While it is increasingly becoming a year-round treat, when the calendar roles over to October, horror takes center stage and becomes the focal point for audiences across the country. We embrace our fears and dress up as our favorite monsters, go to haunted houses and pay money for the desire to be frightened by a stranger in a hockey mask, and most commonly, we watch scary movies. As Halloween closes in, we venture into the realm of taboo and revel as we watch people get terrified, mutilated, possessed, and suffer all manner of gruesome fates for our entertainment. There are many theories as to the appeal of horror ranging from cathartic satisfaction to deeper psychoanalytic analysis, but the most common theme is that is indulgence; horror allows us to expose ourselves to and soak up things that we are not supposed to see or be attracted to. When watching death, gore, personal invasion and the supernatural all torment the actors on screen, we allow ourselves to take pleasure in aspects of life which we would otherwise find revolting and terrible.
Today, we are going to begin our journey into the realms of horror by examining the nature of body horror and how it toys with our preconceived notions of the human body with the film, The Thing.
Premiering the summer of 1982, The Thing was infamously panned by critics upon its release, but its indulgence in the grotesque has out-lasted those critical first reviews, and now stands as a hallmark of the crossing of sci-fi and horror, as well as one of the most significant examples of body horror in cinematic history. It begins with a seemingly strange sequence in the arctic as a man shoots at a dog from a helicopter, eventually upping the ante and going with grenades instead. The dog survives by making it to an American science camp, while the men pursuing it are not so fortunate. However, what initially seems to be a dog turns out to actually a symbiotic alien life-form that spreads/reproduces by infesting a host and replicating it. It is this replication process that leads to the immense spectacle of the film, including one of the most famous scenes in horror history.
Aside from the incredibly effects, this scene is the greatest exhibition of body horror within the film, and it gets to the heart of what makes body horror so gruesome, horrifying, and enjoyable. The human body is the most familiar aspect of life that we can experience, as it is something that we all have. The human body has been revered through all of human history; we idolize them, we fantasize about them, and we even create transcendent works of art dedicated to them. To witness something so adored through all of human history transform into something so disgusting, appalling and unnatural is where the fear is derived from in body horror.
In The Thing, the human body becomes the antagonist; it is the enemy to all of the characters on the screen, and it even makes the characters their own enemies as well. They become paranoid and suspicious of others, as they each know that one of them is not as they seem. Within their group lurks an impostor who essentially wears the skin of one of their former friends and coworkers. When the intruder is finally revealed, it erupts into a monster that exists only to consume and assimilate. At that point, the human body has become nothing but a vessel for a malicious creature that will transform it into something wholly unrecognizable. While possession also involves the control of a human body by another being, body horror takes it further by mutating the vessel in a violation to something that has long been held sacred.
Taking this a step further, there is a sexual nature of body horror that cannot be ignored. The Alien franchise is famous for the sexual imagery that permeates through its films, but body horror is itself sexual in nature. Invasion of the human body against its will, and violating something that is so personal, and intimate is analogous of the intruder raping the subject of its aggression. Throughout most of its history, body horror has mostly tormented male characters, with The Thing exclusively dealing with male characters (unless you account for those poor dogs). Gender roles have long been the subject of many horror films, with the final girl trope being possibly the most famous in the entire genre. For those roles to be swapped in many classic body horror films serves to make the male audiences experience those sensations of rape that they may not typically be exposed to. One of the most infamous scenes in all of horror history, is the chest burster from Alien, and the subject of that gruesome invasion is a man, while the female hero is never the victim of such acts.
Since its early history in the 1950’s sci-fi B movies and pulp horror flicks, body horror has become host to some of the most influential films in the genres history. The sub-genre allows for filmmakers to create disgusting visages of the human body that repulse and horrify us. The mutations of the human body at the hands of malefic and supernatural forces that invade us in such a personal way create scenes which allow us to indulge in the loss of control and subservience of oneself. Further reversals to gender norms and tropes allow this particular subgenre to make social and cultural statements normally reserved for more straightforward dramatic films.