Skip to content

Open Wide


Recently, while submitting to the fond attentions of a dental surgeon, I found myself musing idly, in an opiated haze, about the symbolic weight of teeth—musings disturbed only by the surgeon’s resolute yanking on the offending tooth, a yanking that came to me only distantly, as a not entirely unpleasant tugging, punctuated by the occasional squeak, reminiscent of the sound of a nail being pried out of a floorboard. Maybe it was the Novocain, but I found myself wondering if the widespread fear of dentists is at least in part a subconscious, perhaps even archetypal, fear of teeth, or if that’s just the perspective of someone whose dental history is written in anxiety and agony (and all the requisite drama-queen hysterics that go with them).

Certainly, the mouth, as the biggest breach in the body’s integrity, holds its own terrors (What’s this big hole in the middle of my face?! What if something falls out? What if something falls in?). Not for nothing has the face of mythic horror been a slavering maw (Alien), a toothy portal welcoming you to the afterworld (Jaws).
Teeth are scarier still. TV dramas such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and police-procedural fiction such as Patricia Cornwell’s novels about the forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta have forged an ubreakable link, in the mass imagination, between teeth and death. In such narratives, teeth and dental records are often all that remain of the murdered; mute witnesses to their owner’s last moments, they testify to the victim’s identity and, ultimately, help finger the perp.
Teeth are by definition uncanny, the point at which the skull beneath the skin erupts through the body’s surface. It’s the Return of the Repressed (© Sigmund Freud; all rights reserved)—in this case, the death we do our best to forget while we’re busy living. A bony reminder that mortality is the subtext lurking just beneath the human comedy, teeth are the skeleton’s insistence that it, too, is ready for its close-up.
Okay, I’m over the top, here, but sometimes too much is just enough. Besides, who can top Freud, who took dental horror to Siegfried & Roy-like heights of rhetorical excess in his notorious theorization of the vagina dentata? Sure, Freud’s Victorian hysterics were all about sexual phobias, but his misogynistic horror story wouldn’t have packed the wallop it still does without the old Viennese devil’s canny use of the Dental Uncanny.
Poe, a Freudian avant la lettre, gave shape to primitive male fears of the Monstrous Feminine in his story “Berenice,” in which the narrator Egaeus, monomaniacally obsessed with his lover’s teeth, yanks them from her undead cadaver. His obsession is equal parts desire and horror:

The teeth!—the teeth!—they were here, and there, and everywhere, and visibly and palpably before me; long, narrow, and excessively white, with the pale lips writing about them, as in the very moment of their first terrible development.

(The critic Killis Campbell has suggested that Poe’s tale was inspired, in part, by a newspaper account of grave robbers who pried teeth out of corpses for use, presumably in the manufacture of false teeth, by local dentists, and Richard Zacks claims, in his eccentric compendium of weird facts, An Underground Education, that a “whole generation wore ‘Waterloo’ dentures made from teeth yanked from the corpses on the battlefield, and the practice continued as late as the Civil War, when thousands of teeth were stolen from bodies moldering at places like Bull Run and Gettysburg.” This ghoulish practice is echoed, in contemporary dentistry, by the use of “cadaveric pure aura mater sterilized under X-rays” to facilitate bone regeneration around dental implants.)
Illustration: Fritz Eichenberg. From Tales of Edgar Allen Poe (New York: Random House, 1944), author’s collection.
Freudians have extracted psychosexual subtexts from “Berenice,” reading Poe’s story as a literalization of male attempts to defang the vampiric feminine. Given the psychoanalytic interpretation of the mouth as a visual metaphor for the vagina (and vice versa), Berenice’s predatory “smile of peculiar meaning,” which so terrifies—and mesmerizes—the narrator, hints at the vagina’s unsettling (at least, to the patriarchy) ability to swallow all comers and spit them out limp, drained of their potency. By robbing Berenice of her gleaming teeth, the narrator enacts a sympathetic magic, “castrating” the Phallic Mother and repossessing the emblems of his lost virility. (In this reading, the teeth are phallic symbols. Isn’t everything?)
Still not convinced?
Exhibit A: Actual photo of a real, live vagina dentata, found on
Exhibit B: Actual photo of an antique female mannequin with really scary teeth and a deeply creepy leer, found on eBay.
Case closed.
Personally, I’ve always viewed women’s nether regions as the Gates of Delirium. The mouth, however, is a bacterial killing field. My dental armamentarium is serious. (Remember that scene in The Matrix, where Neo says, “Guns, I need lots of guns,” and—wham-o, he’s in that celestial Wal-Mart, an infinite expanse of blinding white soundstage whose only displays are endless aisles of matte-black gun racks bristling with AK-47’s and Beretta 92FS pistols and HK MP5K’s and Micro Uzi SMG’s? Well, imagine all that hardware in white. And, uh, with fuzzy little FlexiSoft brushheads. And 3-D brushing action.) I’m fully loaded with the ubiquitous floss, although like all serious floss jocks I prefer Crest Glide® tape (“your weapon against plaque and gingivitis!”) to the standard-issue stuff civilians use. I’ve got the Glock 9 of electric toothbrushes, the Braun Oral-B Power Toothbrush with “ultra-speed oscillation,” a Waterpik® “dental water jet,” and that increasingly common prosthesis known as a night guard, the first line of defense against nocturnal tooth-grinding. Oh, and I’ve got this wicked little instrument my hygienist gave me, a gold-colored tool that looks like a miniature pharaoh’s crook, its curved end culminating in a rubber barb for cleaning those hard-to-floss crevasses.
Not that any of this heavy weaponry has availed me much in my never-ending battle against plaque, gum recession, and other fifth-columnist infiltrators of the body politic. It certainly didn’t forestall my Appointment with Destiny in the oral surgeon’s chair. It’s a genetic thing. Well, that, and growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, in that Lost World before glucose intolerance and vegan vigilance and organic anything, when “natural” was for those gap-toothed Oakies in WPA photographs and breakfast was a Pop Tart or a heaping bowl of Count Chocula and no sack lunch was complete without a Ding Dong or a Devil Dog and nothing slaked your cottonmouth thirst on those parched Southern California afternoons like a pitcher of Kool-Aid or, when I was out of short pants, an ice-cold Fresca.
All of which brings me, in the usual divagating way, back to the question of whether or not teeth are inherently fearsome things. Do they inspire fear and loathing for reasons buried deep in the cultural unconscious, or would I see them in a more innocuous light if I had the radiantly beamish grin of, say, Julia Roberts or the scary Steinway smile of motivational guru (and acromegalic giant?) Anthony Robbins.
On my back, with the good doctor attacking the recalcitrant molar with hammer and tongs, I thought about the brief fad, back in the glory days of industrial culture, for graphic images of extreme dental surgery, ripped from surgical textbooks and remixed in underground ‘zines. In that innocent time before Columbine, Abu Ghraib, and, nothing gave normals the fantods like in-your-face images of maxillofacial surgery. (Okay, the pre-MTV “music video” Despair, by the industrial band Surgical Penis Klinik, pretty much knocks the spots off even the grisliest dental-surgery photos, but needless to say, it remained a vanishingly obscure cult item, little known and rarely screened.) The fourth edition of the massive mail-order catalogue for the underground bookseller and publisher, Amok Books—one-stop shopping for style-conscious transgressives, in the late ’80s—includes a selection of pathology titles, featuring, for your delectation, the Color Atlas of Oral Cancers. Post-industrial artists such as Nine-Inch Nails have mined this vein in videos such as “Happiness in Slavery,” which features the late S/M performance artist Bob Flanagan strapped into a dentist’s chair from Hell and tortured by robotic drills with a mind of their own. (Oral horrors seem to be an ongoing obsession of NIN’s Trent Reznor, whose 2005 album was going to be called Let It Bleed but has been retitled With Teeth, at least according to rumor.) Marilyn Manson has been there, too, in his “Beautiful People” video, a KISS Army-meets-Joel-Peter Witkin fantasia in which the singer is fashionably accessorized by a gothic contraption that looks like the Grand Inquisitor’s idea of a dental retractor. (These days, Manson’s teeth are suitably scary all by themselves, now that The Artist Formerly Known as America’s Bogeyman has opted for a Weimar-era gloss on the Bond villain look.) The Swedish electronica artist Fingertwister has gotten in on the act, as well, in his song “The Dentist”, an ominous techno-dub track that incorporates snippets of operating-room dialogue (“got some blood, here”) and the high-pitched whine of a dentist’s drill, calculated to inspire a thrill of terror in any dentophobe.
There’s an inescapable viscerality to dental imagery that, er, sets the teeth on edge. The panic-attack feeling of being trapped in the chair, the helpless vulnerability of submitting to the dental dam and the tongue retractor, the inexorable descent of the whining drill, the rotten reek of burning decay: we’ve all been there. The gleaming sterility of the high-tech surgical instruments and the crisp professionalism of most dentists only serve to heighten our barely suppressed awareness of the medieval barbarity of the whole gory business. Which is exactly what makes that first prick of the needle, that first buzz of the drill, such a reality check. In a postmodern moment when our desensitized sensibilities demand ever more voltage from the atrocity exhibition that is pop culture (Fear Factor, Jackass, Extreme Makeover), and when embodied experience is growingly irrelevant as our “real” lives are lived increasingly on the other side of the terminal screen, the dentist’s drill is the short, sharp shock that reminds many of us that, for the moment at least, we still have bodies. In J.G. Ballard’s speculative novel Crash, the affectless narrator embraces the car crash that nearly killed him as a rejuvenating force, a bracing jolt that snaps him out of the media-induced numbness that had drained him of all spontaneous responses and genuine emotions. I’m reminded of a friend who once told me that he refused all anesthesia during dental operations for the simple reason that it’s a rare opportunity to experience the raw charge of real pain, a sensation we experience all too seldom, here in Prozac Nation. (He’s a better man than I, always wheedling that extra poke of Novocain, wussy that I am.)
Then, too, one of the (forgive pun; something about the subject seems to invite them) root causes of dentophobia may be the latent sadism of the whole situation: Like an S/M top, the masked, rubber-gloved dentist is both tormentor and Angel of Mercy, a dualism exploited by the almost unwatchable torture scene in John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man (1976)—the locus classicus for dentophobes—in which the Mengele-like Nazi doctor Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) drills down to the nerve of one of Babe’s (Dustin Hoffman) teeth. In one hand, Szell holds sweet relief: clove oil, a topical anesthetic that banishes the brain-shriveling pain of seconds earlier. In the other, he holds the instrument of that agony: A dentist’s drill. There is something of the police-state interrogation cell, here, and of De Sade’s pleasure dungeon.
Dustin Hoffman, under the drill in Marathon Man.
As always, there’s a fine line between fear and fetish, and a Google search for “dental retractor” uncovers a clammy sub-subculture of that branch of S/M that inclines toward medical fetishes.
(Google results may be biased by the fact that the fetishists’ use of “retractor” differs from the accepted dental meaning of the word. To a dentist, a retractor is a small, pencil-shaped steel instrument, typically with a hook at the business end or, in the specific case of cheek retractors, an unintentionally hilarious contraption that looks like
cheek retractor.jpg
By contrast, when a fetishist talks about a retractor, he’s talking about something like
Dental fetishists rejoice in mock-medical paraphernalia, from double-ratchet retractors to dental forceps guaranteed to “force a mouth open to a maximum diameter of 2 1/8.”” (To what end, you ask? Discretion bids me leave the details to the reader’s fevered imagination.)
What is this? The psychosexual equivalent of the Stockholm Syndrome? Are those of us sentenced, by unlucky nature and unwise nurture, to long hours under the drill fated to act out nocturnal psychodramas in which we exorcize the traumas of the chair in pornographic narratives starring us, a willing co-star (or two), and the odd double-ratchet retractor? If so, I only hope that the nitrous oxide flows freely, and that I emerge from such transactions with all of my molars intact.
Go ahead: Rinse and spit.
a the dentist cover.jpg