Body Horror: How so many of the classic body horrors have become even more frightening in 2020.
As we’re now in October it makes sense for us to focus in on some horror. Of course, anyone who knows me knows that this doesn’t make an awful lot of difference to my general area of interest anyway, since horror movies are, like, my jam, man. But nonetheless, now I can talk about them with the added bonus of it also being season-appropriate, which I think is pretty cool.
So, what horror movie are we going to discuss today? Well, in actuality I don’t really want to delve deep into a specific film, but rather a specific area… let’s talk about body horror.
The term body horror is widely considered to have come from a 1983 article by film scholar Phillip Brophy, called Horrality: The Textuality of the Contemporary Horror Film. Brophy saw the term as a way to define what he viewed as a newly emerging sub-genre, but the truth is that, although the 1980s certainly did see a boom in the use of body horror as a cinematic device, the tropes of what Brophy was describing as falling under the body horror category had been around a lot longer than that.
In fact, many consider Mary Shelly’s 1818 sci-fi horror classic, Frankenstein, to be one of the earliest examples of the body horror sub-genre. The unique combination of Gothic horror and science-fiction that runs through Shelly’s novel is often cited as being the origin of the sub-genre in literature.
In film, though, many consider director David Cronenberg to be the master of body horror, with his early works including the likes of Shivers, Rabid, Videodrome, and, of course, the iconic remake of The Fly, starring Jeff Goldblum. Cronenberg’s work is certainly key to the emergence of the genre as a recognizable category in its own right, but there were trends of what one might consider body horror in early movies, especially many of the 1950s American horror scene.
What defines body horror, at least in terms of cinema, is a focus on the body itself. Oftentimes in body horror, the fear is born from within. Cronenberg’s The Fly is perhaps the purest example of this, where protagonist Seth Brundle accidentally splices his DNA with a common housefly and slowly begins to change on a molecular level into a sort of human/fly hybrid. Unlike the slasher or monster tropes of other horror sub-genres, the impact on the body in body-horror is often not as a result of violence inflicted upon the body, but from some sort of internal act, be it a disease, a mutation, or some other unnatural and violent distortion of the body.
But body horror, as much as it is about the fear of our own body turning against us, can also be used to heighten other fears as well. Most famously, Cronenberg’s The Fly is often seen as a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic of the 80s, and in this regard, it is not alone. Could it be, then, that body horror’s time to make a mainstream return is not too far off? After all, we are amid a frightening and horrific pandemic, one that has a direct impact on our bodies.
Brian Yuzna’s Society toys with body horror as an element of paranoia. The increasingly paranoid Billy Warlock throughout the film catches flashes of bodies twisted into impossible positions, while the ending – which I don’t want to spoil just here – takes the trope to its most grotesque and extreme.
Of course, John Carpenter’s The Thing also uses body horror in a similar way, contorting the human body into nightmarish and impossible creatures when each member of the team is assimilated by the titular threat. Both The Thing and Society use body horror to amplify the perceived threat of the other, while Cronenberg’s The Fly uses it to amplify the threat from within. Disease, in this sense, is a fascinating cinematic foe, as it can be both an external and an internal threat. You can fear those with the disease, or you could have the disease yourself.
Undoubtedly there will be a mass of films dealing with the pandemic. I’m certain we’ll see, for example, a spike in zombie movies. They’re cheap and easy to make, of course, but they’re also an obvious metaphor for the global horror we all currently face. But I would argue that they’re less interesting than the other possibilities.
Phillip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of the 50s classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers certainly has a body-horror element to it. The dog with a human face, for example, will haunt my nightmares until I die. But the film uses the concept of body horror to create a tale about the threat of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Carpenter’s film, The Thing, is similar, and it is interesting, to me at least, how easily the ideas present in these films – the paranoia, the uncertainty, the fear of assimilation, or of those you know and love being a threat to you – can be applied to our current situation.