Body horror is usually discussed in tandem with directors like David Cronenberg, Clive Barker, and John Carpenter. Body horror is defined by the Collins Dictionary as “a horror film genre in which the main feature is the graphically depicted destruction or degeneration of a human body or bodies.” John Carpenter’s 1978 The Thing is a prime example, as an alien parasite takes over a group of human bodies. The parasite stretches, rips, and destroys the group one by one, rendering their bodies into something totally unrecognizable. Other examples are The Fly, Videodrome, and Alien.
But body horror doesn’t always have to be about such intense and graphic depictions of the ruined body. Yorgos Lanthimos depicts a different kind of body horror in his film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer. His body horror is more controlled – instead of bodies falling apart into bloody piles, the bodies of Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy) fall apart in a predicted and methodical way. The horror comes from the inevitably of this decay, the medical solutions used to try to solve the decay, and the brutality of its solution.
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.
Good horror television is difficult to come by these days. Sure, there is the exploitative and ridiculous American Horror Story, but not many that rely on a slow, atmospheric pace that creates thick-as-fog tension like AMC’s, The Terror, whose finale aired last week. The Terror introduces a new type of horror television, one that is disgusting, devastating, and thoughtful. It marries the supernatural with the potential of a desperate and terrified man, to create a freezing tapestry of unspeakable horrors.
Based on the 2007 novel by Dan Simmons, The Terror follows the failed Franklin expedition made up of two ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, from 1845 to 1848. Led by Captain Sir John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds), their mission was to trek into uncharted Arctic territory in search of the Northwest Passage. However, Sir John was perhaps not the best choice for this journey, and his poor decision making leads to the ships becoming trapped in ice. What comes next is the slow unraveling of the ship’s crews and leadership, with help from a strange polar bear with a human face called Tuunbaq and something very wrong with their food supply.