Body horrors grow on you. I know, I know, that’s a terrible pun to start off with. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, ever since I wrote this post in which I described the Eighties as the decade of “moist” horrors. My recent forays into the dark territories of Hannibal have shown me that there’s very little that freaks me out. Last week, when Doctor Chilton was on the operating table, watching his vital organs being carefully removed, that wasn’t disturbing. The biggest shock I’ve had from this series came in the second episode, when we saw a man who put his victims into a coma in order to grow mushrooms on them to eat. That was pretty gross (and, add to that the fact that show’s about a cannibal who frequently produces stunning gastronomic feasts for his friends and Hannibal starts to look like a cooking show. Click that link. It’s fascinating).
Some people have a pathological attraction to this sort of stuff – the success of the Saw and The Human Centipede franchises is proof enough of that. Thinking about this sort of body horror reminds me of those lyrics from the Tool song Vicarious:
I like to watch things die / from a good safe distance. Vicariously, I / live while the whole world dies.
But there’s more to it than that, surely – it can’t all be about the vicarious thrill of surgery and dismemberment. Body horror appeals to something very dark inside us, something (for want of a better world) visceral. If you’ll be kind enough to humor me and take a seat, I’ll expound a little theory I’m working on.
Body Horror generally falls into one of two categories I’ve just made up :The Invasive (The Thing, Alien, The Fly) and The Pervasive (The Human Centipede, Saw, Tetsuo: The Iron Man). The first category is relatively easy to explain. Invasive body horror relates to things which infiltrate our body for their own designs, and so these are films where the antagonists are pathogenic in nature: alien organisms, viruses and mysterious creatures who aim to use to use our bodies for their dark, organic purposes. Invasive body horror falls within the purview of what psychoanalysts might call “fear of corruption” that leads some people to become pathalogically afraid of germs. There is, of course, a strong sexual element to invasive body horror. Don’t get me wrong, this sexuality is not erotic or fetishistic, but it does serve to remind us of our bodies being physical objects working towards definite, unspoken goals.
Invasive body horror makes us aware of our physicality, a thing that we mostly take for granted. The horror is a revealing: in becoming aware of our body as a fragile vessel, we become aware of other bodies that would like to use it for their own purposes. this carries a definite sexual element. if you doubt that assertion, ask yourself this: if a dentist has their finger in your mouth is that more or less sexual than a hand on the groin? For me it’s not a problem because my dentist is stunningly attractive (she looks like Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth Of Venus in a white smock, and the only reason I haven’t asked for her number is she’s always got her finger in my mouth), but essentially the invasion of the body presents both a sexual aspect and an aspect of horror. This is the central premise of Alien, a film that could only be more overtly sexual if it was one of those weird Japanese movies where women get diddled by tentacles.
Alien is about a form of life that is going to make babies with you whether you have a headache or not*. Therein lies the horror: the lack of choice. Your body stops being yours and becomes the vessel of something alien. Similarly, The Thing plays on concepts of identity, and these two films are frequently mentioned in the same breath. I only have one problem with this (Alien is a masterpiece, The Thing is terrible guff), but it’s true that they approach the same area from different directions. The Alien appropriates the bodies of people for the purposes of breeding, while the Thing imitates people in order to avoid detection. Both are invasions: the former an invasion of body, the latter an invasion of identity.
The Fly, meanwhile, is an invasion of both. Seth Brundle, played by the slightly-creepy-but-weirdly-handsome Jeff Goldblum, starts off as a man accidentally infected by the genetic material of a fly. This is an invasion of the body. But, as the fly begins to assert itself within his body, Brundle’s identity begins to adapt, too. He becomes Brundlefly, human and fly merging together in every sense. Of course The Fly has a strong sexual element to it, too – witness Gena Davis’ dream of giving birth to a maggot, and Brundlefly’s speech about “penetrating the veil of the flesh” (Penetrating? Veil? Flesh?)- that makes it all the more horrible. The horror here is of a very primal sort: Brundle loses both his body and his mind as he transforms. And he pukes on everything. Invasion is often a transformation, and that by itself is horrible.
Pervasive body horror is similar in many ways, as it deals with the same fears of infection and transformation, but here the fear is not directed to an entity in particular but towards a circumstance. Whereas in invasive body horror it is an alien life form that means to do us harm, in pervasive body horror it is a human being or a set of circumstances that conspire to cause us harm. Consider both The Human Centipede and Saw: in each, the motivator of the feared transformation is a human man (one of them a surgeon, one of them a criminal “mastermind”, both authority figures relative to their movies) and it is his intent that horrifies. He has designs on our body: in the former case, the design to stitch it to others, in the latter case, to take it (or cause us to take it) apart to torture us for our crimes. The pervasive element of these body horrors is in the fact that we are made aware of the minds in the world around us who wish to do us harm and the fact that the world is capable of allowing these things to occur (not willingly, but in a passive sense). In case I’ve made a few too many jumps there, I’ll summarize: this horror is pervasive because it reminds us that the world is pervaded by uncaring people, uncaring circumstance, and uncaring minds capable of inflicting harm on us. We become aware, as we do in our childhood from cautionary tails, that the world is a scary place full of bad people. We are aware that evil pervades the world.
In the case of The Human Centipede, the manifestation of evil is Dr Josef Heiter, playing (not so subtly) on our awareness of Nazi doctor and “angel of death” Josef Mengele. Despite being a doctor, Heiter is also an idiot with too much time on his hands and as we all know bored doctors engage in ritualized surgery on a regular basis. The Human Centipede is ridiculous and disgusting but the horror in it comes from the idea that there are doctors out there just itching to make human slinkeys.
Saw is more of a mixed bag – the first film was, quite rightly, a smash hit (despite poor acting and special effects) because it played out nicely and had a hell of a twist. Subsequent sequels are an essay in diminishing returns. The horror in Saw arises from the same pervasive element (a person in control of your body) but in a slightly different way.
The serial killer Jigsaw is clever. Rather than inflict pain on you to teach you a lesson, he has you inflicting pain on yourself. The pervasive horror here arises from the fact that you are clearly in a situation where you can either obey or die. So people saw their arms off or cut their eyes out and all sorts of gross stuff happens and, weirdly, the series is often moralistic. Jigsaw the killer is occasionally quite an approachable figure (an engineer of some sort with brain cancer) and at other times not (because he seeks to impose his moral beliefs on the world). I dunno. Saw is a bit of a mixed bag, really. I had a feed line for this video, but it’s slipped my mind.
The weirdest body horror movie I can think of (apart from Requiem For A Dream, which doesn’t really count but scared the shit out of me) is Tetsuo: The Iron Man. a black-and-white Japanese cyberpunk horror, it begins with a man pushing metal needles into wounds in his arms and legs for no conceivable reason. Later he gets infected, runs out into the street and is hit by a car, the drivers of which (a man and his wife) decide to hide his body. Shortly after, the driver begins to experience all sorts of bodily horrors as he is visited by the vengeful soul of the man he killed. Wires and tubes grow out of all sorts of interesting places (the most interesting of all turning into a power drill). The film goes downhill from there (no, seriously, there’s more downhill). Tetsuo doesn’t really fit either of the categories I’ve described above, but I don’t think that counts for anything because, hell, it’s a Japanese film, right? Right?
*I don’t know if this is a universal idiom or not, so here’s an explanation anyway. Here in the uk, “Not tonight, dear, I have a headache” is the stock phrase delivered by wives who have lost interest in sex. This lends itself to several “jokes” like this exchange:
A: “Would you like lapsang souchong ?”
B: “Not tonight dear, I have a headache.”
Which can be reversed for the same effect, like so:
A: “How about a shiatsu from a Geisha?”
B: “Well, if you’ve got the kettle on…”
Never let it be said that I don’t teach you anything.