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  • Writer's pictureAndy Chapman

Body Horror - Deeper Than Just Flesh

What scares us the most is a question horror movies have been trying to find out since the early days of cinema. Since we first saw Count Orlok's shadow in F. W. Murnau's 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu, horror films have been trying to scare us and successfully doing so in many inventive ways. What scares us most can be subjective. For many, the height of terror could be the 1990 film Arachnophobia while for others it could be the J-horror classic Ringu. Horror films have a way of getting under our skin in a more visceral way than other genres. They utilise the ideas that most people try to ignore and, in doing so, force us to confront not only our fears, our own mortality.

In the history of horror cinema, one sub-genre has taken these notions to even more extreme places and pushed the boundaries of taste and creativity. Body Horror.

The 1978 remake Invasion of The Body Snatchers is a perfect example of the tropes that would become common within successful body horror films. It tells the story of a San Fransisco health inspector, played by Donald Sutherland, coming to realise the alien invasion is happening, and nobody seems to realise it. The slow-burning first act of the film creates tension, as we often see the signs that things are not as they should be long before the protagonists do. This soon ramps up as the true terror of the character's situation becomes apparent. We see in graphic detail the process of someone being copied and becoming one of the pod people. In one of the most notorious scenes, we witness what happens when the process fails when a dog-human hybrid runs up to one of the main characters.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers shows us a world where an alien invasion can happen because the population is too isolated in their own individual lives. It shows us a world of distrust of those in power and our own inability to change events. The aliens depicted are mirror versions of us that work within a hive mind and could easily represent our own loss of identity and individual purpose within modern society. The film speaks to us in 2022 as much as it did in 1978. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is tame compared to later body horror films. With the advancement of technology, effects got grander and gorier.

In 1982 another remake crashed into our cinemas and shocked a movie-going public with its extreme practical creature effects. The film is, of course, John Carpenter's classic The Thing. The film depicts a group of American researchers living in one of the most extreme climates on earth, Antarctica. After discovering an alien entity that can mimic those around it, the characters become cut off from any rescue as the creature begins to systematically kill off the group.

The film is an ultra-gory continuation of some of the ideas of Invasion of The Body Snatchers, with the monster this time not so much trying to take over the world but to survive itself. In this movie, the creature mimics not just the human body but our own savage nature, which is on full display as each character descends into paranoia, distrust and violence. The distorted flesh of the creature mirrors the distortion of the status quo for the human characters. The Thing pushed the envelope with its practical monster effects, shocking its audiences with visions of flesh morphing beyond comprehension into nightmarish creations. It showed us at our most violent, fighting change, fighting the unknown and the complete social breakdown when paranoia and fear take over.

Body horror films have always been vehicles for exploring more than just the physical. Through its sometimes transgressive imagery, body horror allows us to question the nature of ourselves. Who are we? Where are we going? The 1989 Japanese cult classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man questions the relationship between man and technology, a more prescient film than it maybe realised at the time. Consider our growing connection with modern tech and the slow but maybe inevitable road to physical integration. Tetsuo's depiction of a man who transforms himself into a mechanical monster, losing his humanity in the process, might seem over the top, but maybe no longer wholly unbelievable.

The complicated relationship with our physical selves is a common theme for many people in their own lives. Body dysmorphia, physical abnormalities and self-harm are a few examples of how we can struggle with ourselves. Growing up and experiencing puberty can seem like a struggle with our changing bodies. These types of ideas have been used in body horror films to great effect. Cult werewolf movie Ginger Snaps showed us the difficult process of adolescence via an outcast teenage girl coming to terms with the fact that her body is changing more than she ever bargained for.

Meanwhile, the controversial 2007 movie Teeth offers us an even more extreme image of self-discovery. In Teeth, Dawn's coming of age story is marred by unwanted sexual advances, religious conservatism and a medical condition known as Vagina Dentata. A folktale come to life, where her vagina contains teeth that will bite down, castrating any unwanted attention. Discovering and accepting the truth about her abnormality is one of the central struggles of the film and mirrors many peoples own struggles in accepting themselves. Some of the issues tackled in Teeth are consent, identity, patriarchy, abstinence and sexual violence, all within a fun yet horrific movie that became a cult favourite

.Julia Ducournau’s 2016 body horror masterpiece Raw took similar themes of self-discovery and plunged them into the world of a veterinary school. In Raw, new girl Justine, a dedicated vegan, is thrown into a world of vicious hazing, promiscuity and social hierarchy. As her strict moral world unravels, she begins to feel other urges rising, more cannibalistic in nature. Justine's self-discovery forces her to question her entire life and family, as she soon learns even her older sister has experienced the same changes.

Raw takes the traditional coming-of-age story and breaks down the genre tropes. As the female protagonist becomes more predatory in nature, her male counterparts become submissive, twisting the role of the male into subservience. Raw is a study on what it means to be an outsider and fitting in with the social norms of the status quo. A theme almost everyone can relate to through high school experiences. It takes these themes with stunning cinematography and outstanding performances and creates a modern horror classic.

The body horror genre has become a staple of horror cinema and continues to shock us with terrifying images of the human form distorted beyond what we know. From social-political worries to themes of sexuality or social hierarchy, body horror forces us to confront ourselves and the world that we live in, taking us to places that we have never seen and ripping them apart.

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