A man stretching his anus horrifyingly wide with both hands. Two young women defecating into a cup and then messily eating their own waste. Lovingly rendered artwork of Japanese anime babes being filleted into grisly ribbons. For over a decade of my life, this was how I paid my rent. In Manhattan.
Disgust has a long and proud evolutionary history. It has the power to draw and heighten attention, developed as an evolutionary warning system to keep us from endangering our bodies. One of the leading theories in evolutionary biology postulates that we learned to feel disgust as a defense mechanism to keep us from eating rotten food.
As the risk level of human existence has steadily dropped, the feeling has metastasized into something quite different — and yet disgust can still instill a sense of urgency perfect for the internet age: A 2014 study from the University of Florida indicated that we’re not only more likely to give our attention to disgusting things, but also to share them with others.
But I don’t need a study to tell me that disgust is highly shareable. Between 1999 and 2011, I owned and ran a site called Portal of Evil. Over that decade and change, my business partner Chet and I drove millions of page views to disgusting photographs, obscure fetishes, insane conspiracies, and things that beggared description.
Let me try anyway, though: a lady who wanted to chop her hands off and replace them with “twin Dorrance stainless steel No. 5 hooks.” Another woman who chemically castrated her husband without his knowledge and wanted to tell you how to do it, too. An ordained priest who went into deep detail about his love of having sex with dogs. And thousands more unique and terrible exhibits. (Below this essay, I’ve included a list of some of our visitors’ favorites.)
Nina Strohminger, a psychologist working at Yale, proposes a category of revulsion called hedonic disgust, in which the experience of the negative emotion actually makes a positive one more powerful. In an experiment she describes in her doctoral dissertation, “The Hedonics of Disgust,” test subjects were given “primer sentences” designed to trigger disgust (like “The sewage is green”). They consistently rated New Yorker cartoons funnier than a control group that did not receive the primer sentence. (Imagine how funny they’d have found the cartoons if they’d watched “Two Girls One Cup.”)
When I talked to Strohminger, she told me that psychologists only started being interested in disgust over the last few decades. “The field thought that it wasn’t an emotion at all. It was seen as a bodily state,” she said. But once we started to draw connections between disgust and moral behavior, and find the similarities between being physically repulsed and judging a morally reprehensible act, the field of study began to open up.”
Visitors’ fascination with Portal of Evil exhibits always seemed to trade in equal parts on physical and moral disgust. There’s a term that people use for trips to places like Auschwitz and the site of the World Trade Center towers: atrocity tourism. That phrase was adopted by the furry community — itself a frequent topic of Portal of Evil discussion — to describe what we did at our website. Visitors could climb out of their lives for a few minutes to gawp at the truly disturbing, then go back to normal with no harm done.
One former visitor thought that the power of the disgusting could be explained in two ways: “It really does make you feel better about your life. I remember there was that really weird-looking guy who wore diapers and just pissed all over his Looney Toons stuffed animals. That was how he got off, sexually — dressing like a little boy and peeing all over icons of his childhood. I felt way less gross about being something as boring as gay in comparison to that.”
In a way, that was true for me. When I created the site, I was living in a five-by-nine room in a New York City apartment with a guy who cleaned every surface with ammonia twice a week like he was practicing for a crime scene. I hadn’t kissed a girl since moving to the city and ate crullers on a daily basis alone in my bunk bed. My life was disastrous, but these peeks into something worse kept my head above water, both financially and emotionally.
“I was weird and felt like I was the only weird person on earth,” the user told me. “I didn’t even know anyone else who played computer games, let alone really cared about 19th-century metaphysical sex cults … People are fascinating, and extreme people are extremely fascinating.”
What we present online is, typically, our best facets — we skim over food service on LinkedIn and leave the Ke$ha off of our public Spotify playlists. But what was interesting about the people we featured on the site was that they refused to do that. They put every inch of their fetishes, perversions, and inner mysteries out for the planet to discover.
Of course, that’s little comfort to the people who were angry to be featured as unreasonably weird or gross. Some bombarded us with irate emails and lawsuit threats (none of which ever made it to court). One woman, who wrote reams and reams of Secret of NIMH fanfiction, even encoded a Wiccan spell into the HTML of her web page to put us under some ill-defined curse.
But others embraced it. A significant part of our traffic, after all, wasn’t from gawkers looking for somebody to cringe at. It was from other perverts and freaks who browsed the site unironically, connecting with people who were just like them. One of the best moments I can remember was when “Grandpa DeSade,” a cheery bearded sadist who resembled Santa Claus with a bullwhip, showed up on the forums to talk about his lifestyle with the regulars.
Eventually, I began to move away from the site. A feeling of lethargy crept up every time I looked at another furry living in plush-lined squalor, another foreskin stretched over a Perrier bottle, another incest web-comic. I worried I was becoming too accustomed to the horrible things I was publishing online.
I raised this possibility with Dr. Strohminger recently — the idea that, as a culture, we are starting to become inured to disgusting things. She disagreed. “Hundreds of years ago, people attended executions for entertainment. The thought of watching someone be killed is beyond the pale for most people. I’d resist the notion that we’re becoming less sensitive to disgusting things.”
She wasn’t wrong, even in my case. I was maybe less sensitive to the immediate sight of the disgusting, but I was getting more sensitive to the ramifications of what I was doing. In 2005, users of the site took a concept album written by “the DragonGuyver,” a prematurely balding amateur philosopher in Maine, and put all of the lyrics to music, even getting some of the songs played on the radio; others Catfished an NYC slam poet into sending dick pics and showing up for a fake date. Stunts like this felt too far, and I started to move away from the site.
Chet was working at a video-game company and getting annoyed when former Portal of Evil exhibits would harass the receptionist, trying to get him fired. I was about to leave New York to live quietly on a small island in the Pacific Ocean. I’d been looking at the worst humanity had to offer for 12 years, but now I had other things in my life besides the disgusting.
Sort of. In 2007, before I left the city, I saw maybe the most disgusting thing I’d ever actually witnessed in person: my son being born, cut squalling from my wife’s Caesarean midsection, in a grisly tableau worthy of a website of its own. And out of that morass of gore, a perfectly formed baby boy whom I instantly fell in love with.
I’m not going to argue that there’s something that beautiful in the heart of everything disgusting. How could there be? But if you look hard enough, what you find might surprise you.
Or get you on a FBI watch list. Either way.
10 Favorite Portal of Evil Exhibits That Are Still Online
While many of the sites we featured have faded into bitrot, some are still up and running. Here are ten survivors.
Boston and Shaun
Painfully naïve web-comic about a young boy and his pet dragon who eats him. This curious exploration of the fetish known as vore is all the more unsettling because it appears to be created by a child.
Postulating a “new concept of heroic M2M,” this site is run by gay men who reject anal or oral sex in favor of rubbing dicks against other dicks.
Waita-Uziga’s Deadly Joy
One of the first guro, or Japanese gore-art, sites we ever featured. Uziga’s intensely detailed artwork is still incredibly nauseating.
Our first exposure to “object sexuality” came courtesy of Eija-Riita Elkof, a Swedish woman who was engaged to be married to a guillotine she named Fressie.
A young man from Texas with profound obsessive-compulsive disorder, Ulillillia was beloved on POE for his thorough documentation of his mental activities (and the fact that he dropped by the site to talk about his imaginary friends).
Yiff the Otter
A seminal tale of anthro degeneracy, this page chronicles the adventures of a Belgian furry who begged his way into a shared house and then claimed that he had a heart condition that would kill him if he didn’t have sex.
Plenty of weird porn sites made their way to Portal of Evil, but this one — dedicated to ladies vacuum-pumping their vulvae to massive size — is still pretty unsettling.
Veon Prism Media
Imari Stevenson wanted to make a video game called Eternal Destiny Conquest that would span 80 CD-roms and feature women shooting laser blasts out of their nipples. It never happened, but he has produced a number of utterly bonkers short films.
The Schumin Web
Some of the most iconic Portal of Evil exhibits were the most banal. Ben Schumin posted photo essays of his trip to Walmart, wrote dismal love poetry, and obsessively documented every fire alarm known to man.
These obsessively rendered erotic comics dependably take a turn to their female leads being murdered, roasted over an open flame, and eaten. And there are hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of them.