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.

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Haunted Houses?

By: Gina Brandolino

I think my favorite kind of horror story is a ghost story, and of ghost stories, I like those about haunted houses the best. (Indeed, as I type this, I have just finished watching a trailer my former student Josh Kim sent me for the new movie The Conjuring.) I have long wondered if there is a way to make a unit for this course that is made up of just stories about haunted houses–what that unit would query; what it would reveal about how horror in general, and haunting in particular, works.

The list below of possible texts for this unit includes many stories I have taught in this course in the past or am teaching right now; it also includes one story I have avoided for a while because I know it will scare me.  Can you recommend others?

  • The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson, a book I have been too terrified to read my whole life (and I haven’t seen the movie, either), though I now own it and am working my way up to it.
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, a story about a ghost hunter who convinces some people to inhabit a haunted house so that he can study it with their help.
  • Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screwin which a young governess is the sole witness to two ghosts, if we believe her story.
  • “Stone Animals” by Kelly Link, recommended to my by my friends Ray McDaniel and Perry Janes. The house is definitely a problem in this story, but then so are the hundreds of rabbits that turn up in the front yard and just stare at the house every night.  Just stare!
  • The great novel Beloved by Toni Morrison.  One might argue that calling this a story about a haunted house minimizes the important cultural and historic messages it conveys, but I think the haunting is one of the ways–indeed, perhaps the single-most important way–the novel conveys these messages.  And it’s just a great book; it’s hands-down my favorite novel.
  • Orphanage, a fantastically creepy Spanish film about a haunted orphanage which has the most delightful ending I have ever encountered in any horror story.
  • Poltergeist, the fantastic film featuring the Freeling family–and especially Carol Anne, the youngest daughter who is abducted by spirits and held captive in the bowels of the house.
  • The short poem “Schizophrenia” by Jim Stevens, in which a personified house seems to take on the characteristics of its dysfunctional family.
  • I think it might be nice to spend some time looking at stories collected by ghost hunters in this unit, too.  I am sure there are lots of sites one could visit, but the one I am most familiar with is Allegheny Mountain Ghost Hunters, which I found thanks to Laurel Johnson Black.

Natural Horrors?

By: Gina Brandolino

This is one of the ideas I’ve been tossing around for a potential new unit in future versions of this course.  All the stories somehow implicate nature as a sinister force, be it in the form of animals or insects, or landscape itself. This unit would allow me to work in a lot of stories I have had a hard time finding a place for in the past, and it would also maybe help scratch the itch of students who have asked for more horror stories involving wilderness.

Below are my ideas so far for potential texts for this unit; I welcome more suggestions or ideas about how to refine the unit!

  • Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, about a town plagued by incredible numbers of viciously aggressive birds.
  • The short story “The Damned Thing” by Ambrose Bierce, recommended to me by Alex Tobar, who took this course in Winter 2013. This story involves an inquest into the death of a man who appears to have been killed by an invisible feral beast.
  • The short story “Death by Landscape” by Margaret Atwood (from Wilderness Tips), in which a young girl is apparently swallowed up by the wilderness at summer camp.
  • The short stories “The Snail Watcher” and “The Quest for Blank Claveringi” by Patricia Highsmith (from Eleven, recommended by my friend Troy Cummings), both of which, improbably, are horror stories about snails! Troy, by the way, has an excellent early reader series about monsters!
  • The classic film Jaws, which features a shark that terrorizes vacationers and then those who seek to destroy it.
  • The short story “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” by Stephen King (from Skeleton Crew),
  • The blog Ted’s Caving Page (recommended by my former student Josh Kim), in which spelunkers encounter something mysterious and horrifying in the bowels of a cave.