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Style: Degeneration X

Popular culture is going taboo-busting crazy. As the new millennium looms, are we too jaded to notice? By Stuart Husband
Are people driven to extreme forms of expression by the passing of millennia? The lead-up to the year 1000, according to writers of the time, was peppered with "panic terrors" at the prospect of Satan's imminent arrival, but, this time round, most of the "apocalyptic stirrings" have been split between suicide cults and practitioners of the arts, who seem to be hurling themselves through every taboo-busting barrier before the nines turn to noughts.

Take films. There's this week's concentration camp caper (Roberto Begnini's Life Is Beautiful), a forthcoming cannibalism movie (Ravenous, with Robert Carlyle), and a real sex movie, The Idiots, which director Lars Von Trier claims is the first non-porn movie in which the actors really get it on - the fact that they're pretending to have Down's Syndrome while doing so supposedly adds to the frisson. Perhaps the most shocking thing about these movies is that they don't set out to shock as John Waters' Pink Flamingos did; they just tell it like it is, in a post-Jerry Springer "We-eat-human-flesh-get-used-to-it" way. Referring to the idea that the mainstream had moved towards him rather than the other way around, Waters opined recently: "Everyone's as sick as me now", perhaps a little regrettfully.

Certainly, the mainstream now encompasses TV series like prime-time show, The Lakes, with its scenes of gang rape and dismemberment in the traditional Sunday night costume-romp slot; and the C-word, once A Curse Too Far, turns up in a future episode of Sex And The City. (The week after next if you want to set your videos.)

On the literary front, we can look forward to the paperbacks of Gordon Burn's Fred and Rosemarython, Happy Like Murderers, and Gitta Sereny's book on Mary Bell, Cries Unheard. In fiction, the heroine of Jen Sacks' Nice coolly murders troublesome boyfriends - a sort of feminist answer to American Psycho (the movie version of which goes into production this year).

Is this a pre-millennial phenomenon? Richard Landes, executive director of the Centre for Millennial Studies at Boston University thinks so: "When you approach such a significant date, future concerns drop away. There's more freedom to express things you wouldn't dare to." Novelist William Gibson takes a more dystopian view: "I think it's the desperate thrashing of a world that's lost direction with the end of what you might call the modern programme."

Of course, the public's hunger for unpalatable imagery may have as much to do with the approaching millennium as with the realisation that the public's appetite for gore and sex is keener than anyone suspected - a trawl on the internet turns up 2,053 sites devoted to necrophilia and a whopping 24,775 for incest. However, the Moral Majority may win in the end - Raoul Glaber, a monk who lived at the end of the last millennium, reported that people were so grateful not to be Armageddoned, that they donned white robes and began an orgy - of church-building.