When I was 18, a friend told me about a site called Rotten.com, where you could see “really fucked up shit.”
This was 1997. I had just graduated Catholic high school and started using the Internet more frequently, feverishly chatting nights away with anonymous weirdos on AOL Instant Messenger. I didn’t know what I wanted to see; in its nascent stage, the Internet was sort of like a Ouija board. And, before long, I was looking at decapitation photos.
Rotten was the original shock site, a place where you could see images of people hit by trains, self-immolation, the gory aftermath of car crashes, failed suicide attempts, dismemberment, botched executions, orange juice enemas, and perverse pornography. These images—many of them reader-submitted, many fake or doctored—became Internet folklore. Rotten, for better or worse, is one of my first memories of the Internet.
Now, you can see decapitations weekly if you want to. You can see someone murdered on camera. You can find a Reddit thread that will ruin your day. Rotten was a moral grey area where clicking a link meant you wanted to see some really fucked up shit, even if you didn’t know why. Rotten excelled at “made you look.”
• • •
The site, created in 1996, came under scrutiny in September 1997 for posting an alleged photo of Princess Diana’s mangled corpse after the August 1997 crash. It was revealed as a fake, but it made Rotten a destination for Internet rubberneckers, and high-profile entertainers like Howard Stern name-checked the site. Rotten also posted alleged photos from the Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman crime scene, and Tupac’s autopsy. It was the proto-TMZ.
For all its shock tactics and questionable ethics, Rotten claimed to function as a proponent of First Amendment rights at a time when Internet censorship was still an evolving issue. On the About page, this is explained further:
“Founded in 1996 after the enactment of the Communications Decency Act, our mission is to actively demonstrate that censorship of the Internet is impractical, unethical, and wrong. While the CDA was ruled unconstitutional in 1997, and similar laws have come and gone, we continue to serve as a haven for free speech of a most controversial nature.”
It made us disgusted, outraged even, but we returned, often covertly, to take in the next day’s atrocity exhibit.
A Salon story from 2001 explored the weird world of Rotten five years into existence. Writer Janelle Brown spoke with “Soylent,” the alleged proprietor of the site who, at the time, was described as a 34-year-old programmer. He explained that “[t]o censor this site, it is necessary to censor medical texts, history texts, evidence rooms, courtrooms, art museums, libraries, and other sources of information vital to functioning of free society.”
He added: “Horrors are sprinkled throughout life, and I see no problem with concentrating them. If you want, we could go down to the bookstores and find pictures of cadavers for you—it’s very easy. It’s not possible to write a law to make it impossible to display that stuff, even for minors. It’s too much of a slippery slope to take.”
At the time of the article, Rotten was seeing roughly 200,000 visitors a day. It was also apparently being investigated by the FBI and Scotland Yard for an image involving infanticide and cannibalism, which was later revealed as fake. Rotten’s content was cited in Donna Rice’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, regarding the Child Protection Act in 1999. Authorities in Dusseldorf required all Internet service providers to block the site in 2001, under a new censorship law.
There’s also an archive on the site devoted to letters from lawyers and upset parties.
The roots of Rotten are tangentially tied to MindVox, an early Internet service provider and bulletin board based in New York City, founded in 1992 by Patrick Kroupa and Bruce Fancher, members of the Legion of Doom hacker group. It was a gathering place for like-minded people and claimed it would cover the “evolution of cyberspace, virtual reality, legal issues, and security and virus updates and discussions, all the way to health, drugs, beauty, alternative medicine, and erotica.”
Rotten was the original shock site, a place where you could see images of people hit by trains.
Thomas E. Dell is rumored to be the curator behind Rotten. He wrote Waffle, the bulletin board system software MindVox was based on. Rotten existed in the veins of the ‘90s West Coast tech boom, and according to his Google+ page, Dell worked as an engineer at Apple and Netscape in the ‘90s, and as a consultant at Norton Antivirus.
He also allegedly runs Soylent Communications, which is branded on sites like NNDB (Notable Names Database). Soylent is linked to Dr. Sputnik’s Society Pages, which features current celebrity “gossip.” Jerkcity and Bonsai Kitten were also featured on Rotten at one point.
Rotten still exists in its original form, preserved as a white space-heavy relic of the past, complete with selling point: “The soft white underbelly of the net, eviscerated for all to see.” There’s a news site called the Daily Rotten, rife with headlines like “Liberal Cat Found Dead” and “WWI Cadaver Jackpot,” but it hasn’t been updated since 2012. A 2005 entry on the Gaping Maw, another Rotten offshoot, announced that pornographic content on the site had been made “retroactively illegal” by the U.S. government.
The address on the site is listed as Mountain View, Calif., a main artery of Silicon Valley. Emails to Dell and his associates were not returned.
• • •
I knew I wasn’t the only one who remembered seeking out really fucked up shit on Rotten. My sister distinctly remembers not liking the site, but she pointed out what often made looking at those images a sick thrill:
“I was really, really young so I only remember dead bodies in Dumpsters and how long the pics took to load with the dial-up. That added to the suspense of it all. …It was one of those ‘back alley’ sites you’d dare your friends to go to during a sleepover. There are a ton of them now.”
“The soft white underbelly of the net, eviscerated for all to see.”
The more I asked around, the more nods of acknowledgement I got from people of a certain age. “Rotten? Oh yeah, the place where you could see really fucked up shit. I went there.”
The feeling was mutual among the Daily Dot’s staff.
- “All the ninth-grade boys in my Ohio high school gathered around our friend’s computer after school and looked through Rotten.com, groaning at every bit of gore, probably once a week. Then we’d switch over to CKY videos.
Looking at it was like volunteering to throw a water balloon at a stranger’s car to impress your friends—it was all about machismo and social standing, but it felt edgy and cool to build up a strong stomach for it, and exploring the virtually limitless depths of content available on the Internet was fascinating. In 2000 and 2001, we had no idea how disturbing it could get, but it was exciting to find out.” —Cooper Fleishman
- “Don’t remember if Tubgirl was on there but I saw Tubgirl. Still wonder how she’s doing these days.” —Miles Klee
- “I went to a really strict Catholic [school] for middle school and part of high school and I remember that during freshman year, a lot of us would just hang around after school. Eventually we realized that some of the boys in our class would just hang out in the computer lab, which was full of the oldest, most horrible computers. It eventually became this weird room where people would either group around a computer looking up weird shit or making out in the corner.
Eventually, as you can imagine, we made our way to Rotten.com, and I just remember looking around realizing that we were watching something like a dude cutting off his finger while two couples were basically dry humping in the corner and being incredibly disgusted with everything going on. But I mean… we would still go back to that gross, smelly lab every day after school and like… just chill out looking at horrible shit on Rotten.com. And we for sure never erased our history.” —Molly McHugh
- “If my memory serves me, I recall seeing a lot of Goatse-like stuff and other hideous adventures of humanity.It was the ancestor to r/WTF, and was far more disturbing. As a teenager, however, that’s exactly the kind of insane shit I wanted to find on the Internet—the stuff you would (hopefully) never encounter in your real life.” —Andrew Couts
Rotten was trolling us, of course. It made us disgusted, outraged even, but we returned, often covertly, to take in the next day’s atrocity exhibit. Perhaps there’s no need for Rotten these days, when “made you look” is a clickbait mantra and self-serving revisions on the First Amendment are made in every comment section.
I don’t have the stomach for sites like Rotten anymore, but I sometimes long for that time 17 years ago, when the curiosity gap was still evolving and seeing “really fucked up shit” didn’t involve harassment or death threats or rape threats or war or a sense of constant unease. It involved seeing, say, a parrot perched on a man’s erect penis. Were we ever so young?
Rotten was vile, to be sure, but it didn’t beat you over the head with “You’ll never believe what happens next.” We actively went there to feel unease, and wonder why we wanted to. I still don’t know.
Illustration by J. Longo