The Future of Body Horror
March 6, 2017 9:47 AM   Subscribe

"The body horror genre is not just for those of us whose sensibility is tickled by the grotesque. Far more than being merely stomach-turning, it runs fantastically and viciously rampant with the anxieties we all have about our own physical vulnerability." In The Future of Body Horror: Can Our Art Keep Up with Our Suffering?, Davey Davis revisits The Thing and contemplates the genre's role in reflecting sociopolitical dynamics and fears of individual & collective safety, vulnerability, violence, and embodiment.
posted by mixedmetaphors (17 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Can art keep up with science and technology? Perhaps off topic but when tech issues get honed for medical implanted devices for general safety and power, Silicon Valley will be disrupting for a few months before the Asia click to order body mod shop market utterly explodes. (hope not literally)
posted by sammyo at 10:09 AM on March 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Got a real point that body horror is about men experiencing a little something of what almost all women experience.

As a writer and a woman, body horror has become a large part of what I work on, because it's a large part of being alive. I have been at odds with my casement since I was a young girl -- partly through mild chronic ailments, partly through the wringer of patriarchy. To have a female human body* is to always be disobeyed by that body. It's not what other people want you to make it. It won't do what you're told to do with it. It won't weigh what it's supposed to weigh, it won't do what it's supposed to do, not without breaking your heart, not without breaking --

Anyway! I was just reading this article (full of spoilers) about the movie of The Girl With All The Gifts. I've only finished the book, and that just now, so I can't say for certain how the article rates, but it makes a very good point. I thought that book had, more or less, a happy ending. It's my favorite kind of body horror: the kind that speaks not of "killing it with fire," but of reconciliation to the sundered self.

* in my experience, anyway; I have only ever had the one
posted by Countess Elena at 10:46 AM on March 6, 2017 [21 favorites]

Given the reactions so far to Flying Lotus's movie Kuso, I suspect the answer may be "yes."

(Lord, I'm excited for that one)
posted by cwill at 11:23 AM on March 6, 2017 [5 favorites]

But isn’t it interesting that movies about sexual assault, intimate partner violence, gendered illnesses or injuries, colonialism, and the euthanization of disabled people against their will, just as a few examples, are so rarely included in the body horror genre as a matter of fact?

Body Horror is a genre (or sub-genre) that often relies on some element of the fantastic or in the case of strictly human monsters (i.e. serial killers, sadistic doctors) uses other tropes that push their motivations into a territory that feels fantastic even if there's nothing obviously alien, super natural or science fictional.

Genres only exist because of their parameters. And I'm sure if the author did some digging he could have made a case for broadening those parameters to include movies that cover the topics he's concerned with. But he didn't, which makes it very hard to take this essay seriously as a piece of film criticism. It's more of a vague call for a specific type of body horror film he would like to watch.

And those films probably exist already! He just hasn't bothered to delve into the genre he's supposedly interested in. By omitting "torture porn" movies (which is a huuuge blindspot if you're writing about horror films responding to the political climates in which they're made), it's clear he doesn't really have any interest in the genre as a genre at all. He wants to just watch the biggest names and best movies from its history while ignoring the films that don't interest him.

Also, I love Chris Kraus but have no idea what her writing has to do with the topic. I mean, if you're going to drag her into this you might as well talk about how her fiction writing plays wth its own genres. But even that would be a serious stretch.

I feel like this guy just finished reading Topor and watched The Thing. And I don't know why this annoyed me so much!
posted by AtoBtoA at 11:31 AM on March 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Is this the part of the comments in which I recommend Kameron Hurley's entire body of work? Yes. yes it is.

"The Stars are Legion" especially has a lot of very Cronenbergian body horror, wherein the true horror is how completely normal it is to birth machine parts, or delicious toothy children.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 11:32 AM on March 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

Oh and reading the brief bio at the end I notice "he/him" might not be the pronouns they prefer. So I apologize to the author if they find their way here and reads this.
posted by AtoBtoA at 11:44 AM on March 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

I keep drafting a comment and deleting it and coming back later. I think all I want to say is that this piece has a good structure and argument...buried beneath a bunch of verbiage and name-dropping that an editor would have removed.

Anybody want to make the argument, on my behalf as a person who can't write about film very well at all, that torture porn is not body horror (compared to classics like Videodrome, The Thing, or The Fly)?
posted by radicalawyer at 2:52 PM on March 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

^5 radicalawyer

this take is kinda blowing my mind because it seems like it's trying to make a point that linda williams made in 1991 in "Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess", not that i'm expecting the universe to read a bunch of articles about the deployment of the body in film but. there is so much interesting stuff already out there asking about the centering of able white cishet dude as protagonist perspective in order for body horror to make sense, etc etc

i guess i just hope that davey got paid
posted by nixon's meatloaf at 3:18 PM on March 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

uff, now you got me thinking.

so i think torture porn and body horror have an important similarity. i feel like both genres use loss of bodily agency as the nexus around which all the tension and horror is built. but it seems like torture porn type flicks focus on the agency being taken by some actor, and there's narratival focus on this actor, and the struggle over agency / struggle against remover-of-agency whereas body horror focuses more on the loss of agency, the interior experience, whether the body is still "mine" if bodily agency is not located within me etc

feel free to call bullshit
posted by nixon's meatloaf at 3:25 PM on March 6, 2017 [5 favorites]

I think you could argue that torture, spousal abuse, trans/homophobia etc. are topics that interesting body horror films could be made about. I agree that they'd be very different from the Thing and the Fly but those films are also very different from each other. The author doesn't present a clear definition of what counts as "body horror," besides the uselessly broad, "bad things happening to a body." All films (except the most non-narrative abstract) are "body films" in that the deal with bodies doing stuff. And any film that has even the mildest of violence could potential be a "body horror" film as described here.

I think the reason this essay annoyed me so much is I was hoping for an actual critique or survey of body horror movies that could be interpreted as a response to the current political/social climate.

I also understand that this is basically just a blog post and somebody thinking on the page.
posted by AtoBtoA at 3:34 PM on March 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Body horror, as I understand it, is really about changes coming from within the body itself rather than an isolated direct, focused assault. The changes might be a result of outside violence but the effects will linger well beyond initial event, and the film's perspective highlights these effects. That's why Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street dont really qualify; horrific things happen to many bodies in those series but the bodies often quickly die. The characters are afraid of the violence and dying but their bodies remain under their control until some outside force intervenes and they immediately die.

I'd actually argue that the Thing is not a body horror movie. MacCready and Co. are worried they'll be killed and their identities will be stolen but they don't deal with the effects of any personal bodily changes. Their personal physical identities are never in crises, the characters suspect each other but never themselves. The alien in the Thing closer to a Freddy or Jason than it is to Jeff Goldblum's transition into a fly or the psychological horror of Rosemary's pregnancy. I also don't really understand how Eraserhead fits into any of this or why Haneke's name gets plopped in. Hellraiser is also tossed out as just some totally irrelevant cheap series but the original (and possibly the series as a whole, despite their quality as movies) offers a more useful in when talking about the limits of body horror's possibilities than The Thing or half of the other examples.
posted by AtoBtoA at 4:56 PM on March 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

So they're saying Trump is a practical effect, and not CGI? Interesting. Must be first year students who put him together, in that case: his skin doesn't look real at all, and his animatronic features of expression are constantly malfunctioning.
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:56 PM on March 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

As a writer and a woman, body horror has become a large part of what I work on, because it's a large part of being alive.

Same, and something that always stands out as truly special to me, something I try to do in my own writing, is horror that metamorphoses into non-horror. Body horror can be a wonderful vehicle for this sort of thing, because so much of it is about transformation, and so much transformation can be made both familiar and relatable as well as alien and threatening. Puberty, pregnancy, sexuality, illness, injury, disability, simply existing in the world in a form that society doesn't accept are things that can resonate on a human level, but we can go a little farther into the abstract, too. Anatomy developing out of place, physiology developing unrecognized functions; a lot about the anatomy and physiology of non-human, non-mammalian animals is an area where we seem to have considerable fear and ignorance. None of these things need be horrific; they're often either simply the way life is, if not actually crucial aspects in our world's beauty and diversity. Horror is a great way of examining them, recoiling from them and then...getting a little closer. Seeing. Accepting. Valuing.

I also think The Thing holds up well in 2017, both in terms of being a well-made film and thematically. Its horror-of-the-Other is more fundamental than simply fear of the different or unfamiliar. It's about the essential unknowability of other people and ourselves. To the extent that it's body horror, it is in that it reminds us our bodies and the bodies of anyone we care about can at any time for absolutely no reason utterly betray us.
posted by byanyothername at 7:03 PM on March 6, 2017 [7 favorites]

I read somewhere that body horror is the genre, but boundary horror is the theme. There are classes of horror films that derive their emotional impact from fear of violated boundaries. So for body horror the boundary is the skin, but there are also horror films featuring embattled protagonists fighting to keep enemies out of their house, or out of their family for example.

There were a raft of films in the 1990s like this. I can't remember the names, but there was the one with Reese Witherspoon and Mark Wahlberg in which dad ends up physically pushing Marky Mark out of his daughter's bedroom window, or another one in which a mother finds her relationship with her newborn baby being invaded by the nanny (Rebecca de Mornay?).
posted by um at 9:56 PM on March 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

torture porn type flicks focus on the agency being taken by some actor, and there's narratival focus on this actor, and the struggle over agency / struggle against remover-of-agency whereas body horror focuses more on the loss of agency, the interior experience, whether the body is still "mine" if bodily agency is not located within me etc

You did it! Thanks. I think ABA is also on to something re The Thing not really being a body horror film. Maybe if Norris hadn't known that he was The Thing until he ate Copper's arm, but he'd had inklings that something was wrong, like, ionno, his arm trying to suckle from his nipple while he was using the bathroom? Feel free to use that in your next horror film.

I also understand ABA's point that this is just a blog post, but that feels like too low of a standard to hold things that get put on the Blue (or a website like The Rumpus, for that matter).
posted by radicalawyer at 7:00 AM on March 7, 2017

is this the part of the thread where I mention Peter Watts' story The Things?
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 9:56 AM on March 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

"The Thing" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" could've been argued as being relevant for the political climates in the US, UK, France, and other countries experiencing a resurgence in marginalized right-wing parties, with Invasion being the "They look just like us" (only emotionless), and the Thing as the "we can't tell who's who anymore." Perhaps as not so much a 'body-horror' but a 'self-horror' as in loss-of-self, instead.
According to the author, however, "The Thing" is no longer relevant to body horror or a current socio-political analogy, so six paragraphs are spent on explaining the movie for no real reasons, as it is dismissed at the end of the 6th as it "is now just a cross between a scary movie and a sci-fi flick"

There's a mention of Cronenburg's "The Fly" there, which at its most basic is about a guy who turns in to a fly, but ignores Geena Davis and the impact it has on her relationship/psyche/body all of which is critical to the film. The inclusion of The Fly in such a broad list is inaccurate.

There are other issues with this, eg: the "Metal Fetishist" is mentioned, but not expanded upon for someone who wouldn't know that the character is from "Tetsuo: The Iron Man", but ultimately this of thought/mess needs an editor, more research, and a LOT more focus.
posted by Zack_Replica at 12:22 PM on March 7, 2017

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