The Recovering Good Girl

The Recovering Good Girl: As we go into full new-year’s-resolution-mode, I.C. shares a powerful and personal story of her journey toward recovery and what it means to go beyond the strictures of the “good girl” and its control.

by I.C.

I have lived my life with a sort of luminous double, a potential self I’ll call the “good girl,” as close as my own breath and as far away as a star.  As I come from a conservative Christian background, in which messages about appropriate feminine traits were inescapable, this imaginary figure gained a good deal of power over me, and I spent many years of my life trying to attain the promise of perfection she held out.  It was a very traditional, even retrograde, type of perfection.  Being a good girl meant being obedient, modest, meek.  The good girl did not speak until spoken to, concealed negative emotions, and if she didn’t have anything nice to say, she didn’t say anything at all.  For those traits, I believed, she would ultimately be rewarded with approval and love. Continue reading “The Recovering Good Girl”


In the Wake of Hobby Lobby: Abortion and the Satanic Temple

The Satanic Temple is suing the state of Missouri for religious freedom – specifically, for the right to have an abortion without the added burden of MO’s 72-hour waiting period. This isn’t quite a first for the Satanic Temple; in the past, they have pushed for the right to display “Satanic” holiday decorations on government property as long as Christian groups could do the same. According to their website, the principle behind both their holiday displays and the current case is calling out the hypocrisy of religious freedom, which often seems to apply to Judeo-Christian denominations above all else.

So what do abortions have to do with Satanism?

If you don’t remember last summer’s terrifying Supreme Court ruling, “Hobby Lobby” (the informal name for “Burwell v Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc) was the case in which the Supreme Court decided that, since corporations are basically people, “closely-held” religious organizations could deny their employees health-care coverage that extends to certain forms of birth control. Here are a few links to refresh your memory.

 Hobby Lobby Wins Contraceptive Case

 Hobby Lobby 101

What The Hobby Lobby Ruling Means for America

The Satanic Temple is suing the state of Missouri for religious freedom – specifically, for the right to have an abortion without the added burden of MO’s 72-hour waiting period. This isn’t quite a first for the Satanic Temple; in the past, they have pushed for the right to display “Satanic” holiday decorations on government property as long as Christian groups could do the same. According to their website, the principle behind both their holiday displays and the current case is calling out the hypocrisy of religious freedom, which often seems to apply to Judeo-Christian denominations above all else.

So what do abortions have to do with Satanism? First, it is important to note that the so-called Satanic Temple is not, in fact, full of devil-worshippers. The tenets of the Satanic Temple involve:

  • One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason.
  • Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world. We should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit our beliefs.
  • One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.

It is under this last listed tenet that the Satanic Temple is suing (although the phrase “inviolable body” appears elsewhere in their self-description). A woman identified as Mary Doe is the subject of the law suit; like many women in the many states with highly restrictive abortion laws, Mary could not afford the extra costs imposed by the mandated waiting period. Arguably, this is one of the purposes of the waiting period in the first place. The Washington Post writes:

In Missouri, women seeking an abortion at the one open abortion-providing clinic in the state have to make two trips to the clinic, 72 hours apart: The first is to receive counseling that “includes information designed to discourage her from having an abortion,” the Guttmacher Institute says, and the second after the required waiting period is for the procedure.

Whatever one’s religious beliefs, waiting periods are an added difficulty; in states like Missouri, with only one abortion clinic, or Texas, with few abortion clinics spread through much of the state, women either have to find a place to stay – which often means coughing up non-existent hotel funds – or make a long drive twice. Either scenario requires taking time off work, finding childcare (61% of women seeking abortions are already mothers), or both. These factors can amount to a prohibitive financial strain on women – and if you cannot afford childcare for 72 hours, an additional child would be, at the least, extremely difficult financially. In Mary Doe’s case, according to Slate,

Mary has the money for the abortion, but she doesn’t have the estimated extra $800 that she needs to travel to the only abortion clinic in the state, in St. Louis, a trip that will require gas, hotel, and child care.


The Satanic Temple succeeded in raising the funds for Mary in a day, but they also went further, helping her draft a letter outlining the reasons that the 72-hr waiting period is a burden on her (and their) beliefs. The core of the letter reads:

  • My body is inviolable and subject to my will alone.
  • I make any decision regarding my health based on the best scientific understanding of the world, even if the science does not comport with the religious or political beliefs of others.
  • My inviolable body includes any fetal or embryonic tissue I carry so long as that tissue is unable to survive outside my body as an independent human being.
  • I, and I alone, decide whether my inviolable body remains pregnant and I may, in good conscience, disregard the current or future condition of any fetal or embryonic tissue I carry in making that decision.

This letter initially targeted the clinic itself, which, as Slate points out, is not a great legal strategy; “The clinic, too, is being victimized by the regulation, and they’re not the authorities standing between Mary and her abortion.” The letter’s demands were rejected, but since then, the Satanic Temple has wised up – or, perhaps, has just finally succeeded in getting the funding necessary to go for the big guns.

On May 8th, the Satanic Temple filed a petition for injunction against Missouri governor Jay Nixon. There are a few questions here. Will the case succeed? And, more importantly, what kind of influence will the case have, whether or not it does? That is, what kind of precedent will it set?

The Washington Post interviewed University of St. Thomas law professor Thomas Berg, who believes that “the Satanic Temple’s proposal essentially relies on the same question one would ask to determine whether the 72-hour waiting period violates the earlier decisions at the Supreme Court: Does the law impose a substantial burden on the individual seeking an abortion?” Berg told the Post that “if 72 hours is a substantial burden on religious conscience, it’s also a substantial burden under the privacy decisions.”

Interestingly, when the federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA) was initially passed in 1993, a number of Catholic and pro-life groups worried that RFRA would be used for exactly this purpose – claiming a religious right to abortion – although they probably did not predict the involvement of the Satanic Temple.

The RFRA was drafted in response to a 1990 Supreme Court case in which some Native American men were fired from their jobs for using illegal peyote for ceremonial purposes. Democrats and Republicans alike were angered by the ruling, and, a truly bi-partisan bill came into being (once upon a time, “bipartisan” could be more than just a buzzword). But, as the conservative National Review reflects, both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Right to Life Committee were opposed to the RFRA. Both groups worried that “that under the RFRA women could claim the right to an abortion as a matter of religious belief,” and both groups advocated for an amendment to the bill that would specifically prohibit abortion-related claims. Due to this conflict (not so bipartisan after all?), it took three years – from 1990 to 1993 – for the bill to pass, and it was the newly-elected President Clinton who signed it into law.

Since then, RFRA has been used toward more conservative and traditionally Christian ends, the Hobby Lobby ruling being perhaps the most notorious example. The RFRA is a federal law that cannot be applied to states, so many other similar cases instead fall under the First Amendment. As the RFRA was designed to give more protection for religious exemptions than the Court has said is available under the First Amendment, First Amendment cases will look different than Hobby Lobby. However, there has certainly been a trend at both the state and federal level towards an understanding of “religious freedom” as the right not only to freely practice religion, but to use one’s religious values in a discriminatory manner (see, for example, what’s been going on in Indiana).

So will the Satanic Temple’s suit hold water in court? If the Satanic Temple is regarded as an established religion by the court (which, based on its previous success in Florida, seems likely), it seems this would be a yes; given that one’s “inviolable body” appears in three of the seven central tenets of the Temple, it does seem that a 72 hour waiting period – especially a financially prohibitive one – would prove a “substantial burden.”* But the more important question here is, what kind of precedent will this set? What will it mean for reproductive rights?

If, for example, it is found that the 72-hour waiting period placed a substantial burden on Mary’s religious freedom, this would be great – for established members of the Satanic Temple. Don’t get me wrong; my first thought on hearing about this suit was “Awesome. This underlines the hypocrisy of Hobby Lobby, where the “religious freedom” of the corporation is permitted to intrude on the religious freedom of the employee. Yes!”

But if it takes proof of a substantial religious burden to gain the right to an affordable, accessible abortion, what happens to everyone else? What about atheists, or Reform Jews, whose religion has no bearing on abortions? Even more concerning, what about devout Catholics, whose religious views might prohibit abortions? Even the most ardent pro-lifers can find themselves in situations in which abortions are medically necessary, life-saving procedures, or financially responsible choices made on behalf on their already existent children (61% of women who have abortions are already mothers).

Another concern: if this suit should succeed, how will it play out in the public eye? While the ­fight-the-patriarchy radical inside me cries, “who cares?,” the rest of me acknowledges that the way the public perceives abortion is very important to its legal future. While, as noted above, The Satanic Temple is, in fact, devoted to personal freedom, personal responsibility, and scientific accuracy rather than actual Devil-worship, the name itself will evoke darker images in the public imagination, and the last thing the pro-choice movement needs is an association between a woman’s right to decide what happens to her body and devil-worship. This is not sacrificing infants to Beelzebub, and we do not need anyone to make that association.

This is a fairly unique case, but it is neither the first nor the last in a series of reproductive-rights cases to raise religious freedom issues – sometimes involving the religious liberty of the person most directly involved, and sometimes the religious liberty of some other participant , like the employer in the Hobby Lobby case. From here on out, I will document some of the more interesting, concerning, or impactful cases and pieces of legislation involving the relationship between reproductive rights and religious rights.

*Updated 05/27/15 to reflect Mary Doe’s membership in the Satanic Temple

What Is A Zombie? or: 7 Ways to Teach the Undead


So, I teach a college course about the zombie in popular culture. Well, actually it’s about academic writing, cleverly masked as a course about the zombie in popular culture. Using writing as a process for thinking (rather than a product of thinking), my class attempted to articulate what about the zombie makes it a particularly suitable monster to represent the social anxieties of our contemporary cultural moment.


In my piece on body horror, I claim that  “Horror films can disturb our notions of safety, cause ripples in our faith in the human race, and reveal our monstrous natures. At their best, horror films can speak truth to power by providing new metaphors or alternative worlds that allow us to explore hegemony in our own culture”. Never has this been more more true for me than when talking about zombies in the classroom. Part introduction to zombie-research-methodology, part homage to my brilliant students, this post features some of the most important discussions we had this semester.


  1. Monsters can do critical work: The first article we read in my class contends that the monster  is “born only at this metaphoric crossroads as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy”*.. The importance of recognizing that even fantastical, imaginary bodies can speak to the real world highlights the fact that no instance of discourse is value-free. But I don’t need to tell you that…

zombie cartoon

  1. Loss of agency is scary. While reading and discussing Zora Neale Hurston’s account of zombies in Haiti (Tell My Horse), my students became fascinated with the intersection of  zombies and human agency. We decided that one of the scariest things about the zombies of Haitian lore is the loss of control experienced by the zombified person (It’s widely recognized that Haitian zombies are deeply interconnected with the island’s history of slavery). Our society is filled with institutions and people that will try to deny that my students are individuals, or that they have agency over their own bodies. Thus we are always at risk of being treated as zombies.zonbi_UMich


  1. Love at first sight does not exist. Also, google “Eat Me zombies” at your own risk.

In the short story “Eat Me” by Robert McCammon, we get to see the world from the perspective of a dead zombie who only wants to find love in the post-apocalyptic world. When he meets a shy, but romantic-at-heart female zombie, they return to her apartment and engage in zombie intercourse: literally eating one another. Their carnivorous carnal act results in their bones floating away from the world, leaving nothing behind but a necklace found by a small boy on the other side of the mountain. My students: “This is not love. This is lust. They barely know each other.” Okay then. Also, the group that presented on this text warned us that google searching “eat me zombies” leads to a weird corner of the internet.

Dubious zombie-themed boxers...
Dubious zombie-themed boxers…

  1. Institutions both perpetuate the fantasy of the American Dream, while keeping people from actually being able to achieve it. Many of my students are in college because they are chasing “the American Dream”: to graduate, get a job, and pursue some form of professional and/or personal success. However, as they acknowledged, there is a well travelled road that leads from pre-school through the bachelor’s degree (and increasingly to other advanced degrees as well). But my students are—when pushed—disillusioned with this reality. School is expensive and there are increasingly fewer job opportunities after graduation. They are told to explore coursework and follow their interests, but are bound by general education requirements–like my course–and they are forced to pay for coursework that they see as irrelevant to their careers. As we increasingly saw throughout the semester both in our course readings and in the real world, the institutions we thought were in place to protect us and allow us to flourish–higher education, the government, legal institutions–are actually cutting off our potential, so much the more if you are not a straight white male.

zombie_city-t2Thus, the zombie apocalypse provides a mental playground where we can imagine a world without the institutional structures that keep us in the thralls of particular hegemonies. But the freedom of the  zombie-apocalypse is a ruse. In almost every text we read or watched this semester, we saw the way that people were reorganized, either top down (often imposed by military force) or bottom up through collectively enforced social behaviors. We asked the questions, “despite our desire to be free from the strictures of abusive institutions, do we know how to live without them? Does the toppling of one regime always lead to another, more violent or more authoritarian than before?” Thus zombies apocalypses provided an important space for students to discuss the abuses of current authoritarian institutions as they tried to imagine whether or not society ever has a way out from underneath certain structures.


  1. We are not special…but we want to be. Part of the fantasy in watching zombie media is imagining that  we would be the survivors; we would be Michonne with the katana, or Daryl with his sassy poncho and crossbow. But, as my students were quick to point out,  it’s a bit silly to imagine that we would survive, especially as middle-class Americans who generally lack survival skills. However, the zombie apocalypse can be a powerful fantasy that someday there will be a situation where the societal values of the current world, like wealth and social standing, will not necessarily translate to the new world order. Those of us with skills or characteristics that society has devalued will have a chance to reign in the apocalypse–or so the story goes.


  1. Does the zombie apocalypse merit changes in our ideas about morality? Through watching and discussing human behavior in TV shows such as “The Walking Dead,” my students took up the question of morality in the zombie apocalypse: do human morals change in reaction to an apocalyptic scenarios? And if so, what are the stakes of this changing morality? Obviously, we did not definitively answer these questions. However this conversation made me realize that zombies could be a way of discussing otherwise highly contentious issues of religious or philosophical import by masking them in hypotheticals. Though focalized through the zombie apocalypse, my students were really asking “Do our ideas about morality come from an objective source or is morality also a social construct?” Giving students a way into these kind of discussions without the heavily loaded context of religion allowed for various viewpoints to be heard without anyone feeling personally attacked (or at least, that’s how the conversation went in my class).

  1. People often treat bodies that look or act differently than themselves with suspicion disdain, or violence, trying to cite the differences as indicative that the other body is less than human. One of my students wrote a forum post on the movie Warm Bodies where a zombie man falls in love with a human woman, and after proving to her they are really the same on the inside, they ride off into the sunset. (Okay, so it’s more complicated than that…but I don’t want to spoil it!) My student said that on the surface, you could read Warm Bodies as a hopeful text that shows that if we try to get to know people who seem different from us, that their differences will disappear. However, he acknowledges that bonies (super devolved zombies) trouble his happy conclusion: (with his permission) “through this metaphor the “bonies” could tell us that you should not care for people who are too different from us, because some people are just completely bad and don’t have a good/human side”. This posting, when shared in class, lead to a discussion about how zombies are essentially humans who we have “permission” to kill because they threaten to overtake our society. Our conscious need not be troubled by their deaths because these undead aren’t seen as human.


On the last day of class we discussed how this attitude towards zombies is shockingly similar to attitudes about various groups of disenfranchised people across our globe. We treat some bodies like zombies already. If they are threatening us,  it is okay for us to kill them. But perhaps zombies have the last laugh—in our destruction of their bodies, we prove we are no better or different than they are. They are our future.


Each of these takeaways could be its own blog post (or really, its own book) and it feels a bit like an injustice to my students to characterize their intellectual work in such broad strokes. But the larger purpose of my post is to serve as a primer of sorts for how people think about zombies.  the kinds of critical work that zombies can do as metaphors for consumer culture, representations of disenfranchised bodies, catalysts for investigations of human morality, and grisly reminders of our own certain demise. By viewing the zombie as inextricably bound to the society that produces and consumes him, we can be better attuned to the way that our own fears, desires and anxieties are reflected in the zombie body. In this way, we can read zombies not as an Other, but as a reflection of ourselves.


* Jeffrery Jerome Cohen, Monster Theory, pg. 4

The Feminist’s Guide to Horror: Part One

Horror films can disturb our notions of safety, cause ripples in our faith in the human race, and reveal our monstrous natures. At their best, horror films can speak truth to power by providing new metaphors or alternative worlds that allow us to explore hegemony in our own culture.

It’s Friday the 13th! Get your creepiness on and join Acro Collective’s resident horror expert as she expertly navigates the terrifying genre and dives deep into something your editor can barely look at: body horror?!?! 


The Feminist’s Guide to Horror Tropes and Genres:  Body Horror

Welcome to this twisted little corner of Acro Collective, where we dissect various attributes and genres of the “scary movie” in hopes of uncovering how the aesthetics and politics of horror intermingle. But first, let’s get technical.

Series Intro: What is Horror?

If asked to define horror, we academic-types may look to ye ol’ Oxford English Dictionary for guidance. Three of the definitions found there are still in common usage:

Horror, n.

2a. A shuddering or shivering

3a. A painful emotion compounded of loathing and fear; a shuddering with terror and repugnance; strong aversion mingled with dread; the feeling excited by something shocking or frightful. (The prevalent use at all times.)

5a. The quality of exciting repugnance and dread; horribleness; a quality or condition, and …a thing, or person, which excites these feelings

We can derive three important characteristics of horror from these entries. First, and perhaps most intuitive, horror instigates powerful feelings of loathing, fear, or aversion. Second, horror is exciting. The people, conditions or things that cause feelings of dread stir us up or unbalance our mental state. We are riled, energized, adrenalized, at the sight of the horrific. Third, horror is embodied—our physical selves react to excitation. We often shudder or shiver in the presence of horror.

Furthermore, hidden in the “obsolete” definitions of horror is another usage of the word that speaks to horror’s role in contemporary culture:

2b. Ruffling of surface; rippling.

Whereas the current definitions (2a, 3a, and 5a) speak to the affect of horror, this mysterious usage speaks the potential for horror to disrupt order in a productive way. Horror films can disturb our notions of safety, cause ripples in our faith in the human race, and reveal our monstrous natures. At their best, horror films can speak truth to power by providing new metaphors or alternative worlds that allow us to explore hegemony in our own culture.

The purpose of this series is to offer an introduction to the various complexities, controversies and dominant narratives in contemporary genres of horror film. The idea is that through parsing out the intricacies of visual horror, we can concurrently advance a discourse on recent films (or video games) that create spaces to explore female, queer, or subaltern narratives.

The History of Body Horror

Body horror—also known as biological horror or venereal horror—is a particular kind of fear or dread elicited by images that show the mutilation, degeneration or mutation of the human body. Films can contain moments of body horror—for example, when Natalie Portman’s character in Black Swan picks at a hangnail and pulls loose a long piece of skin—or they can focus specifically on a thematic exploration of human(oid) degeneration and mutilation, and thereby become a genre piece. Writer/Directors Clive Barker (of Hellraiser fame) and David Cronenberg (also known as the King of Venereal Horror, which may be the most unflattering nickname ever recorded) are widely recognized masters of body horror.

Classic Pinhead
Classic Pinhead

Body horror both connects us to and alienates us from our own bodies. The feelings of dread, disgust, or discomfort stem from the familiarity we feel with the subject’s body—we can, on some level, imagine the pain that our own body would go through if it was under a similar state of duress. However, it can also separate us from our bodies by making the human form seem less “human”. Body horror forces us to face the potential for our own bodies to become monstrous.

Literary predecessors for body horror film exist in historiographic depictions of war, accounts of early modern executions, highly descriptive medical treatises, and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” in which the narrator describes the instantaneous decay of a human body into a putrid puddle of mush, is an early example of body horror in the literary canon.

One of body horror’s sister genres has come to be known as “torture porn”: films that usually feature elements of torture and confinement, are often heavy moralizing (for example, the Saw franchise) and sometimes revenge-driven. The “victims” in torture porn are often thought of as deserving of punishment and their particular treatment often corresponds, somewhat poetically, to the nature of their sins. Because these films often feature the mutilation of the body, it’s no surprise that torture porn relies on body horror to deliver its scares. Even its name, torture porn, invokes the presence of bodies.

Medical horror—where the practice of deranged medicine takes center stage—is an important subgenre of body horror. Some may consider the crop of TV shows about plastic surgery that show the procedures in great detail as members of this genre. More typically, medical horror involves unnatural experimentation on non-consenting human bodies, typified by films like The Human Centipede, humans are sewn together—spoiler alert—anus to mouth.

Body Horror and Body Modification

Body modification (altering the body or its appearance) has long been a part of horror’s collection of tropes. Typically, we see body modifications—or rather people with body modifications—featured as members of “alternative” subcultures in the backdrops of club scenes in film. Their piercings, tattoos, and unnaturally colored hair signify them as societal outsiders, strange, subcultural. Our cultural both vilifies and fetishizes people with body modifications (for example, National Geographic does this by exoticizing non-Western cultures that practice body modifications like tribal scarring or neck-stretching). As more surgical forms of body modification become more visible and prevalent in the Western cultural consciousness, some filmmakers have started to imagine plastic surgery as a kind of body horror.

An episode in the first season of Darknet (a Canadian remake of Japanese horror anthology Tori Hada composed of “snippets of people’s lives being interrupted by vivid instances of unexpected violence or shocking strangeness”) features a short sequence about a breast augmentation gone wrong. At the end of the episode we see the a video of the augmentation surgery listed on the fictional “Darknet” website, neatly snuggled in between videos of acts of violence committed by characters in the show. Inadvertently, the writers insinuate that breast augmentation is somehow perverse by associating it with horrific, violent crimes such as infanticide or ax-murdering. Because breast augmentation is typically associated with femininity or femaleness, this episode of Darknet participates in the standard narrative that characterizes female body modification as immoral. Darknet presents breast augmentation as unnatural and lumps it into the same category as violent crime.

Generally, body horror assumes that the modifications (a euphemism for everything from piercings, to mouth-to-anus surgery) made to the human body take something away from the overall integrity of that body. Changes made to the human form are generally thought of as denigrations, not enhancements. But recently, that assumption has been re-examined in American Mary, Jen and Sylvia Soska’s revenge fantasy/body horror hybrid that broke serious ground by providing a space for woman-centered discourse on aesthetics, body modification and the female form.


American Mary

With homage to other classic crime/horror and revenge fantasy narratives, American Mary does important new work by reframing body modification as a source of artistic expression, especially within communities of women. The film allies itself with the woman’s body and advocates for the woman’s right to pursue her own physical ideal, even when that goes against stereotypical views of “attractiveness” or compromises men’s sexual access to her body.

The film follows protagonist Mary Mason, a gifted surgical student who performs underground body modification surgeries as a way to pay her bills while finishing medical school. Through her business, Mary encounters an eccentric group of wealthy women who are part of the body mod community. Each woman is pursuing an aesthetic ideal that she feel represents her inner self.

The Soskas, who both wrote and directed the film, construct dialogue that actually explores the desires and motivations behind these women’s decisions to alter their appearances so drastically. One woman, Ruby, tells Mary that “I don’t really think it’s fair that God gets to choose how we look on the outside do you?” For Ruby and the others, body modification becomes a way for women to regain agency over their appearance. In an interview with Ariel Fisher, Sylvia Soska comments that this particular line has really resonated with the transgender community and the twins receive messages from transgender people saying that Ruby’s lines in this scene makes them feel like “I’m okay to be me”.

Ruby further explains that she’s “never had any of these surgeries to become a sexual object” but rather wants to become aesthetically beautiful without being sexualized at all—she literally wants to be a doll. Therefore, Mary modifies the commonly objectified aspects of Ruby’s anatomy—she removes her nipples and sews up her labia in order to make her seem more like Barbie doll, allowing Ruby to pursue her idea of desexualized perfection. In portraying body modification as a powerful display of agency, American Mary combats the narrative the body modification is shameful, inauthentic, or immoral.

But what makes American Mary body horror?

The elements of body horror are found in the surgical scenes, delicately shot in close-up, the body-under-operation devoid of sexual objectification. Additional horror comes from the violent encounters Mary has with men. Mary is drugged and raped when she attends a party hosted by one of the senior surgeons in the hospital, setting a revenge plot in motion that occasion scenes of torture as Mary “practices” body modification procedures on her assailant.

Practice makes perfect.
Practice makes perfect.

All of the people Mary operates on—with the important exception of her rapist—have given consent. In a world where most body horror movies show things being taken away from the human body, American Mary celebrates the additive magic of modification. Bodies are made better, more “authentic,” and more reflective of inner character though Mary’s surgeries. American Mary shows us that there is a way to make a film that revolves around women’s bodies, treats those bodies with seriousness and respect, but also delivers the same pleasures typically experiences in good old gory body horror.

Sylvia Soska has humbly described American Mary as “a little, independent horror movie that’s a character piece about a woman’s struggles in a male-dominated work place that features body modification”. For me, as a long time horror fan, this film was much more than just a character piece. American Mary allows us to reimagine body horror as a genre that is particularly capable of exploring the female experience without exploiting the female body.

It is worth noting that American Mary, by nature of its subject matter, does ask us to gaze upon the modified bodies and even if those bodies are not coded as subaltern or immoral, they are certainly seen as strange. Despite her work, Mary does not ever modify her body and she views her clients with respect, but also with clinical distance. This aspect puts the film at risk of undercutting its own progressive work by fetishizing difference.

By the third act of the film, we realize that the freedom and agency allotted to the female characters of American Mary has its consequences. Most significantly [spoilers ahead], Ruby’s husband responds to her modifications with violence. Not only does he reject his wife’s body, but he lays the blame for her transformation on the community of women who supported it—Ruby’s friend Beatrice who paid for the operation, and Mary who performed it. The control women hold over their own bodies, and their power to exercise their own desires regarding those bodies threatens male authority, or in this case, one male’s sexual activity. Issues of gender and agency in American Mary resonate with some current debates in American body politics—which to be fair, is its own genre of body horror.

Appendix: Films and Video Games of Interest

If you’re interested in checking out some body horror, here are a few films and video games to get you started. As you can imagine, this list barely scratches the surface—or should I say skin.



  • Alien (1979): Ridley Scott’s classic horror/sci-fi hybrid starring Sigourney Weaver. The series screenwriter Dan O’Bannon has said that he intended the movie to attack men sexually by portraying homosexual oral rape and birth. Also, com does a nice job drawing our attention to all the penis imagery in the film, if that’s your thing.
  • Contracted (2013): A young, queer woman suffers from a mysterious STD after being raped at a party. Murder and zombie transformation follow.
  • Grace (2009): Vampirism, body horror, and breast feeding.
  • Hellraiser (1987): Adultery, Murder, Sadomasochism, Puzzle Boxes! Classic body horror from Clive Barker.
  • Teeth (2007): A darkly comedic horror film about a teenager who has teeth in her vagina.


Video Games:

  • Bioshock: Players can equip various plasmids that disfigure the character’s body, while providing special effects.
  • Far Cry series: Healing animations are graphic and could be viewed as a kind of body horror.
  • Heavy Rain: There is a scene where the protagonist can be seen chopping off his own fingers.

Written by K.S.

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