Horror is so often in the mundane—the turn, in an instant, from a walk in a pleasant suburban neighborhood to violence that can end a life. Horror movies have been built on this trope since the beginning, but it is also a potential daily reality for black America. Jordan Peele’s directorial debut underlines this point immediately, layering both classic horror cues and a situation that immediately recalls the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
Having established this metaphor—which is less a metaphor than a brutal, direct statement—we meet Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), who are headed to her parents’ estate for a weekend. “Do your parents know I’m black?” Chris asks, thinking ahead to a potentially uncomfortable first meeting. It’s a question that most interracial couples have encountered, if not always out loud. “They’re not racist,” Rose replies. “I would have told you.” The idea that Rose can see her own privilege through the veil of her place within the family made me scoff, sitting there in the theater. Chris let it go. It laid the perfect groundwork for the questions the movie would raise: about refusing to see what is in front of us, and about blinding ourselves with more comfortable or more convenient truths.
At every turn, the film explores how the sinister can be folded into the seemingly ordinary, through the specific lens of racialized interactions. As the weekend progresses, Chris attends a party thrown by the Armitages for their friends—wealthy older white people who wear Chris down with a barrage of uncomfortable comments that feel all too realistic. From an older woman who goes straight for Chris’ arm muscles, to a comment by Rose’s brother containing the phrase “genetic makeup,” there’s a growing burden on Chris to smile through it all. The premise lends itself brilliantly to horror—after all, aren’t moviegoers already primed to feel a slightly sickening sense of unease and dread when it comes to the sight of a young black man alone in a crowd of older white people? We don’t even need the context of a horror movie to know that historically, and in the present moment as well, there is potential for racialized violence there. Is the awkwardness caused by “benign” racism fueled by mere ignorance? Does it mask, like a KKK hood, the real racist beneath? Like all good horror films, Get Out heightens a particular social anxiety to the point of frenzy. In this case, it’s about accurately judging the depths of a person’s discrimination. Being able to tell the difference between an awkward social encounter and a more sinister racist depth is everything.
It also delivers a pointed send-up of the microaggressive well-meaning white liberal, since racism is not, in fact, the sole domain of southern evangelicals. The film makes a point of emphasizing Rose’s sympathy for Chris’ situation and her father’s insistent ally-ism (including an absurdist moment where he discusses an ancestor happily losing to Jesse Owens under Hitler’s watchful eyes). Well-intentioned civility can, and does, coexist with the kind of casual cruelty and uncaring evil that will put the good of the tribe first—even among the educated and self-proclaiming liberal.
These are signs that Chris chooses to ignore, or to subsume, time and time again. In his character, we get not only a stand-in for the threatened black male body (among a white cocktail party, or on the side of the highway facing a white cop), but also a figure for the kind of accommodation that white supremacy exacts. We can get along well, the movie says in the beginning, as long as you’re willing to bend a little. Overlook moments of discomfort so that everything will go smoothly. Eventually, this is a road that leads him straight down a nightmare, as the stakes of his attrition rise higher and higher. Chris spends so much of the movie accepting his own discomfort, in situations that seem plausibly microaggressive, that he can no longer see the true nature of the threat in front of him. The other black characters at the Armitages’ house are so accommodating, genial, and blank that the audience is supposed to know something is wrong—but they’re not the only ones bending over backwards just a little too much.
It’s difficult to discuss the movie further without giving away its biggest plot twists—but rest assured that, though the actual plot isn’t exactly subtle in the end, it is immensely satisfying. There is, as a friend noted when we left the theater, absolutely no redemption for white characters in this movie. And that’s ok. This is one movie, out of hundreds and thousands of movies, where the discussion begins and ends on the side of the black characters. The discomfort is insistent, vivid—a perfect counterbalance to the kind of palliative conversations that revolve around white supremacy and “the alt-right.”
The fear that you are going crazy, that you are imagining the things that wound or haunt you, is one our culture is always ready to confirm in women. We have been culturally conditioned to distrust our own minds, our own responses to the world around us. The writers of Gothic narratives have always understood this…In any situation of intense pain or fear, whether medical or domestic, being told repeatedly that you are imagining things or “making them up” creates a hell of Gothic isolation.
One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Near the beginning of Guillermo del Toro’s new horror movie, Crimson Peak, a group of Victorian socialites describe the heroine, a young, aspiring American novelist named Edith Cushing, as “our very own Jane Austen,” cattily adding of Austen: “She died a spinster.” Edith replies, “I’d rather be Mary Shelley,” adding, after a pause, “She died a widow.”
Beyond this exchange’s underlying dialogue of marriageability, Edith’s preference for Mary Shelley situates Crimson Peak in the genre of Gothic terror which runs from Anne Radcliffe to Shelley herself to Charlotte Brontë to Daphne Du Maurier and beyond. Edith’s rejection of Austen implies that this movie is not a send-up of the Gothic genre, as Austen’s satirical Northanger Abbey is, even when the film self-consciously trots out the most worn conventions of the genre. More subtly but even more importantly, Edith’s preference signals the film’s distance from the worldview that produced Austen’s satirical novel: there will be no shaming of the female protagonist’s overheated imagination here, as there is via a pedantically mansplaining male figure in Northanger Abbey. In Crimson Peak, all the heroine’s fears are confirmed—along with some terrors that never occurred to her before they were revealed, though they probably occurred to the viewer with any experience of Gothic tales.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
Thus, 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.
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.
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).
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.
Last month, The Feminist’s Guide to Horror took you into the world of body horror where films focus on the human form as a bloody, suffering spectacle–this month we’re taking a turn into the realm of Found Footage horror, which is all about the power of suggestion. Found Footage horror is the land of amateur documentarians in pursuit of a supernatural mystery. It privileges local narratives and urban legends told from the first-person perspective of those who are most invested in discovering the truth behind these phenomena.
Last month, The Feminist’s Guide to Horror took you into the world of body horror where films focus on the human form as a bloody, suffering spectacle—this month we’re taking a turn into the realm of Found Footage horror, which is all about the power of suggestion. Found Footage horror is the land of amateur documentarians in pursuit of a supernatural mystery. It privileges local narratives and urban legends told from the first-person perspective of those who are most invested in discovering the truth behind these phenomena.
Found footage movies often go something like this: skeptical young people decide to explore some kind of supernatural phenomenon (either an urban legend, or some paranormal activity they themselves are experiencing) and plan to document their efforts through the use of a video camera so that their discoveries can be compiled and shared with the world. Something goes awry, and all we have left to explain what happened to them is found in the reel of footage they leave behind. There are variations on this theme, but typically these films thrive on the conversion–and often possession–of the skeptical characters as their investigative efforts lead down a rabbit hole deeper and darker than they ever imagined.
Found Footage Forms
Though told from a first person perspective (or perspectives, if more than one character captures footage), our experience of the film is mediated through technology: we are self-consciously watching a film-within-a-film for the duration of the movie. In this way, found footage is unapologetically meta. These films rely on the fact that people are familiar with not only horror tropes, but the various devices used in horror cinematography. For example, as an experienced horror viewer, when I see a close-up shot of someone’s face directly followed by a camera pan to the left or right, I’m expecting there to be some sort of jump scare when the camera pans back to the actor’s face. Just the expectation of that jump scare—a ghost in the corner moving swiftly towards the screen, a movement in a mirror, a sudden “bang” —is enough to keep me on the edge of my seat. In this way, much of the suspense of found footage films comes from the viewer having certain generic expectations about horror cinematography and then waiting in anticipation of seeing how those expectations play out.
In that way, horror aficionados are ideal viewers for films like the Paranormal Activity series because though the writer and director sets up these kind of jump scares in all the of the ways one can (plenty of mirrors, corners, furniture where people can pop out of, etc.), they deliver that scare such a small percentage of the time that you’re on the edge of your seat the entire movie.
Because of this, watching found footage films in the theater with a bunch of other people enhances the experience. I always try to see a new found footage film on opening weekend because I love the camaraderie that builds in the audience as we are collectively “faked-out” and respond to the intensifying suspense with increasing verbality; the premature screams of other viewers can cause me to jump even when the movie does not create that effect. As the small child approaches the closed closet door rattling on its hinges, reaching out his hand to reveal what’s inside, you better believe I’m mumbling “Don’t open the door, don’t open the door” under my breath.
Is Found Footage Connected to Other Genres?
Some trace found footage films’ narrative strategies back to the epistolary novel, where the plot is relayed through a series of correspondence or diary entries. Typically, the constraints of the “film-within-a-film” form forces the narrative to unfold chronologically as the camera-operator follows the rest of the group. Flashbacks are all but unavailable unless they occur though a verbal narration of past events by a character on screen. However, as begin to see in films like the Paranormal Activity series or, most recently in Unfriended, the ability for flashback can be recuperated if that flashback is achieved through use of another technological means (i.e., someone taping someone else while they are watching surveillance footage of the ghost’s nightly activities.)
Found footage horror is also connected to the documentary film form. Often the premise of the film is an investigative enterprise and filmmakers strive for a high degree of verisimilitude. For example, the actors in The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity used their real names as their character’s names. Often, the filmmakers will attempt to mimic the amateur filmographer, as is done in the sci-fi found footage thriller Cloverfield (Robert Ebert apparently called this style, “shaky-cam”— Paranormal Activity mostly gets around this problem by having characters place cameras on tripods).These kind of cinematic choices serve as a kind of Barthesian “reality effect”, letting us know that we should believe the film takes place in the real world. One of the most impressive feats of a found footage movie is when it does not break its frame: every sound and picture is completely organic and can be derived from the scene itself (i.e., there are no shots taken outside of the perspective of the in-film camera operator).
Almost all of the found footage films that have been widely popularized deal with supernatural subjects, mainly ghosts or demons. Perhaps some of the scary appeal of these films comes from the possibility of seeing unbelievable things in a form that is completely bound to reality: if the ghost shows up, embodied, on camera, it’s harder to dispute. If the filmmakers achieve verisimilitude in their film-making, they build credibility, so that when the audience sees something bizarre on their film, it seems more real.
In the most successful movies of this genre, the film patiently allows viewers to be confronted with weird sounds and movements without clue-ing them in on their source. The climax of the movie is usually quite an intense—though often still suggestive—encounter with the entity that may include a few moments of bizzarity or violence, but this is typically not sustained. Fear is primarily created and sustained by the power of suggestion.
Because the genre depends more on narrative creativity and convincing special effects than makeup, gore, and post-production effects, these films often cost a fraction of a typical Hollywood budget to produce, making it an accessible genre for amateur filmmakers. (Notable examples are The Blair Witch Project which was made for an estimated $60,000 and Paranormal Activity which was made for about $15,000.)
Unfriended as Social Media Horror
When I went to see Paranormal Activity 4, I was impressed by how the filmmakers managed to shoot the film through a video chat between a teenager and her boyfriend with occasional help from an Xbox Kinect, and another camera. The people at Paranormal Activity know what’s up: they were able to angle the main character and her laptop in ways that set up scares and their use of the Xbox and Macbooks for surveillance didn’t break the frame for me.
After that film, I was just itching for someone to push that concept the to the next level, and Unfriended, released widely last weekend, did not disappoint.
The real art of the film is its form (the plot itself can be summarized surprisingly accurately by this Knife Party song). The film focuses on a group of teenagers on the one-year anniversary of the death of their “friend” Laura Barnes, who committed suicide after being horrifically cyberbullied following the release of a humiliating video of her at a party. The group of teenagers gear up for what seems like a fairly normal group chat on Skype. Their easy camaraderie is interrupted by the presence of an unwanted, unknown interloper in their Skype conversation.
This film makes an important contribution to the found footage genre because it represents an attempt to contend with the ways that we are also now, in part, virtual selves. The identities that we cultivate online, our loose personage constructed from our search histories, is the consciousness that this film engages. It is entirely mediated through virtual reality. For the entire film we are bound to the laptop screen of one of the teenagers, Blaire.
Unfriended solved the problem of how to handle flashbacks in the found footage narrative. As the film opens, we see that Blaire is watching youtube videos (we watch them with her) of Laura’s suicide (apparently taped on a crappy cell phone camera and uploaded), and then begin to watch what we would see later in full: the infamous video that eventually caused Laura’s suicide. By being able to use social media platforms like YouTube, or features like Facebook’s photo-albums, Blaire can show us the past while effortlessly keeping the film firmly rooted in the present.
As Blaire’s keystrokes lead us through the landscape of her iOS system we learn about her and as the plot heats up, we see her try to mediate between various entities—herself, her boyfriend, her friends, the ghost in the machine—through technological means. The negotiation between the virtual self and actual self is a key component of the film. As the movie progresses, Blaire and her friends’ physical bodies are punished for the sins of their virtual selves (a fitting reverse: the humiliating state of Laura’s physical body was ephemeral until it became virtualized in the form of the viral video).
The filmmakers also smartly make use of the technical foibles of social media platforms to create suspense. Using the annoying noise that Skype makes when it’s trying to recapture a lost call, we never know when the video screen will flash on and the noise we hear in the background will also yield to a violent, graphic image. That device itself was really effective in creating and maintaining suspense.
Impressively, the film almost never breaks its frame.This made it even more disappointing when the frame did break, which happened in two ways a handful of times throughout the film. Occasionally, Blaire would minimize the Skype conversation to look something up and the volume of her friends who were still talking would fade out without us seeing her adjust the volume on her laptop. This seems like a minor break to me, meant to refocus our attention on reading the important correspondence occurring on screen. The second and more egregious break occurred when a deep bass note began to play under the more suspenseful scenes. This use of bass note is a time-honored technique in horror; however, in a film that is so delightfully well-wrought in every other way, the presence of a sound that is unaccounted for within the iOS system, seems out of place and highly noticeable.
Throughout the course of film we learn much about the questionable behavior of this group of teenagers including their use of illegal drugs, drinking habits, cavalier sexual encounters, and lies, but those moral infractions (if you can call them that) are not why the teenagers are possessed and then punished in the film: they are punished as revenge for the way that they bullied one of their peers.
Other possession narratives often leave the audience feeling immune from the possibility of the events in the film ever happening to them: for example,“Well, this could never happen to me because I don’t play with Ouija boards,” or “If I found a creepy box like that, I wouldn’t make the mistake of opening”. Unfriended does not leave viewers this same kind of escape because so many of us are terrible internet citizens. The kind of mean-spirited trolling that led to Laura Barnes’ fictional death in the movie actually leads to death in real life. Even if the ghost in Unfriended is a fantasy, the premise for the haunting is all too real.
I’ve purposely focused this review on the structure of the film because I don’t want to spoil the plot for those who are going to see the movie this weekend. Ultimately, this is one of the first horror movies that tries to engage with the way that we are becoming virtual selves and negotiate the way that our virtual actions have consequences in the actual world. This is an important direction for film, and it’s exciting to see horror filmmakers leading the way.
Found Footage Watchlist:
Cannibal Holocaust (1980): Often considered the “original” found footage film, a film crew is found dead in the Amazon, and the only evidence of their discoveries are captured on film…
The Blair Witch Project (1999): Three student filmmakers disappear after investigating the legend of the Blair Witch…
Paranormal Activity (2007): A couple start to hear noises in their house and set up a camera to investigate…(I’d also recommend Paranormal Activity 4, if Social Media horror is of interest to you)
V/H/S (2012): A group of guys run into a stash of found footage way creepier than they bargained for…
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.