Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
A look back at one of the most traumatizing images from everyone's childhood.
They say that the unprecedented atrocities Europe suffered in WWI wrought so much shock, horror, and disillusionment on a whole generation of young people that the artistic movements that sprung up in its wake (the Lost Generation, dada, Modernism in general) were attempts to deal with this despair through art. My generation didn’t have a World War to traumatize us, but we did have Mola Ram RIPPING OUT A MAN’S HEART IN CLOSE-UP at about the midpoint of one of the most popular, playtime-influential entertainment franchises of our time. which was essentially a less destructive, much cheaper way to forever alter a generation’s worldview to the cynical. Steven Spielberg found a way to do this without having to resort to destroying Old Europe in the process.
Mola Ram’s cardiac removal should not be underestimated. This was the scene that caused the MPAA to invent the PG-13 rating. This was the scene you knew was coming as a kid and had to watch with your friends to prove you weren’t a sissy. But more than that: this was the primary catalyst for people my age to lose their intimate, unbroken early childhood bond with their parents.
Let me explain why.
If you were my age when Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out, you HAD to see it. All those Raiders of the Lost Ark beta discs we checked out from the public library to watch at birthday sleepovers had whetted our appetites. For some reason, the makers of Indiana Jones never really got respectable, widely-available action figures out to us kids–who believe you me, were very eager to buy them – despite the fact that these films were produced by George Lucas himself. But that didn’t really matter: The truck sequence in Raiders alone inspired millions of hours of imagination on schoolyard jungle gyms and backyard swingsets. Unlike Star Wars or G.I. Joe or Transformers, Indy didn’t need tons of gadgets and vehicles and spaceships to kick butt. He used a whip, his fists, and his ability to take a lot of punishment. Playing on a jungle gym for purposes beyond what it’s designed for (which was what was fun about them) meant you had to totally rely on your imagination. Indy’s adventures were simple to recreate: A truck, some Nazis, and his fists. Indy was The Man when it came to who you would pretend you were when you were playing on the swingset.
To be fair, Raiders tried to prepare us for the trauma of Mola Ram’s cardiac attack to come. Spielberg did it with the muscleman Nazi who gets chopped up in the plane’s propeller. As kids, we had all heard the whispers and legends about that scene, and were simultaneously thrilled and terrified about getting to watch such terrible carnage. As we watched Indy duck for cover and the hapless muscleman turn around to see his whirring propeller of doom encroach on him, we watched through our fingers, compelled by our nascent kiddie bloodlusts to see what would happen when a man walked in to a propeller. In a movie where an exploding human head is shown in close-up and a woman stuck in a room full of rotting corpses is treated as comedy, we expected Spielberg to show us just what the inside of the human body looks like. But in a classic Spielberg pulp-married-to-visual-elegance move, he tastefully cuts away to a few drops of blood spattering on a nearby Swastika, saving us from the horror of seeing such carnage.
This set a precedent for the treatment of traumatic images in the Indy series. If it’s cartoonish (an obvious special effect like a Nazi’s head exploding when the Ark is opened, or eating chilled monkey brains), they’d show it with a wink. Even your kid mind would realize it was just a special effect. If it was disgustingly gruesome, Spielberg would cleverly cut away somewhere. This led us to believe that he wouldn’t actually show a man plunge his hand into another man’s chest and RIP A MAN’S STILL-BEATING HEART OUT.
But Spielberg broke this compact in that Temple of Doom, and our 8-year old minds were blown right out of our freakin’ skulls. Our view of the world as a place where our parents could keep us safe from having to watch a MAN’S HEART GETTING RIPPED OUT was shattered for the rest of our lives. As our little minds reeled from the strain of a major paradigm shift in the world-as-benevolent-place to world-where-anything-can-happen, the point was struck home forcibly by the scene continuing with the man being lowered into a pool of lava while his heart bursts into flames and Mola Ram laughs sadistically. JESUS CHRIST!! I was EIGHT YEARS OLD when TOD was released, and presumably not much older when I watched it on a VHS taped off of HBO.
The soon-to-be-literally-heartless victim chants something like “o-dum-shee-ba, o-dum-shee-ba” frantically, over and over again, some sort of white magic chant totally useless in the face of Mola Ram and Kali’s more powerful black magic. And for kids trying to deal with the horror of seeing a MAN’S HEART GETTING RIPPED OUT, this was the key to surviving this scene with your sanity intact. Obviously it’s probably making too big a deal of this, but this might have been the point where Gen-X’s patented brand of jaded irony started. The poor victim’s chants were FUNNY, or at least we perceived them to be funny as a way to inject some lightness into such a traumatizing moment as seeing a MAN’S HEART GETTING RIPPED OUT. And so in order to score a laugh as we scampered around the playground or our parents’ family room carpets with our friends—none of whom wanted to admit how horrified they were by watching a MAN’S HEART GETTING RIPPED OUT — we’d chant “o-dum-shee-bah” over and over again, our first lesson in affecting a jaded shrug in the face of something as serious and portentous as seeing a MAN’S HEART GETTING RIPPED OUT.
Our newfound jadedness felt pretty damn cool, and made watching an already pretty damn cool movie (TOD) on crappy VHS tapes made off of a friend’s HBO even more fun. We discovered the thrill of secrecy. We knew that the minute our mom wandered down to the family room and saw that the movie we were so reverently watching and having our eight-year old minds shaped by featured a scene where they actually show you a MAN’S HEART GETTING RIPPED OUT, that tape would become Samizdat and would get stored on top of Dad’s dresser until we were old enough. (Question: At what age does seeing a MAN’S HEART GETTING RIPPED OUT become normal, commonplace, acceptable?)
Now here’s the big problem. The first pieces of media we hide from our parents should — in an ideal world — be pornography. The progression should go from SI’s swimsuit issue, then a Playboy found in an attic, then a crappy VHS copy of The Color of Night off of Skinemax, then an actual hard-core porn film. Hiding porn is a healthy, American rite-of-passage. Kids aren’t supposed to learn to hide stuff from their parents until the first stirrings of puberty, when awakening sexuality brings deep shame and secret thrills behind locked bathroom and bedroom doors everywhere. The main unavoidable differences between childhood and adulthood are independence (we no longer rely on our parents for our survival) and an awareness of sexuality, with the span of adolescence – when we first venture out on our own and when we develop sexual appetites — acting as the crucial, traumatic bridge between the two. It’s no accident that the two great seismic shifts in our lives (independence and sexuality) are linked in the great Hiding of Porn that goes on in households across the country: when you’re hiding something from your parents — essentially, your awakening sexuality — you have implicitly lost trust and therefore total dependence on them. It’s actually kind of a beautiful thing, although the availability of ten trillion sexually-explicit images on the Internet has to have changed this equation to unrecognizability in the last five years. I can’t even imagine growing up with a million porn sites just a click away.
The heart-ripping-out scene short-circuited this Rite of Passage for kids my age, or at least for me. I must have watched TOD 40 times between about age 9 and 12, the final years before adolescence. There was no way I wanted them to know I was watching something so extreme, and so I was forced into watching TOD (my favorite movie at the time) in secret, when they were away at work or the grocery store, or late at night during sleepovers, with the volume turned way down. I learned to be furtive, crafty, to always be looking over my shoulder, to view my parents in an Us-versus-Them dichotomy a few precious years before I should have. Spielberg at least partially robbed me of a few years of blissful innocence.
And there’s more: To take the tie-in between furtively watching this movie (and at heart this scene) in secret and unripe sexuality even further*, the heart-rip-out is even a not-unsubtle playing of the primal De-Virginizing scene: Man plunges an appendage inside another trembling, nervous person, appendage comes out bloody, plunger and plungee goes into ecstatic fit. But it’s important to see what KIND of de-virginizing scene was being impressed so deeply onto our young little minds. Mola Ram is essentially raping this unwilling man’s chest. Besides the disturbing fact that I watched a man’s HEART GETTING RIPPED OUT at eight years old, I was also being treated to a symbolic sadistic homosexual rape. Nice, Steve.
It’s pretty doubtful that any film has affected me as deeply as Temple of Doom has. After the fact, I hold no grudges to Spielberg for subjecting me to this shit at such a young age, because — thank god – Temple of Doom still holds up as quality entertainment when you’re an adult.
*And who wouldn’t want to take it further?