It seems like it’s never a good time to come to terms with our own existence. Any length of time spent pondering our inception and eventual death leads to existential crisis; there are too many questions left unanswered. How did we get here? What is our purpose? Our self-awareness is equally a blessing and a curse because it allows us to try to comprehend the incomprehensible.
One of the most incomprehensible mysteries is how we are, for lack of a better word, trapped inside of our own bodies.
If we are to follow the evolutionary line, we’ll come to an understanding that we’re just reductively “fancy apes in clothes” I use this term all the time to illustrate the humour and strangeness in our basic physical form. The body, deconstructed by the mind, quickly becomes a disgusting mess of strange parts that somehow work together. There is my heart, moving blood through my veins, these are my lungs that supply the oxygen that’s needed for my brain, a mass of cells we have barely even scratched the surface of understanding. And this flesh bag we live in is so out of our control. Yes, we might walk or talk at our own command but we breathe and blink without thinking; we are helpless against assaults of bodily cycles, desires, and disease. What better genre to tackle the darkness and confusion of this than horror?
The body is the perfect setting for the most disturbing aspects of horror, and it’s what makes body horror one of the most powerful and affecting subgenres.
Body horror focuses on the damage and distortion of the corporeal form and can range from the squeamish to the fantastical. All of us have felt pain, and that’s what makes body horror so scary – we empathize most with it. David Cronenberg, the “king of venereal horror”, created a legacy of of films that tackled deep psychological issues while exploiting the flesh. His work, and the work of others in the genre, manages to say something important and meaningful while still grossing us out.
In Richard Bates Jr.’s Excision, two young women are trapped inside bodies that rebel against their normal functions and expectations. Pauline’s (AnnaLynne McCord) is greasy, acne-ridden, and awkward but her mind is what’s most out of her control. She experiences shocking sexual desires involving necrophilia, an abundance of blood, and dismemberment. Her mind crosses lines of its own accord and assaults her with graphic fantasies and distorted ideas of her own abilities and future. Her behaviour is a scream for help from deep inside of her body. In comparison, her sister Grace (Ariel Winter) is inside of a body riddled with cystic fibrosis, her lungs deteriorating at a rate that almost certainly won’t allow her to see her own graduation, nevermind her oft dreamed-about wedding day.
Though much of the conflict that occurs is outside of her – Pauline faces a cold, controlling mother, and cruel school bullies – the most powerful conflict is what’s inside her own body. Desire is a mighty force in life and sometimes even with careful training cannot be quashed. It can cause us significant pain, and as humans once one desire is fulfilled it’s not long before another takes over. It is what motivates us to move forward most effectively and Pauline is full of desires, both ones she can and can’t understand.
Excision is a very body-centric horror movie. Multiple snide comments are made about weight and body image, and Pauline’s fantasies are put on full, gory display. Her first sexual act while menstruating is a powerful transition in Pauline’s life that gives her a sense of control and the closest fulfillment of her hematomania without yet physically harming herself or another individual. It is only the beginning of her curiosity about bodies.
Pauline is fairly aware that something is wrong with her brain, and she all but shouts a request for a psychiatrist. Faced with pure helplessness about her own condition, she becomes obsessed with her sister’s illness and goes to insane lengths to save her and win the approval of her mother. Both she and her sister pay a price simply for existing in the bodies they were born into and the things that happen to their bodies. So do many others.
In 2002’s In My Skin, writer/director Marina de Van explores the concept of mutilating the body she inhabits. After suffering a fall and gashing open her leg, Esther (also Marina de Van) develops a strange fascination with her body. In House of Psychotic Women, Kier-La Janisse suggests that the wound that opens in Esther’s leg reveals who she really is, inside. This revelation sparks a stomach-turning journey of self-mutilation.
When those around her express concern for her behaviour, Esther expresses shame and anger about her actions, even though in private they give her immense pleasure. Her boyfriend Vincent (Laurent Lucas) asks her, “Don’t you like your body?” but he’s missing the point. Esther feels disconnected from her body and separate from it. This is best illustrated in a scene in which she goes on an important business dinner. Her body is beginning to revolt from the pain and stress she has been putting on it, and that morning she wakes with a sort of phantom limb phenomena, feeling like her arm is not her own. At dinner, the effect goes so far that she begins to view her arm as dismembered on the table, and begins to stab it with her knife and fork.
Giving herself over to her new habits, Esther eventually reaches an erotic state with her wounds that develop into a new form of connectedness and interaction with her body. At the height of her fascination, she even begins to collect and consume her own flesh. After a while, even with lying and staging accidents, she is unable to hide the self-inflicted injuries that cause her such pleasure and shame. She locks herself away, trapping herself even further inside. Excision and In My Skin show two disturbed women who react with their bodies and in their display of and interaction with them are seeking an escape.
On wanting to get out of bodies, perhaps the most well-known and widely-accepted real-life body horror is pregnancy and childbirth. One look at a live birth is enough to open the eyes to the inside of the body and the trauma that occurs when one is trying to grow inside of and escape another. Even though real birth is not as traumatic or extreme as body horror would present, the act itself is violent. A woman’s body is no longer her own when she carries a fetus who pulls the nutrients from her, places strain upon her shifting insides and eventually tears its way out her vaginal canal.
With all its miraculous beauty and joy set aside, childbirth is terrifying.
Besides Rosemary’s Baby, one of the most mentioned pregnancy horror flicks is Cronenberg’s The Brood, classic Canadian body horror at its finest. It tells the story of a man Frank (Art Hindel) whose wife Nola (a terrifying Samantha Eggar) is receiving intensive experimental care at the Somafree Institute. When he notices large bruises on their 5-year-old daughter Candy’s body following a visit, he becomes concerned and begins to find out what exactly is going on at the facility.
The Brood has as much to do with the mind as it does the body. Doctor Raglan (Oliver Reed) has developed an experimental treatment program called psychoplasmics that manifests mental and emotional trauma as sickening welts and growths on the body. Think of it like expelling emotional toxins from deep within. Nola is a special case kept in isolation from most visitors except her therapist who encourages her to regress to childhood and address him as abusers and participants in her life. In the end, it’s discovered that her pain is so deep and so powerful that her growths take on a life their own and mutant rage children who are awoken by her anger to do her bidding. Nola’s brood is a byproduct of her internalized rage and they match her rage in their ugliness. That is to say, tiny monsters go around murdering the people who hurt her the most.
Our mind and our bodies are deeply connected. Though none of us are growing hideous brood sacs full of rage mutants that we groom lovingly with our tongues, psychosomatic pain and illness is a very real symptom many people suffer from. Stress and anxiety cause a number of bodily disorders including ulcers, skin issues, and heart disease. How a woman feels and behaves during her pregnancy affects the body trapped inside of her. As Nola hysterically recounts, “Raglan encouraged my body to revolt against me – I have a small revolution on my hands!” but Nola doesn’t realize how much control she really has over it. Ther revolution is her own, and it will only die with her.
More recently (and more psychedelically) the brave Danny Perez feature this year, Antibirth, addresses the bodily experience of pregnancy in a new way. Natasha Lyonne plays Lou, a girl who loves to party but wakes up with more than just a hangover one morning. All signs point to pregnancy, but there’s no clear moment of conception so Lou lives in drunken denial of the state of her body.
The changes in Lou’s frame cause her a great deal of discomfort and exhaustion, no different from an average pregnancy. But something is off – Lou’s skin begins to peel from her neck, she develops enormous fluid-filled blisters, and her stomach grows gargantuan with a slithering skin. “I could really go for an out of body experience right now,” she quips, ready to burst from whatever is growing inside of her and she can’t be blamed for wanting to escape into a world of drugs and delirium. Even healthy women with traditional pregnancies seek an escape near the end from the extra weight and strain on their system. The Brood and Antibirth take creative license with the very real horror of pregnancy and bring them to a totally new level.
Lou is so adamant about not being pregnant that if we believe her, eventually we become desensitized to watching her guzzle vodka and do bong rips on her enormous baby bump. And when she finally gives birth, after her body has been battered by her drug habits and the origin of her “conception” what comes out is equal parts bizarre and scary, while still managing to draw empathy from the audience. In retrospect, her birthing scene doesn’t seem any more shocking than attending a real live one, except in what comes out of her.
Of course, not everyone faces pregnancy, but everyone faces aging and death. Most of the time it’s safe to assume we teeter from general acceptance of to abject terror about our mortality. We can’t live our lives if we’re obsessed with thinking about the end of them, but the truth is that we are all aging and part of that involves watching our bodies slow down and begin to fail.
One of the most inventive films about aging is Adam Robitel’s surprise found-footage hit The Taking of Deborah Logan. It begins as a PHD assignment documentary about Alzheimer’s, and ends up as a terrifying possession story. The first subject of this documentary is the eponymous Deborah Logan (played to great effect by Jill Larson) an aging woman descending into the depths of her disease. In order to receive some money to save their home, she and her daughter agree to be filmed by the documentary crew.
At first, The Taking is a moving depiction of the helplessness of the disease, and aims to reveal that not only does the body of the patient deteriorate, but so does the body of the patient’s primary caregiver. In this case, Sarah Logan (Anne Ramsay) exhibits the physiological symptoms of stress and a dependence on alcohol. It’s hard to watch the two of them come to terms with their situation, frequently arguing and crying between bouts of lucidity or somnombulance. At times, Deborah’s body is completely out of control because, as she puts it, her mind has decided to take a stroll. These moments are punctuated with violent outbursts; attacks on herself or others. Her horror and helplessness when discovering what her body has done without her consent is heartbreaking.
There is another in this story whose body has betrayed him. Strange circumstances bring Infamous local boogeyman Henry Desjardins into the picture. Desjardins was a pediatrician who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) a condition that weakens the muscles at a rapid pace and leads to total loss of control of the body. In order to escape his form and achieve immortality, Desjardins was completing a ritual that involved the sacrifice of five children. But he was interrupted before he could finish his last, and his spirit lives on looking for another flesh-and-bone host. When the two stories come together, Deborah’s body will be used in shocking, unforgettable ways.
People have been looking to cheat death since our comprehension of it, and it’s a recurring theme in horror cinema.
Last year, Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski hit the existential body horror sweet spot with The Void. While on duty, Daniel (Aaron Poole) comes across an injured man and rushes him to the nearest hospital. The hospital is in the process of a move, so most of its supplies are packed in boxes and the limited staff are expecting a quiet night. By the time they realize they’re trapped inside by the presence of an insidious cult they have amassed a misfit crew of grief-stricken strangers who all ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
They’re not safe inside, either. The hospital is crawling with gnarly, freakish monsters, mutations from the basement that holds the darkest secret. Dr. Powell has been hard at work down there, trying to beat death. “Losing [my daughter] compelled me to find a solution. You’ll be surprised at the things you’ll find if you go looking.” he muses, while quietly removing most of his facial skin. Motivated by grief and anger towards death, he experiments on patients to beat “nature’s futility” the cycle of life and death. But our bodies were not meant for this, and the hideous creatures are his mistakes. They want to die, but he won’t let them. They’ve all been part of his plan to defeat death and bring back those who have succumbed to it.
Both of these films revolve in some way around people who could not accept the inevitable about life: the end of it. After we have come to terms with our existence and faced the horrors of creating life, that one great mystery still remains and it seems we’ll never get to learn what happens after we die. Maybe our mortality and our lack of understanding about it isn’t that bad. Maybe it’s what motivates us to be the best we can be and achieve everything we want in the time we’re able to.
As one can imagine, thoughtful discussion around these matters brought distaste to those who shared a different point of view. Of course, without life, we wouldn’t experience its beauty, and there are many aspects of having a body that are great. Some would argue we are lucky to experience the world with five senses (six, depending on who you ask) and few can argue against the very real body pleasures that exist like sex, eating, or going down a waterslide. We aren’t required to understand where we come from or where we’re going in order to make the best of the lives we’re living today. The truth remains that life is very good and worth continuing, and without its horrors, its goodness wouldn’t be as sweet. But if we are so inclined, we should still take a good hard look at its ugly parts. This is best done through horror because it is still the genre that – at its best – allows itself to ask the hardest questions and imagine the worst possibilities while remaining self-aware.