Bodies are a horror show.* Slice open our bumpy, hairy surfaces, and bright reds, deep purples, and fatty yellows spill out. Inside, we are weird and squishy and complicated, and oh-so-much more fragile than we wish we were.
We are our bodies. No shit, huh? But give me a second here. There are at least three different ways this statement is true, and each of them will provoke a fear response if threatened.
First, and most straightforwardly, we are our bodies in the corporeal sense: without them we die.
Second, we depend on our bodies for our identity, for who we think we are and for how we present ourselves to the world. This is why the distorted human form has such a strong visceral impact. Mutation, mutilation, disease—these can all be fates worse than death because they take away the lives we’ve built and leave us isolated, sad, afraid, and alone.
And thirdly, we are our bodies because of the (somewhat mysterious) relationship between consciousness, our sense of self, and our thoughts and emotions and one jiggly, spongy, raw tofu-textured organ—the brain. Fuck with the brain, and you just aren’t you anymore.
So, bodies are intimately intertwined with—if not identical to—who we are, not just in flesh but in perception, too. Because of these connections between our physical existence and our mental existence, bodies are both the origin and the nexus of fear. Superficially, this is what body horror preys upon and what allows it to be such an intensely disturbing subgenre. But body horror can also be used to find meaning beyond simple self-preservation.
There are two reasons I use body horror when I write, and the more genteel of the two is because it has the best metaphors.
In Skull Nuggets (Bizarro Pulp Press, 2018), brain mites and trepanation are not the book’s raison d’etre. Rather, they are means to certain ends. The bugs serve to illustrate the feeling of not being in control of your thoughts, and the skull drilling is used to explore how far people are willing to go to feel “normal” or to chase happiness.
In Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel (forthcoming from Grindhouse Press), sideshow performers with physical anomalies are hunted down by a woman who can’t tolerate difference. She wants to “fix” their transgressive bodies. The metaphor is overt: what makes us different must be cherished and kept safe from those who would excise our uniqueness and put an end to who we are meant to be.
So, yes, body horror offers fantastic metaphors. But really, I use it because I love the gross out.
My favorite thing about fiction is that moment when we think,she wouldn’t, and then she does! It’s even better if it’s in a way we never would have predicted. The best scenes leave us with wide eyes, saying, I can’t believe that happened! Body horror was made for this. As a writer, it’s that moment—the look of shock, the nose crinkle of disgust—that means the world to me, and if it’s followed by a laugh, so much the better.
Sometimes we need to revel in the squickiness. Many of us are up to our elbows in shit and piss and vomit and blood in our everyday lives—especially if we’re in any vein of caregiving—and if we can’t laugh at it, well, our bodies will kill us, won’t they? The stress will build up and eat us from the inside out. Laughing at body horror is gallows humor, and gallows humor is the most honest and important kind there is.
But body horror is valuable as more than just a release valve. Most of us move through our days outwardly focused and unaware of the countless internal processes our bodies are constantly monitoring, regulating, and fine tuning to keep us alive.
It’s a damn good story that can reach in there—into that corporeal subconscious—and tap into fears or aversions or disgust we didn’t even know we had. It’s an even better story that can yank that out—our life, our biology, our beating heart and chyme-smeared intestines—and hold it up for us to see, to witness.
“This is what you’re made of,” it says. “This is all you are. The life you have right now can be over in a flash. So, for the love of everything you hold dear, stop taking everything so seriously!”
The practice of remembering death has a long history in eastern religions, the intention being to strip away what that doesn’t matter. Eventually, the traditions tell us, we will have stripped everything away and we’ll discover nothing is left, nothing matters—the phenomena of this world are all just temporary illusions. Okay, maybe body horror won’t take us that far, but it is its own kind of remembrance of death. The best of it is a hilarious, disgusting reminder that we’re only here for an instant, so hold your loved ones close and never mind all the bullshit. Remember death to remember what life is really about.
* For a concise and worthwhile introduction to body horror, see “The H Word: Body Horror—What’s Really Under Your Skin?” by Lucy Taylor in “Nightmare,” issue 69, 2018.
About Amy Vaughn
Amy M. Vaughn sits alone in a room with her cats and writes weird little books. This is her idea of a good time.