From the author: A conversation about body horror and othered bodies.
More Than Just Gore
On a slightly different note, we pivot from mechanics of fear and its usage in horror to an aspect oft used and just as often derided, an element of horror that feeds off the same visceral fears as gore but frequently doesn’t even include gore in the slightest. It seems that when we shift to using the base nature of our existence as a template for fear, we run into a lot of arguments that these elements are cheap and that their existence signals a lazy, uncreative attempts to shock the audience and do little more.
And what is body horror if not the perversion of the sacred nature of the body, of the self, and twisting and mutilating the very idea of what we consider to be the default or “normal” body. What is body horror if not the act of playing upon the fears of becoming something other than what you are, yourself? It belongs, wholeheartedly, to the elements of visceral fear as it slides right up next to gore in its ability to induce an reaction of aversion, rejection, and disgust.
But ultimately, body horror does not solely rely on the shifting messiness of the body nor the portrayal of “abnormal” bodies as disgusting. There lies an undercurrent of just how our experiences of ourselves and our connections to our bodies can be taken away from us, forced to act in ways we don’t want it to, forced to become part of something unappealing. The question is a matter of: why is this so unappealing? Why do we feel disgust when we view these changes? What is it that makes body horror, well, horror?
Fear of the Other
As much as I’d love to pretend that body horror isn’t used to project that some bodies are safe and others aren’t, it would be disingenuous to ignore the history it has with tying diasbled bodies to the monstrous and horrific. Horror has a long history of taking common human experiences and othering them, twisting the inherent empathy required to make horror horrific for audiences into further othering those whose bodies and experiences are not like those of the target demographic.
It’s an unfortunate, double-sided conundrum: on one hand, portraying these experiences as horrific is a sign of the inability to empathize with those whose needs are different or who might simply have an unconventional body; on the other hand, it utilizes empathy, wedging it in with how these experiences are portrayed. “Look at how different these people are,” it says. “Wouldn’t it be awful if it happened to you?”
This specific treatment largely targets those whose bodies have been othered by society, who must already endure an existence of being poked and prodded by the majority population. Disabled people and marginalized genders frequently find their bodies used by horror as a short hand for something weird, something off, something unnatural to the point of being put onto a stage and pointed at for their inherent strangeness.
Certainly, the fear of the other is not specific to body horror. Cultural differences have been used in horror’s history almost as frequently as disability has in order to provoke an audience into the horror of strangeness and an inability to see them as anything other than different.
But the experience of having an othered body, one where society at large fetishizes, commodifies, and dictates its use, is well, different than the exoticisation and racism thrown at different cultures.
And with that, we circle back around to horror’s relationship to autonomy.
How Does it Feel to Lose Control?
In recent social commentary, especially those touching upon the realities of our capitalist hellscape, horror has played around with the concept of individual autonomy and what that looks like in relationship to the technology and commodification of late stage capitalism. Which is to say, what can we expect from a world where our bodies are tied to the pursuit of capital? What say do we have in our bodies when we, ourselves, have unwillingly become the product?
And while certainly, this specific use of body horror permeates the sphere of science fiction more than it has in pure horror, the core remains the same: horror in relation to our bodies comes from a lack of autonomy, a forcible removal of our ability to say what we are and how we exist.
You don’t have to go particularly far to look at how body horror is linked with the creation of something monstrous without the consent of the individual. Whether the actual act of creation is shown or whether these monsters simply exist in the world, they’re underlined with its unnaturalness, that they don’t necessarily need to have flavour text or in-story explaining in order to elicit that sense of wrongness. But when it does, the implication is always one of a perversion, that something had been done in a way that was not intended to go; creatures formed or mutated by occult magic, human beings cut up and reassembled, consensual body modifications gone terribly wrong.
Body horror takes the very physical and innate nature of an individual’s body, of their sense of self, and removes it. It creates a sense that the physical form can be separated from the individual themselves, that they may not have total control over their physical nature despite the way they are intrinsically linked. To separate our ability to control our bodies from our “self”, to be both a person and a fleshy, meat-body, we’re brought back to this state of disgust and rejection much in the way of gore.
This idea that losing our say in what we do to our bodies is fundamental to the concept of body horror, yet it’s also a constant state of living for many, many people whose bodies are othered and marginalized by society. To those who have to live with the constant dehumanization within the medical system - whether they are disabled or are a marginalized gender - this lack of autonomy is no different than what they frequently experience by the forces of a world not built for it. Invasive medical procedures? Being poked and prodded without consent? The separation and focus on body over self?
It’s hard to love body horror as it’s been written for so long when your life mirrors it in so many ways.
To Become Monstrous
While many usages of body horror continue to malign the bodies of disabled people and marginalized genders, there’s been a movement toward embracing being monstrous in order to reclaim the experience of having an othered body. Society will continue to see us as monstrous, so why not lean into it?
It’s body horror without the nasty implications that these are inherently terrible things for the sake of being terrible, rather than within the context of living in an environment that fetishizes the other and strips the self from the body in order to view it as a curiosity. The act of reclaiming body horror is to reclaim the autonomy that is removed by placing othered bodies in the category of something to be feared or pitied; it’s to say “you can consume my innate strangeness, but only on my own terms.”
And it also helps show that body horror can be done without falling into its history of ableism, transphobia, and sexism. Body horror can exist in the extremes, without rehashing the lived experiences of fellow people as something to be feared rather than something to learn from, to improve the conditions of those lives are scary due to the overall lack of accessibility. Would being paralyzed or losing a limb still be body horror if our ability as a society to accommodate these disabilities were improved?
Which is much to say that body horror is a wonderful tool, but so frequently falls into the maligned easy shock elements that rely heavily on further othering marginalized bodies. Considering that we can draw from the many ways the human body and our autonomy over it can be abused and distorted, why settle for the ways in which very real people live? It’s one thing to say “losing the ability to walk is scary because moving around with mobility aids is scary because the world isn’t built to accommodate them or to allow them to exist without being asked invasive questions.” And it’s another thing to say “you’ve been abducted by aliens and are being used unwillingly as an incubator for their experiments.” Or “you were unwittingly chosen by an elder god to slowly transform into an eldritch monster.” Or “one day you wake up, and you’re a beetle.”
The latter is better - and scarier! - so really, why settle for further othering real, living bodies?