Body horror is a subgenre of horror that derives fear through the violation and degeneration of human physical form. Body horror exposes the subject in rapturous detail and then inspires fear by forcing the audience to come to terms with the grotesquerie they examine. Unlike the blood-and-gore terror of teen screams and ensemble-cast deathfests like the Final Destination franchise, body horror does not exploit the familiar disgust of spilling blood. Instead, it introduces the audience to a relationship with the body they wouldn’t have imagined on their own: contortions and mutilations and tortures that draw out the common fears of pain, injury, and inhuman transformation long past their logical extents. It is visceral; this horror curls under the skin like worms and forces itself up through the pores. An essential component of body horror is betrayal: through its corruption, the seemingly trustworthy and sacred human form becomes the monster. Living in the same vessel as the monster prompts unique questions: primarily, where does the monster end and where do I begin?
I didn’t watch a body horror movie until I was fifteen, but at a young age I became acquainted with the kind of fear they inspire. When I was ten years old my mother purchased my first training bra. My new breasts were, to me, the rotting buboes of a plague victim. I read stacks of library books about contagious diseases. I memorized the three types of plague–bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic–and their individual symptoms and modes of transmission. Septicemic plague was my favorite kind to read about because it was the most gruesome and the most surreal. Subcutaneous bleeding causes the skin to turn black and hard; gangrene sets in; the victim bleeds from every orifice and dies in over ninety percent of cases, within forty-eight hours. Rare, fast, brutal, and contorting the human body beyond borders of the mundane all the way into death.
On June twenty-ninth of 2015 I will turn eighteen years old. Eighteen is the age in which my medical decisions will be my own, and therefore the age when I can independently choose to have a cosmetic double mastectomy. I’ve been, in some capacity, hoping to remove my breasts since they began to develop at the age of ten. I have always seen them as unpleasant, ungainly, and extraneous. I am not interested in breastfeeding, I do not value my breasts for contributing to my sexual attractiveness, and I do not care for them as markers of gender. I do not identify as a transgender man–rather as a nonbinary individual, but for me my breasts have always been an unpleasant reminder that my body does not correspond to my internal image of myself. For almost a decade, I have experienced a dissonance when seeing my reflection in the mirror: this body is mine, but it is a contorted, bizarre, half-familiar version of what I should be.
This is not to say that I see my body, with breasts and a vagina, as inherently a woman’s body, nor do I see those features as woman’s features. I would never look at a man with breasts and tell him he is any less of a man because of them. I actually like many of the parts of my body conventionally seen as feminine: my wide thighs, my narrow shoulders, my soft face. The problem is that my breasts don’t match the self that I feel intuitively.
I coped–and still cope–with my dysphoria through unconventional methods. Though I experienced what, in retrospect, was clearly dysphoria, I didn’t learn about the word “transgender” until I was fifteen. Before then, I thought I had body image issues that happened to focus around my breasts, hips, and other areas of my body that, to the average cisgender viewer, would demarcate me as feminine. I didn’t know how to seek out solidarity among transgender people; I didn’t know what questions to ask. Instead, I found solidarity through watching horror movies. I identified with the half-monsters, half-people on the screen–people rotting into beasts from the inside; people trying to be people despite being monsters; people in monstrous bodies that never matched up to their humanity. I knew what it was like to live that betrayal of the body.
I had not yet watched a body horror movie by the time I was shopping for the most inconspicuous training bras possible, but I was satiating my curiosity in other places. The historical occurrence of such diseases as septicemic plague intrigued me because it gave me hope that nature could perform feats far outside of my conception of possibility. Perhaps, if the earth could generate a disease with the capacity to maim like septicemic plague, it could also retract my breasts into my body and flatten my stomach. Of course, I was wrong. Horrors and miracles do not function by the same mechanism. If nature would not do it for me, I would perform the transformation myself. I began to whittle my body down.
I dwell frequently on maiming as a reclamation of boundaries. Could I push, by my own volition, the laws set by nature? Could I right the errors done by God when he formed my body into this horror? Through force I could bend out of shape the preordination of my body so I wouldn’t just keep growing into a human woman; I’d take a left turn and veer all the way out into a new land, new limbs, new territory of monsters and sprouting teeth. Or, at least, into a redefinition of gender that suits me properly. At first, I tried weight loss that toppled into years of bulimia; I thought, perhaps, I could starve and purge my body into something new. When that wasn’t working, I considered blades.
One sunny, sweaty afternoon during the summer I turned fifteen I stood in the kitchen facing a rack of knives on the counter. Knives were an option, but so was that pair of scissors in the silverware drawer. The knives were much sharper, but with the scissors I would be able to easily grip the skin I intended to slice. I reached down and pinched the bump just below my bellybutton. If I called an ambulance and then made the cut, I wouldn’t be bleeding on the floor for very long. The EMTs would drive me to the hospital, sew up my skin, and send me home. I didn’t mind the thought of scars, because at least the fat would be gone underneath it. I could finally be empty.
I watched American Mary, a movie by the Soska Sisters starring scream queen Katharine Isabelle, during my sophomore year of high school. I finally saw myself in a movie. The film is about a woman named Mary Mason who becomes a body modification surgeon after quitting med school. Her procedures include subdermal implants, skin stitching, transplantation, and genital modification: all disturbing but all entirely voluntary on the part of her clients. Mary breaches the boundaries of nature because she is asked to do so–because she and her clients revel in the beauty of the bizarre. The scenes of her surgeries are majestic and peaceful and celebratory: close shots on clean skin cleaved neatly by a silver scalpel and the slow stream of blood from the incision. White skin, red blood, silver blade, black gloves, and the simple, regal swelling of classical piano and smooth violin in the background. Mary daubs the blood with a white bandage. The surgery room is clean; all muted gray-green vinyl and stainless steel. Composed. Caring.
Since then I have sought out out those elaborate and bloody and dramatized portrayals of my internal experience. I enjoy seeing conflicts with which I identify, as well as the beautiful and loving portrayals of destruction found in American Mary and Thanatomorphose; but I also appreciate the empathetic destruction of the self. I enjoy the aspect of transformation present in body horror movies, but on bad days I crave the decay itself. As someone who has struggled mentally–with eating disorders, bipolar disorder, trauma, and dysphoria–I watch the body decompose and, in a way, it satiates my ever-present, lurking desire to destroy my own body and finally quell the thing that has rebelled against my mind in so many different situations.
Many doctors will not perform cosmetic mastectomies on transgender men and transmasculine people who are not simultaneously undergoing hormone replacement therapy because of what is nicknamed “the ick factor.” The doctors, and many people, cringe from the sight of a body with flared hips, a functioning uterus, and no breasts. They want a woman or a man, not what they see as the horrid third thing in the middle. I am that third, middling creature. In a way, the whole genre of body horror adds a mystique to this internal struggle. It creates drama: it gives my experience the cinematic flair of blood splashing over the big screen. I think of the movie Thanatomorphose–at the point when the protagonist, whose body is rotting away around her, submits to her decomposition and uses her crumbling teeth to create sculptures. Her fingers fall off and she preserves them in jars. Her fetid flesh and blood-matted hair become art not because someone forced her to maim herself in that way but because she decided to embrace her filthy stumble towards complete physical breakdown.
I never made those cuts back in the kitchen when I was fifteen. I held the knife in my hand but I would not bring it to my flesh. I have survived, and learned to cherish the perceived monstrosity of my body. Certain movies in the broader genre of body horror fall into a category that I’d call “celebratory horror.” Movies like American Mary, Thanatomorphose, and Antiviral all involve the protagonist and other characters embracing their corruptions and subsequent journeys toward monstrosity. This kind of body horror forms the idea that it can be fun to be the monster because the monster has appeal. The purpose of the monster is to disgust and by disgusting the audience it succeeds: the monster revels in the degradation of the form rather than resisting it. It can be a relief to know that the true purpose of one’s body is not beauty, nor fulfilling social expectations of behavior and appearance, but rather living and dying in a horrifying and unnatural way.
This is a coping mechanism. This is the way I can allow myself to be proud. Sometimes I imagine myself as a monster playing the role of a human in a crowded room. Sometimes I imagine myself as an angel. Many people forget that, in the Bible, God created Lucifer with the intent of perfection. The book of Ezekiel describes Lucifer as being “perfect in beauty.” Lucifer was created as a cherub. God pulled his flesh from the earth and formed a holy being from four wings, four hands, four faces, and innumerable eyes. The four hands or a cherub are almost human but not quite–perhaps with fingernails growing from the skin in inappropriate places or too many bones in each finger–and concealed beneath the wings. The faces are those of an ox, a human, a lion, and an eagle, each pointing out in different directions. The cherubim wouldn’t need the circular vision of their four faces, because their bodies are studded with eyes–lashes flutter with the blinking of eyes on their backs and hands and chests and wings, too. Those heavenly agents keep watch on the whole of creation without craning their necks.
God formed that beast with perfection in mind and when he was done he named the creature Lucifer and said yes, you are perfect. You are the pinnacle of beauty, in all your horror and eyes blinking in unison. The greatest monster in all the heavens and hells could be beautiful in his grotesque vessel; so maybe God worked with intention when he birthed me into this world. This is not about being orderly or clean or proper: pristine and beautiful are not synonymous. Mary Mason was never clean: her hands were always slick with her own blood or someone else’s.
In the last five minutes of American Mary, the enraged boyfriend of Mary’s former client stabs Mary, and she attempts to perform surgery on herself. She sweeps her needle through the seams of the gash in her abdomen. The skin bulges up under the needle until giving way to the press of steel. Blood pools in the gash in her stomach. Peaceful classical piano, neat and with each note crisply enunciated, plays in harmony with the rhythm of her stitching. She closes the wound and cuts the thread: the surgery is successful. In the final shot of the movie Mary sprawls dead in a halo of her own blood. She is smiling.
Sandro Ortega-Riek is a Nicaraguan-American writer from Arizona. His poetry and prose can be found in several online and print magazines. He attends school in California. ortegariekpoetry.tumblr.com.