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Body Horror And The Horror Aesthetic

Aurealis Issue #97
by Claire Fitzpatrick

Mutations and metamorphosis, graphic violations of the human body, body horror is a genre that transcends pure fear and manifests in a physical form. Body horror—which describes creations deemed ‘outside of nature’—is seen as some hideous deformity. After the Middle Ages, various aesthetic theories viewed ugliness as an antithesis to beauty—that to be ugly was to defy and destroy the rules and limits of the proportion of which beauty was based. In other words, to be asymmetrical in any shape or form was to be ugly.

The concept of beauty and ugliness is often used as a commodity. By this logic, beauty is not a normal human or innate trait, rather a product or service that can and must be obtained at all and any cost, regardless of the consequences. Fulfilling the ‘requirements’ of beauty, therefore, grants people a form of status and success.

What does the ideal body even mean? How do bodies become grotesque and monstrous?

The idea of the beautiful human body can be traced back to Thomas Aquinas, as well as Pythagoras. According to Aquinas, for beauty to exist, there must be proportion, as well as integrity. Whereas, Pythagoras believed that within two opposites, only one could be beautiful. Thus, the idea of the monster is born—a form that is opposite from that which is deemed beautiful. Within this world of polar opposites, body horror emerges.

Creations like Frankenstein’s Monster, of course, have existed within literature for centuries, usually indicative of moral challenges or existential crisis faced in everyday life. Certain monsters depict the despotism of government: giant exaggerated limbs representing the oppressive nature of absolute power. Chemically altered disfigurement representing the fear of science, the fear of the unknown future. Disfigured bodies can often account for the fear of one’s self.

Body horror can describe monsters within literature and film that are in a constant state of fluidity—they continuously evolve and grow more terrifying features over time. They are, in a sense, demonstrative and intuitive—they reveal a situation or future that we can often not understand or control, and often reflect uncomfortable ideas or notions that we are aware of, but do not want to face. Body horror is often concerned with the struggle between good and evil, with several films and books created to uphold morality and demonise sin, sometimes vice-versa. It is also a term for anything that does not fit into a societal norm or definition of a previously unknown species that appears almost alien to humans. The dodo, for example, or the birds of paradise, which defied the Aristotelian construction of what it meant to be a bird, can be seen as a natural form of body horror.

When we think of body horror, we often think of monsters. Monsters are shown to be both imaginary and tangible—fears we can reach out and touch, and emotions we grapple within our dreams. This is what continues to make them so popular in everyday culture. A person or animal deformed in unusual or disgusting ways will always frighten certain people. An opposition of a particular social norm of what an individual could or should believe will always evoke fear. Anything ‘bad’ that has the power to control or consume a human being is monstrous, as it is evil manifested to terrify humans who are, mostly, inherently ‘good.’

While body horror is a sometimes difficult trope to completely pin downapplied in a range of different ways, every story or film within this genre shares common elements: the primal fear of deformity, parasites, the savage and destructive form of disease, contamination, and the aftermath of body injury. The mind is aware of the body as a logical, symmetrical form. All faces should have eyes, all legs have two feet attached, and organs and bones belong on the inside of the body. Mutations and deformities sometimes appear inhuman, as though everybody instinctively knows exactly what encompasses a human body. However, body horror challenges the human form and explores other ways for bodies to operate. 

Body horror within film has existed for decades, the most famous and well-known including Alien (1979), The Witches (1990), Slither (2006), District 9 (2009), The Human Centipede: First Sequence (2009), The Thing (1982), and The Fly (1986). These films are often twisted manipulations of the human body, designed to question viewers on their beliefs and assumptions of the human form using psychological themes to tap into and shake up the human psyche. They invite viewers to look inward, rather than outward, often preying on our subconscious fears of our bodies. While slasher films show horror as mere mutilation of the body, body horror terrifies viewers with biological horror—a force we often cannot control.

Ronald Cruz, author of ‘Mutations and Metamorphoses: Body Horror is Biological Horror,’ believes ‘body horror finds strength by the way it goes against what is considered normal anatomy and function in biological species.’ Cruz says the focus is on the mutations and diseases that physically manifest is what makes body horror truly terrifying. Within The FlySeth Brundle (played by Jeff Goldblum) is transformed from human to fly via a not-yet-tested teleporter, creating a new species that cannot be defined by biologists. ‘In the wild, two individuals of different species are normally prevented from mating by physical reproductive barriers, such as genital incongruence and chemical cues that identify the other as a nonviable mate.’  Thus, the horror of The Fly comes from mutation and metamorphoses. Similarly, the titular entity of The Thing is an abnormal and abhorrent hybrid species, which attracts aggressive caution and rejection from canines, who view it as something other than a natural species. Additionally, Cruz says, the alien in The Thing, becomes a monster because it’s true form is rarely seen. ‘It spends most of its life in the guise of another organism. It is in an almost constant state of flux, an unstable mass.’

The idea that these monsters are abhorrent usually stems from their physiological appearance. However, the inner appearance usually has a much bigger role to play. Of course, we see monsters as unnatural because they do not share a form that we are aware of, or know about, but also because they are seen as ‘ugly’ creatures, defying the idea of the conventional idea of beauty. This conventional idea of beauty often raises more issues, depending on your upbringing, your social status, and where you live in the world.

Xenophobia, for example, can be described as a fear of people based solely on their looks. Within Australia, racism is visibly a continuing pattern in our society. It has infiltrated generations of Australians, and while often ignored and overlooked, it has become a social norm  Racial vilification within Australia is increasing. There are two different forms of racism: racial supremacy/separatism and hierarchies/exclusion. Cultures and religions outside the accepted norm are paraded as though they were worth less than the dominant culture and religion of white Christianity. Within Australia, the black/white paradigm has grown increasingly radicalised and has become an extreme basis for stereotyping and labeling of ‘deviants.’ Judging someone based on their colour is to judge an entire race, therefore judging an entire culture. It also assumes other cultures are judged as lacking. And to assert such an opinion is to imply an opinion of biological inferiority, suggesting all humans are not born equal.

Anthony Gidden’s Structuration Theory suggests a reason behind such xenophobic and outlandish support for mainstream racist politics. Gidden suggests ‘actors operate within the context of rules produced by social structures, and only by acting in a compliant manner are these structures reinforced. As a result, social structures have no inherent stability outside human action because they are socially constructed.’ The threat of terrorism in Australia, for example, combined with racism as an accepted social norm within society obviously gives rise to Australia’s response to terrorism. However, it does not excuse its dehumanisation of individuals deemed a deviant of the social norm, usually based on their colour, or their looks. If someone looks ‘different’ they are ‘bad.’ Does this mean non-white, non-Christians are all ugly, therefore unequal, therefore have hidden agendas, and are therefore potential terrorists? Do all ‘ugly’ people have hidden agendas? Are ugly people terrorists within the ‘beautiful society’? Maybe this is why people believed Frankenstein’s Monster to be a terrorist, and not Dr. Frankenstein himself. Dr. Frankenstein, at least, looked like an accepted member of society.

Aristotle remarked that ‘it is hard to be happy when physically unattractive.’ Indeed, the idea that beauty dictates our lives is still as relevant today as it was then. While ‘goods of the soul’ celebrate virtues of wisdom and intellect, goods ‘external to the body’—like physical beauty, wealth, political influence, and friendship—can often impact the way we view ourselves, and the way other people view us in return. In this sense, internal unhappiness can lead to external transfiguration, i.e. the witch is ugly and monstrous because she is unhappy.  That is not to say that every monster is unhappy, but there is an element of sadness within monsters—perhaps due to a human’s lack of understanding of their form—which is certainly the case with Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,’ (1818) is perhaps the most obvious example of ugly monstrosity. Shelley describes the monster as both perfect and imperfect, rendering him ugly.

‘…By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs... How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! --Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips."

While the creature’s limbs and teeth appear to be aesthetically pleasing, its eyes, yellow skin, watery eyes, and black lips are what makes the creature ugly, and therefore scary. Moreover, the creature’s unhappiness due to its confusion and rejection from society renders it angry, and therefore ugly. Both the scariness and ugliness render it monstrous. In this sense, the creature only becomes a monster after society deems it to be so.

More recently, Shelley Godfrey, a character in Brian McGreevy’s Hemlock Grove (2012) has been shown to exhibit similar characteristics to Frankenstein’s Monster. Shelley, while hideously deformed by a genetic mutation, is revealed to be the kindest character in the series. Shelley is mute, although often speaks intelligibly and sophisticatedly with her mind. Shelley, like Frankenstein’s Monster, is shunned by society, seen for her ugly appearance, rather than her internalised beauty. While Shelley Godfrey is the most hideous character in Hemlock Grove, she’s actually the most beautiful on the inside. In contrast, Famke Jansson as Olivia Godfrey is the most beautiful character in the show, yet her heart is made of stone.

Both Frankenstein’s Monster and Shelley Godfrey are examples of individuals constantly misunderstood and ostracised by the society around them because of their deformities and how they look. They are opposite to what society deems beautiful, and therefore human, however, according to Aristotle, they are the most beautiful creatures of all. Here, Cruz’s idea of the monster is unquestionably apparent, especially with Shelley Godfrey. ‘Just like mutations themselves, the fear grounded in these changes is within the realm of genetics, itself frightening for its many implications.’ Cruz goes on to describe genetic mutations as being rebellious, which is an integral part of Shelley’s nature. ‘Mutations,’ says Cruz, ‘are random and unpredictable,’—describing both Frankenstein’s Monster and Shelley Godfrey. 

So, if Frankenstein’s Monster and Shelley Godfrey are examples of excessive ugliness, what is the true definition of excessive beauty? Can one be too beautiful? Being too beautiful seems hardly a problem to contemplate. However, beauty often creates a halo effect—we expect beautiful people to exhibit good and positive attributes, and our subconscious naturally assumes they will be intelligent, charismatic, kind. People deemed too beautiful often live in a bubble of reality, sometimes a cage, a world of self-delusion their looks will get them through life’s challenges unscathed. Of course, beauty can be a good thing. Beauty creates a cumulative effect; people are kinder, confidence grows, a person receives more opportunities in life to demonstrats their unique talents. But is this all an illusion? Is beauty pervasive in certain circumstances? This bubble of reality, this cage, can often lead to loneliness, and despair. Focusing too much on appearance can itself be detrimental if it creates undue stress and anxiety, further alienating from others.

It is society itself that creates monsters and the true definition of ugliness. Society mislabels creatures like Frankenstein’s Monster savage, brutal, and uncaring, and is blind to intelligence, kindness, and qualities deemed ‘humane.’ While Frankenstein’s Monster learns to read, write, and think logically, its appearance as something other than ‘beautiful’ is its inevitable downfall. Body horror is a fascinating example of unnatural evolution, however, the only reason it is deemed ‘horrific’ is because we fear the unknown. In this regard, the true nature of body horror is the unpredictability and unrestrained concept of the human form. The only monsters to fear are ourselves.

Document Created: 2nd December, 2016 | Last Updated: 10th December, 2016