In David Lynch’s quintessential feature film, Eraserhead, a young man is faced with something both horrible and inescapable: his own impending fatherhood. And he doesn’t just become the father to any child, but to a mutated creature with a long, giraffe-like neck and skin that glistens as if covered in something akin to a mucous membrane. It has bulbous eyes, a face like a salamander, and a body that is never seen, hidden beneath taught bandages of swaddling. It groans, it screams, and it shrieks into the days and nights. It even refuses all food, haunting the young man, Henry, until he is compelled to kill it with his bare hands. But what is it that makes this child so particularly grotesque? It is unnatural, practically inhuman, and it defies all natural laws of what we believe human bodies to be.
But then, what about that is particularly scary or, perhaps, why does an unfamiliar body upset us? The Oxford English Dictionary defines “body horror,” a subgenre of horror film, as “horror elicited by the depiction of destruction or disfigurement of the human body,” but I like the Wikipedia definition better: “Body horror, biological horror, organic horror or visceral horror is horror fiction in which the horror is principally derived from the unnatural graphic transformation, degeneration or destruction of the physical body. Such works may deal with decay, disease, parasitism, mutation or mutilation.” So what does body horror say about how we view the human body? Why are our own bodies scary, and why is their potential mutation and destruction able to be exploited to incite fear and terror in us, other than for the obvious reason that it just looks, well, horrifying? I believe we fear our bodies, even hate them, because our physical forms are a constant reminder of our mortality. “Contemporary horror films play on the fear….of one’s own body and its potential destruction” (Ronald Allen Lopez Cruz). Body horror exploits our fear of our flesh, which will soon rot and decay and cease to exist.
“One of the most incomprehensible mysteries is how we are, for lack of a better word, trapped inside of our own bodies” (Becky Belzile). Being born into this world, as a consciousness trapped in a prison of flesh and forced to exist, is not something we chose; it is something that many of us even revile. How have you learned to cope with your own existence? Some simply embrace it and find peace with it, most of us indulge in fleeting material distractions, and others are depressed, sharing absurd, nihilistic memes on the internet. The fact is that as soon as we are born we begin our slow march towards death. Well, ok, that isn’t necessarily true – but maybe you’ve heard someone say it before. Even though we don’t really begin to age negatively until our mid-twenties, as we eventually draw nearer to old age our bodies become something we no longer recognize; twisting, contorting, and sagging in unfamiliar ways. What’s more, we live in a culture that deeply despises and fears the natural effects of aging, selling us age-defying beauty products and cosmetic trickery, punishing those whose superficial aging process becomes too overt, and putting emphasis on the radiance of our youth. My parents, both of the “baby boomer” generation, joke to each other that all they have to do these days to get by is avoid looking in a mirror. We fear our skin, we fear ourselves, and we fear death. We fear mythic critters that go bump in the night, but even more so we fear what is real. Existing in a body with its own expiration date is a horror movie all on its own.
Director David Cronenberg calls the human body “the first fact of human existence.” One of the most influential horror directors alive, with his name attached to infamous works of guts and gore such as The Fly, Videodrome, and Scanners, the name Cronenberg has become practically synonymous with body horror itself. Cronenberg says writing horror as a young kid helped him grapple with ideas of death, and he has used body horror in his feature films to deal with mortality and what happens to the human body. Cronenberg’s blood and pustules may be stomach-churning, but one thing they certainly aren’t is devoid of all intelligent thought; “The physicality – and mortality – of our bodily existence as human beings who sense, think, and act in this world is at the centre of Cronenberg’s philosophical filmmaking” (Generic ‘Wrapping’ of Philosophy). Cronenberg even sometimes refers to his films as “existentialist dramas” instead of horror movies, existentialism being the philosophy centered on the analysis of existence; with humans finding self and the meaning of life through our own choices.
Indeed, it can be noted that there is a disparity between traditional existentialist beliefs and Cronenberg’s own, namely that “whereas existentialist philosophy regards the human body as a stable basis for our being in the world, Cronenberg tends to see the body as something ephemeral, as material flesh which may be sculpted in numerous ways” (Generic ‘Wrapping’ of Philosophy). For David Cronenberg, the metamorphosis bodies endure is simply material, pure matter engaged in ongoing change, but Cronenberg’s flesh is also a metaphor for the sensuality of thought, and you can’t have thought without a body. This idea then connects back to the one that “the body is the first fact of human existence,” and body horror encapsulates our anxieties about the human condition. In the end, the flesh children of body horror films almost always succumb to grisly deaths through their appalling transformations. The time-related changes in our bodies are, ultimately, the harbingers of our own demise.
Furthermore, as time changes our bodies, so do perceptions on how our bodies should be perceived sensually. Contorted, mutating flesh in horror films is often meant to be erotic as well as horrific, which quite clashes with societal views towards bodies changing and becoming less- than-desirable physically. This brings me to discuss the sensuality of bodily change, as well as the sensuality of horror itself. There is a present sexual subtext to horror films if not always the most obvious for the average movie-goer, but you can’t look a scantily-clad girl dressed in blood and the dregs of an intestinal tract, clutching a shotgun to her chest practically pasted on with the words “Obvious Phallic Symbol” and tell me that it’s not supposed to spark your subconscious in more ways than one. No, horror has always been sexual; for example, through the oft-used “Final Girl” trope, a character in a horror film, typically a conventionally attractive, young woman, is the last to survive whatever terrible monster or man has set out to kill her and her friends and is, almost always, the one to destroy it.
But the “Final Girl” is, perhaps, a more understandable and easy-to-swallow example of sexuality in horror. In the film From Beyond, a pair of scientists develops a machine that so severely stimulates the pineal gland that a disgusting, phallic-looking worm emerges from one’s head in order to satisfy intense sexual desires. In Cronenberg’s Videodrome, an otherworldly television program intent on controlling humans opens up a gaping orifice in a man’s stomach, in which it can physically insert videotapes into him as to better control him. And though more a critique on class war, the film Society features an upper-class alien sex cult comprised mostly of older adults, feeding off lower-class human beings by ensnaring them, then literally sucking the life out of them by warping their victims’ flesh with their own and with one another in a murderous orgy.
Death and aging surely can never be sexual; think of the way we treat women of a certain age, especially those who work in entertainment and media, who are no longer seen by the masses as sexually desirable. Perhaps the degenerating flesh of Cronenberg and others is horrifying to us merely because we cannot think of anything less sexually gratifying than a body that does not look like how we have been taught it should, doesn’t appear as what we’re told should be most pleasurable to us. Are body horror creations upsetting to us in more ways than just stating that they are hard on the eyes? Because the question remains, why are they ugly? In turn, are aging bodies an anti-stimulant because they are simply “unattractive,” or because they remind us that we are going to die?
In reminding us of our mortality, and the physical and mental journey we must take on the path towards making peace with our fate, body horror also tackles the struggles of a mortal acceptance head-on; of finding a way to control death itself. Many body horror films portray characters that seek a means of literally escaping death through extreme methods of scientific enlightenment, such as with the films Re-Animator and The Void. In The Void, a doctor gone mad by the death of his daughter seeks a means to beat death through not only the formation of a cult, but through the creation of freakish, gnarled humans; patients that have been experimented on by the doctor in his quest to find a way to beat “nature’s futility,” and transcend him of his own. In Re-Animator, a strange young medical student becomes determined to create a serum that, when injected, can give dead organic matter new life – literally. When he succeeds in creating his serum, those brought back to life are practically born anew, becoming quite monstrous and inhuman.
Still, as with the doctor from The Void, the medical student in Re-Animator becomes mad with the desire to find a way to cheat death. Both are men of science yet both are incapable of accepting the inevitability of life and believe that they can beat it through tangible science, and/or higher states of being, as with The Void. It is the inability to accept mortality and what is known to us about our organic bodies that drove the characters in these movies to violate nature, for they believed violating what we deem as natural could somehow be perfected through the unnatural. Of course, the same outcome was eventually met by both characters; death always claims victor, and Mother Nature cannot be outfoxed. But controlling death is not an outlandish subject matter in real life. As consciousnesses trapped within physical forms, some of us dream of transcending our physical selves and reaching higher understanding, even immortality; maybe attempting to cheat death through scientific pursuits (what’s the word on the next berry with an unpronounceable name found in the Amazon rainforest, that can give you a youthful vigor and improve your health, maybe even extend your life by a few years?). These desires to do so always come back to the fact that we are afraid of existing within vessels that will decay, which leaves many of us wondering our whole lives where our consciousnesses will go after our bodies are gone.
Conversely, one could go a step further and argue that body horror does not scare us by exploiting our fear of death, but by simply exploiting our fear of what is abnormal. Disability’s typical placement in film has been viewed by some as narrative supplement, portrayal in a way that ends up being “one of the quickest paths to critical acclaim for an able-bodied actor,” in that playing a physically disabled character often “shore[s] up a sense of normalcy and strength in a presumed-to-be-able-bodied audience” (Sally Chivers and Nicole Markotic). Some argue that many presented “positive” representations of the disabled in film actually do more to hinder these marginalized people than it does to help them, creating a farcical narrative of heroism rather than true normalcy and, in turn, even ostracizing them further. David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man about the real-life Joseph Merrick who lived in the early 1900’s with a grotesque facial deformity, tells an embellished tragedy of his life from freak-show peculiar to truly civilized man, in a way that supposedly empowers him and his memory. Nevertheless, for disability studies & culture critic Paul Darke, “not only does the film of Merrick’s life distort the facts of his experience within an incarcerating medicalized view of monstrous oddity, but the production objectifies his image in a freak show-like spectacle of difference for the titillation of its viewers” (David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder).
At the end of the day, these “uplifting” stories of physical disability are simply fodder for able-bodied audiences. These audiences can then go home happy, giving themselves a pat on the back believing that they finally understand the plights of a marginalized people without truly understanding them or helping them. In the case of The Elephant Man Joseph Merrick’s depiction as a ghastly-looking monster but deep down, a soft, civilized human being, only serves to allow able-bodied audiences the ability to swallow down the simple pill that those who are disabled in real-life are not monsters; they were just people all along, didn’t you know? But it is the fact that Joseph Merrick must be shown as monster first, human second, no less only “becoming civilized” through the teachings of someone who is a “true human;” easy on our eyes, and able-bodied to boot, which does nothing to help abate the stereotype that disabled bodies are freaky.
So, perhaps body horror scares us for the simple fact that body abnormalities scare us and have always scared us. In fact, from the mid-1700s until the 1970s, certain countries and individual cities had something known colloquially as “ugly laws,” literally deeming it illegal for “any person, who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or deformed in any way, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, to expose himself to public view” (Gary L. Albrecht). What better way to exploit our fears than to exploit our prejudices too? In this way, one could claim that body horror is actually morally superior to many supposed positive representations of disability in film. Films like The Elephant Man use schmaltz and a false narrative of heroism to prioritize the feelings of an able-bodied audience over those of the real people being portrayed, as if goading bodies that fit the standard of true normalcy into a phony and self-serving sense of open-mindedness is more important than authentic representation. Body horror exploits its audience’s fears and, in turn, its prejudices, exposing the ugly truth that lies underneath these false narratives.
Horror is often viewed as “the moron’s genre;” that horror films, in particular, are the most bereft of substantial nuance or provoking thought than other genres of film; that being scared is not worthy of being seen as intelligent. But horror has proven time and time again that it is far more psychologically and emotionally resonant than it is given credit for, and body horror is, perhaps, one of the most subtextually nuanced of all the horror subgenres. We are too accepting of the fact that body horror is simply gross and scary; that the body-invading, body-mutilating alien in John Carpenter’s The Thing exists as nothing more than gratuitous violence and jump scares; that horror does not have something of value to tell us. Most of us may never prod further as to why the destruction and disfigurement of our flesh is so upsetting to us as the status quo, and whether or not it is actually acting by way of a metaphor. How could idiotic horror films be trying to say anything to the masses other than “Boo!”?
From death to disfigurement, it seems the only way we can ever truly accept our flesh is by never aging or dying, never existing with any physical or mental ailments and, of course, existing that way forever. But we are, in fact, abundantly aware that our bodies are the source of our eventual non-existence, the reason that our consciousnesses will someday enter the unknown and be released from the mortal coil. The demented bodies of horror eventually yield to a grisly demise as will we, our old bodies warped, our faces unrecognizable from who we used to be, unable to escape the impending fate brought upon us from birth. To experience a body horror film is to subconsciously understand that the horrific transformations of the horror flesh will eventually be thrust upon us, albeit in more realistic ways, all the while allowing us to succumb to our underlying prejudices. What the genre of horror does to us is allow us to face our uniting fear of death by means of enjoyable, safe entertainment; what body horror does to us is allow us to face our fear of ourselves.
Albrecht, general ed. Gary L. (2006). Encyclopedia of disability. Thousand Oaks [u.a.]: SAGE Publ. pp. 1575–1576.
Belzile, Becky. “Body Horror and the Horror of Having a Body.” Bloody Disgusting, 7 Dec. 2017, bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3473054/body-horror-horror-body/.
Chivers, Sally, and Nicole Markotic. The Problem Body: Projecting Disability on Film. The Ohio State University, 2010.
Cruz, Ronald Allen Lopez. “Mutations and Metamorphoses: Body Horror Is Biological Horror.” Journal of Popular Film and Television, vol. 40, 13 Dec. 2012.
“Generic ‘Wrapping’ of Philosophy.” Micropolitics of Media Culture: Reading the Rhizomes of Deleuze and Guattari, by Patricia Pisters and Catherine M. Lord, Amsterdam University Press, 2001.
Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. University of Michigan Press, 2008.