slaughterhouse Blues - The Abattoir in Horror

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

Sometimes horror exists in our imaginations.  Sometimes it exists in news headlines. Sometimes it exists off a remote section of the freeway, in a windowless factory unit, with chimneys belching what Milton called “darkness visible”, overwhelmed by the stench of shit, blood, and burnt hair.  It exists at the point where humans cross the line into monsters – at least as far as cows, pigs, sheep and chickens are concerned.

The slaughterhouse occupies a fascinating place within the contemporary psyche.  It stands as the ultimate symbol of cruelty, horror and degradation – for both the humans and animals within.  The killing floor is as far as we can go in one direction.  It’s where the lurid language of horror fiction – walls and floors awash with tides of blood, living creatures boiled alive, steaming entrails heaped in corners, sharpened blades biting into flesh – becomes reality.   Throughout the twentieth century, it was the go-to simile for the worst kind of death – doomed youth massacred in the trenches of the First World War were “these who die as cattle” – and the blueprint for the worst of man’s inhumanity to man – “it was from the Chicago stockyards that the Nazis learned how to process bodies”.[1]

Images of the slaughterhouse haunt our fictions.  Many a pulp horror novel has been structured from these paradigms:  blood-soaked concrete, the worn leather of a butcher’s apron, buzzing meat saw, pink slime oozing from a grinder, innards dripping from a suction gun.  We may not talk about what happens on the killing floor as we tuck into our prime steak, but deep down inside, we know.  We’ve internalized the iconography, not only from B-movies but also from religious doctrine and art.  For centuries, writers and artists across different religious traditions have depicted Hell as a slaughterhouse, a lightless chamber where squealing sinners, immersed in rivers of blood or excrement, are systematically funneled through a tube, hacked to pieces and fed either to the flames or into the gaping maw of a demon.  That’s what happens to souls in limbo in medieval Europe.  Or in modern America, to livestock.

Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, brought the horrors of the slaughterhouse into modern consciousness.  Sinclair’s descriptions of Chicago’s massive meat processing plants suggest Bosch’s paintings or Dante’s Inferno incarnate, Hell on earth as a by-product of the Industrial Revolution.   The Jungle was based on months of research, including a stint undercover as Sinclair took employment on the disassembly lines.  His main concern was exposing the plight of the immigrant worker, but the reading public was far more outraged at the revelations about the unhygienic handling of pork, beef, lamb and chicken (“I aimed at the public’s heart but by accident I hit it in the stomach”).

The Jungle follows the fortunes of a family of Lithuanians, newly arrived in Chicago’s Packingtown, the center of meat processing operations in this brave new world.  Sinclair’s description of their tour through the stockyards and factory is part Clive Barker, part Blade Runner, part Paradise Lost.  In a scene straight out of Biblical apocalypse ("And the smoke of their torments shall ascend up forever and ever"[2]) the skyline is dominated by

Half a dozen chimneys, tall as the tallest buildings, touching the very sky – and leaping from them half a dozen columns of smoke, thick, oily and as black as night.  It might have come from the centre of the world, this smoke, where the fires of the ages still smoulder.  It came as if self-impelled, driving all before it, a perpetual explosion… stretching a black pall as far as the eye can see.

This smoke represents 10,000 head of cattle, 10,000 pigs and 5,000 sheep slaughtered on a daily basis in Packingtown, shipped on trains from all over the US.  The Lithuanian visitors admire the efficient movement of animals through the chutes to their doom --  “a very river of death”. 

Sinclair describes the mass destruction of life with chilling precision, from the cacophonous squeals of condemned hogs (“The uproar was appalling, perilous to the eardrums; one feared there was too much sound for the room to hold – that the walls must give way or the ceiling crack”) to the casual manner of the government health inspector (“[he] did not have the manner of a man who was worked to death”) to the speed of the workers killing cattle (“a pace with which there is nothing to be compared except a football game”).  The slaughter continues after the majority of workers have gone home.  A few trusted individuals stay behind to deal with “Downers”, cows DOA at the plant and hidden from inspectors during the day (“they were all to be disposed of, here in darkness and silence… into the chilling rooms with the rest of the meat, being carefully scattered here and there so that they could not be identified”).

The horror is two-fold: the treatment of the animals and workers, and the contamination of the meat. Sinclair’s journalistic details still hit the stomach, more than a century of desensitization to violence later.  Even the most hardened gorehound might struggle with the dispatch of “steerly” cattle, so sick they were covered with boils.

It was a nasty job killing these, for when you plunged your knife into them they would burst and splash foul-smelling stuff into your face; and when a man’s sleeves were smeared with blood, and his hands steeped in it, how was he ever to wipe his face, or to clear his eyes so that he could see?

Sinclair’s claims were so horrifying that they prompted then-President, Theodore Roosevelt, to send Labor Commissioner Charles P. Neill and social worker James Bronson Reynolds on a fact-finding mission to Chicago. The meat-packers had advance warning and spent three weeks trying to scrub away evidence of the worst transgressions.  Despite this, Neill and Reynolds substantiated most of Sinclair’s allegations, other than one of his most lurid, about fatalities in the room where animal remains were rendered:

…they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting,—sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham's Pure Leaf Lard.

This turned out to be pure Sweeney Todd, but the Neill-Reynolds report resulted in the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which promised to clean up the industry and ensure the horrors depicted by Sinclair became things of the past.  Twentieth century slaughterhouses, the American public were told, would henceforth become sanitary, with every carcass inspected for disease, and every meat product labeled accurately.  The hellish, diseased netherworld depicted by Sinclair would be swept into the drains of history, along with other social horrors of the early industrial era campaigned against by novelists, like child chimney sweeps and mercury-maddened hatters.  Sinclair scoffed at the legislation, but the carnivorous public went back to munching their sausages and Salisbury steaks, satisfied the raw materials weren’t tumors or factory workers.

The slaughterhouse occupies a fascinating place within the contemporary psyche.  It stands as the ultimate symbol of cruelty, horror and degradation.

Unfortunately, more than a century after its publication, The Jungle still has a grim resonance.  Although meat consumption in the USA has lessened slightly in recent years, each citizen still chews their way through an average of 270.7 lb of flesh per year,[3] produced by slaughtering 8.3 billion farm animals in 2012[4].  This keeps meat processing plants busy, killing and disassembling 400 animals an hour. It also provides plenty of fodder for writers of both fiction and non-fiction.

Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry (2006) by Gail Eisnitz catalogues many of the same complaints as The Jungle. Safety equipment has improved but profit margins are low so speed, as in Sinclair’s day, is of the essence, and inevitably, short cuts are taken in order to meet the targets set by remote corporate bosses.  There are a lot of accidents and a high turnover of workers, many of who leave because they are sickened by the job – both morally and physically.  It’s still hell in there.  After a few decades of unionization, when workers enjoyed rights and benefits, the immigrant workers of The Jungle are back, equally afraid for their jobs and equally willing to tolerate appalling working conditions (described as “the most dangerous factory jobs in the country”[5]) as a result.  Those that stay employed might also do so because they are predisposed to violence, even killing, as suggested by the increased crime rates[6] clustered around meatpacking plants. 

And there are new horrors lurking on the killing room floors. In The Jungle, carcasses were infected by diseases easily identifiable by visual inspection.  Now there’s a whole raft of other potentially harmful microscopic agents out there, from the prions which cause bovine spongiform encephalopathy, to synthetic hormones used to promote weight gain in farmed animals.  Ingesting these can cause slow-burning but nonetheless devastating consequences in humans, such as variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (with an incubation period of decades) and various cancers. Libba Bray’s inventive YA novel, Going Bovine, deals with Cameron’s reaction to his CJD diagnosis – how would you feel if, at 16 years old, your brain was turning to a spongy, terminal mush? Conspiracy theories abound as to how much the big corporations responsible for modern slaughterhouses know about the potentially harmful side effects of the meat they process.  Unfortunately, because symptoms take so many years to show up in those who’ve eaten contaminated meat, it’s almost impossible to prove a link. 

Ruth L. Ozeki’s novel My Year of Meats (1998) follows documentary-maker Jane Takagi-Little as she travels around the USA profiling happy meat-eaters for a Japanese TV show.  The show, funded by a national meat lobbying organization named BEEF-EX, features a “Wife of the Week” preparing and consuming her favorite dish:

She is the Meat Made Manifest: ample, robust, yet never tough or hard to digest.  Through her, Japanese housewives will feel the hearty sense of warmth, of comfort, of hearth and home – the traditional family values symbolized by red meat in rural America.

Jane discovers some deeply disturbing details about meat production (mainly to do with the addition of synthetic estrogen, which has proven links to cancer) as she meets her interview subjects, and attempts to communicate these to her viewers, despite her remit to promote the wholesomeness of American beef.  Her paymasters aren’t happy about the less-than-rosy picture she paints of US feedlot product, but Jane persists with her commitment to the truth, and finds an unlikely ally.  Although light and comic in tone, My Year of Meats contains biting commentary on the cozy images of flesh consumption promoted by Big Ag.  The novel also anticipated increasing scrutiny of the meat industry by documentary makers and non-fiction writers in the coming decade.

The 2000s saw a slew of hard-hitting exposés about the meat industry.  From the expert arguments of Academy Award nominated Food, Inc to the shock tactics of the PETA-produced short, Meet Your Meat, audiences devoured the real life abuses of animals and workers inside slaughterhouses.  That’s a hard act for horror fiction writers to follow.  Joseph D’Lacey confronts the slaughterhouse head-on in Meat, which won the British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer in 2009.  In a post-apocalyptic future, residents of a small rural town, Abyrne, have elevated the consumption of flesh to quasi-religious levels. It’s all they’ve got; the religious and secular life of Abyrne centers around the slaughterhouse.  These people truly are what they eat.  D’Lacey’s protagonist, Richard Shanti, is nicknamed Ice Pick Rick thanks to his skill at stunning cattle en route to slaughter at Magnus Meat Packing.  But, as the novel begins, Shanti is having doubts about his job, about the system of consumption he supports, and about the other townsfolk’s unquestioning acceptance of the way things are.  Raw, brutal, thought-provoking and all too plausible, Meat is not for the squeamish.

Every time we bite into a burger, hot dog or bacon sandwich, we accept the slaughterhouse as a necessary evil.  It’s the deal we make as part of living in a carnivorous economy – cheap, readily available meat in return for not asking too many questions about its provenance.  Thanks to the separation between factory farm and plate, we don’t need to know what goes on inside abattoir walls.  Very little has changed since the days of The Jungle other than the “Ag-gag” laws now enacted in several states[7], which make it illegal to enter a meat processing plant with the intent of taking pictures or recording information without permission.  This specifically excludes journalists or animal rights activists from working undercover to expose abuses, unless they want to risk jail time.  Yet, no matter how many gagging laws are passed, or how many millions of dollars are spent on Temple Grandin-style improvements, the slaughterhouse will never clean up its image within our collective imagination. We’ve seen too many movies, read too many books. The horror is too deeply rooted to forget – except when we’re eating.

[1] J. M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), p.53.

[2] Revelations 14:11

[3] Eliza Barclay, "A Nation of Meat Eaters"

[6] Slaughterhouses and Increased Crime Rates: An Empirical Analysis of the Spillover From “The Jungle” Into the Surrounding Community - Amy J. Fitzgerald, Linda Kalof, Thomas Dietz June 2009

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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