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.