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What Is Body Horror? An Explanation Of The Best Movies That Make Your Skin Crawl

Body horror is admittedly not for everyone. Often, the familiarity of the horrors found in these types of films is the very thing that makes them both too intense for some and wildly scary for others. The simple fact is that biology is amazing, adaptable, very weird, and on occasion, horrorific before introducing any supernatural elements. When our bodies begin behaving in surprising ways, it is frightening. That reason alone solidifies this subgenre as a mainstay.

Body horror is all of those movies rooted in our fear of our bodies. Sometimes it is our body failing us. Sometimes it changes in unexpected and unwanted ways, and other times it is perfectly natural but no less unsettling. The cool thing about this form of storytelling is it uses the clinical and highly voyeuristic visual medium of movies to allow us to study the changes as they happen, making us both a captive audience and willing observer. So, given that we all have fascinating bodies, why are we so drawn to and affected by body horror?

Body Horror
Courtesy of IFC Films

Uncanny Valley

One of the biggest reasons is familiarity breeds unease. It should be the other way around, but when it comes to biology, we like things to look like we expect them to and not what is necessarily familiar. The uncanny valley theory posits that humans crave familiarity in the unfamiliar, but only up to a point. One of the most common examples is human-looking robots intended to look like humans to put us at ease but end up unnerving us because our minds don’t like to reconcile biology with artificiality. Robots shouldn’t look like they are living, not even a little bit.

This dissonance in our brains makes these things appear creepy to us. The same holds true when we watch a body horror movie, especially one that slowly warps the character. It allows us to form a bond that is shattered by their later appearance, as in David Cronenberg’s The Fly. By the end, there is very little familiar about Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Brundle. Still, it is more impactful and disturbing because we watch the complete transformation from human to other. That process makes us care about what is happening and worry that it could happen to us. In a less elevated but no less effective way, Kevin Smith’s Tusk forces us to watch the demise of a vile person into a sympathetic monster.

Inclusion Is Key

By normalizing the differences, body horror allows for greater exploration and conversation around those who are differently-abled. What could be an insecurity is celebrated instead. Similar to horror movies helping those with anxiety, body horror films can provide a level of comfort to those who would otherwise feel very alone. Even as our protagonists are shifting into aberrations, they never lose who they are at their core. That raw humanity is what makes them special and relatable. In much the same way CODA provided an inlet into the hearing impaired world, Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ Swallow can provide a window to understand eating disorders better. Although Swallow features some gag-inducing consumption scenes, the film communicates a bigger truth about control and abuse.

It’s easier to deal with the vulgarities of pregnancy when we can reshape the narrative as a scary movie. Anyone who has been pregnant knows as wonderful as the experience is, it can also be bizarre and very gross. David Lynch’s Eraserhead makes us all feel what a scared new father feels. A great deal of body horror uses that precarious balance between the miracle of life and the crudeness of the process. It is scary to face our vulnerabilities, and body horror puts those insecurities front and center.

Caitlin Starling writes in Crime Reads that body horror gets us “intimate with each other, really fast. It is humiliating but also a little freeing.” She writes, “Body horror is powerful because it is personal.” It is an inevitability that our bodies will betray us. Eventually, they all break down, and we will die. Hopefully, we won’t turn into zombies or deliver Basket Cases, but you see my point. Body horror allows us to safely explore and come to terms with what could be mystifying and sometimes very lonely anxieties. Movies like this can make us more empathetic towards one another through shared experiences. We haven’t all experienced the same things, but we all know pain and fear.

Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In is a powerful metaphor for self-acceptance, self-identity, and sexuality. The artificial skin in this classic is both a barrier and a triumph as our protagonist begins to reclaim his life from his captor. Although most of us haven’t been kidnapped and surgically altered against our will, the fear we all feel about losing control and medical procedures, in general, is relatable. To understand LGBTQ+ and female-centric concerns, it is equally strong.

body horror

Body Horror Offers Uniquely Creative Imagery

Allowing the established laws of human physiology to fall away means the poor souls in these films can be twisted and contorted into ungodly positions. It also means things can grow on and in the skin in ways that isn’t biologically possible, making for genuinely terrifying images that make you cringe. That flexibility combined with fear means that instead of victims being hacked down with a machete, they have body parts eaten off by a toothy vagina, as in Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth, or are forced to dual with an inky doppelganger like in Alex Garland’s Annihilation.

The whole point of this subgenre is to push the boundaries between what is normal and what we can imagine. In the hands of a master like Cronenberg, Carpenter, or, more recently, Ducournau, the sky’s the limit. Although Event Horizon is 25 years old, the changes to Dr. Weir in the final act and the lasting visuals of brief glimpses of what happened to the ship’s previous crew still hold up. John Carpenter’s physical effects in The Thing have enduring resonance, and the skin melting grossness of a highly contagious illness in Cabin Fever lets our fear of disease run unchecked.

Body Horror Is Smart

Given the disgusting nature of most of these movies, they are often discounted as favoring style over substance. This is categorically untrue. Usually, body horror movies have so much more going on below the surface if you are brave enough to dig a little deeper. For example, Julia Ducournau’s Titane is perverse and disgusting but also profoundly moving as a metaphor for human connection, grief, and acceptance.

Few do it as well as David Cronenberg who mixes societal fears with personal ones. His brilliant eXistenZ was way ahead of its time with regard to online paranoia and the hazards of losing yourself in gaming. Not only are the human game ports grotesque they are strangely sexy, which makes the entire movie even more alarming. The found-footage gem The Bay and SXSW darling from 2021 Gaia remind us that Mother Earth is capable of fighting back. Society may be the most disgusting film in this subgenre, but beneath all the viscera and ooze is a clever satire on superficiality and the wealthy.

So many of these movies speak to who we are and want to be as humans. Empathy is always a good thing, and maybe by sharing our collective fears, we can comfort each other? The world needs a little more understanding these days.