Trauma Dentata: A Brief History of the Tooth in the Popular Imagination

Still from Les dents du singe. This 1961 animated film shows a crudely drawn mouth of a cartoon monkey, having a tooth extracted by a pair of large tongs.
René Laloux (1961)

Since the mid twentieth century, North American children have likely been brought up with some rudimentary understanding of maturity and commerce vis-à-vis the shedding and growing of our teeth. We leave them under a sleeping pillow in the night for some unseen benefactor, a so-called fairy who gladly takes away our cast-off molars for a sawbuck or gold coins if we’re lucky. Thus, teeth become intimately linked in the collective unconscious with the physical and emotional development of our young bodies, not to mention the mystical realm of dreams and nightmares, economic pressures, and sexual fantasy. 

Freud’s landmark case study of Little Hans draws upon many of these same connections in detailing a young boy’s struggle to understand sexual difference in light of an increasingly complex worldview conflating the mysterious nature of female reproductive organs with a crippling fear of well-endowed horses and their monstrous teeth. But how should we begin to step back and trace such powerful associations between our enamel-covered food grinders and evolving notions of sexuality, sexual maturity – where do we start?

Sobek, a crocodilian deity of ancient Egypt, might have been one of the first to concretise this understanding between vast rows of sharp, regenerative teeth and ideas of fertility, sexual prowess. To date, scientific research on the self-rejuvenating skeletal system of animals like sharks, gators, and crocodiles, continues to centre around its application toward the restoration of youth and vitality in humans. Powdered potions purporting to contain the remains of crocodile teeth, for example, have been marketed for years as aphrodisiacal elixirs within spiritual contexts. 

It is no surprise then that amongst poachers, acquisition of the large, teeth-like tusks of elephants and sharp horns of the rhinoceros is a lucrative business, transforming these amputated appendages into highly sought-after totems of phallocentric pride and conquer-lust.

As early as 700 BCE, Monetaria moneta – a species of marine mollusc commonly known as the money cowrie – was used throughout China, India’s Malabar coast, and Africa as a means of trade. The smooth, egg-shaped shells typically feature a narrow, slit-like opening with toothed edges. Later, similar cowrie, along with elk’s teeth and assorted Dentalium – the genus containing toothy, tusk-shaped marine coastal shells – found their way amongst the indigenous peoples of North America’s Great Plains, forming part of a rich textile history that saw the embellishment of formal garments with such fashionable items, for which “the number of teeth symbolised the prowess of the husband-provider” and denoted “a family of means.”1

A set of old and yellowing teeth set in a cast metal mould, once belonging to George Washinton.
George Washington (courtesy of The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)

In the English language, a thing with sufficient teeth is a thing endowed with the necessary power and authority to see its will carried properly out. High-profile entertainment contracts have teeth, as do robust laws and amendments. Civic ordinances, federal arrest warrants, and court-appointed injunctions – all of these have teeth

To be long in the tooth is to be considered old beyond one’s useful years. The phrase derives from the sobering fact of a horse’s physiology betraying its age through the mouth. To look a gift horse in the mouth, is thus to verify a horse’s viability through the close inspection of its teeth. Some length, of course, is desirable, implying a young, virile horse at peak levels of performance, but too much length raises cause for concern, and would no doubt spoil the success of any deal or trade.

In a gross pantomime of such practices, kidnapped Africans throughout the Trans-Atlantic slave trade were reported to have had their teeth inspected by would-be proprietors searching for signs of malnourishment and disease. A deeper look at this grim custom might go beyond its obvious reading as an oral-sadistic exercise in power, highlighting an implicit aspect: the outsized, neurotic fascination and trepidation projected onto the male Africans and the long tooth of their sex – historical site of pain and suffering at the hands of domineering whites. 

But notions of masculinity being what they are – an ill-fitting confluence of prejudice, objectification, and subjugation – these insular whites elected over time to get their hands dirty less and less. The clear and present danger of the black phallus had become so taboo as to not even allow for mishandling. Genital torture was eventually outsourced to northern spheres of broader influence, namely academia and medical research institutions. There, at the turn of the century, the racist pseudoscience of eugenics allowed the tired lynch mobs of America to trade in their rusty banana knives in favour of a cleaner, silent program of genocide through forced sterilisation.

Thus the public castration of Black Americans now joined the symbolic order, becoming more insidious and covert, forcing the locus of traumatic violence to likewise make the migratory journey north, into the realm of the oral, where the perceived threat could take on a diminished capacity, becoming more bite-sized and digestible. In American History X, Derek (Edward Norton), a white supremacist, performs the heinous curb stomping of a black youth caught burglarising his truck. This extrajudicial suburban execution involves the placing of the prostrate victim’s teeth around the edge of a curb and, well, you can probably guess the rest. From here, it is no stretch at all to connect a death via obstruction of the orally-accessed windpipe, such as with the late Eric Garner. 

An old image of Tod Browning circa 1920s-30s, film director. Browning wears a suit and has a small, finely styled moustache, his hair combed back.
Tod Browning

The difficulties of navigating life with a mouthful of missing teeth were not lost on legendary silent film director Tod Browning, whose weird tales belied a lifelong interest in the obscure and the abject. Back in Hollywood’s early days, Browning found himself cast in the role of imprudent driver in a real-life narrative involving the fatal collision of his own speeding car and a service vehicle loaded with iron rails. Shot through with formidable arrows, like a steely version of Saint Sebastian, the beleaguered automobile delivered a tragic closing monologue in the form of untimely death for one and a host of grievous injuries to the others. Browning survived the cinematic ordeal with a shattered leg and the complete loss of his forward-facing teeth, necessitating a lengthy, albeit productive convalescence away from the industry.

During the 1927-1931 transition into talkies, Browning lent a trained eye (and newly mustachioed post-op countenance) to stories of Trauma Dentata, defined here for the first time as scenarios evincing the locus of psychological trauma within representations of teeth, or teeth-like apparatus.

His now lost masterpiece London After Midnight and the classic Dracula foreground a crepuscular phantasmagoria of razor-toothed wraiths whose centers of violent gravity, their power, emanate from the stylized gothic cathedrals of their oral cavities. Browning, a sometime alcoholic, was reported to have removed his painful and taboo dentures on at least one solemn occasion when, during a public altercation, he hurled the blasted things like a terrifying new species of porcelain bat, yelling at the offending party: “Here, why don’t you go and bite yourself!”

While consumers of vast quantities of blood, the nosferatu, pale, undead beings with unnaturally cold skin, technically have no blood actually circulating through their veins. This lack of blood flowing to their extremities renders the male vampire impotent by definition, relegating his entire erotic nature – like the black male of the repressive white imaginary – to the area of the mouth, a hell of pearly gates punctuated by a powerful set of retracting beast-fangs hidden beneath the gum line.

As the Vets say: “If you ain’t got it in the hips, you better have it in the lips.”2

Pierre Clementi as Marcel in Belle de Jour. Marcel, a dark haired man in a black leather jacket, bares his teeth, showing off his shiny metal dentures. He raises a finger to his lips.
Allied Artists Pictures

Marcel (Pierre Clémenti) in Belle de Jour is a man who certainly has it in the lips. The handsome gangster, oozing with silver screen sexuality, enters the film’s quaint brothel with a triumphant black trench coat, moppish head of hair, and glossy, patent leather short-boots. He can definitely get it. With director Buñuel’s staging and Clémenti’s deft characterisation, the ease of Marcel’s masculine station is complicated through his use of a walking stick – classic symbol of infirmity, impotence – and a mouth full of surgical-grade chrome dentures standing in for a missing row of teeth knocked out in a recent street fight. 

But despite the presence of these traditional signifiers of the castrated man, Clémenti is able to weaponise Marcel’s shortcomings, making of them instead surprisingly queer and alluring fetish objects, prefiguring the rise of customisable luxury cosmetic grillz popularised by African American Hip-Hop artists.

Early on in the quarantine of 2020, Netflix’s documentary phenomenon Tiger King roared across our timelines, introducing viewers to a bevy of beguiling subjects, including John Finlay, who became an unwitting internet meme in the wake of the show’s meteoric rise in popularity. As the erstwhile, salt-of-the-earth ex-husband of titular King Joe Exotic, Finlay bared his innocent, interrupted smile for the judgy eyes of the movie cameras. 

The result of persistent drug use, Finlay’s remaining, candlepin-like teeth were the source of much merriment. That is, until the movie cameras caught up with him again. In the years since recording the documentary footage, Finlay had bought himself a brand new set of teeth, lifting a sort of collective fog for audiences who suddenly found the man uncompromisingly attractive, making him the internet’s latest celebrity boyfriend and providing a tidy dramatic arc for the rookie heartthrob’s well-earned fifteen minutes of fame. John Finlay went from being a zero to hero, not in the space of a few months, but in the close distance between two canines and a handful of premolars.

John Finlay in Netflix documentary Tiger King. A close-up interview with the shirtless Finlay reveals his heavy chest tattoos, gold chain, and missing teeth.

But can we have too much teeth? For this writer, who was born with no less than six now-extracted wisdom teeth, the consequences of being full in the tooth are all too familiar. Mind the gap as we continue to probe the dental politics of lack and excess.

At the dawn of the new millennium, blossoming actor Christian Bale found himself ready for the next stage of his professional life. A new, potentially career-defining opportunity was waiting for him. All he had to do was get rid of his ginormous teeth. 

Upon the release of American Psycho, Bale admitted to having had to make the somewhat difficult decision of having his teeth fixed for the iconic part. In order to better fill the role of literal American psychopath Patrick Bateman, Bale’s supposedly “vampiric” incisors and “feminising” gap between his top teeth would have to go.3 Although rebuffed by statistical facts, humans draw comfort from imagining our criminals as somehow monstrously different from the rest of us. To convincingly play the narcissistic, insecure Wall Street man-child butchering sex workers amidst a Reaganomic fugue state in 1980s Manhattan, Bale would have to conform to popular conventions and make of his teeth an uncanny valley. 

His noticeably reduced tooth-line certainly adds to his menacing portrayal as the bloodthirsty Bateman, a Valentino-suited power broker with a raging, ambiguous sexuality to go with that eerily short smile and cabbinalistic ideations. The many insecurities and violent appetites swirling within Bateman are mirrored in the boundless accumulation of wealth and personal prestige found in our society.

Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Bateman grins gleefully as he wields an axe in an iconic still from the film.
Lions Gate Films

Perhaps the most surreal and telling manifestation of this despotic worldview has its cinematic apex during a fatal three-way that ends with a naked (save for pristine Nikes) Bateman chasing a young woman through the quiet halls of his indifferent apartment building, the locus of his dento-phallo power momentarily shifted back below the waist, where a designer chainsaw discreetly covers up his exposed penis. An edenic Adam for the slasher age. 

Women too experience anxieties of excess and lack in regards to dental appearance. In Gap-Toothed Women, the “feminising” gap occurring between the upper front teeth is explored in relation to the Western male gaze, and its historically negative appraisal of women taking up too much space, even if it’s in their own goddamn mouths. Women with these pronounced gaps in their teeth have had to fight, literally tooth and nail, for their right to appear on billboards, in television commercials, and across the covers of magazines, flouting prevailing standards of beauty. 

Because if there’s one thing humans struggle with it’s the abject, the in-between. That thing that is neither one, nor the other, ambiguous. What was true for Finlay and Bale is also true for women. They’ve got to go in one direction or the other: either the gap is filled, patched and smoothed over like a section of drywall, or the pillars that define the offending gap are dissolved altogether, crumbling like columns upon the temple floor. 

In the popular imagination of the heterosexual male, there exists a fear of women’s reproductive power that renders the vagina a site for potential trauma dentata, making the oral cavity an attractive substitute, despite the literal presence of dentata. Here, the male engaged in oral sex subsumes the threat of phallic violence as long as his experience reproduces a conception of the mouth as a toothless spectacle. Locker room talk has indeed ventured into the erotic possibilities of bedding senior women, in the hopes that their removable dentures allow for a more enjoyable, friction-less fellating experience. It is no wonder that the intended chastity belt of orthodontic braces creates such consternation for the adventurous adolescent male.

The mouth of women has been a critical battleground for the dominant patriarchal order since time immemorial. From those parted lips, jettisoned upon flashing tongues, such secrets might be revealed, injustices given voice to, as might disturb the whole delicate balance of the carnivalesque male power structure. Here, as in the cinema, silence was golden.

Consider the scold’s bridle, an archaic instrument of wearable torture used as a form of punishment and public humiliation against women deemed “riotous” or “troublesome” in their speech, gossipy in their manner, or simply, common old “rude nags” and “scolds”. The muzzling iron framework of the bridle pinned the woman’s tongue against her upper palate, preventing her from speaking, and resulting in a variety of unpleasant side effects, including fatigue of the mouth and excessive production of saliva. In other words, a self-lubricating wet dream scenario for the vagina phobic’s oral-displacement, an ovipositing face-fucker of Alien imaginaries. 

A still from Netflix documentary Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer. Richard Ramirez, wearing fuschia prison scrubs, stands up in court, flanked by officials in grey suits and ties.

To wash down the above image, let’s re-focus our discussion toward the realm of popular serial killers and their fictional counterparts. For Ted Bundy and Richard Ramirez, a well documented history of trauma dentata factored heavily in their apprehension and later convictions. Bundy had a mouthful of poorly aligned teeth and a proclivity for biting. Ramirez (The Night Stalker) was the stuff of oral nightmares. After a lifetime of neglected hygiene and excessive sugar intake, glimpses of Ramirez’s rotted, foul-smelling teeth became his calling card. Both used their abnormal dental situations to great effect in their predations, but lest we forget, there is no on-to-one ratio between bad teeth and sociopathy. 

While a bruised self-image may have contributed to their growing sense of alienation and emotional decay, it is unlikely that any amount of corrective dental surgery early on would have prevented them from committing their crimes. This is correlation versus causation. It is the popular imaginary at work again, telling us what to look for, what to believe. So let’s look at an example of an individual punking the profile, nearly out-witting the G-men. 

Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon and its cinematic adaptations feature a wholly compelling serial killer archetype that rivals the sophisticated charisma of series heavy, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Here, a brutal antagonist with unexceptional teeth takes up the mantle of trauma dentata to reclaim the oral cavity as a site of vengeance, enacting a kind of denticular détournement against a previous source of trauma.   

Francis Dolarhyde, dubbed “The Tooth Fairy” by the press, is mischaracterised by the feds as an “impotent homosexual” on the strength of his faggy crime scene signatures, which include strange, Bundy-like bite marks, the smashing of mirrors, and the mutilation of eyes. Harris is obviously poking fun at the often simplistic psychoanalytic associations found in popular police procedurals and their pat profiles of criminals more sketchily drawn than Dolarhyde or Lecter. 

We learn later that Tooth Fairy’s peculiarities actually have their roots in childhood abuse suffered at the hands of a browbeating grandmother, a mould of whose teeth Dolarhyde re-appropriates in order to create the grizzly bite marks left on his victims. Personal prejudice and a misapprehension of history or language can often lead to poorly drawn conclusions carrying disastrous results. The persistent, colonial hold-over teaching us about the bad teeth of our astonishingly loyal allies across the North Sea may attribute its longevity to such failings.4 

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon. Lecter, now an old man, stands up close to the camera, staring forward with a menacing smile.
Universal Pictures

Luckily, language is a mutable thing, and whilst one voice may be easy enough to silence, a whole group of the disenfranchised, working in concert, can be as thunderous and unwavering as a Lacanian typhoon. 

In Les Dents du singe (Monkey’s Teeth), some patients of a French mental health clinic work in collaboration to create the scenario for an animated film. The resulting short, with virtually no mediation from the creators, involves a ruthless dentist who steals the teeth of the poor and, reverse Robin Hood, gives them to the rich. Until a magical monkey magician exacts revenge on the people’s behalf. 

Freudian cinephile Mary Wild has analysed the film through the lens of Lacanian psychoanalysis, describing each stolen tooth as representative of “a distinct signifier that, in a sequence alongside other teeth/signifiers, forms the symbolic order (i.e., language).” The dentist represents the superego, the father figure, who profits from the pilfering of impoverished teeth, in essence robbing the patients of their language, their identity, and their access to it, plunging the patients into “loneliness, isolation, and suffering”. 

At the critical moment of extraction, the dozing filmic patient imagines his teeth personified – as himself, his friends or family members, maybe fellow patients – sitting around a table, one by one being plucked into obscurity by an indifferent, omnipresent hand of fate. Later, the void left by a missing tooth takes on an apocalyptic dimension, resembling a barren wasteland littered with corpses. For the psychotic real-world patient, transgressor of boundaries and language, the deceptively simple silent libretto becomes a scathing critique of their own place in the world, “ostracis[ed] from normal society and alienat[ed] from himself”, the toothless, animated figures become “half person[s]”, depleted of their lifeforce (castrated), pursued by law enforcement, and folded into the brutal machinery of everyday life. In essence, chewed up and spat back out, only to endure the whole thing again in some novel way. 

When the magic monkey returns the stolen teeth into the patient’s mouth, there has occurred a “reclaiming/reorganization of banned/repressed signifiers in the psychotic imaginary”, culminating in a successful and healthy return to society that points to a happy way forward, a passageway to speech and identity forged through a brazen bypassing of the despotic oral cavity. Universal cinematic language as a revolutionary detour on the road to trauma dentata

For more examples of TRAUMA DENTATA on the screen check out:

  • Straw Dogs, 1971
  • The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974
  • Jaws, 1975
  • Marathon Man, 1976
  • Vampire’s Kiss, 1989
  • Sleepy Hollow, 1999
  • Teeth, 2007
  • Hannibal (S2E9 “Shiizakana”), 2014
  • Possessor, 2020

by Ian DeLeón

Ian (he/him) is a lifelong cinephile, tortured artist and aspiring film director. He received a BFA in video, installation, and performance art ages ago, but is currently preoccupied with developing screenplays and researching early film history, particularly the German kind, and especially of the horror variety. Some of his favourite films at the moment include: The Tin Drum, Cruising, Tongues Untied and anything by Polly Platt. Find him on Letterboxd and Twitter @iandeleonarts

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