Body Horror?

By: Amber Gustafson

When I was about 8, I was rebelliously up late at night and flipping through channels when I landed on an episode of The X-Files. It is a scene I will never forget: a portly man reclining on a couch, his stomach blown open like a crater. There was some dialogue, possibly about an alien who had used the man as a host and then hatched itself from his stomach like an egg. This moment was the start of my terror of – and fascination with – body horror.

Body horror is something that is very difficult to define, as there are many different types. Essentially, all body horror preys upon our instinctual comfort with the human body. Body horror purposefully turns our idea of what is a “physical normality” on its head – and this differentness is what terrifies. TVtropes explains it nicely: “The mind knows on a deep instinctive level that faces should have eyes and hands should not. Organs and bones belong on the inside, and parasites and circuit boards do not. Bodies should be roughly symmetrical and have logical proportions.” Thus, we get movies like Alien and The Blob – both involve body horror, but one does it by using humanoid-like creatures, in a similar parasitic fashion to The X-Files example above, in order to evoke fear and the other represents the contamination and defilement of humans. It is terrifying to have an invader in the one space each of us can uniquely call private: our own bodies.

A lot of body horror is linked to our fears of the Uncanny Valley, where something resembles humanness but there is something fundamentally wrong. A prominent example is a clown, who generally has normally body proportions but the unnatural colors and extreme facial features push it into terrifying territory. Other examples include ventriloquist dummies, dolls (such as Chucky – how can something so small be so deadly?) and zombies, who in fact seem more terrifying when they are moving (an undead rotting corpse versus a rotting corpse). Slenderman creates an image that horrifies partly because of the Uncanny Valley, with his elongated limbs and lack of facial features. Another internet terror, Jeff the Killer, similarly utilizes exaggerated facial expressions.

It is also no surprise that body horror is most effective in a visual format. One of my favorite current television shows, Hannibal, uses body horror to a different extent. The scenes of food preparation and of the characters eating Hannibal’s meals are crafted as if they came straight from a cooking show on the Food Network. Part of the terror and discomfort is that we, the audience, are enticed by and hunger for food that we know is human flesh. In effect, we are devouring ourselves. John Carpenter’s The Thing is another classic of the body horror genre. It is not only gory but uses anonymity and imitation to invoke fear; The Thing preys on the idea that our bodies are not special, and they do not even belong to us.

Another medium that makes great use of body horror is the graphic novel. One of my favorites is “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” by Junji Ito, one of the forerunners in horror manga, which begins with human-shaped holes suddenly appearing on the side of a mountain. “Black Hole” can also be categorized as body horror, as the sickness that spreads through the teen population manifests physically, sometimes to the disfigurement of the individual.

The caution I have with body horror is that it is somewhat ableist in nature, and can very easily ostracize and victimize those with different bodies – possibly because they were born with bones in different places or formations, they were involved in an incident that left them with a different physical appearance, they have had one or more limbs amputated, or they behave differently. Body horror’s use of fearing those who are “different” is also similar to the roots of racism. However, I think if a new unit in the course focuses on body horror, it should acknowledge these facts and carefully select stories which stray away from creating this negative connotation.


6 thoughts on “Body Horror?

  1. Your closing argument is interesting in that in every day life people tend to shrug away from those who are physically abnormal, and we continue to use body abnormalities to scare in horror films. As you have explained, it is an entire genre in the horror world. I agree with you, why should physical abnormalities be considered a less sensitive topic than the color of our skin? Movies like “The Hills Have Eyes,” use characters with physical abnormalities that are too close to circumstances many people suffer from in reality. Perhaps we should be aware of this and stray away from using this as a way to scare people in order to avoid perpetuating this fear of people who just look a little different.

  2. I agree with your closing argument completely. It is important to remember that while the body horror exhibited in films and stories are created by professional make up artists and graphics, people born with abnormal bodies appear all the time, and are in fact only considered to be abnormal due to our society’s need to categorize and define what’s ‘right’. This current season of American Horror Story is also utilizing body horror in the theme of Freakshow and interestingly enough many of the characters are actual people who were simply born that way.

  3. This is a very interesting blog post which actually made me realize something about myself and my own boundaries when it comes to horror. I can deal with many gruesome things, but as soon as there’s something too far with the human body I can’t do it. When I was lounger, I could stomach just about anything in the genre, but now I cannot. The way you formed the argument in your post made me realize that it is my own vision of my gruesome dislocating kneecap that haunts me and leaves me unable to deal with these body horrors. These was a very interesting blog post, and I liked the way this idea of horror was brought up, since it’s not really an idea which we’ve discussed in class in too much depth.

  4. This was an extremely well developed, organized and clear post that I very much enjoyed reading. I agree that there is definitely a peculiar intrigue to this genre of horror. I also think it is one of the more obvious kinds of horror (aliens, monsters, etc) that appeals to us particularly when we are younger. The physical monstrosity is easier to see, naturally, and therefore takes less interpretation. I am very glad that you included the last paragraph, since this is my reservation about body horror as well, that is, that it can cross over into reality as well and apply to humans with deformities. It has done this in the past.

  5. I loved all the examples you gave of the Uncanny Valley. I’ve never heard of that term before so it cool there is an actual term used for that particular scare. I think horror is just any deviation away from the normal. If it deviates but is not completely scary, it is still unsettling for us and makes us uncomfortable. Body horror adds discomfort and fear in many stories, without it stories would lack detail in my opinion

  6. I never really thought of body horror before reading this post, but I now understand that it is a large part of horror. Your closing argument about horror using the differences some people may have as a feature with which to scare other people, and in turn is making fun of those people, is completely valid. It is the same with what Gina mentioned in class the other day, that mental illness is present in a lot of horror stories, but that doesn’t do anything to help those who have mental illnesses. Instead it sometimes diminishes the reality of they have to live through everyday. It is true that some horror stories use these abnormalities that people may have for their advantage, and while it does add to the horror, it does not need to exaggerate it at other people’s expenses.

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