Body horror is undoubtedly one of the most complex horror movie subgenres. Rooted in the innate fear of meeting our demise, body horror films have played a prominent role in the expansion of practical effects and social commentary within the horror genre. Body horror can also be called “biological horror,” “organic horror,” or “venereal horror,” classified as a work of horror fiction where the horror is predominately extracted from the graphic destruction or degeneration of the body. The subgenre includes disease, decay, parasitism, mutilation, mutation, anatomically incorrect limb placement, unnatural movements, and fantastical expansion. The fear of the unknown is one thing, but when that fear lives inside of you, there’s no escaping or hiding from one’s own mortality.[caption id="attachment_15535" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Poster for 1958’s The Fly[/caption]
1958’s The Fly is arguably the film that pushed body horror into the threshold of the horror pantheon, and the films have only gotten more unsettling and graphic with its successors. Advertising with a slogan of “100 pounds to the first person who can prove it can’t happen!” The Fly took away the fear of “other” and instead rooted horror in the realm of possibility. What separates body horror from the other subgenres is perhaps theirrefutable future of destruction. Afraid of sharks in the sea? Don’t swim. Afraid of Jason Voorhees? Don’t have anything to do with Crystal Lake. Afraid of ghosts in the house? Call a priest or move. Afraid of the monster growing within you? Pray that medical science can assist you, or enjoy feeling yourself crumble to pieces. In body horror, there are no “rules” for survival. Body horror forces us into the world of the unknown, and there would appear to be no way out. In fact, most people will look to other unknowns to help with their own unknown. Religion, theoretical science, voodoo, ancient texts, astrology, and many others have all been cited as resources for those struggling with some sort of internal ailment.[caption id="attachment_15536" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Rick Baker’s phenomenal make-up work for The Incredible Melting Man[/caption]
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of body horror is that the line between victim and hero is very much often blurred. Those suffering are literally the ones to blame for their predicament. Sure, Dr. Brundle in The Fly should have double checked his Telepods before experimenting upon himself and perhaps the kids from Cabin Fever should have been a little more careful about how they dealt with the infected drifter, but do they deserve the horror inflicted upon their bodies for not being overly cautious? The idea of “coulda, shoulda, woulda, didn’t” in regard to the source of most body horror films is very reminiscent of the way we as a society deal with victims/survivors of rape. Why is it that people immediately feel bad for MacReady and the boys when they’re attacked by The Thing without ever telling them they were “asking for it” by playing with a stray animal, but at the same time we’re still seeing news reporters and politicians try and discredit rape victims and assume it was the victim’s fault? Body horror is very closely related to rape culture because it puts a mask on the violence of rape by putting it in the context of an “other worldly invasion” and makes it permissible to revel in the other person’s destruction. If we see a person raped in a film, we immediately feel a sense of sympathy, but when we see someone invaded by an alien pod or even a tree, we are filled with extreme delight. The over-exaggerated and graphic nature of body horror presents a safe distance for the audience to feel a great sense of schadenfreude.[caption id="attachment_15538" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Ripley 7 in Alien: Resurrection looking a lot like Brother Fred in Monster Man[/caption]
Body horror is a parallel to rape toys with those “infected” with the taboo subject of sometimes enjoying their transformation and again being demonized for it. Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby was actually as excited as she was naive, Ripley enjoyed using her conjoined alien DNA to her advantage in the Alien franchise, and Ginger Fitzgerald in Ginger Snaps greatly enjoyed “snapping” into a werewolf. When this happens, our sense of compassion is toyed with and often muddled within the story. How could anyone possibly be okay after enduring something like this? How could they get better? Wouldn’t it be more comfortable for everyone if they just died? — and that’s what’s really screwed up. We champion survivors, but they always seem to have that smell of tainted goods from then on. In the end the “thing” that took over the body is what becomes the defining characteristic of the victim almost to the point of overshadowing the victim. What do you remember about Dawn in Teeth other than the fact she has vagina dentata? Do you care about the demised futures of the people sewn up in The Human Centipede, or are you forever remembering them as the people forced to go ass-to-mouth for eternity? We remember all of the infected folks in Night of the Creeps, but what about their dates? Do you know any of their names? No, because they’re not important. The victim is what is important. Throw that parallel on every rape revenge movie and the picture becomes a little clearer. This isn’t trying to say rape victims “liked” it or anything like that but rather that there are plenty of rape victims who don’t allow the situation to completely destroy and ruin them. Like Ginger embracing her werewolf transformation and making it her own, there are plenty of survivors of rape who live their lives like something other than a character on Law & Order: SVU.[caption id="attachment_15539" align="aligncenter" width="307"] I’m surprised this shot from Slither doesn’t have a BRAZZERS logo on it[/caption]
Body horror also offers the most thinly veiled solution to the “invader(s)” — kill them. We kill The BrundleFly, we torch The Thing, we squash the Slither slugs, and we kill the “host” of The Brood. This, by proxy, is what also justifies all rape revenge movies. Based cinematically, rape should be a capital crime. The other undiscussed side to body horror is once something is “birthed,” the person that served as the “host” is crazy or unstable if they want to keep it alive and in their care. Madeline is seen as insane for wanting to continue to feed human blood to her baby in Grace when logical people would assume she should just destroy her. Even after knowing the truth about the child, Rosemary smiles and rocks her baby. These actions are seen as shocking and terrifying, but if a rape victim with the ability to become with child wants to rid themself* of their rape-caused pregnancy…they’re monsters. (*Day of the Woman accepts that not all people with the ability to have children are women or identify as women and are continuing to become more open and educated with identification pronouns.) What degree of ownership and responsibility is attached to Body Horror? Audiences often spend the film screaming KILL IT! KILL IT! and find people like Blair in The Thing crazy for wanting to keep the parasite alive. We as humans like to think of ourselves as the most valuable creatures in the universe, but to The Thing, we’re nothing more than a host. In the same regard, human children see “Mother” as nothing more than a host and a means of survival. That’s why most babies cling to their mother more than their fathers. It’s not a matter of preference, it’s a survival tactic. If someone implanted you with a demon baby, you’d be screaming for it to go, but if someone implants you with a rape-caused baby, you’re a demon if you don’t want to raise it. With few exceptions, there aren’t many body horror movies where society has tried to coexist with the issue.[caption id="attachment_15540" align="aligncenter" width="500"] My junior year prom date, or Three Fingers in Wrong Turn 2[/caption]
So what about victims/survivors of body horror that continue to walk amongst us? The most general way to examine these individuals is to look at mutants. Mutant horror films are just whitewashed body horror. These individuals cannot control the way that they are but because they live unconventionally and are seen as “damaged,” they are treated as lesser thans. Not exactly horror, but think about the X-Men. We’ve got people that can’t help what has happened to them and are fighting for the right to coexist with the general public. Play that card on rape victims, and their endless fight for better laws and after treatment, and it becomes clearer that we treat rape victims less like humans and more like mutants. These are people to feel sorry for and to try and “fix.” These are people who are inspiring simply for existing, or terrifying for being proud of it.[caption id="attachment_15541" align="aligncenter" width="500"] A still of Bob Costas at the Sochi Olympics…I mean Najarra Townsend in Contracted[/caption]
(IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM DO NOT READ AHEAD) What happens when we have a film that deals with both body horror and rape culture? Eric England’s Contracted shows a film about quite possibly the most terrifying disease a person can contract from sexual contact. We only assume at the end of the film she became a zombie, but what if it was something more? What if that wasn’t even her final form? At the moment of her transformation, she’s finally taking control of her life in all aspects–from her mom, her lover, her friend, but because she’s now a deteriorating mess, we’re meant to see that change as a bad thing. Much like rooting for the last man on earth in I Am Legend even though he’s the parasite to the new world, who are we to say that Samantha in Contracted isn’t now exactly who she’s meant to be? Sounds a bit like that Justin Bieber, “everything happens for a reason” quote in regards to rape, doesn’t it?[caption id="attachment_15542" align="aligncenter" width="500"] The Act of Killing was Oscar snubbed, but I promise there are reasons to live, Bio-Cop![/caption]
Rape culture is a complex thing to understand, and it will always be interpreted differently by other people. However, I firmly believe that whether infected by an other worldly creature, contracting a disease, becoming the product of an accident, or simply being born with it, body horror is an exaggerated reflection of rape culture in Western civilizations. While we may not have to worry about being implanted with pod people, we do have to worry about becoming a victim of rape. The only difference is that unlike a Pod Person or an Alien chestburster, we can’t teach these creatures to “not chestburst”; but we do have the ability to teach people not to rape.
BJ Colangelo is the woman behind the keyboard for Day of the Woman: A blog for the feminine side of fear and a contributing writer for Icons of Fright. She’s been published in books, magazines, numerous online publications, all while frantically applying for day jobs. She’s a recovering former child beauty queen and a die-hard horror fanatic. You can follow her on Twitter at @BJColangelo.