Gross is everywhere.
It's in the food we eat: in the cheese that shares chemical properties with bad breath and stinky feet and in the bread that is leavened by microbial excretions. It's in nature: in the viruses that make us sick, in the monstrous shape of reptiles and deep-sea fish and in the terrible parasites that torment them.
Of course, we ourselves might be the greatest source of grossness. We carry it with us, in our blood and guts. Anytime someone's insides end up outside, you are definitely in the presence of the gross.
It seems obvious that our repulsion from the gross is rooted in our fear of death. We may pretend that we are our own masters, but deep down we suspect we are really the victims of nature and fate. The things we spurn as gross are the things that rub that dismal knowledge in our face.
But fear is only half the story. Old medical devices may look like implements of torture, but they were used for healing. Gruesome medical specimens show us the miraculous functioning of the human body. Horrific germs and grotesque insects embody nature's endless ingenuity, its ability to exploit any niche and fill the empty spaces with living things.
If it's true that the universe can be known in a grain of sand, then it can also be known through the gross -- and that's much more entertaining than staring at a tiny bit of gravel. If you resist the impulse to flinch and take the gross on its own terms, you will unlock a universe of discovery and even enjoyment.
Here are seven of my favorite gross places in America to jump start your own journey of "grossological" discovery.
Mütter Museum, Philadelphia
The nation's undisputed monarch of medical museums began with a donation from Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 1858. In 1912, the enlarged collection was moved to its present location, where it continued to serve physicians as a pathological reference collection. Today it is a monument to 19th-century medicine. Its clubby, dark wood and brass interiors practically define the steampunk aesthetic.
Within the glass cases is a Noah's ark of medical curiosities.
There is a human skull collection; examples of diseased organs, either preserved in jars or cast in wax models of remarkable delicacy. Admittedly, the collection of teratological specimens (mutants) requires a strong stomach. But even the most sensitive can enjoy the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Bodies Collection, a cabinet filled with more than 2,000 swallowed objects removed by a single laryngologist. There are also examples of tanned human skin, which has no medical value, but is totally cool.
My personal favorite is the Soap Lady, a woman whose body posthumously underwent complete saponification -- which means that all the fat in her body turned into soap. That can really happen.
The museum is open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
World's Largest Fungus, Malheur National Forest, Oregon
Don't be fooled by an ordinary looking mushroom. Beneath it broods an ancient horror that has been growing quietly for thousands of years. A Malheur National Forest cluster of Armillaria ostoyae, or honey mushroom, is part of the world's largest fungus, which engulfs 3.4 square miles -- that's 2,200 acres -- of Oregon's national parkland. This massive mushroom is estimated to weigh 7,567 to 35,000 tons, which would make it the largest living organism in the world. But that doesn't sound nearly as gross as being the largest fungus.
Now for the letdown: The bulk of this behemoth resides underground in a stringy network of roots called a rhizomorph. The only visible traces are the mushrooms that sprout in the fall. They may not look like much but once you know their dark secret, you can't help but see them in a new, sinister way.
The U.S. Forest Service website has more information about the fungus and its forest home.
Necropolis by the Bay, Colma, Calif.
In this community of 1,800 souls, the dead outnumber the living 900 to 1. Colma's demographic imbalance is the result of its unofficial role as San Francisco's necropolis. This relationship started in 1900, when land became so scarce in San Francisco that the City Council decided to remove all its dead and build on the decommissioned cemeteries.
The dispossessed dead were transferred to new digs in Colma -- for a service charge of $10 a head. Those whose next of kin couldn't come up with the cash were less ceremoniously reinterred in collective, unmarked graves. With 73 percent of its land zoned today for memorial parks, Colma is less a city than a network of roads connecting its many cemeteries. (Even the number of cemeteries within city limits is debatable, although most sources place the count at 17.)
The Colma Historical Association offers cemetery tours by appointment, and members will be happy to show you the final resting places of Wyatt Earp, Joe DiMaggio, Levi Strauss and other famous Americans who now call Colma home. Perhaps this attraction is more morbid than gross, but let's not split hairs: It's a pleasant Halloween-season outing in a beautiful part of the nation.
Indiana Medical History Museum, Indianapolis
How many medical museums are on the site of an old insane asylum? Built in 1897, the Old Pathology Building was the research wing of the Indiana State Hospital for the Insane. Physicians there studied the brains of deceased patients, trying to identify the physical causes of mental illness. Some of the more colorful diagnoses they came up with include: pathological jealousy, Mexican War excitement, religious anxiety and a little-known ailment called "husband in California."
A significant number of patients, however, suffered from general paresis, a neurological condition caused by advanced syphilis. Today, the beautifully restored museum building is a perfect replica of a turn-of-the-century pathology laboratory. You can see a sampling of gruesome medical and autopsy tools in their native environment, but, of course, the grossest highlight is the human brain collection. This consists of some 80 samples, mostly sliced in cross section and preserved in glass slides, which display various neurological injuries.
The Indiana Medical History Museum is open to the public Thursday through Saturday.