The Future of Body Horror: Can Our Art Keep up with Our Suffering?

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You see, what we’re talkin’ about here is an organism that imitates other life-forms, and it imitates ‘em perfectly.
–Dr. Blair, The Thing

John Carpenter’s The Thing opens with the desolation of space, but it’s on an Antarctic research station, so remote that it might as well be another world, where the action happens. Above, Dr. Blair—played by early-Internet meme Wilford Brimley—describes the alien that has infiltrated the facility, destroyed all means of external communication, and begun to mimic the group of American men living there, assimilating their bodies as it kills them off, one by one. Unable to tell who is human and who is one of the Thing’s perfect imitations, the survivors figure out a way to test each other’s blood, killing the creatures that fail to demonstrate their humanity.

It’s in one of The Thing’s most disturbing scenes that we see a sympathetic character reveal himself as one of the alien’s conquests. In an apparent state of shock, Norris goes into the throes of a heart attack, but when another man, Copper, attempts to revive him, Norris’s chest suddenly opens up, his ribcage transforming into teeth that snap shut over Copper’s arms and pull them, along with his defibrillator electrodes, into the cavity that was once his abdomen. Exposed guts vibrating, green tentacles bursting outward, Norris transforms into a multi-legged spider, helmed by a copy of his own inverted head. Hissing, fanged, bug-eyed, the arachnid Norris watches as its host body/progenitor dies on the table, still screaming. The creature’s erstwhile fellow humans, among them MacReady (played by Kurt Russell at his most Daddy), attack it with flamethrowers, because to allow it to live means that they, too, will be consumed.

Even compared with today’s technology, The Thing’s pre-CGI special effects make for convincing yet imaginative gore, and this scene is as gnarly as it gets. But what makes it resonate is that Norris has improbably turned out to be the Thing himself. Besides the feather-haired but hard-drinking MacReady, until now Norris seems to have been one of the few characters we could trust to not have been assimilated, but as his grisly transmogrification proves, not even he is safe.

The body horror genre is not just for those of us whose sensibility is tickled by the grotesque. Far more than being merely stomach-turning, it runs fantastically and viciously rampant with the anxieties we all have about our own physical vulnerability. Before this point in the film, we trusted Norris; more importantly, we empathized with him. But when his humanity is disproven, our trust is betrayed, and so is our own sense of personal safety. If the successful horror film makes us forget that we are not in danger, then the successful body horror film reminds us that as long as we inhabit bodies that can feel pain, we’re never truly safe—and The Thing does this chillingly well.

A flop back in 1982 but now considered a cult classic, it’s this reminder that makes The Thing so damn good (Carpenter’s mastery of the slow build and with Russell’s grimacing tundra cowboy notwithstanding). But movies, as with art across media, are not fixed things. Over time and across positionalities, viewers, and contexts, they vary and fluctuate, gaining and shedding meaning and significance (for instance, I don’t doubt that Russell was attractive to an early-80s audience, but when The Thing was new, the nostalgic allure his aesthetic evokes for me did not yet exist).

Which is to say, while it remains an experience I’d recommend to just about anyone, in the almost thirty-five years since its release, The Thing, and its eponymous monster, has remained of its time. Technically impressive though it remains, as the social imaginary from which body horror draws its power has changed, so has The Thing lost its power to disturb in quite the same way. While still revolting, eerie, and at times even scary, it no longer has its finger on the pulse that throbs with contemporary anxieties, if ever it did. What was once body horror, in the categorical sense, is now just a cross between a scary movie and a sci-fi flick, albeit a damn good one.

 

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So, how do we know who’s human? If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?
–Childs, The Thing

Regardless of how you feel about our most recent presidential election, the transition of power leaves us all in a state of uncertainty. Across the political spectrum, we’re left to speculate about what the next four years will bring (or impose).

Not all who fear a Trump presidency see it as an unprecedented descent into fascist darkness; there are optimists among us, as well as those for whom Trump’s victory isn’t a surprise, but a rather a confirmation that America’s power structures are oppressive by design. Nevertheless, we are all doing what we can to prepare ourselves, many fearing that no amount of preparation will completely mitigate the danger our own bodies pose.

This is because Trump has promised to increase surveillance of Muslim Americans, support race-based stop-and-frisk policies for policing, roll back already crumbling reproductive rights, eliminate our country’s first coherent step toward universal health care, and build a wall on the Mexican border; his transition team and future administration include self-proclaimed white nationalists, cronies whose only qualifications are mutual commercial interests, and career politicians who’ve made their bones in the relentless pursuit of LGBTQ rights. At a glance, the aim of the incoming Trump administration to define the True American™ in relief against those of us who—due to race, religion, class, immigration status, ability, sexuality, or (trans)gender identity—don’t conform is crystal-clear. While establishment efforts to create an Other in order to more easily root out the un-American is nothing new, to underestimate the threat of the emergent alt-right would be truly disastrous for we Others and our accomplices.

And so we prepare ourselves for those who would use our selves against us. These preparations feel all the more urgent for those who can’t—or won’t—simply leave the country for the next term or two. From transgender people fast-tracking legal gender identification paperwork; to the water protectors at Standing Rock who peacefully suffered physical assault while defending Native American sovereignty and the environment; to those hoarding contraceptives because they don’t know how obtainable they, or access to abortions, will be after January 20, the Others are taking concrete steps to offset the policies that the President-elect, and his cabinet of supervillains, promises to deliver.

That our physical safety is at risk (for some more than others) (now as ever) is cruel enough. That it’s being jeopardized because of our very embodiment—or in the perspective of our enemies, because of our willingness to name that embodiment—feels almost unbearable. It distorts being, as if the best we can hope for from existence is to live as hostages to our own bodies.

 

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Somebody in this camp ain’t what he appears to be. Right now that may be one or two of us. By spring, it could be all of us.
–MacReady, The Thing

As in all art movements, over the course of the last seventy years you can see reflected in body horror the last century’s great sociopolitical shifts. To name only one, the gains of civil rights and resistance movements, and the rising tide of neoliberalism that has so cannily appropriated them as “multiculturalism” and “diversity,” manifest in the subjects and stories of mainstream body horror films.

From the perspective of representation, and of the redistribution of economic and artistic power, the increase in three-dimensional characters that aren’t exclusively straight, white, middle-class, abled men is undeniably good. More and more, the Ripleys and Rosemarys are no longer (acceptably white) exceptions proving the rule; the Akiras and Metal Fetishists no longer rare examples of foreign characters of color to actually make their way to mainstream Western audiences; the casting of a Black American man in a lead role is no longer unthinkable, if still tellingly controversial. Though we haven’t reached a post-[name your marginalized identity] America by any means, that we’ve progressed is undeniable.

But if body horror’s increasing inclusivity of Others is a result of a general industry move toward universality, it also reveals that the anxieties it reveals can’t be taken for granted to be universal; that while anyone can fear physical pain, some people have better reason to expect it. In a time of increased deregulation and decreased worker protections, in which survival for most depends more and more not only on the labor the body produces, but on the literal tissues that can be farmed, harvested, and sold; the data it provides; the debt it creates, and the interest that debt accrues; the affective, sexual, and emotional energy it expends (not to speak of unpaid labor to which many are obliged), we find that anxiety on our screens. Seeing ourselves on those screens along with it is invaluable; that it must be in the context of a late-capitalist reality that’s increasingly terrifying to confront has a way of taking the shine off of it.

Art is many things: a savior, an escape, a means of struggle. Post-Trump, can anyone doubt that it will continue to reflect, reimagine, and resist the aching certainty that physical suffering is not only inevitable, but caused—summoned—by being as we are? Can anyone doubt that this increase in representation is the most bittersweet consolation imaginable?

 

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We’re gonna draw a little bit of everybody’s blood, ’cause we’re gonna find out who’s The Thing. Ya see, when a man bleeds, it’s just tissue, but blood from one of you Things won’t obey when it’s attacked. It’ll try and survive… Crawl away from a hot needle, say.
–MacReady, The Thing

Earlier this year, Mask Magazine published an exposé of the plasma donations industry and its reliance on the economically insecure for its blood supply. Written by an anonymous person who “guinea pigs for a living,” as they put it, the piece illustrates capitalism’s cruel genius for creating a world in which the value of capital outweighs that of human life. As the industry grows, fed by the growing numbers of people who must sell their own plasma to make ends meet between jobs (or gigs, as we’re now calling them), or who even rely on it as their only source of income, these plasma collection facilities have adapted their PR accordingly. In marketing themselves as opportunities for individuals to be good samaritans and pick up a little extra cash while they’re at it, they “create an illusion that this predatory relationship is completely volunteerist and a moral choice,” as Anonymous writes.

One needs look no further than American electoral politics to see an illustration of false choices, and the value of denying their falsity to those in power. But if you want, go ahead and look further: These false choices are everywhere. Take, for example, the mainstream narrative around sex work, which while still evolving nevertheless remains depressingly negative. Even in the 21st century, sex workers are still conceived of as “selling” their bodies—as if such a thing were actually possible.

This myth is not an accidental one. So that selling a handjob can remain qualitatively different from selling one’s ability to flip a burger (or design a website, or scrub a toilet), we are steeped in a damaging construction of labor: not that there are right and wrong ways to sell one’s own body (as if we had a choice!), but that only certain people selling sex in certain ways are engaging in this kind of taboo commerce1.

The truth is that, under capitalism, our labor and our bodies have been commodified, but often it’s only completely acceptable to acknowledge the former, even in radically leftist spaces. For many, it sounds unimaginably degrading to “sell” one’s body by consenting to exchange a sexual service for resources. These people are missing the point: The real horror is the nonexistent choice to exchange our labor for survival, and the further dehumanization of the people who do it in a way that has been conveniently constructed as immoral.

 

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Computer: [Moving its chess piece] Checkmate. Checkmate.

(MacReady pours his drink into the computer tower, frying it.)

MacReady: Cheating bitch.

The Thing

Even if you’re willing to accept the premise that the body horror genre was ever a representative one, global socioeconomic shifts—and with it that social imaginary I mentioned earlier—has changed that.

The dynamic of MacReady vs. the Thing (which, despite the ambiguity of the latter, positions two identifiable, individual figures against each other) is no longer representative of our anxieties on a macro scale. Body horror as it’s traditionally been manifested can no longer even attempt to explore our own deepest fears for two reasons: because the we it represents has been expanded beyond dominant identities to include those for whom that fear is actually far more warranted; and because the it that we are placed in opposition with has metastasized, losing its singularity, its specificity, its face.

The best-known body horror movies are usually (though not always) centered around men—Night of the Living Dead, The Fly, Videodrome, Eraserhead, Tetsuo—and mostly white ones at that. What’s notable about this is that their drama originates from these subjects experiencing their bodies like the rest of us do, though typically in a more extreme manner. While of course suffering is not limited by gender, race, class, sexuality, or ability, marginalized people experience institutionalized oppression and collective trauma in ways different from those privileged along these lines2. When broken down, the themes within body horror become the oppressions with which many of us Others are familiar because of the way our bodies have been produced, regulated, punished, and controlled: unwanted/grotesque impregnation (Videodrome), gaslighting (Rosemary’s Baby), sexual assault (Re-Animator, Event Horizon), becoming the victim of sadistic scientists and doctors (Dead Ringers, Human Centipede), losing control over one’s own behavior (Invasion of the Body Snatchers). All of these things, while they can be experienced by white men, are not things to which white men who are not queer, poor, imprisoned, disabled, immigrants, sick, or of an ethnic or religious minority, are subjected as a class.

In other words, the identities of the characters in these movies aren’t irrelevant to the experience of a horrifying body. When Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon set out to “attack [the male viewer] sexually,” he did so by inverting the sci-fi/horror/action paradigm, creating a movie in which the ass-kicking hero is a woman and the characters who succumb to pseudo-rape and impregnation by the ur-mother Xenomorph are almost entirely male.

If classic body horror turns on this axis—in which horror is derived from the dominant class experiencing its body as the marginalized do—then why is it that movies in which the marginalized experience that horror for themselves are so rarely recognized for what they are? I’m thinking about movies about women being forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, or escaping from abusive partners, or experiencing sexual assault; about people with disabilities and people of color being experimented on by the government or the medical establishment; about transgender people unable to access gender-affirming healthcare; about people of color forced to live and work in a white supremacist world that devalues their very existence; about sex workers being murdered by serial killers, cops, partners, and clients. Why don’t these fall under the body horror umbrella? Why is it only horrifying to experience the things the Others take for granted when the subject/victim is white, or a man?

Naturally, the themes of fantasy, horror, or sci-fi, as well as the limitations of nuance in categorization in an industry that rewards homogeneity, have something to do with these delimitations. I’m not an economist or a student of cinema, so I’m sure there are many other reasons of which I’m not aware. But isn’t it interesting that movies about sexual assault, intimate partner violence, gendered illnesses or injuries, colonialism, and the euthanization of disabled people against their will, just as a few examples, are so rarely included in the body horror genre as a matter of fact? It’s as if these things only become exceptional (horrific) when experienced by white men, or white people.

 

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There is still cellular activity in these burned remains. They’re not dead yet!
–Fuchs reading from Dr. Blair’s notebook, The Thing

In her criminally underrated novel Torpor, Chris Kraus traces a Franco-American couple’s trip to Romania to adopt a child in the wake of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s 1989 execution. On the ground in a country destroyed by needless famine and manufactured poverty, both people, whose adulthood encompasses the post-war devastation of Europe and the rise of neoliberalism, struggle to name the horror that has been “internationally negotiated and constructed” in this former Soviet satellite by international alliances, treaties, and NGOs, and the corporations with which they’re intertwined. Cast in relief against this sociopolitical backdrop, the couple’s failing relationship seems all the more doomed; surrounded by the vast, inhuman machine of globalization, the harm they cause each other seems not only impersonal, but also inevitable.

The individuality of body horror is its signature attribute. Nothing is more intimate than one’s own body, and by extension, one’s own physical suffering. Even when we belong to a community of sufferers by virtue of a shared illness, or a marginalization built on shared physical characteristics, it’s still somehow possible to feel completely isolated by our suffering. “Whatever pain achieves,” Elaine Scarry has written, “it achieves in part through its unshareability.”

And as a genre, body horror thrives on the isolation bred by this unshareability. The auteurs of its heyday (Cronenberg, Yuzna), as well as directors whose more recent work explores its themes without necessarily or always falling into the genre (Tsukamoto, von Trier, Haneke, Chan-wook, the Soskas), have built an oeuvre in which the protagonist (s), targeted by specific tormentors, is alienated from their own body by pain—even as that body is the central focus of their suffering, and indeed of the film. This oeuvre depends upon the conceit of the victim/protagonist being acted upon by another entity, which might be another person, but is just likely to be alien, demon, supernatural or psychedelic experience, serial killer, seductress, dream, government body, disease, or disturbance of the mind. Whatever the particulars, the entity is nevertheless another individual or group—one with, if not desires or goals, then at least coherent limitations, a beginning and an end, an anchoring in native agency.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that mano-a-mano violence has not disappeared, even in this age of the industries, trade agreements, and sprawling institutions. The police still shoot individuals, family members still hurt each other, kids still fight in schoolyards and on the streets. But as biopower has emerged as the primary technology of domination, the nature of oppression has changed. Cops operate as individual agents of a white supremacist police state; toxic masculinity and rape culture normalize gendered and racialized violence, such that in America, convicted white adult male rapists get released after a few months and black male minors get put away indefinitely for allegedly stealing a backpack. Children who are violent, or perceived as violent, find themselves in a juvenile justice system that so often serves as a pipeline to the American prison industrial complex—the largest in the world by number of inmates, and two times greater than the runner-up, China.

 

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This Thing doesn’t want to show itself. It wants to hide inside an imitation. It’ll fight if it has to, but it’s vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.
–MacReady, The Thing

The meme of 2016 as a sociopolitical hellscape is funny because it feels so true. Along with America’s myriad human rights violations of the past twelve months, and the many more on our horizon, the world population is rising along with the global temperature and carbon emissions just in time to make sure there are plenty of people to fill the climate slums of the future (incidentally, a climate-change denier has been chosen to lead the EPA in Trump’s administration).

Marginalized people fought, and are fighting still, for a place in the world, and it comes as no surprise that oppressive institutions, bolstered by the biases and ideologies of hatred, are fighting back. We see this writ large in the election of Trump, in the heaving and shuddering of a changing world, one in which the exercise of power is no longer exclusively expressed in torture, punishment, or even discipline; rather than merely suffer as individuals, we are also punished as populations.

In the shadow of this suffering body horror movies flourish, with many concerned that perceived increases in graphically gory movies has some kind of correlative relationship with perceived increases in overall violence. I don’t think these concerns or critiques are invalid, but I also think that, in exploiting pain’s unshareability in this neoliberalist nightmare, body horror movies are trying to communicate it in a way that’s unique from the work of novelists like Kraus, painters like Francis Bacon, and performance artists like Bob Flanagan. For all their flaws, and for all the bloody schlock that’s cranked out alongside truly interesting works of art, I think this expression has been important, and I think we’ll need it, more than ever, as we move forward.

If classic body horror reflected the anxieties of the 20th century, then contemporary body horror that wishes to be successful (read: honest, evocative, pertinent, artistic) must wade into the nightmare of our geopolitical reality: privatization, austerity measures, mass incarceration, the police state, and the manipulation of big data, militarization, and surveillance technology to accomplish it all. As Willie Osterweil summarizes for The New Inquiry:

Union busting and cutting wages—down to literally zero in the case of prisons—alongside job-offshoring produces an underclass who can be made to work in lucrative and highly extractive service economies, while privatizing and cutting state or social services forces people into the market for more and more aspects of their daily survival.

What will the horror made by and for these people look like? If the future of body horror is even a movie at all (or will it be a streaming series? A game? Virtual reality?), it will need a radical reimagining to remain a vital, if somewhat niche, artistic force.

Exhausted franchises, reboots, and rip-offs are inevitable (in 2017, we’ll be seeing new installments of the Saw and Hellraiser series, if you can believe it). Even at its most outlandish, body horror once strove to reflect the very real anxiety of our own vulnerability, of our individual bodies at the mercy of one another. Though in my opinion its many limitations took their toll, there are many brilliant moments of subversive truth-telling, something that glimmers in The Thing, among others.

For those who want to thrill at the obscene, there will always be a million horror movies to choose from. If, however, your own Otherness is what scares you the most, body horror might be more your speed. It’s one of my sincerest hopes that it can keep up.

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1. Melissa Gira Grant is one of many journalists to have written extensively on sex work, trafficking, and the complicated politics that surround them, and is an excellent resource for those seeking to educate themselves on these topics.

2. An understanding of intersectionality, of course, is crucial to grasping this concept.

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Image credits: feature image, image 1, image 2, image 3, image 4.


Davey Davis is a writer and editor living in the SF Bay Area. You can find their work at The Millions, Mask Magazine, and other publications. They tweet at @k8bushofficial. More from this author →