Body horror, the subgenre concerned with body mutilation and the downright grotesque, is arguably the hardest category of horror to stomach. Determined to showcase our innards, body horror makes us squirm with its grotesque fascinations. It has been relegated to B-movie status, demeaning the subgenre as nothing more than a vessel for gratuitous violence and gore.
However, the visceral subgenre is creeping back into our peripheries, with nuanced emotional depth and critical acclaim. Julia Ducournau stunned at Cannes with Titane (2021), centering a mechanophiliac serial killer, which becomes a painful portrayal of body dysmorphia. In 2022, David Cronenberg returned to his bloody roots with Crimes of the Future, retrospectively dissecting his contribution to the genre, while Luca Guadagnino uses the genre for the cannibal romantic odyssey Bones and All. The new year promises more gory societal mirrors as Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool is due for release, with a trailer that promises the graphic imagery both Cronenbergs (father and son) are known for. The violent subgenre has no doubt been reincarnated, and it gurgles as it gasps for air.
Body horror, in its commitment to defying boundaries, has even slipped into celebrity culture, with Heidi Klum’s incredible 2022 Halloween worm costume as a recent example. After years of canceling her annual costume party due to the pandemic, her comeback costume had to be a show-stopper. Complete with glistening lips and yellow eyes, it was worthy of Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991). Klum’s choice was all the more intriguing in the context of COVID-19 amid American culture’s mounting suspicion of and unease with bodily fluids, preferring the clinical and sanitized over the moist. The glistening worm confronts us with what we are trying to distance ourselves from — the oozing reality of the natural world.
And yet we have been becoming increasingly more distanced from each other, even before the universally isolating experience of the pandemic. One internet phenomenon that demonstrates our numbness to emotional intimacy is the memeification of the poignant phrase plucked from Timothy Kreider’s 2013 opinion piece. Words better known in their second life as a meme, “the mortifying ideal of being known,” is plastered over clips of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Parks and Recreation, and dough-eyed kittens. The meme’s global appeal taps into the vulnerability that comes from being truly known and loved, something that we all hunger for yet also fear.
This universal emotional numbness is reflected in the dystopian world of David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future where humanity has evolved beyond physical pain, making surgery as sensual an act as sex. Not only are the people of this future human race physically numb, for the most part they also appear emotionally stunted, unable to feel any emotional pain. The only tears we see come from the revolutionary Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), while the bureaucrats and law enforcement attempt to indoctrinate the people against their own bodies, refusing to recognize changing human biology as necessary evolution. Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) — the performance artist known for cutting out the new organs his body cultivates — is in a losing battle with his body, resisting his changing organs. It is clear he will never find peace while he is at war with himself. Only Lang and his comrades, who have accepted their evolution, are in harmony with themselves.
Contemporary cinema struggles to embody passion, a theory best demonstrated by Allison P. Davis in her deconstruction of the erotic thriller and the current state of sex scenes in film. Davis worries that in 30 years audiences will look back at the sex scenes of now and see us as sexually devoid due to the lackluster portrayals that fill our screens. While sex is clearly in its cultural flop era, intimacy with ourselves and with others is being deftly portrayed in body horrors. In Crimes of the Future, after bureaucrat Timlin (Kristin Stewart) watches Saul and Caprice (Lea Seydoux) perform, she has an epiphany: “Surgery is the new sex.” The phrase can be reflected back into our culture brimming with emotional detachment, where biological horror has become the new intimacy.
Body horror’s ability to demonstrate intimacy is best expressed in the cannibal love story Bones and All. Among the scenes of cannibalistic hunger, where flesh is torn from bone and blood dries on the lovers faces, we watch an intimate pairing where two people love each other wholly, sharing the burden of their dark truth. The violent nature of the film strengthens this love story. Their trauma can be seen as literal scars, and finding someone who can see your monstrous ways and loves you anyway is something that we all hope for. Bones and All is an accurate depiction of Kreider’s phrase: As Maren (Taylor Russell) and Lee (Timothée Chalamet) undergo the most vulnerable work, they submit to the painful hardship of being known in order to love.
Films classified as body horror are not the only ones that have used the techniques of the genre to tackle emotional topics. Martin McDonagh swapped the detached gun violence of In Bruges (2008) for wincing body mutilation in the new comedy-drama Banshees of Inisherin (2022). In doing so, he succeeds in creating a horrifying image of toxic masculinity as Colm (Brendan Gleeson) would rather inflict physical harm on himself than deal with the depression that plagues him.
The graphic mode of artistic expression is currently taking on a new life of its own, leaking from its subgenre origins, emerging blood red amongst the pages of celebrity gossip columns and slithering into the wider cinematic universe. When I think of films that have embedded themselves in my psyche, that have triggered my tear ducts and my gag reflex, the first that come to mind are the body horror sensations that use violent visuals to discuss our inner turmoil. Gore is now a favored tool, a scalpel used to extrapolate the nuances of gender identity, mental health, and love. For a select few contemporary directors, the visceral is favored to address messy subjects, piercing through our indifference, to reach a squishy intimate place deep inside us.