This Undeniable Skin: The Grotesque and Lovely Wonders of Body Horror
by Gwendolyn Kiste
Flesh. Sinew. Bone. Muscle. Nails. Blood.
These bodies we occupy are simultaneously beautiful and horrifying. It’s so strange to me how much work is happening within this cage of my bones at every moment. All the heartbeats I never have to coax. All the breaths I never remember taking. It’s at once life-affirming and a little intimidating how much goes on without me ever having a say in it.
This is part of the reason why body horror has long fascinated as well as repulsed me—in the best possible way, of course. From my first viewing of the original Vincent Price version of The Flywhen I was a pint-sized kid, to my adolescent introduction to the feminist-tinged lycanthrope flick, Ginger Snaps, I quickly realized how body horror could be blunt or nuanced or anything in between. It’s one of the most malleable and all-encompassing subgenres of horror, touching on monsters such as werewolves and vampires as well as delving into the all-out gritty splatter films. In fact, it’s hard to find a single entry in the horror canon that doesn’t at least flirt a bit with body horror.
So why the attraction? Because like it or not, living in this world as flesh and bone is something we all share. It’s undeniable, and considering how vulnerable these human bodies are, it’s terrifying. But it’s glorious too. Here I am, writing this essay, with these hands, these eyes, this mind. This is my body. It’s the one thing in this life that is unequivocally mine.
However, not everyone is quite so willing to see it that way. Women know all too well how eager some people are to take away control of these bodies. From the political level with its constant and spiteful legislation down to the pages of fashion magazines telling us we must stay young and thin and pretty forever, there is nowhere women are safe from being told what to do, how to look, and how to be in these bodies.
Yet despite these real-life terrors barraging us day after day, I take solace in body horror—in confronting my fears about my body, what it can do, and worst of all, what can be done to it. That’s because at least in fiction, we can control the narrative. As writers, it’s the one place where we do have that power, and I like to believe that in my own work, I wield it in a way that doesn’t ever deny the true hardship and pain of the world, even as I search for a way to escape or stop that pain.
Perhaps, that’s what body horror and even horror overall mean to me: it’s that lantern in the dark, illuminating a path, however murky. We may not make it through—there are no guarantees in life after all—but if we can discern the path, even a single stepping stone to lead us out of the shadows, then we don’t have only our fears to keep us company. We’ll also have something that looks a little like hope too. And that’s what can keep us fighting, maybe now in these worst of times more than ever.
A kind of horror author all her own, Sylvia Plath wrote a line in The Bell Jarthat echoes in my mind often. Every time I’m afraid I’ve lost my way, these words always bring me back to this moment, reminding me of the immediacy of this body, all the unease it inspires as well as all its strange beauties: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”
May all our hearts go on beating for many years, as we confront and delight in the horrors only our own bodies can create.
About Gwendolyn Kiste
Gwendolyn Kiste is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, from JournalStone; the dark fantasy novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, from Broken Eye Books; and her debut novel, The Rust Maidens, from Trepidatio Publishing. Her short fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Shimmer, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, Interzone, LampLight, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye as well as Flame Tree Publishing’s Chilling Horror Short Storiesanthology, among others.Originally from Ohio, she now resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. You can also find her online at Facebook and Twitter.