Your body is your temple, right? Wrong.
The human body is a lab, a smouldering cauldron of fluids, muscle and sinew ripe for unholy modifications, a testing ground for the darkest and utterly twisted pseudo-scientific nightmares conjured up by that darkly pit of premeditated depravity that is the human mind.
Throughout the years, film makers and literary authors have regaled us with all sorts of body-related transformations, mutations, parasitic infestations, disfigurement, physical reconfiguration, perverse warping, and a whole lot more yucky and generally nasty physiological aberrations.
What exactly is body horror?
While a precise (clean?) definition is hard to come up with, the moniker relates to that sub-genre of horror cinema that shows, usually without sparing any gory details, the purposeful experimentation, alteration, contamination, plain deformation, and ultimate destruction of the human body.
The flesh is weak, and frail. It can be easily changed and corrupted, and the movie trope of the mad scientist with a bloody white apron and a grin on his face is no longer the sole source of our deepest fears. Experimental drugs, radiation, viruses, and weird parasitic creatures spawned from a godless place all conspire to taunt our will to be scared nowadays.
Unlike other, more popular horror sub-genres such as slasher movies, body horror is somewhat more intimate. The deeply invasive nature of the procedures being performed, and the sometimes openly sexual tampering with human flesh turn the whole body horror experience into a voyeuristic tour de force.
Also unlike most other sub-genres of horror cinema, the foe is usually not an external one. Rather, it comes from within, in the form of a disease, a microbe, or a parasite that infects the body and grows into a horrendous life form, or causes the body to transform into a monstrous thing. In body horror, we become witnesses to the horrific decay and breaking down of the flesh. The body turns into a canvas to bring someone’s dark obsessions into an organic and disturbing imitation of life.
The metamorphosis of the flesh heralds a catharsis, a change, as the body turns into something new. The old you has died, and you have become a brand new self, stepping through the veil of the flesh into a new dimension of existence. Such fantasy sometimes requires the total decomposition of your old form, as seen in the much loved 1986 remake of The Fly.
Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) in 1986’s The Fly. Photo credit: Fox
Here, we see loner scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldlum at his best) slowly evolve from human to a six-feet high insectoid through the second and third acts of the movie. Such transformation begins rather subtly, with Brundle showing a curious and intense craving for sugar. Superhuman strength and agility follow, making him believe that the experience of having your body structure systematically broken down and reformed again via the teleportation device of his own invention has bestowed god-like abilities unto him.
Brundle ultimately pays dearly for his hubris, after discovering that he unwittingly became fused with a furtive common house fly at a molecular and genetic level. Brundle’s body slowly decays into a pathetic and gruesome creature with cravings that go well beyond sugar. The Brundle character represents mankind’s misguided belief that technology and ego can rule over nature and bend the laws of physics to our own advantage. But nature always finds a way of expressing its inherent superiority over man, in this case via such a lowly creature as a common fly.
The Fly also serves as a reminder that body horror victims are rarely, if ever, willing participants in the nightmare unfolding under their very skin. Extraneous sources are usually at play, whether human, supernatural, or extraterrestrial, these dark forces use the victim’s body as a conduit for their own wicked desires.
Allegories in the Body Horror genre
Body horror is sometimes an allegory to sexual frustration or repression. In 1982’s The Entity, for example, single mother Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey), begins to experience increasingly violent episodes of sexual abuse by an unseen force in her own home. Some would postulate that the entity’s attacks were a manifestation of the woman’s repressed sexual fantasies.
The link between body horror and sexual activity is a pervasive one. The Fly was released in 1986, at the dawn of the AIDS era. Many saw the movie as an allegory of the sexually transmitted disease. In David Cronenberg’s first feature film, Shivers (1975), parasites introduced into the human body induce an uncontrollable sexual appetite on the host. Bizarre sexual activity in the context of body horror is epitomised in Society (1989). This (almost) forgotten classic by American director Brian Yuzna shocked audiences by featuring a final 30- minutes long so-called ‘shunting’ scene, that can only be described as a surreal orgy of kinky, melty, oozy flesh involving the rich and famous in a private American society literally feeding on the less well-off. Society was actually Yuzna’s directorial debut, and he delivered what he set out do in spades. The movie turned out to be as much as a horrific portrayal of depraved lust as a social commentary of the stark class divide so prevalent in modern day America.
Body horror movies, or books, or whichever media it is expressed through, tap into people’s primal fear of their own mortality, and also the fear of disease, of being unclean, eliciting that feeling of helplessness that an incurable and terminal sickness may bring to its sufferer. And it’s not a subtle fear, either. There is plenty gore and explicitness in body horror experiences. Slow, graphic transformations, gaping fleshy cavities oozing unspeakable fluids, limbs becoming impossibly elongated, and much more, are common sights. The unnatural birth of the alien creature in 1979’s seminal Alien is a prime representation of one of man’s primordial fears, that of giving birth. In the movie, Nostromo’s Executive Officer, Kane, is inseminated with an alien egg when the Facehugger inserts a phallus-like proboscis into his throat. The egg gestates inside Kane’s body and eventually bursts out through his chest.
Body horror usually attempts to provide an explanation for the horrifyingly grotesque decay of the body, though this is usually a thin justification to exponentially augment the gore level. Whether the menace comes from within or from the further reaches of space, body horror shares a common goal: the utter destruction of the flesh. In 1982’s remake of The Thing, for instance, a group of scientist make the fatal mistake of allowing an extraterrestrial organism that had been frozen inside an Antarctic ice plateau for thousands of year to thaw out. Once freed from its icy prison, the creature runs amok, beginning to take over people’s bodies with its inherent ability to imitate life forms. Only sometimes, the extraterrestrial menace is interrupted mid-process, and the resulting stomach-churning monstrosity lumbers around with a mangled, perverse strut of stunted growth.
A fear of blood tends to create a fear of the flesh, some say. Body horror is the science of the insane, a kaleidoscopic circus of nightmarish visions full of gore and indelible and uncomfortable sights that will always remain off the mainstream due to its very nature. The body horror sub-genre has experienced somewhat of a revival in recent times, thanks to a new generation of film makers like the Soska Sisters, a pair of Canadian twins whose end-of-year project at film school, Dead Hooker in a Trunk, put them firmly on the horror map. They followed it with American Mary (2012), a film about a medical student-turned-body alterer for money. From the dawn of time, people have had a fascination about human flesh.
Whether it manifests in a sexual context, or pure voyeuristic enthrallment,flesh never goes out of fashion!