By NATHAN CHAZAN
I’ve long been taken with body horror as a subgenre of cult filmmaking. I grew up in Toronto, the home of David Cronenberg and brutalist architecture, so a lot of movies and works that might have been obscure and obtuse elsewhere were readily accessible for me. I had the fortune of having at my disposal not only blogs and forums but video stores, libraries and movie theaters. There is a level of engagement that one gets from a good chat with a friend about the chest cavity scene in Videodrome that gives one a different sort of connection than even the more high-end fanzine. I don’t find it especially conceited for me to say that my attachment to and intellectual curiosity toward certain horror films is more genuine than the practiced zeal I’ve heard some professional enthusiasts of the genre espouse.
In Cronenberg’s films, for instance, the buildings fascinated me. Scanners is an engaging film on its own, the kind of movie you go to see to watch a guy’s head explode. However, for a resident of the brutalist capital of the world, the film is a scenic tour-de-force. The aforementioned iconic head explosion takes place in a dark seminar room with concrete walls that must be a room in a University of Toronto building–a stairwell they go into afterwards is the spitting image one which leads to U of T’s Varsity swimming pools, a space I remember vividly as a child. The outrageous corporate intrigue and psychic warfare careen through shitty malls, subway stations, and concrete behemoths, spaces so beautiful, so cavernous, so unsuited to human interaction that they could be called socially inept. Could I be walking through the hallowed halls of the scanner war? Is my head going to blow up next?
I had a realization recently while watching the newest Godzilla movie that my interest in body horror may in fact be an expression of a part of my psychology I have often neglected. The film’s version of Godzilla hunches his arms to the side of his body, a motif inspired by the original Godzilla suit actor’s attempt to make his arms tinier and more dinosaur-like. This painfully hunched body got me thinking about my own slouch, which curves my body down much like the giant Japanese lizard and has contributed to my at-times-excruciating back pain. I have sometime felt ashamed to acknowledge my slouch in the past, but its causes are much deeper than poor posture. For much of my childhood, I was a short, skinny boy, but not long before puberty hit I found myself shooting past five feet in height and packing on pounds. I was thick, I was big, and I was loud. I never quite adjusted to this change in scale. I was often harassed both verbally and physically for having breasts. I became, I believe, dysphoric, disconnected from and ashamed of my massive body. I wanted to be small again, I wanted to pull out this little pure boy-self from the swamp of a man he was drowning in.
A vivid image of Lamberto Bava’s gloriously italo oozefest Demons comes to mind. The movie takes place inside a movie theater, and in a pivotal scene, one of the first victims bursts out from behind the silver screen, shrieking with MTV virtuosity. The frightened filmgoers look on as the unlucky woman undergoes a painful transition to demonhood. Her back arches up, her hands and feet stretch out into claws, fangs pushing out her mouth knock out her teeth, emitting green goop as deepening moans turn to snarls. This is supposed to be scary, but the impression I am provided with is a little different. The ghastly practical effects of the transformation are so dramatic, yet so meticulous. The camera documents every shift, every pop, every growth in the demon woman’s body. One is left in awe of what has been created, amazed by the bodily ruptures simulated by the film crew. In other words, the horror scene becomes a fetish: a visceral, obsessive celebration of the human body’s involuntary distortion.
This is where I think body horror may have become a liberating mode for myself. As I struggled with this problem of too much body, I watched with glee the transformations of other bodies–mutations, growths, cleavings, joinings. All the fantasy, the goopy, stretchy stuff, could be scary, but it was mostly just wonderful to me. Because what you tend to see in a great body horror movie is not necessarily a body being destroyed but a body being expressed. Visual effect contortions meant to elicit fear or abjection instead become reassuring. Not only could a disgusting body–whether my own or, say, the salaryman’s in Tetsuo: The Iron Man–be beautiful, the abjection could be poetic, could reveal something true about someone, something good about their soul. It was through horror that I came to feel more at home in my skin.
Recently, I watched the new season of Twin Peaks with a friend of mine. The show features a super-amnesiac character, Dougie Jones, who has not only lost his memory but much of his personal agency and command of language. He learns words, concepts, and gestures by repeating and imitating things that other people–somehow oblivious to his condition–say and do in front of him. My friend has depression and a close relative in her family had recently had a debilitating stroke, so I had wondered if this character might be painfully similar to her experiences. Dougie is a man who wakes up one day to find that his mind has stopped working–how would this play to someone who regularly finds her mind and body stuck in one place? It was in fact intense for her to watch at times, but rather than being painful for her, watching the show was deeply satisfying. For her, Dougie Jones became a reflection of her struggles, a distortion to be sure but one that communicated something back that was meaningful to her, and that meaning became reassuring. Perhaps the violence of body horror satisfies a similar feeling for myself. There is a magic to seeing an anxiety we have on screen, that frightens us on one level, but in fact is fundamentally soothing.