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.