As you probably already know, we’re starting out 2019 with the delightfully disgusting topic: Body Horror. It’s that grossest of all horror subgenres, the gut-wrenching blood and the blood-curdling guts that separate the strong stomachs from the weak. You might think this is a morbid way to start the new year. Why welcome 2019 with the most repulsive, controversial subgenre of horror? Maybe you even think it’s rude, if you’re one of those wimps who can’t stand blood (sorry, those of you who “prefer psychological horror”). But trust us when we say that it’s more than appropriate to begin the year with body horror. And why is that? Well, because that’s the way all horror begins.
From books to TV to video games, body horror is consistently the first subgenre that shows up in horror fiction. Before we get into what that says about us, let’s lay down a definition. Body horror is, according to Matt Cardin’s Horror Literature through History, a type of sensational horror fiction that draws audience repulsion through vivid detail of change to the human body. That’s a bit more complex than “the ones with intestines,” but it’ll do. With body horror most prominent and effective in film nowadays, you might think that the subgenre begins with the invention of fake blood on the screen. But that’s not true. The subgenre’s roots go way deeper, far down into the origins of horror itself. To prove that, we’re going to have to turn the clocks back pretty far. Maybe before horror was even called horror…. Let me explain.
“a type of sensational horror fiction that draws audience repulsion through vivid detail of change to the human body”
Categorizing humanity’s oldest stories as horror is a bit of a risky business. You see, the study of genres doesn’t really appear until much later in our history. However, what’s definitely true is that all mythology is made up of horrific elements. And those elements, those little nuggets of terror, all have body horror in common. Take, for example, the most terrifying monsters in Greek Mythology: the Minotaur and the Gorgon. Both are cruel parodies of the human form, physically warped by the gods into something to be loathed and feared.
In Egyptian mythology, the underworld god Am-heh sported the body of a man, but the head of a vicious dog. Even the Sumerian The Epic of Gilgamesh references dead bodies that feast on the living, so if you’re keeping track, that’s an inclusion of zombies (the body horror poster children) in the oldest recorded story in history.
And you thought Chopping Mall was dated.
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From then on, body horror continues to lead the charge of spooky tales as they make their way into culture. Folklore from the Malay Penninsula tells of the Penanggalan, a vampiric woman who exists as a floating head. As it flies around drinking blood, its guts dangle out below. From Japanese folklore comes the Gashadokuro, a massive skeleton made up of other skeletons, specifically from people who starved to death. Even North America has the Wendigo, a murderous, cannibalistic creature whom folklorists depict as gaunt and skeletal. Each of these traditional monsters exhibit some form of body horror. In fact, the word monster itself comes from the Latin Prodigium, meaning “abnormality of form”. And though the first examples of the word were of warped animal forms, they were still examples of physical bodies being changed or harmed. Besides, animals are people too. Hell, if you look at how we’ve been acting lately, animals are more people than we are.
Horror finally gets its title from around the time it enters books. And once again, it’s body horror that makes up those early tales. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein legitimized horror as a book genre. Its depiction of a large, stitched-together body is the crux of the story’s terror. Years after that comes Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Not only does the monster in that story feast on blood, but when Stoker chose a real-world inspiration for the Count, he went with one of the most disgusting examples of real body-horror in history; Vlad the Impaler. Obviously, stories like those influenced horror novels up until the modern day, when prominent authors like Stephen King terrify us with morbid contemporary tales. After all, where did the horror come from in King’s very first novel? Ultimately, it was puberty. Then again, “ultimately it was puberty” is actually the explanation for a lot of horror.
“Body horror is prime because it is also primal; the fear of pain is as encoded in our DNA”
So now we come to the question: Why? Why is body horror the foot-soldier of the genre? What is it about that particular subgenre that is so powerful, so potent, that it consistently appears at horror’s entrance into different types of fiction? I think there are two answers to that.
The first is pretty obvious. Body horror is prime because it is also primal; the fear of pain is as encoded in our DNA as are the nerves to feel it. You know this if you’ve ever been around an infant who hurts themselves. If a baby of a certain age takes a fall or bumps her head, there’s an immediate rush of adults to comfort her, followed inevitably by a wail. Not only is that child feeling physical negativity in pain (a change in her physical form), she is experiencing the emotional negativity of a shift in reality. She is suddenly and rudely shoved into a different state of being, and that abrupt change in her status is terrifying. Though it will be years before she has the words to describe it, body horror is already their first fear.
But there’s a second answer to the body horror question that, I think, even better explains why it’s always the first movement in all horror. At the risk of sounding way too philosophical, let me put this to you; Body horror comes with self-awareness. Part of being aware of your existence means, ironically, being aware that you won’t always exist. As time marches you toward that inevitability, you start to bear its physical marks. You get weaker, smaller, more weathered. Despite knowing in your head what’s happening, you can’t stop your physical self from accepting the fact that you are not eternal. Whatever form it takes, nature’s way of telling you that you won’t always be around is something you can see on your person. You might call that “age.” You might also call it “a vivid detail of change to the human body.”
Body horror isn’t only blood, guts, and mutants. Those are just byproducts. And they certainly aren’t why body horror exists, or why it’s at the forefront of all horror fiction. No, that answer is a lot simpler. It’s the unreliability of the human form, the inevitability of its breakdown. So though the Victorians cowered at Dracula, the Ancient Greeks at the Minotaur, and the folk storytellers of Japan at the Gashadokuro, they were all pointing to the same thing. Our first fear is body horror, and our first and primary body horror is just having a body.
We’ve got a lot more body horror going on this month, so be sure to explore our site and check it out. Some of my personal recommendations include Jessica Rose’s horror movies to help you stop smoking, Rachel Prin’s list of horrors at the gym, and Joshua Anderson’s piece on that aforementioned god of body horror, puberty. We’re continuing the body horror theme all through this month, so be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to keep up. And for all your horror discussion, bodily or otherwise, keep lurking at Nightmare on Film Street.