It’s Friday the 13th! Get your creepiness on and join Acro Collective’s resident horror expert as she expertly navigates the terrifying genre and dives deep into something your editor can barely look at: body horror?!?!
The Feminist’s Guide to Horror Tropes and Genres: Body Horror
Welcome to this twisted little corner of Acro Collective, where we dissect various attributes and genres of the “scary movie” in hopes of uncovering how the aesthetics and politics of horror intermingle. But first, let’s get technical.
Series Intro: What is Horror?
If asked to define horror, we academic-types may look to ye ol’ Oxford English Dictionary for guidance. Three of the definitions found there are still in common usage:
2a. A shuddering or shivering
3a. A painful emotion compounded of loathing and fear; a shuddering with terror and repugnance; strong aversion mingled with dread; the feeling excited by something shocking or frightful. (The prevalent use at all times.)
5a. The quality of exciting repugnance and dread; horribleness; a quality or condition, and …a thing, or person, which excites these feelings
We can derive three important characteristics of horror from these entries. First, and perhaps most intuitive, horror instigates powerful feelings of loathing, fear, or aversion. Second, horror is exciting. The people, conditions or things that cause feelings of dread stir us up or unbalance our mental state. We are riled, energized, adrenalized, at the sight of the horrific. Third, horror is embodied—our physical selves react to excitation. We often shudder or shiver in the presence of horror.
Furthermore, hidden in the “obsolete” definitions of horror is another usage of the word that speaks to horror’s role in contemporary culture:
2b. Ruffling of surface; rippling.
Whereas the current definitions (2a, 3a, and 5a) speak to the affect of horror, this mysterious usage speaks the potential for horror to disrupt order in a productive way. Horror films can disturb our notions of safety, cause ripples in our faith in the human race, and reveal our monstrous natures. At their best, horror films can speak truth to power by providing new metaphors or alternative worlds that allow us to explore hegemony in our own culture.
The purpose of this series is to offer an introduction to the various complexities, controversies and dominant narratives in contemporary genres of horror film. The idea is that through parsing out the intricacies of visual horror, we can concurrently advance a discourse on recent films (or video games) that create spaces to explore female, queer, or subaltern narratives.
The History of Body Horror
Body horror—also known as biological horror or venereal horror—is a particular kind of fear or dread elicited by images that show the mutilation, degeneration or mutation of the human body. Films can contain moments of body horror—for example, when Natalie Portman’s character in Black Swan picks at a hangnail and pulls loose a long piece of skin—or they can focus specifically on a thematic exploration of human(oid) degeneration and mutilation, and thereby become a genre piece. Writer/Directors Clive Barker (of Hellraiser fame) and David Cronenberg (also known as the King of Venereal Horror, which may be the most unflattering nickname ever recorded) are widely recognized masters of body horror.
Body horror both connects us to and alienates us from our own bodies. The feelings of dread, disgust, or discomfort stem from the familiarity we feel with the subject’s body—we can, on some level, imagine the pain that our own body would go through if it was under a similar state of duress. However, it can also separate us from our bodies by making the human form seem less “human”. Body horror forces us to face the potential for our own bodies to become monstrous.
Literary predecessors for body horror film exist in historiographic depictions of war, accounts of early modern executions, highly descriptive medical treatises, and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” in which the narrator describes the instantaneous decay of a human body into a putrid puddle of mush, is an early example of body horror in the literary canon.
One of body horror’s sister genres has come to be known as “torture porn”: films that usually feature elements of torture and confinement, are often heavy moralizing (for example, the Saw franchise) and sometimes revenge-driven. The “victims” in torture porn are often thought of as deserving of punishment and their particular treatment often corresponds, somewhat poetically, to the nature of their sins. Because these films often feature the mutilation of the body, it’s no surprise that torture porn relies on body horror to deliver its scares. Even its name, torture porn, invokes the presence of bodies.
Medical horror—where the practice of deranged medicine takes center stage—is an important subgenre of body horror. Some may consider the crop of TV shows about plastic surgery that show the procedures in great detail as members of this genre. More typically, medical horror involves unnatural experimentation on non-consenting human bodies, typified by films like The Human Centipede, humans are sewn together—spoiler alert—anus to mouth.
Body Horror and Body Modification
Body modification (altering the body or its appearance) has long been a part of horror’s collection of tropes. Typically, we see body modifications—or rather people with body modifications—featured as members of “alternative” subcultures in the backdrops of club scenes in film. Their piercings, tattoos, and unnaturally colored hair signify them as societal outsiders, strange, subcultural. Our cultural both vilifies and fetishizes people with body modifications (for example, National Geographic does this by exoticizing non-Western cultures that practice body modifications like tribal scarring or neck-stretching). As more surgical forms of body modification become more visible and prevalent in the Western cultural consciousness, some filmmakers have started to imagine plastic surgery as a kind of body horror.
An episode in the first season of Darknet (a Canadian remake of Japanese horror anthology Tori Hada composed of “snippets of people’s lives being interrupted by vivid instances of unexpected violence or shocking strangeness”) features a short sequence about a breast augmentation gone wrong. At the end of the episode we see the a video of the augmentation surgery listed on the fictional “Darknet” website, neatly snuggled in between videos of acts of violence committed by characters in the show. Inadvertently, the writers insinuate that breast augmentation is somehow perverse by associating it with horrific, violent crimes such as infanticide or ax-murdering. Because breast augmentation is typically associated with femininity or femaleness, this episode of Darknet participates in the standard narrative that characterizes female body modification as immoral. Darknet presents breast augmentation as unnatural and lumps it into the same category as violent crime.
Generally, body horror assumes that the modifications (a euphemism for everything from piercings, to mouth-to-anus surgery) made to the human body take something away from the overall integrity of that body. Changes made to the human form are generally thought of as denigrations, not enhancements. But recently, that assumption has been re-examined in American Mary, Jen and Sylvia Soska’s revenge fantasy/body horror hybrid that broke serious ground by providing a space for woman-centered discourse on aesthetics, body modification and the female form.
With homage to other classic crime/horror and revenge fantasy narratives, American Mary does important new work by reframing body modification as a source of artistic expression, especially within communities of women. The film allies itself with the woman’s body and advocates for the woman’s right to pursue her own physical ideal, even when that goes against stereotypical views of “attractiveness” or compromises men’s sexual access to her body.
The film follows protagonist Mary Mason, a gifted surgical student who performs underground body modification surgeries as a way to pay her bills while finishing medical school. Through her business, Mary encounters an eccentric group of wealthy women who are part of the body mod community. Each woman is pursuing an aesthetic ideal that she feel represents her inner self.
The Soskas, who both wrote and directed the film, construct dialogue that actually explores the desires and motivations behind these women’s decisions to alter their appearances so drastically. One woman, Ruby, tells Mary that “I don’t really think it’s fair that God gets to choose how we look on the outside do you?” For Ruby and the others, body modification becomes a way for women to regain agency over their appearance. In an interview with Ariel Fisher, Sylvia Soska comments that this particular line has really resonated with the transgender community and the twins receive messages from transgender people saying that Ruby’s lines in this scene makes them feel like “I’m okay to be me”.
Ruby further explains that she’s “never had any of these surgeries to become a sexual object” but rather wants to become aesthetically beautiful without being sexualized at all—she literally wants to be a doll. Therefore, Mary modifies the commonly objectified aspects of Ruby’s anatomy—she removes her nipples and sews up her labia in order to make her seem more like Barbie doll, allowing Ruby to pursue her idea of desexualized perfection. In portraying body modification as a powerful display of agency, American Mary combats the narrative the body modification is shameful, inauthentic, or immoral.
But what makes American Mary body horror?
The elements of body horror are found in the surgical scenes, delicately shot in close-up, the body-under-operation devoid of sexual objectification. Additional horror comes from the violent encounters Mary has with men. Mary is drugged and raped when she attends a party hosted by one of the senior surgeons in the hospital, setting a revenge plot in motion that occasion scenes of torture as Mary “practices” body modification procedures on her assailant.
All of the people Mary operates on—with the important exception of her rapist—have given consent. In a world where most body horror movies show things being taken away from the human body, American Mary celebrates the additive magic of modification. Bodies are made better, more “authentic,” and more reflective of inner character though Mary’s surgeries. American Mary shows us that there is a way to make a film that revolves around women’s bodies, treats those bodies with seriousness and respect, but also delivers the same pleasures typically experiences in good old gory body horror.
Sylvia Soska has humbly described American Mary as “a little, independent horror movie that’s a character piece about a woman’s struggles in a male-dominated work place that features body modification”. For me, as a long time horror fan, this film was much more than just a character piece. American Mary allows us to reimagine body horror as a genre that is particularly capable of exploring the female experience without exploiting the female body.
It is worth noting that American Mary, by nature of its subject matter, does ask us to gaze upon the modified bodies and even if those bodies are not coded as subaltern or immoral, they are certainly seen as strange. Despite her work, Mary does not ever modify her body and she views her clients with respect, but also with clinical distance. This aspect puts the film at risk of undercutting its own progressive work by fetishizing difference.
By the third act of the film, we realize that the freedom and agency allotted to the female characters of American Mary has its consequences. Most significantly [spoilers ahead], Ruby’s husband responds to her modifications with violence. Not only does he reject his wife’s body, but he lays the blame for her transformation on the community of women who supported it—Ruby’s friend Beatrice who paid for the operation, and Mary who performed it. The control women hold over their own bodies, and their power to exercise their own desires regarding those bodies threatens male authority, or in this case, one male’s sexual activity. Issues of gender and agency in American Mary resonate with some current debates in American body politics—which to be fair, is its own genre of body horror.
Appendix: Films and Video Games of Interest
If you’re interested in checking out some body horror, here are a few films and video games to get you started. As you can imagine, this list barely scratches the surface—or should I say skin.
- Alien (1979): Ridley Scott’s classic horror/sci-fi hybrid starring Sigourney Weaver. The series screenwriter Dan O’Bannon has said that he intended the movie to attack men sexually by portraying homosexual oral rape and birth. Also, com does a nice job drawing our attention to all the penis imagery in the film, if that’s your thing.
- Contracted (2013): A young, queer woman suffers from a mysterious STD after being raped at a party. Murder and zombie transformation follow.
- Grace (2009): Vampirism, body horror, and breast feeding.
- Hellraiser (1987): Adultery, Murder, Sadomasochism, Puzzle Boxes! Classic body horror from Clive Barker.
- Teeth (2007): A darkly comedic horror film about a teenager who has teeth in her vagina.
- Bioshock: Players can equip various plasmids that disfigure the character’s body, while providing special effects.
- Far Cry series: Healing animations are graphic and could be viewed as a kind of body horror.
- Heavy Rain: There is a scene where the protagonist can be seen chopping off his own fingers.
Written by K.S.