The Body Is Not A Temple: Top 5 Best Body Horrors

When something is going very wrong inside your body – not a dead body, nor a human-looking dummy – should you fear it? Your own body is betraying you, and since it is your own body, of course, you can't even climb out of it. Loss of control, a sense of abnormality, deviance. Do you feel goosebumps? You should – because today we're going to dig into the body horror genre.

by Lera Grebennikova


What is it all about?
"Body horror, biological horror, organic horror or venereal horror is horror fiction in which the horror is principally derived from the graphic destruction or degeneration of the body. Such works may deal with disease, decay, parasitism, mutilation, or mutation. Other types of body horror include unnatural movements, or the anatomically incorrect placement of limbs to create 'monsters' out of human body parts"– that's what Definitions says. Body horror also tells about loneliness, the strangeness of one's body, and the eccentricity of human communication. This genre does it with its own creepy methods, but, all in all, it works great.

That's what the Internet says. In fact, if movies in the body horror subgenre were made exclusively according to that list, including all the elements, firstly, it would be quite impossible to watch, and, secondly, quite impossible to distinguish body horror from other horror genres, as all of them have quite a similar set of characteristics. In addition, you have to consider the fact that there is an incredibly large number of offshoots of that concept: a change of the body itself, forcibly or voluntarily (The Human Centipede (2009), Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), a change of consciousness and projection of sick and abnormal imagination onto the outer world (Silent Hill (1999). Moreover, there are simple changes that don't seem to cause pain to the body (Jídlo (1992), there also are invasive body changes (Alien (1979) and many more variations of them. Possibilities are really impressive, so it would be more accurate to say that all authors and directors use elements of body horror in their movies. It would be better to stop at the aforementioned definition of body horror, not to embarrass anyone or try to derive special criteria for a "pure" genre.
While many people believe that body horror as a genre stems from the film, it has emerged long before there were movies. In 1816 young Mary Shelley (she was nineteen years old) was dared to write one of the best horror stories that later inspired many creative people. The story is Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, a chilling tale of a nameless monster pieced together by the scientist, Frankenstein, from different corpse parts. Isn't that body horror?

Another forefather of body horror is Howard Lovecraft, who wrote an extraterrestrial and horrifying series of tales: The Call of Cthulhu, Cthulhu Mythos. One only has to imagine rotten fish heads and slippery tentacles of his creepy humanoid monsters to get a chill up the spine. When you envision the bodies described by Lovecraft, you do not really understand whether there is anything human left in them, or whether they have been swallowed by the dark abyss long ago.

While the most famous person in the literary body horror (and horror in general) is Howard Lovecraft, the king of cinematic body horror is definitely David Cronenberg. Indeed, Cronenberg was and still is the main explorer of this specific topic. He has made a career out of the body horror genre: genetic mutations, the horrors of cosmetic surgery, reincarnation in the body of the other sex, the fusion of man and machine – this director has it all. Everyone probably remembers his most famous film, The Fly (1986) — a body horror classic movie. In this film, Cronenberg gradually traces the agonizing transformation of a man into a monstrous insect.

Today we won't create a near-academic, classic list of body horror movies, but we will mention the rather unconventional and interesting examples that are not often glimpsed in lists a-la Top 5 Best Body Horrors.
Jídlo/Food (1992) by Jan Svankmajer
Jídlo is probably not the most obvious example of a movie with body horror elements, but it really is frightening. Jan Svankmajer, the director, is a Czech master of experimental filmmaking. He usually works with animation, stop-motion, clay, and pixelation, which allows him to expand the usual instrumentation for creating body horror elements in movies.

Jídlo is a true art in the abominable body horror world. The movie didn't really intend to scare the viewer – it is better to call it a black comedy. But what kind of comedy can it be when the characters are eating chairs and cutlery? As they want to eat something that people usually don't eat, their mouths instantly grow to unimaginable sizes and shapes. Here the characters look a lot like people, but in reality they are lifeless animated dummies. At first sight, it makes the viewer smile, but upon closer inspection it strikes with a bone-deep understanding of fear and disgust. Svankmajer plays here with the so-called "uncanny valley" effect, which is also an element of body horror. The "uncanny valley" is an idea based on the fact that any inanimate object quite similar to a human being (anthropomorphic and with identical behavior) gives us the sense of familiarity, but when at a certain point it begins to behave abnormally it instantly causes human rejection. Science officer Ash from Alien (1979) is the clearest (and also the most predictable) example of it. In that movie, it turned out that Ash is an anthropomorphic robot. Instead of blood, his damaged body is bleeding with a white liquid; instead of veins, arteries, and capillaries he has just a bunch of wires. It really makes a lasting impression on the viewer because something wrong is going on. The viewer feels threatened, it is impossible to empathize with the character. It's the same in Jídlo — at first, it's fun to look at everything that's going on, but then you can't stand the grotesque monsters eating chair legs, glass, metal, and even their own flesh.
Akira (1988) by Katsuhiro Otomo
Of course, body horror is meant for people to associate physical changes on the screen with their own bodies and get even more mental pressure while watching the movie. But this does not mean that the characters have to be as realistic as possible. Case in point: the Akira anime, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo. Twenty-four frames per second, maximum detail, but still an animation. And still frightening.
Body horror elements are implemented elegantly here. Here are two vivid examples.

There are three characters in Akira who look like old children. Espers, as they are called, are psychic-powered children who have secretly been the government test subjects for a long time. Espers are children that look like old men and women because of the drugs designed to inhibit their psychic growth. The main point here is that they are children in old bodies, and it is the main thing that can frighten, as simple as it may sound. It is hard to associate them with real children. It's pretty much clear that they are living their short lives in agony, pain, and total disorientation. Espers were not just deprived of childhood but used as guinea pigs for decades. Sometimes telekinetic power breaks through them and they start saying prophetic words, because they are not children or even adults. Inside their hearts, they are old people.

The scene with Tetsuo, one of the main characters, losing control over himself is one of the most striking body horror moments in the anime. He turns into a giant biomass, consuming everything around him. This was a direct threat not only to him, terribly physically changed, but also to the world around him. He literally swallowed everything with his deformed body.

The main idea that Katsuhiro Otomo develops in the anime is in line with the main idea of body horror itself. What if a person, caged in the human body, artificially gains abilities that are not given to them by nature in the process of development? Would they forget who they really are? Will there be anything human left in them? Will they be able to live in such cruel emanation?
Eraserhead (1977) by David Lynch
This story tells us about young Henry (Jack Nance) living his strange and creepy life full of anxiety. He doesn't feel safe; instead, he feels nothing but terrifying and permanent psychic tension, probably because of the immense amount of changes in both Henry's inner world and on the outside.

Henry's girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart) gave birth to a baby that looks more like a disgusting creature that looks like a tadpole or a rotten worm. Henry is irritated by this creature as he knows that it is his own flesh and blood. He watches nightmares come to life imagining his head severed and replaced with a tadpole child's head: the little boy finds Henry's head and brings it to the pencil factory to melt it into rubber.

Apart from the feeling of dreadful, unexplainable anxiety, the movie is filled with subtle sexual motifs, which also refer to the body horror genre. David Lynch, the director, shows a scene with a family dinner, wherein Henry's father-in-law cuts the chicken, and the pulsating blood flow comes out covering the table; the scene is accompanied by Mary's orgasmic noises. This image showcases Henry's deviant fear of sexual contacts.

Henry's head, severed and later remelted into rubber, is not the most bizarre body horror part in Eraserhead. David Lynch introduces his body horror part with the scene in which a man with scorched and scarred skin, referred to in the credits as 'Man In the Planet', depicts the main idea. In the distant galactic space on an obscure planet, he sits in a room full of levers. This Man thoughtfully gazes into a broken window and pulls down the levers. Henry, the protagonist, watches the actions of the Man while thinking about surrealistic images – a stretched white strap that falls into Earth's core. This strap brings life onto the Earth's surface, causing the appearance of the primordial soup; in such a way the director draws an analogy between the Man, a great entity that rules the world, and the source of life. In this scene, Lynch also shows Henry's fear, as if his character treats life as eternal suffering and disdains the things that lie in the nature of a human being. For example, the possibility of giving birth to another being. Here, David Lynch touches upon an issue of eternal man's role in human development.
Saint Maud (2019) by Rose Glass
Rose Glass's film offers a sharp critique of zealots. It is as straightforward as it is literally gut-wrenching. The film cannot be called the benchmark of body horror – in fact, it is only one of its components. However, bodily metamorphosis has a special role here: Glass vividly shows what it's like to physically feel that something is wrong with you. Perhaps it's much simpler here when Maud (Morfydd Clark) is literally smeared on the floor, and it's very frightening. There's something akin to a divine tragedy in the film, in which poor Maud decides to weep for the sins of everyone around her. She chooses rather strange ways of purification – it's hardly the practice in Catholicism to walk with nails in her shoes, but the Inquisition would have been proud of such an interpretation of the Spanish boot.

The main purpose of the metamorphosis here is not simply to show what fanaticism can lead to but to cause physical rejection. We are not intimidated by fanatics until they become so close to us that we can see the changes in them.
Titan (2021) by Julia Ducournau
The triumph of body horror happened most recently when Julie Ducorno's Titan was named the best film of the Cannes Film Festival.
Not everyone will be able to watch the film all the way through. All the atrocities are shown graphically and openly, convincingly and nauseatingly.

Titan is overly complex in its metaphor of how the body used to be a temple, but now it's just a tool. The search for one's own sexuality, the rejection of holistic corporeality, the eternal question of tenderness and self-perception are all the themes of Titan. All of this is shown deliberately: it would seem that the main character's profession already contains a certain metamorphosis because she is a dancer who controls her own body; in addition, a titanium plate is installed in her skull, which is followed by the absolutely repulsive scenes of copulation with machinery and the unnatural pregnancy.

The viewer is just getting used to the destruction of traditional gender roles and the predestination of gender in filmmaking, but Titan leaves no choice and turns outdated values inside out.
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