The type of horror that can be described as ‘body horror’ is astronomical in scope. A quick google search tells you that horror novels as disparate as Frankenstein and Coraline are considered body horror by one website or another, and when you take a few moments to really think about it, most subcategories within the overarching genre could be loosely classified as body horror. The following is a list of why we—horror fans and regular humans alike, because let’s face it, even alleged horror haters have ogled a gnarly rash on their own, formerly pristine skin or stared in morbid fascination at the growing sphere of their or their partner’s baby bump—love body horror, in all its bloody, stomach-turning, hypnotic glory.
#1: Because your body is horrible.
Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosisis arguably the most well-known work of body horror fiction out there, and I’ve always felt that the entirely mundane way in which the book opens—‘When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.’—is a testament to the fact that on many similarly unremarkable mornings, we wake up to some new affront by the disconcerting flesh suits we call bodies. To prove this point, I’ve reimagined the first line of Kafka’s masterpiece in the following, more realistic ways:
‘When Christa Carmen woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, she found that the three hours of sleep she’d amassed would not be nearly enough to propel her through the thirteen hours’ worth of conference calls, board meetings, gym sessions, and dinner parties currently written into her calendar for the day.’
“When Christa Carmen woke up one morning from dreams of blood spilling forth from slowly-parting elevator doors, she found that her period had unexpectedly begun in the night, seeping through the sheets and ruining the $2,000 mattress that had been delivered the week before.”
“When Christa Carmen woke up one morning from dreams of rotting fish and roiling seas, she found that she’d come down with a nasty stomach bug just in time to miss her non-refundable flight to the Bahamas.”
“When Christa Carmen woke up one morning from unremembered dreams, she found that a large zit had sprouted in the center of her forehead on the same morning as her 9 a.m. job interview.”
See? You absolutely do not need to turn into a giant, winged insect for your body to be an utterly deplorable collection of horrors! You can experience equally appalling horrors on a daily basis, approximately 28,068 times in your life if you’re an American man, and 29,638 times if you’re an American woman!
#2: Because women’s bodies are particularly horrible.
Puberty and pregnancy, hysteria-inducing hormones and crone-creating menopause, the female body has historically been both an instrument of and a vehicle for horror for as long as writers have been penning tales of the grotesque.
The quintessential female body horror novel, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby sees Rosemary Woodhouse spend her pregnancy combatting loneliness, paranoia, gaslighting, illness, pain, weight fluctuations, the mutation of her body, peculiar cravings, and a loss of autonomy. For surviving this nine-month ordeal, she receives the ultimate reward: giving birth to the Antichrist, red skin, reptilian eyes, and all. Guess what? Many women experience regular, non-demonic pregnancy this way, minus the birthing of the spawn of Satan, although I suppose even that might be up for argument in some cases.
In terms of recommendations, Gwendolyn Kiste and Damien Angelica Walters have each contributed heartbreakingly gorgeous novels to the canon of female body horror with The Rust Maidens (winner of the 2018 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel) andPaper Tigers, respectively, and short stories like Kiste’s “Something Borrowed” from her collection And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe and Brookelynn Warra’s “Heirloom” in the Justin Steele & Sam Cowan-edited Looming Low Volume 1 should provide you with something to read when you find that spot of blood on your sheets or no longer recognize your fifteen-year-old-self in the mirror, when you experience a hot flash and are convinced the very fires of Hell have come up through the earth to claim you or feel that alien spasm of movement in your newly-expanding belly.
#3: Because your body will fail you as it ages.
Sure, Alzheimer’s and dementia are technically brain disorders, but being locked inside the prison of your body with a steadily declining knowledge of yourself and the world around you is the very definition of body horror. Films like The Taking of Deborah Logan and stories like “The Sundowners” by Damien Angelica Walters (Suspended in Dusk II, Simon Dewar, ed.) tap into these very real fears; you can pretend you look forward to the Sunday morning crossword out of a sheer love for brain games, but we all know why you really buy sudoku books off Amazon in bulk.
On a strictly practical level, body horror films and novels can be great distractions from the problems that affect us as we move through middle age and beyond! Read the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer or The Troop by Nick Cutter and you won’t even notice your aching back and feet, arthritic joints, weight gain, depression, or the fact that you had to squint to read the goddamn things because you couldn’t remember where you left your glasses.
A final point on the horror of being confined to an aging body… remember Paul Edgecomb’s punishment for sending John Coffey to the electric chair? Paul’s thoughts on his dramatically extended lifespan are captured in the book’s final line: “We each owe a death, there are no exceptions, I know that, but sometimes, oh God, the Green Mile is so long.”
#4: Because your body will fail you before it ages.
I know I already mentioned chronic fatigue, menstruation, unforeseen illness, and adult acne as the real-life manifestations of Kafka’s go-to-sleep-human-wake-up-as-bug phenomenon, but there are myriad other ways in which your body will fail you well before you are considered geriatric. Bones break, immune systems give up the ghost, pancreases stop producing insulin, digestive tracts become chronically inflamed, the list goes on and on. Why do we love H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau and John Carpenter’s The Thing (based on a John W. Campbell Jr. novella Who Goes There?) so much? Because it MUST be better to suffer a skin graft or spinal fusion than to become half human, half leopard, or half human, half thing!!!
As an aside, our relatively recent ability to stave off some of the cruelties of aging is also the stuff of a body horror novel. People living as recently as the nineteenth century would consider today’s humans with titanium knees, ceramic hips, plastic tubes in the vessels of their hearts, and carbon fiber prosthetics in the place of arms or legs to be members of a race of human-robot hybrids.
#5: Because addiction affects 20 million Americans.
As a teen, having a beer or trying a hit of marijuana didn’t seem like the end of the world. Now you are a shadow of your former self, a wraith who stalks the streets seeking solace in the form of noxious chemicals, blind to the path back to your former way of life, reduced to lying and stealing from your loved ones, knocking on death’s door half a dozen times a day, ultimately succumbing to soul-shattering withdrawals during which you lie in bed at night—if you’re lucky enough to have a bed—staring at the ceiling and praying for it all to end.
When this is the reality for millions of people—either experienced firsthand or through the suffering of spouses, mothers, fathers, siblings, children, friends, and/or co-workers—why wouldn’t we devour literature like David Wong’sJohn Dies at the Endor Fiendby Peter Stenson, or the more recent anthology, Garden of Fiends: Tales of Addiction Horror, edited by Mark Matthews? Reading about Soy Sauce or atlys (Jessica McHugh’s contribution to Garden of Fiends, an excerpt of her novella,The Green Kangaroos,rivals The Metamorphosisfor drop-what-you-are-doing-and-read-this-book-NOW opening lines: “The best way to take atlys is to inject it straight into the testicles.”) is a comfort when compared to reading the newspaper these days, seeing as they usually contain statistics such as “Every year, worldwide, alcohol is the cause of 5.3% of deaths (or 1 in every 20) or “About 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.”
#6: Because mental health disorders aren’t merely agents of psychological horror.
Many of these answers to the ‘why body horror?’ question overlap, and while I touched upon the mental health disorders that can occur later in life, what about those afflictions that can strike at any time? When you realize that something like Brain on Fireby Susannah Cahalan—a memoir about a young woman’s abrupt descent into a rare autoimmune disease and the horrors that came with misdiagnoses—is nonfiction, it makes running to your local library for a copy of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill Houseor Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghostsseem like a grand idea.
#7: Because coronary artery disease, stroke, lower respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cancers, diabetes, dehydration due to diarrheal diseases (how’s that for an awful alliteration?), tuberculosis, and cirrhosis.
If horror is a way to reflect the ugly parts of our world back at us through a distorted lens that makes the trauma tolerable, then body horror is a way to deal with the atrocities that our bodies—our weak, susceptible, frequently defective bodies—inflict upon us every day. Moreover, I can prove that we deal with the horror of our own, sagging flesh suits by consuming body horror narratives (for this list, I stuck with films):
- Coronary artery disease = Gerald’s Game directed by Mike Flanagan (based on the novel by Stephen King)
- Stroke = The Skeleton Key directed by Iain Softley
- Lower respiratory infections = 10 Cloverfield Lane directed by Dan Trachtenberg
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease = The Happening directed by M. Night Shyamalan
- Cancer = Before I Wake directed by Mike Flanagan
- Diabetes = Panic Room directed by David Fincher
- Dehydration due to diarrheal diseases = Dreamcatcher directed by Lawrence Kasdan (based on the novel by Stephen King; unfortunately for you, this won’t even be the last time I mention this film/novel)
- Tuberculosis = The Others directed by Alejandro Amenábar
- Cirrhosis = The Monster directed by Bryan Bertino, or Repo! The Genetic Opera directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, or Repo Men directed by Miguel Sapochnik (based on the novel The Repossession Mambo by Eric Garcia
There’s a horror movie about a tornado full of sharks, did you really think I wouldn’t be able to come up with one that’s a metaphor for—or directly related to—each of the world’s deadliest diseases? Tsk tsk…
#8: Because you can be tricked into thinking your body (or someone else’s body) is beautiful and will last forever.
If youth is wasted on the young, youthful bodies are wasted on youthful bodies. We are born with soft skin, supple flesh, pliant muscles, and minds as rich for planting knowledge as the most fertile of any landscape on earth. But what young person hasn’t thought, that won’t be me, I have an infinite reserve of energy, I’ll always be able to party and stay out late, or, look at that old woman in a bikini… I wear sunscreen, I’ll never have sunspots and wrinkles. Here’s the thing… our youth plays tricks on us. It makes us believe that we will be young forever. That way we do as much eating, pleasure-seeking, and fornicating as possible, ensuring we pass along our genes and continue populating the earth.
By now, you know where I’m going with this… if we are so afraid of being faced with our mortality that we’re able to trick ourselves (and others) of our beautiful, buoyant, perpetual youth, then you knowwriters and directors are making films and writing novels aimed to both distract from and soothe us in these fears. Need a to-watch list? Jennifer’s Body (Karyn Kusama), Spring (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead),The VVitch (Robert Eggers), Stardust (Matthew Vaughn), Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro) and Hocus Pocus (Kenny Ortega). And for novels, there’s Slade House by David Mitchell, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, and basically any vampire book ever written.
#9: Because pus, blood, saliva, urine, feces, sexual secretions, and bile.
Do you remember the shit weasels in Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher?You should, especially because I warned you that my use of this novel as an example of body horror wouldn’t stop with the thinly veiled metaphor for perishing from diarrheal diseases. Anyway, in 2015, Grady Hendrix wrote an article for Tor.com entitled “The Great Stephen King Reread: Dreamcatcher,” and when you read his description of the initial alien lifeforms the protagonists encounter (there’s also the red fungus and the more traditional ‘Grayboy’ aliens), you’ll see why I didn’t bother fashioning a description of the shit weasels myself:
“These vicious little turds with teeth grow inside human colons, causing a lot of farting, and then they get pooped out in the toilet where they promptly launch themselves at the soft buttocks of their former human hosts and bite off their dicks.”
King’s Dreamcatcher is a six hundred twenty-four-page metaphor for another aspect of body horror: pain. As Hendrix details in his article, Dreamcatcher was written during the period after King was hit by a van in 1999, and much of the novel was influenced by his relentless, excruciating pain and subsequent opioid addiction. Still, for all its skill in viewing an extraterrestrial invasion through the lens of bodily agony, it’s a hell of a metaphor for the horrors that come out of our bodies as well.
#10: Because your body is the only body you have.
Are you having an existential crisis yet? No? Well, good, because I’ve got one more weight to tip the scales in favor of our resounding obsession with body horror…
These bodies of ours—the ones that bleed, crave, grow, shrink, change, become addicted, produce new life, age, break down, and ultimately cease working—if we could choose to trade them in, to give them up, would we still be the same person inside? Would we even be human? Black Mirrorhas some tremendous episodes that explore the repercussions of transferring one’s consciousness into another vessel. What do these body/mind sleights of hand look like? Not great, as you might imagine…
Only in “San Junipero” is the concept of the mind living on outside the body shown to merit a positive outcome. In “White Christmas,” separating the mind from the body is a method of torturing suspects into confession and carrying out prison sentences. In “Black Museum,” a similar twist occurs. “USS Callister” sees a lonely, sadistic man gaining control of his employees’ minds separate from their bodies and trapping them in a virtual reality nightmare. And in “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too,” Miley Cyrus’ character’s consciousness is uploaded into millions of pint-sized AI dolls, allowing her opportunistic aunt to place her in a medically induced coma, condemning Ashley O’s body to a hopeless, deathlike slumber.
The moral of these stories seems to be that divorcing one’s mind from one’s body is a technological advancement with which we are not equipped to deal, and new body horror and science fiction films and works of literature analyzing the fear of our bodies failing us before our minds are ready to surrender to the great unknown are being written every day.
Perhaps another lesson is that the body horror we know is less disturbing than the body horror we don’t. Extending one’s consciousness indefinitely—an un-body horror, if you will—might be the greatest body horror of all. We must not forget what Paul Edgecomb said: “Sometimes, oh God, the Green Mile is so long.” Would we really want to walk it—physically or mentally—forever?
Thank you for coming along on this exploration of Why Body Horror, or, Why Do We Entertain Ourselves with Grotesque Mutations, Demon Gestations, Parasitic Infections, and Ghastly Mutilations?and seek me out on social media if you’d like to discuss the post, ladies of horror fiction, or body horror in general.
About Christa Carmen
Christa Carmen’s debut fiction collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked, was released in August 2018 by Unnerving, and won the Indie Horror Book Award for Best Debut Collection. Her short fiction has appeared in Fireside Fiction Company, Unnerving Magazine, Comet Press’ Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 2, Outpost 28 Issues 2 & 3, Lycan Valley Press Publications’ Dark Voices, Space Squid, Third Flatiron’s Strange Beasties, Alban Lake Publishing’s Only the Lonely, DarkFuse Magazine, Tales to Terrify, Horror Tales Podcast, Black Ice Magazine Volume 2, Dead Oaks’ Horror Anthology Podcast, Horror Hill/Chilling Tales for Dark Nights/The Simply Scary Podcast Network, Ghost Parachute, Weasel Press’ The Haunted Traveler, Mad Scientist Journal, The Eunoia Review, Blood Moon Rising, Danse Macabre, WolfSinger Publications’ Just Desserts, DreamFusion Press’ The Book of the Macabre, Devolution Z Horror Magazine, The J.J. Outré Review, Prolific Press’ Jitter Issue #4, Literally Stories, Fiction on the Web, Corner Bar Magazine, pennyshorts, Anotherealm, and Dark Fire Fiction. In 2016, “Four Souls of Eve” was published by Frith Books as a standalone eBook. Her work won Best in Genre, Thriller/Horror, in wordhaus’ 2016 Trick or Treat Fall Story Contest, and “The Goblin’s Abettor” won The Haberdasher’s Monster Mash Slash Fiction Contest in 2017.
Christa has additional work forthcoming from StrangeHouse Books, Muzzleland Press, McFarland & Company, Inc., The Wicked Library, Chilling Tales for Dark Nights/The Simply Scary Podcast Network, and Outpost 28 Issue #4.
Christa lives in Westerly, Rhode Island with her husband and their bluetick beagle, Maya. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in English and psychology, and a master’s degree from Boston College in counseling psychology. Christa is an MFA candidate at the Stonecoast Creative Writing program, of the University of Southern Maine. She works for Pfizer in Clinical Trial Packaging, and at a local hospital as a mental health clinician.
On Halloween 2016, Christa was married at the historic and haunted Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado (yes, the inspiration for Stephen King’s ‘The Shining!’). When she’s not writing, she is volunteering with one of several organizations that aim to maximize public awareness and seek solutions to the ever-growing opioid crisis in southern Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut.
Author Website: www.christacarmen.com