A Few Thoughts on Transformation and Disability in Body Horror Media
You wake up ….
You have no mouth. You try to scream for help as a bug crawls across your skin.
You wake up…. Your hands are pincers. You can’t get out of bed, get dressed, or do a single thing you used to do.
You wake up to your family around you,
watching you disintegrate, their eyes wide
with fear and disgust.
Disability as a fear-mechanism is a tool that body horror entertainment has played with for so very long. Scenes from familiar books and movies can invoke an intense feeling of shock or revulsion, alarm, or panic no matter how many times they’re watched, often by removing a character’s abilities, agency, or senses onscreen, or by showing them waking up without those abilities — while viewers observe from a safe distance.
Body horror is entertainment toying with an edge of reality; engaging a “there-but-for-the-grace-of” fear of being trapped in a body-cage, losing physical agency, or witnessing that happening to someone else. When this is an entertainment, the act of witnessing is part of the experience. And often that experience seems edifying, in that observers feel they’ve learned something from the moment or discovered an increasing sense of empathy for someone else — as reported by viewers soon after The Elephant Man was released.
But when that experience shifts to second person — trading a Neo, Gregor, or Seth for a ‘you’ — the horror can be doubled. You are more than witness to the event. You are part of the show.
The experience becomes uncomfortable, and not necessarily as entertaining.
You wake up and can’t get out of bed, your hands are claws, your skin is covered in welts, your jaw is dislocated
and you, at least temporarily, cannot speak.
It all depends on point of view. For instance, when I watch body horror, or its cousins, body humor and inspiration porn (yes, I’ll argue that they’re related), I often feel trapped inside the screen. That feeling exists because I’ve been where the character is, at least a little. I’ve woken up and had to put my joints back together before I could move. The feeling of being trapped exists because, as a viewer, you are expected to fear, to laugh at, or to be inspired by an interpretation of that reality, in the company of others doing the same.
Witness with me one of these scenes taking place in a great-grandparent of body horror — Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis:
“At first he wanted to get off the bed with the lower part of his body, but this lower part … proved itself too difficult to move. The attempt went so slowly. When, having become almost frantic, he finally hurled himself forward with all his force and without thinking, he chose his direction incorrectly, and he hit the lower bedpost hard. … as he finally raised his head outside the bed in the open air, he became anxious about moving forward any further in this manner, for if he allowed himself eventually to fall by this process, it would take a miracle to prevent his head from getting injured. And at all costs he must not lose consciousness right now. He preferred to remain in bed.”
Already, by this moment, Kafka’s main character Victor Samsa knows from waking in the first paragraph that he’s been changed into a bug. The audience knows that he’s a bug. What’s left is to watch him flail around and logic himself into this somehow being a new normal.
And yet, for many outside of the book, this method of getting out of bed (or not) is normal, not new, not an entertainment. It is a daily event, seen from the inside, out.
Similarly, visible illness and deformity (whether you wake up as a bug or not) are the focus of many of the intense feelings found in body horror — from the mental and physical distortions of Stephen King’s Captain Tripps in The Stand and “Night Surf,” to Seth Brundle’s cellular transformation in David Cronenberg’s The Fly:
“My teeth have begun to fall out. The medicine cabinet is now the Brundle Museum of Natural History. You wanna see what else is in it?”
In scenes from The Fly, The Stand, and elsewhere, family members watch in horror as those they love are transformed.
Meanwhile, David Lynch uses body horror to inject a high level of weird and bonus social commentary on how ‘normal’ is an inadequate term into his characters. Looking at his work as a whole reveals an abled director using highly visible disabilities including missing arms, eyes, legs, blindness, and Proteus Syndrome (as in The Elephant Man). Lynch has been alternately praised and criticized for the ways he depicts disability in order to change perspectives. “Lynch takes such a novel path to it that the film has a hypnotic, transcendent force,” The National Review reflected in May of this year. Yet in The Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture, Lynch’s approach is viewed as “mawkish and moralising” — the work of a freak show display, rather than a production that might allow the disabled to speak for themselves.
Where Lynch uses disability as a window on the human condition, other media go the opposite way, deploying horror-level depictions of deformity as indications of evil character in non-horror stories and movies, including Dune (Baron Harkonnen — cough David Lynch), Star Wars IV, V, VI (Darth Vader), and Wonder Woman (Doctor Poison).
In all of these examples, whether for purposes of gaining understanding or exploitation, the horror each deals with is that of losing senses, autonomy, agency, form, and recognizable attributes in all the “right” proportions.
Disability used in these ways is among my least favorite metaphors for fear.
Least favorite because it is a weak, impersonal metaphor. It is a third-person fear, happening to someone else, that instills the feeling. It is a fear of difference, of change and loss. It’s not a grinding fear of the everyday, every time you wake up.
And yet, despite this, I still watch and read horror, though it’s not admittedly my favorite genre. We sometimes don’t even know we’re watching horror, especially when it’s body horror contained in other types of entertainment. A child character gets sick with slugs. A woman (or a man) gives birth in a particularly gory, chest-splitting way. Then the movie goes on, to the quest or the salvage and the audience goes back to focus on the other experience — the adventure.
Disability, when deployed in body horror media, is an experience different from the every day. Often, it is presented as a transformation or a trap, one that may end with birth or death. The horror begins the moment or moments where the character first wakes up, or slowly changes into a different form while others watch. But this is only the beginning. The horror is doubled through the audience’s act of watching. That is, part of horror is the physical squick, but another part is also the reaction: the act of witnessing and pulling away. Being transformed (and deformed) is painted on the screen again and again as something that generates fear and, occasionally, disgust.
And when it comes to being seen — the transformation witnessed by others — that’s a more layered effect — because the audience is watching these characters being seen by other characters. In this layer, there’s a difference between body horror as discussed above, body humor, as found in movies like Say Anything (Joan Cusack wearing an extensive Milwaukee back brace and trying to drink from a water fountain), and body sensationalization/revelation (as in David Lynch). Sensationalized revelation is almost always an externalist view: seeing — yes — disabled bodies, but seeing them from the exterior perspective, sometimes almost as objects. This is often done as a means to help the viewer grow in their own understanding, rather than getting to know the person in that body.
In this way, body humor sees disability as punchline, “serious movies” see disability as inspiration porn, while body horror sees disability as transformation to be feared.
In the safety of the theater, or the reading alcove, we love to play this game of watching, witnessing horror. How much does it take before you are inspired? How much can you watch before you turn away? What do you laugh at, in private?
We play with what scares us most: loss of control, of ability. We laugh at it, sometimes. We pay for it to become an entertainment. But sometimes, watching beside you, is someone who lives with that feeling of waking up to pincer hands, or not being able to speak or scream, or being unable to reach the water fountain — who lives with being looked at and turned away from or pitied — as a daily thing.
They might laugh when you laugh. (That’s their choice.)
But why are you laughing? And why do we watch? Because we know there’s an end. If not to the character’s suffering, to the movie or book. We can get up and walk out of the theater, shake loose all those emotions, and feel freed from the experience.
Humor, pathos, recognition, and fear — body horror plays on all of these emotions to create that experience of emotional catharsis. And when it plays with disability, it does so to capture our attention, to shock us, and to raise the stakes.
Sometimes witnessing a body transformation isn’t funny or inspiring to anyone. When Neo’s mouth disappears in The Matrix, for one, or when he wakes and pulls the cables from his head (oddly reminiscent of patients pulling IVs out) for another. It’s terrifying. Adding in a bug crawling across (and into) Neo’s skin, while removing the ability to scream for help, only heightens the horror. He hasn’t woken up like this. It’s something that’s visibly inflicted on him by outside forces. That’s a difference between The Matrix and The Metamorphosis. But the similarity is that the audience witnesses the transformation and the reaction.
Disability has always been part of the horror toolkit. Sickness, deformation, death. All in one way or another casting a human being as “other” for being different, unattractive, without all five of the senses, or parts in the right order. Horror needs an other. It needs something to feed its own survival. In one sense, horror entertainment is about luck — of the “aren’t you lucky this isn’t you” variety.
In another, it’s about waking up to the possibility that we can all become changed over time.
Body horror serves up the monstrous — as us — to a waiting audience.
And body horror perpetuates the fear of, the isolation of, the disabled — by rendering disability something that happens on a screen, to a secondary character. And that character all too often has a limited set of emotions: they feel fear — terror — around their own bodies and transformations. They have no other emotions in the context of horror.
Assuredly, this taking away of emotion and personhood is monstrous, but it’s not the character who’s the monster. We see that plot twist in plenty of movies too. The Elephant Man, again, turns the camera on the crowds come to gape, and shows them as monstrous.
And even more assuredly, there are many movies where the main character’s humanity is underscored, or (in the case of Lynch) discovered, despite a disfigurement or disability. But here again is a dividing line between people who are watching, discovering, learning, and people who might otherwise be seen as people instead of object lessons. Especially if viewers didn’t see them first on a screen as something to fear or pity.
What if the perspective changed, though? What if it was you, trapped (like a bug), watched, witnessed? What if you couldn’t leave the scene, the book, the theater. How would you feel?
That’s what body horror is often asking you to imagine, and to be afraid of. And then it lets you go.
Up on the screen, in a book, it’s a piece of entertainment that will make you feel glad it isn’t happening to you, safe in your seat.
Until you wake up.
Your hands are claws. Your mouth doesn’t work.
And it’s not scary, it’s just another day.