Whether you’re a horror fan or not, every human being is surrounded by body horror. The unfortunate truth is that we are consciousnesses trapped inside a mobile sack of meat and blood. It’s like we’re living in mech-suits that all have rapidly approaching expiration dates. Eventually, everyone’s body will fail and our consciousness will fade away into the ether, scratching and clawing its way out as it goes. It’s a terrifying concept, and it’s inevitable.
That’s what makes body horror such an effective and horrifying sub-genre. It’s a true fear that we all carry with us every day. Unlike movies about demons, or vampires, or Nazi zombies, we leave the theater with our bodies. We over-analyze every pain or weird noise it makes, just in case it has reached its expiration date, or its factory fault has finally begun to act up.
In this article, we are going to look back on the history of body horror from the popularization of the sub-genre in the 1950’s to its golden age in the 1980’s. To do this, we are going to examine a few examples of the best each decade has to offer. The genre itself goes back as far as humans have had bodies (at least a couple hundred years), but we will focus exclusively on the genre’s history in cinema. So, without further ado, let’s get gross!
Early Days: The 1950’s
The first rash of body horror films comes to us from Post-War America and the beginning of the Baby Boom generation. After the great war ended, couples in the U.S. and abroad were, um, excited to be home. They had spent the last several years watching their friends and brothers die in horrific ways on the battlefield, and they are ready to make the most out of life while they can. This led to record-numbers of births in the country, and unprecedented growth. Everyone is home, they have their kids and their homes and their jobs, but there’s something missing. When things are peaceful, people tend to get a little itchy. Thankfully, we found a new enemy in the USSR, and the cold war began a decades-long American infatuation with communism and paranoia. This is visualized in three of the greatest sci-fi films to come out the 1950’s.
Released in 1958, The Blob tells the story of an alien globule that arrives in Pennsylvania and immediately starts to consume its citizens. Starring Steve McQueen in his first headlining role, the film was a massive success and proudly continued the tradition of Drive-In teenage horror in the late 1950’s.
While The Blob is a borderline “body horror” film, there are nuggets resting within those feet of celluloid that laid the foundation for the future of the sub-genre. First of all, the scenes where the pinkish eponymous blob consume the arm, and later the entire body of the farmer who found it is nightmare fuel on the highest level. It’s hard to not watch this movie and not think about how cancer does this exact thing to millions the world over. What starts as a small bundle of cells starts to devour your living flesh, turning once healthy cells into husks of their former selves. It gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger as it self-replicates at an astonishing speed, eventually eating away at your entire being. The Blob may have been a fun B-Movie at the time, but its themes of an outside force eating away at your body until you are fully assimilated have been repeated and copied for two generations.
Also released in 1958, Kurt Neumann’s The Fly was one of the finest examples of “science-gone-wrong” body horror that will be remade and reworked for years to come. Following the story of a scientist hell-bent on creating a teleportation device, the film shows what hubris and even brief moments of carelessness can do to the human body.
What would you do if your body and mind were slowly being turned into something else? If your faculties were steadily being replaced by something non-human and hungry? What would you do to keep those you love safe, when your turning into something monstrous? The Fly wasn’t the first film to ask these questions, but it was one of the first to frame them in the context of looking for the truth. As Vincent Price’s François tells his nephew about his father’s death, “He was searching for the truth. He almost found a great truth but for one instant, he was careless. The search for the truth is the most important work in the whole world and the most dangerous”.
Things Are Starting to Get Weird: The 1970’s
The 1960’s saw a few horror films that could possibly be considered “body horror”, but they don’t necessarily follow the same formula as the sub-genre’s best. They’re incredible films on their own, but they don’t quite fit within our parameters here. So, we are skipping the decade of love and going straight into the weird and wonky world of David Lynch and body horror of the 1970’s.
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There is a lot of weird things going on in this film. From the unsettling visions Spencer has of the Radiator Woman and the Man in the Planet, to the mewing, deformed infant his ex leaves him with, Eraserhead is the first film to truly disturb and disgust me as a young man. It’s also one of the finest examples of body horror there has ever been.
Take the climax of the film, for instance. After finding the Woman Across the Hall in the arms of another man, Spencer walks into his apartment to find “his” baby crying and screaming. This thing can barely be called a child, with its snake-like features and inhuman screams. Spencer takes a pair of scissors to remove the “child’s” swaddling, and what we are shown is the most horrifying thing I have ever seen in my life.
What Eraserhead created was an atmosphere in the film world where it was ok to disgust. It was ok to disturb, and it was important to revolt. Lynch’s flair for horrific visuals and desolate landscapes created an environment where body horror can be successful and can be an important part of cinema.
Ridley Scott’s Alien is the best film ever made. Don’t blow up my mentions about this, just take the information and understand that it’s the truth. Anyway, Ridley Scott’s Alien is the best film ever made, and even though the sci-fi classic may not be a “body horror” film in the purest sense, there is one major aspect of the film that paved the way for body horror in the decades to come.
The evolution and reproductive cycle of the Xenomorph is one of the most disturbing, revolting examples of body horror in the history of the sub-genre. It sits above the others because it takes the themes of sexual assault and the thoughts of something else being in control of your own body present in The Blob and Invasion and turns them up to eleven. The Facehugger attaches itself to your body and, while you’re immobilized, forces its sexual organs inside of you and then leaves you to face the consequences of its copulation. It’s disturbing because of how often this happens every day across the world. It’s sci-fi as social statement and body horror as activism.
The Golden Years: The Masters of Body Horror
After the success of films like Eraserhead and Alien, and the introduction of home-video (making studios more willing to take extreme risks in their product), body horror truly came into its own in the 1980’s. The decade was filled with remakes of classic body horror films but there were also several visionary directors that pushed the boundaries of what body horror is what created masterpieces in the process.
Even if we disregard two of his earliest films, 1975’s Shivers and 1977’s Rabid, David Cronenberg is still the greatest director of body horror the world has ever seen. His star saw itself grow brighter in 1979 with The Brood.
Imagine if your internal emotions could be manifested upon your body like a wound. All of the hate, anger, fear, paranoia and stress inside your body becomes bruises or welts upon your flesh. This is the story ofThe Brood, where an institutionalized woman’s therapy sessions create dwarf-like “children” that are born from external wombs. These beings have a psychic connection with their “mother”, and they attack anything that poses a threat to her. If there ever was a film that perfectly demonstrated the connection of our mental and physical health, The Brood is it.
Cronenberg followed up The Brood with 1981’s Scanners, but it’s his next film, Videodrome, that we want to take a look at here. Released in 1983, Videodrome follows a television station CEO as he stumbles across the pirated signal of a brutal program that begins to control his mind and his body. It is filled with organic hallucinations and psychedelic trips strong enough to turn anyone into a devotee.
What makes Videodrome stand apart from other films in the sub-genre is the physical manifestations of the fear of technology and how governments or other groups can use technology to brainwash the masses. Even though the film was made almost 40 years ago, it could not be more relevant today. The next time you’re at a family function, take a look around and notice how many people are staring at their phones. It may make you realize that the new flesh has already arrived. Long live the new flesh.
Cronenberg finished his maniacal run in the 80’s with his remake of The Fly in 1986 and Dead Ringers in 1988. Without this grouping of films, the body horror sub-genre would have died long ago. Another director that took the reins and ran with the body horror mantle in the 1980s.
In 1985, Stuart Gordon blessed the world with Re-Animator, his horror comedy that follows the bumbling affairs of Herbert West as he tries to show off his re-animating serum. While mostly a comedy, there are moments of body horror that are both carnal and disgusting. From the re-animated cat to the zombie-like monster of Dr. Hill. Megan’s sexual assault at the hands of this monstrosity remains one of the most disturbing scenes I’ve ever seen, combining the violation of the Facehugger with the sadistic nature of Dr. Mengele.
Much like in The Fly, Herbert falls victim to his own hubris. What follows is an example of what happens when you try to take control of the natural order of the universe. All of us are going to die, as I mentioned at the beginning of the article, and body horror films like Re-Animator show us what dangers lurk when we try to deny death his due.
Following in the Lovecraftian footsteps of Re-Animator is From Beyond, Gordon’s 1986 release. In it, two scientists use a device called the “Resonator” to stimulate a gland in the body that will allow people to see into other dimensions. What follows is gross, amazing, and completely bonkers.
Much like the other seminal works in body horror history, this film makes us think twice about opening Pandora’s Box. Even if we have the ability to peer into other dimensions by altering our own brains, maybe it’s best to not look. Maybe the things on the other side of the veil are hungry. Maybe they are angry. Maybe they will melt your body into a grotesque caricature of what you once were and instill in you a desire to devour the minds of your loved ones. Maybe.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man
As the golden era of body horror started to die down in the late 1980’s, a new stellar voice from across the Pacific chimed in and held of the sub-genre’s demise. That man was Japan’s Shinya Tsukamoto, and his 1989 film Tetsuo is the best foreign body horror film ever made.
After the international success of the anime Akira, body horror began anew in Japan. No other film during this period better exemplifies the sub-genre that Tetsuo. In it, a salaryman and his girlfriend run over a “metal fetishist” and dump his body in a ravine. This act of violence makes the salaryman slowly turn into a metal machine, killing his girlfriend along the way and forcing him to partner with the fetishist to bring on the apocalypse.
Sound weird, right? Well, it is. Many Japanese horror films focus on paying for your past transgressions or being cursed for you actions. Tetsuo is no different, but instead of long-haired ghost girls, what follows our characters is a body-morphing curse of metal and rust. It’s a perfect merging of ghost story and body horror, one that leaves the viewers feeling disgusted and reticent to think about the wrongs they may have committed in their own lives.
Body horror has changed since 1990 to include films like Event Horizon, Saw and The Human Centipede, but the true home of the genre lives from 1950 to the late 1980’s. Give these films a watch and start to listen to your heartbeat. Does it sound right? Is that your stomach growling, or is something else moving around in there? Are you still… you?
There you have it! If you are a newbie to body horror, as I was before writing this article, these films are a perfect place to start. After you’ve checked out a few of them, join our Horror Movie Fiend Club over on Facebook and let us know what you think. Or, you can hit us up on twitter @NOFSpodcast. While you’re at it, be sure to bookmark our homepage at Nightmare on Film Street to keep up to date on all the hottest horror news, reviews and retrospectives the internet has to offer.