The flesh is evil and must be punished! Your guide to body horror from page to screen

By Steve Balshaw, Grimm Up North

Grimmfest Film Programmer Steve Balshaw offers a quick guide to Body Horror, ahead of next weekend’s horror extravaganza.

A few months ago, I was sent a review copy of The Mammoth Book of Body Horror: Twenty-Five Stories of Transformation, Mutation and Contagion, an excellent and comprehensive compendium of corporeal chillers, edited by those master anthologists Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan.

A series of side-tracks, digressions and distractions meant that I never actually did get around to writing the review, for which I owe both authors a sincere apology, and a bit of positive publicity here. Because it really is an excellent and astute collection, one that nobody interested in horror fiction should be without.

And also, as Grimmfest looms on the horizon, with several fine examples of Body Horror set to screen, it set me to thinking…

Body Horror did not begin with the films of David Cronenberg. Indeed, it did not begin in film at all. The body has been a more or less constant theme in stories of horror and the supernatural since the very earliest days of fantastic fiction.

This is logical enough. Our fears are very much tied up in our sense of mortality, of physical vulnerability. Our bodies are fragile things, easily damaged. And even if we look after them, they still deteriorate, fail, collapse, die, and rot.

Adding to these fears is the influence of Western religion, which does not merely emphasise the spiritual over the physical, but often to the exclusion of it: Flesh is not simply weak and fallible, it is bad; sex and sexuality and the life of the senses, all of them are BAD.

Death, sex, spirituality. Fertile ground indeed for any writer, and pretty much the basis for all tales of terror.

In which case, all horror might ultimately be classed as body horror of one kind or another. Certainly many of the archetypal monsters of myth and legend, of horror fiction and cinema – Zombies, Ghouls, Vampires, Werewolves, even the Mummy – have as their basis some element of fear or revulsion at the body and its processes.

And then there is the Frankenstein Monster: Stitched together from corpses, animated by electricity, it has kinship with the Mummy and the Zombie – all three are creatures of dead flesh, be they reanimated by ancient Egyptian curse, Voodoo, or Bad Science.

But the Mummy and the Zombie, at least in their original literary incarnations are mindless; vehicles of vengeance for some controlling master. Frankenstein’s Monster is sentient; possessed of intelligence and feelings, and demanding the right to love and companionship, the right to be considered human.

But he is entirely sociopathic.

He demonstrates all of the worst aspects of humanity, without the benefits of a moral education, without the grace of a soul. Mary Shelley’s original novel was born out of the anxieties of the Romantic Era, as scientific discovery undermined long-held religious certainties.

If a frog could seemingly be partially reanimated by an electrical current, then perhaps the same is true for a human being. And if so, what separates us from the animals; from what Tennyson would later term “Nature, red in tooth and claw”? What is it that truly makes us human?

Shelley sought to explore such questions; to examine the existential and spiritual concerns of her age. In chronicling the creation and vengeful actions of a reanimated body, possessed of intelligence and will but soulless, she was dramatising that conflict between the corporeal and the spiritual that so often seems to trouble Western religion.

Frankenstein is thus a primary text in the evolution of the “Body Horror” genre. Arguably the first science fiction novel, as well as the first real horror novel, it is certainly the first novel to link horror to science; the first narrative in which Man plays God and unleashes something monstrous.

And it ties Body Horror, from the very first, to Bad Science. This will prove to be a recurring theme.

There is a direct line from Frankenstein through Lovecraft’s Herbert West, Reanimator, to such recent cinematic fare as Splice, with its genetically-engineered creature. Along the way, Bad Science spawned the vampires in Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, the zombies of George Romero’s Night of The Living Dead, and much of the horrors in the work of David Cronenberg.

By a strange quirk of fate, the same Swiss holiday that spawned the Frankenstein monster also produced the first literary vampire, Dr John Polidori’s Lord Ruthven.

I have written at length in a previous blog about Vampires, and in particular Dracula, so I will not repeat myself here.

Suffice it to say that the vampire is often a personification of Bad, Dangerous Sex. Ruthven, Varney, Dracula, Lestat, even Edward in Twilight – all personify sexual threat, and underlying that, fear of the flesh. Body Horror, in short.

The archetypal vampire narrative involves innocence seduced and transformed; made into something “other”. The vampire is a folk demon born out of fears of sexual awakening.

The werewolf archetype has similar subtexts. The traditional werewolf is male, often born of rape, as in Guy Endore’s classic The Werewolf of Paris (and as cheekily referenced in another of this year’s Grimmfest films, the droll Spanish horror comedy Attack of The Werewolves / Lobos de Arga).

His wolfish characteristics begin to manifest themselves, naturally, when he hits puberty, turns hairy, and has increasing trouble controlling his appetites. The symbolism is fairly obvious.

In recent times, via Angela Carter’s reworking of “Little Red Riding Hood” in The Company of Wolves, Alan Moore in the Swamp Thing story “The Curse”, and the Ginger Snaps trilogy of films, the werewolf has become an increasingly female archetype, allowing for much play on the word “curse”, and the believed connection between the lunar cycle and the menstrual cycle.

But whether the werewolf be male or female, the fear underlying it remains the same: a fear of sexual maturity, of the bodily transformation wrought by puberty, and the confusion of emotions and passions that come with that transformation.

This sense of discomfort with one’s own body, which most people experience at some point, particularly during puberty, is the cornerstone of all contemporary Body Horror. It can be fear of change, whether it be wrought by puberty, disease, the ravages of age. Or it can be simple self-loathing writ large.

It can be born from a troubled or abusive childhood, or it can be spawned by the endless images of physical perfection that bombard us all every day in films and on TV, from advertising billboards and the covers of glossy magazines.

For most of us, it remains at best a nagging little fear; an anxiety left over from spotty adolescence. But for others it can be all-consuming, pathological.

Body Horror can become a medical condition. Anorexia nervosa, which can lead young people, usually women, to quite literally starve themselves to death, is perhaps the most familiar example.

But there is also a lesser known condition called Body Dysmorphic Disorder – a mental illness in which a person becomes unnaturally obsessed with a perceived physical defect.

The result can be an addiction to ever more intrusive plastic surgery, as each procedure fails to rectify the imagined problem. Both Michael Jackson, with his endless facial reconstructions and the French porn star and Eurotrash presenter Lolo Ferrari, with her grotesquely outsized breast implants have at different times been suggested to have been suffering from Body Dysmorphia.

Those of you wondering just how far someone suffering from this affliction might go to satisfy their obsessions might like to check out Andy Stewart’s troubling and darkly humorous short film Dysmorphia, which has its world premiere at Grimm’s Preview Night at the Stockport Plaza on Wednesday October 3. It’s… extreme.

Ironically, though he is usually seen as cinema’s greatest proponent of Body Horror, David Cronenberg’s films actually have a more ambiguous attitude to the body.

On the surface, he seems simply to be offering inventive new takes on well-established and all-too-familiar Fear of Sex / Terrors of The Flesh tropes.

Consider the parasites in Shivers / They Came From Within, that send people sexually insane; the skin graft in Rabid, that transforms Marilyn Chambers into a reluctant sexual predator (The casting of porn star Chambers, at the time something of a poster girl for sexual liberation, only serves to underline the film’s deep-rooted sexual anxieties); or Jeremy Irons’ twin gynaecologists in Dead Ringers, convinced that women’s bodies are “all wrong”.

And yet coupled with the anxiety is a fascination and an excitement at the possibilities of mutation, of the transformation and evolution of the body. Think of Jeff Goldblum gleefully chronicling his own evolution / degeneration in The Fly, or James Woods’ final defiant words, even as he commits suicide at the end of Videodrome: “Long live the New Flesh!” There is always something celebratory, too, in Cronenberg’s body horror. Transformation is fetishised, eroticised.

As the body changes, new possibilities can arise, many of them sexual.

Which brings us to Clive Barker. Barker, too, offers a more ambivalent Body Horror, wherein physiological transformation is often actively sought, be it consciously or subconsciously.

The “Books of Blood” which first brought him to public attention are presented as stories carved into the living flesh of a young boy.

His seminal horror film Hellraiser seems at first to be an updating of the myth of Pandora’s box, offering a particularly disturbing exploration of that old adage “be careful what you wish for”. But is significant that the sadistic flesh-sculpting Cenebites are described by Pinhead, their leader, as: “Explorers in the further regions of experience. Demons to some. Angels to others.”

Because the experience they offer is indeed what some have wished for, though perhaps in a far more extreme form than anticipated. It hardly needs pointing out that the world depicted in Hellraiser clearly has its roots in the S&M subculture.

But the figures of the Cenebites themselves seem born of the rather more extreme sub-subculture of Body Modification.

All of which leads rather too neatly to the latest gory slice of body horror making shockwaves around the cinematic world, and having its Northern Premiere at Grimmfest: Jen and Sylvia Soska’s darkly funny and at times deeply disturbing dissection of the cult of beauty, cosmetic surgery addiction, body image and body modification, American Mary.

Combining the visceral physicality and ambivalent perspectives of Cronenberg or Barker, with a kind of raised-eyebrow archness and cold-eyed camp grotesquerie worthy of John Waters, and featuring a stunning, emotional powerhouse performance from Katherine Isabelle, already a Body Horror icon from the Ginger Snaps films, it tells the story of impoverished medical student Mary Mason, who gets pulled into the shadowy underworld of illegal body modification surgery after she performs a few questionable procedures for a local mobster.

The Soskas know their stuff.

The film explores every aspect of body horror head on: sado-masochism, fetishism, physical transformation, fear of sex, discomfort with one’s own appearance, loss of control. It might almost serve as a primer for a whole subgenre. (Together Paul and Marie’s anthology, of course.)

If you want to discover all of the ills that flesh is heir to, this is a very good place to start.

Just remember: that bump you hear in the night, that jolts you out of sleep, and keeps you awake and afraid, might be the thump of your own heart, the beat of your own pulse. And if so, there is nothing you can do. That horror is there to stay.

Sweet dreams.

To make sure you don’t miss any of the body horror, get your festival pass for Grimmfest 2012 here:

To keep up to date on this story and many others, follow Mancunian Matters on Twitter and Facebook.

Related Articles