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Body Horror and Me: Gore and Gender Identity

Cass writes about body horror and their journey with their gender identity.

**This article contains some graphic images of body horror**

The first time I saw John Carpenter’s The Thing was when I fell in love with everything that has to do with body horror. From the vile creatures of David Cronenberg to the terrifying descriptions of the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, if the movie, comic, book or illustration that I’m watching somehow pushes the body into its most horrifying and disgusting limits, chances are, I’m going to love it. The weird thing about it is that I have no idea why, and to be honest, I’ve never asked myself why until today. 

I would say that I’m a horror fan, but to be honest, that’s a pretty new development. Before I turned 16, I couldn’t watch more than 15 minutes of a horror film and could barely finish a horror book. I can’t tell you when or why this changed, but suddenly movies like Alien were being added to the list of my favorite movies, and I started going crazy for books like House of Leaves. But as much as I began to fall in love with all kinds of horror, what interested me the most was body horror. 

The Thing (1982), dir. John Carpenter, cinematography by Dean Cundey

Unlike anything else in the horror genre, body horror made me feel highly uncomfortable and engaged at the same time. My fascination over the terrifying alterations and mutations was unmatched by any jump scare or torture scene. I didn’t know if it was the visual effects, the reaction of the characters, or the concepts around the twisted metamorphoses, but I constantly craved more and more body horror. To understand this obsession, maybe it would help to do some research.

In his essay, Unruly Bodies, Unquiet Minds, Andrew Tudor hypotheses that if horror is a genre that builds itself on the bases of transgression, then body horror is the search for the body’s transgression, and what are our bodies if not the boundaries between ourselves and the outside world? So, basically, body horror is just an exploration of what happens when we take those boundaries and transform them into something unrecognizable and perverse. What once were defined boundaries are now blurred into something different. 

In the words of Tudor himself: “Within this unruly body, an unquiet mind is concealed in a welter of ambiguities and in retreat  from the unreliability of fundamental categorical assumptions.” Or, in simpler words, when your torso has turned into a giant jaw and your head into a spider-like creature, how the fuck are you supposed to understand yourself?  

We now know that body horror is the transgression of the boundaries in which we find ourselves, but to be honest, that doesn’t explain why I become so obsessed with it. So maybe the answer lies within my personal history. Now, my relationship with my body is complicated, to say the least. Even though I have a lot of issues with self-esteem and self-love, my physical appearance was never an issue. I have always been a skinny and long-ish person, and even though some kids in school teased me about my appearance, it never really bothered me. The issues started when I hit puberty but probably not in the ways you think. 

For me, puberty was not a long and torturous process; it actually went really fast. In just a month or two, I had grown a lot taller, I started to grow some facial and pubic hair, pimples began to appear, and even though I rarely exercised, I was able to see the signs of some muscle development. I was utterly terrified, not because of hair growing in strange places or because of the red spots on my face, instead what really scared me was that I was beginning to look manly.

It is not that I was extremely feminine before or that I wanted to be more feminine; it’s just that for the first time, I started to see myself as a man. For the first time, my gender actually seemed important. I wasn’t sure who I was, and I sure as hell didn’t know who I wanted to be. During high school, there were moments after taking a shower that I would look at the mirror and feel inadequate with my own body. Years later, I would learn these were moments of body dysphoria and that I was not a man but a non-binary person, but I’m getting ahead of myself. 

The Fly (1986), dir. David Cronenberg, cinematography by Mark Irwin

Around the beginning of 2020 (the same time that my horror obsession began), I was in a better place mentally than where I was three years prior, but with this mental stability came a clearer mind, and with a clearer mind came questions. A shit ton of questions. I was already out as a bisexual person, but I still felt that something was holding me back. Once again, this feeling only grew stronger the moments I had to confront either my masculinity or (more importantly) my body. 

One way or another, I started to get into gender philosophy and queer theory, and suddenly I began to get familiarised with terms such as “transgender,” “non-binary,” “gender dysphoria,” etc. After of years of wandering what the fuck was wrong with me, I was finally learning words that made me felt comfortable with myself and who I was.  

So taking all of this into account, it might start to seem obvious why body horror took such a firm grip on me. Even though I wasn’t conscious about it, I was relating to the victims of such warped transformations. In some way, I saw the transgressions all those bodies suffered as a graphic representation of all the ways I felt about my body, especially during those first days after puberty. 

Anyone who has gone through gender dysphoria can tell you that there are times your body feels like the most disgusting of creatures. I can say without exaggeration that there are moments where my reflection makes me more uncomfortable than any scene in David Cronenberg’s The Fly

Don’t misunderstand me; I love being non-binary. I love that I can finally understand myself in a way that doesn’t feel restraining or overwhelming. Still, things like dysphoria don’t just go away, so honestly, I am pretty thankful I have something like body horror. It might be weird (and some might say psychotic), but through all of the odd and horrific transformations that body horror has to offer, I can process some of the worst and most uncomfortable feelings that haunt me. 

Alien (1979), dir. Ridley Scott, cinematography by Derek Vanlint

So let’s say I somewhat agree with Tudor. Let’s say that body horror is the way we explore our bodily boundaries. Because for a long time, I wasn’t able to see or be comfortable with my own boundaries, but thanks to the twisted minds that pushed those boundaries to their limits, today, I can live happily with them. Maybe you will too.

So do yourself a favour and go find some gross and depraved body horror. 

2 replies on “Body Horror and Me: Gore and Gender Identity”

[…] All of this is quite unsettling and upsetting in its own right, yet the movie introduces the horror element with great sound design and acting. When faced with these situations and struggles, Valeria starts cracking her bones, which we hear in agonizing detail. This is only the beginning, though, as she is then hunted by a mysterious entity who appears as a crawling woman with broken bones. This fear is not just about pain, but about feeling as if your own being is breaking apart, escaping you, fighting you. This is a great parallel to the changes she is physically undergoing thanks to the pregnancy, as well as being a great use of body horror. […]

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