Illustration by Kelsey Wroten
This article appears in our 2015 Fall issue, Blood & Guts. Subscribe today!
Body rot. Self-cannibalism. Extreme body modification. Even by the debatable standards of horror films—which have always traded in the murder and mutilation of women’s bodies—these kinds of spectacles are too shocking and distasteful to put onscreen. Yet a wave of body-horror films produced in the past five years subject women to a bevy of stomach-turning torments, and not just for shock value. Instead, these films are using the subgenre to explore harrowing relationships between women and their bodies, confronting us with the grim reality that our ideas of body image may be more fraught than ever.
Body-horror films derive their scares from showing the graphic destruction of human bodies. It’s a wildly varied subgenre that includes Eraserhead, The Thing, Hellraiser, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and Slither. The undisputed king of body horror is David Cronenberg, who has made a career out of putting our bodily fears onscreen with films like Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, and The Fly. Body-horror films are deeply unsettling—not just from the nauseating spectacle of watching bodies get pulled apart, eaten, invaded, and mutated, but from the way they undermine our very sense of bodily integrity and security.
Over the years, body-horror films have tapped into fears about scientific, technological, and medical advancements as well as growing preoccupations with viral outbreaks and plague. These films have traditionally been about external forces that transform the body, and their protagonists have often been men. This new rash of body-horror films is different: They’re concerned with how trauma and cultural and psychological pressures transform women’s bodies—or compel women to transform themselves.
Contracted (2013), Thanatomorphose (2012)
Two films produced in the past three years imagine living death as the result of trauma and life crisis. In writer/director Eric England’s Contracted, a woman contracts an STD after being sexually assaulted that causes her body to decay and eventually zombify. Thanatomorphose, by first-time filmmaker Eric Falardeau, imagines a woman struggling with isolation and artistic frustration whose flesh begins rotting away until she completely disintegrates. Both films are about young women struggling with their identities and relationships. Samantha, the protagonist of Contracted, is a recovering addict who has recently come out as a lesbian. In Thanatomorphose, Laura is a young sculptor in a relationship with an abusive boyfriend. Both films link the onset of their protagonists’ body decay to sex: Samantha contracts her disease while being raped; Laura’s condition appears after a night of rough sex with her boyfriend.
Contracted and Thanatomorphose share a compelling premise: that sexual assault and destructive relationships make their female protagonists feel dead inside, a feeling that manifests into literal body decomposition. Laura’s experience is aggravated by profound loneliness. The entirety of Thanatomorphose takes place in Laura’s apartment, where she spends her time alone except for an occasional party or visits from men who want to have sex with her. Both women become disassociated from their decaying bodies, try to cover up their conditions, and refuse help from others.
Unfortunately, both films end up shortchanging their own interesting ideas. Contracted undercuts the issue of sexual assault by having Samantha not remember the evening. Thanatomorphose never comes together narratively. Neither film offers their protagonists much agency, although Thanatomorphose comes tantalizingly close when Laura begins to collect, document, and display rotted parts of her body around her apartment as if to transform her condition into art that speaks to her feelings. Although both films seek to collapse the boundaries between their protagonists’ senses of self and their actual selves, they only scratch the surface.
Pregnancy is the subject of this character-driven, body-snatching-meets-body-horror film from first-time female filmmaker Leigh Janiak. Bea and Paul head to the woods for a rustic honeymoon after their hip, diy wedding. Soon after they arrive, a series of strange events begin to occur around the cabin. Bea goes missing one night, and starts behaving strangely when she returns. As Paul begins to understand that Bea is not herself anymore, Honeymoon evokes the inevitable anxiety of a new relationship: Do you really know who your partner is? But Bea’s story also taps into deep-seated fears about how pregnancy can change your life.
At the beginning of the film, Bea and Paul have a joking conversation about sex in which Paul tells Bea she needs to “rest her womb” from the night before. Things become serious when Bea asserts that she’s not ready to become a mother. Honeymoon turns on this anxiety about pregnancy, and Bea’s womb becomes both the site of her violation and the origin of her transformation. Janiak saves the film’s body-horror moments for maximum effect: After Paul finds Bea in the bathroom stabbing herself in her vagina, Bea begs for him to take out what’s inside of her, resulting in a strange, harrowing abortion scene. Bea tries desperately to retain her sense of self, writing and saying over and over again, “My name is Bea. My husband is Paul.” Bea’s body gets hijacked, and her identity soon follows, until even her relationship with her husband is subsumed by her transformation. Honeymoon is a smart and scary look at the flip side of the excitement of pregnancy: the terror of losing your identity, especially in a culture of all-consuming attachment mothering.
Excess Flesh (2015)
This film from first-time director Patrick Kennelly and cowriter Sigrid Gilmer that debuted at SXSW this year is notable for being a rare horror film to explore eating disorders. The film focuses on Jill, a young woman who struggles with bulimia and feelings of inadequacy and shyness. Her roommate, Jennifer, is a thin, extroverted party girl with a budding career in the L.A. fashion industry. As the film opens, Jennifer tells Jill about how Jennifer’s boss insulted her by giving her a size-4 Prada dress to take home, saying that it might as well be plus size.
Jennifer goads Jill constantly about her body, insulting her while claiming that she’s trying to motivate her to her diet and exercise. Both women binge eat throughout the film: Jennifer, a spectacle of indulgence, eats quickly, smacks her lips, and talks boisterously with her mouth full of chips and other noisy foods. By contrast, Jill binges slowly, quietly, and painfully—knowing that she will purge it later. Jill eventually becomes so overwhelmed by jealousy and shame that she chains Jennifer up in the apartment, where she tortures her by alternately withholding and forcing food on her roommate.
The film is overly long, filled with nonsensical meta moments, and has an unsurprising reveal. But Excess Flesh succeeds at portraying how binging and purging are acts of self-violence, particularly in one excruciating sequence in which Jill binges on macaroni and cheese, slaps herself, and purges. It’s no surprise that the film takes place in Los Angeles. The film connects Jill’s distorted view of her own body with attitudes about weight, appearance, and behavior that are not only driven by fashion and beauty culture but also by pressures from family and friends.
American Mary (2012)
Self-image and body modification are taken up in surprising ways in American Mary, a film written and directed by real-life twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska (“Canadian Gothic,” no. 60). Mary Mason is a cash-strapped medical student drawn into performing underground surgery for people in the body-modification scene.
In the film, Mary is drugged and raped by one of her former teachers at a party arranged by a group of hypercompetitive male surgeons from the hospital where she is a resident. She uses her surgical skills to take revenge on her rapist, conducting a series of surgeries on him without anesthesia that include tongue-splitting, genital modification, and amputation. Shortly thereafter, Mary leaves the medical profession for the lucrative world of extreme, underground cosmetic surgery.
Mary takes the tools of the male-dominated surgical culture that betrayed and violated her and uses them in service of the gender-fluid culture of body modification. (It’s no accident that Mary castrates her rapist, physically and symbolically.) Cosmetic surgery is unequivocally imagined as violence done to the body—American Mary serves up its fair share of body horror as Mary slices and stitches up her patients—but the film provokes the question of whether that violence is inherently bad. Where do we draw the line between self-expression and self-mutilation, particularly when body modification seeks to challenge normative standards of beauty? What does it mean to “enhance” one’s appearance? In the end, American Mary doesn’t quite cohere with a point of view on these questions, but it’s a smart and audacious film that challenges us to consider the various ways we modify our bodies and why we do it.
Surgical fantasies are at the heart of writer/director Richard Bates, Jr.’s debut, a terrifically strange coming-of-age body-horror film. Excision is the story of Pauline, a deeply troubled high school senior trying to cope with her adolescent existence, including rejection from her peers, a controlling mother, and a younger sister dying from cystic fibrosis. Throughout the film, Pauline has escalating erotic fantasies of conducting surgery on her own body and the bodies of others. Her fantasy of becoming a surgeon culminates in a horrific and deadly diy transplant surgery on her younger sister.
Pauline is a deeply sympathetic but truly weird teenager who feels alternately ignored and rejected; her desire to surgically modify herself and others is rooted in the desire to be seen and loved, particularly by her mother. (This desire for recognition and acceptance is also at the core of Lucky McKee’s 2002 horror film May, about an outcast young woman who stitches together a friend out of real body parts.) Excision is all about how the traumas of adolescence play out on young women’s bodies, and how the attempt to control and manipulate them—even in the most gruesome of ways—is often a way to demonstrate power and self-identity.
The Nest (2014)
The king of body horror himself has even taken a cue from the younger filmmakers on this list. In the short film The Nest, commissioned by the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam, David Cronenberg imagines an interaction between a young woman who believes that there is an insect nest in her left breast and a doctor (played by Cronenberg) who is interviewing her before surgery to remove it. The Nest is filmed from the doctor’s point of view in a single, nine-minute take; the film blurs the line between reality and fantasy in a deeply unsettling way. By the end of the film, it’s impossible to tell what’s real and what’s not, or even whether or not we should believe that what’s onscreen is actually a doctor/patient interaction. The Nest masterfully evokes the types of preventive surgeries women are undergoing at increasing rates to reduce their risk of various types of cancer, but it also provokes questions about how real or imagined those risks are, and how they are shaped by the medical authorities women seek out.
All of these films tell a story of a young woman, frequently in her early 20s, negotiating the start of a career or her adult life, undermined by a harrowing relationship or experience with her body. It’s a narrative explored more than 10 years ago in French writer/director Marina de Van’s 2002 debut film, In My Skin. The film stars de Van as a young woman with a burgeoning career who suffers a deep gash to her leg at a party but doesn’t feel the injury. The sense of disassociation with the body becomes self-cannibalism, in which de Van simulates cutting, licking and biting flesh from her limbs, and eventually preserving pieces of her own skin, jeopardizing her career and personal relationships. At the time, In My Skin was an astonishing, singular film and the questions de Van provoked have now been taken up by a whole group of filmmakers. Why so many of these films, and why now?
It’s perhaps no accident that many of these writers and directors are so close in age to the young protagonists of their films. They came of age during two decades in which young women were told they could be and do anything but were also subjected to endless cultural pressures to be thin, fit, and attractive. Today those pressures are compounded: In addition to being fit and healthy, women are supposed to love and “accept” their bodies, all the while pursuing career and relationship success. Male and female filmmakers are represented on this list—although the films by women are more character driven—which serves to underscore how pervasive the rhetoric of self-empowerment and body positivity have become. These films are about women who are undone just as they are getting started. The truly scary thing about these films is that they reveal that cultural pressures about body image, self-identity, and power are more complicated and damaging for women than ever.
It’s critical to note that all of these films are about white women. The overwhelming whiteness of the films’ creators and subjects underscores that while more women may be working in horror, there’s still a real lack of diversity among creators and the stories they tell. Additionally, it perhaps points out just how unable or unwilling these filmmakers are to explore intersections of race and gender in horror—or even that fears around that intersection may be too taboo or complex to surface.
Unlike more conventional horror films, which generally offer a sense of thrill and catharsis when a heroic protagonist vanquishes some type of monster, body-horror films usually end with the protagonist being subsumed or destroyed (or becoming the monster). The power of body horror is that it dares to give expression to fears that we really don’t want to see and that we’re not sure we can actually overcome. There’s a sense of relief in seeing these images onscreen and a power in acknowledging their existence.
And that’s why this new wave of body-horror films is important: It not only recognizes profound cultural pressures on women but also acknowledges the fear that we may never really overcome them. It holds up a mirror to just how elusive the idea of a healthy self-image is in the face of so many traumas and distortions. It acknowledges that despite our best efforts, the experience of these cultural pressures often feels like a nightmare without end. And in telling these stories, these filmmakers are also pushing the boundaries of the horror genre itself and expanding the types of stories that horror can tell about women.