Different veins of terror exist within the horror genre. You have your slashers, your paranormals, your aliens, your monsters, and hundreds of other subgenres to get your heartrate up. Even the words “terror” and “horror” are up for debate as to what exactly they entail. One of my favorites is the “body horror” category.
Body horror encapsulates movies like The Fly, The Thing, Videodrome, and Eraserhead. Body horror books include Uzumaki and Tomie by Junji Ito, The Troop and The Deep by Nick Cutter, and so on and so forth. This subgenre intentionally shows the human body being broken down, often through mutilation or transformation. Due to the gory nature of these narratives, they admittedly aren’t for everyone.
At first, the answer to the question “what makes body horror scary?” seems obvious. If you’re watching a movie or reading a book and someone’s arm is hacked off, we think “that’s not supposed to happen, blood must stay inside the body, I don’t like that”.
But body horror plays on more than just our pain receptors. Once we peel back the layers, we can see all the fears and themes body horror hits. In this article, I’ll be using various examples — mostly from the works of Junji Ito, so this might end up becoming a love letter to his work. Also, consider this your official spoiler alert.
Let’s start with the previously mentioned obvious one. In the movie Saw, there are scenes of graphic violence depicted mainly off-screen (unlike the movie’s sequels), but the screams and noises will still send shivers down your spine. It’s scary because we don’t want to be in that situation. We tend to like our blood where it is, and besides, it would hurt.
Horror movies manipulate us through our empathy. We’re empathetic creatures at our core, and when we see people suffering, we sometimes feel twinges of pain as well. In the case of body horror, the writers use that empathy against us to make us squirm in discomfort.
As a body horror narrative continues, the characters gradually lose control over their body. Try as the characters might to prevent their transformation or mutilation, the situation continues its downward spiral. What’s more terrifying than being unable to dictate your own body?
In Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, a town is cursed by a spiral shape, and hideous transformations of all kinds begin. One repeated transformation involves a person morphing into a giant snail. No matter what they try to prevent their change, the victim’s eyes inevitably pop out of their heads on snail-like stalks and shells form on their backs. The loss of their bodies is unavoidable.
Jumping back to Saw, main antagonist Jigsaw captures people and rigs them into elaborate mechanical death traps where the victim must make some decision or die a horrible death. While the traps alone lead to some good scares, the idea of somebody capturing you and surgically implanting you into a device makes your skin crawl even more. In body horror, your ability to dictate what happens to your body is stripped away from you, and seeing that in action leaves the reader feeling uneasy and vulnerable.
As the characters go through these horrific ordeals leaving them scarred and monstrous, they lose something even greater in value than their missing limbs: their sense of self.
We all have an idea of who we are as a person. Body horror breaks those ideas down to ask the question, “what makes our identity?”, like in Gyo by Junji Ito. This graphic novel starts as an invasion movie with a bunch of fish on mechanical legs storming the shorelines of Japan, but soon devolves into a pandemic-style horror story where people become infected with a virus. This virus causes severe bloating, basically rotting the body from the inside out and expelling gas from the victims’ orifices that smells of rancid meat.
The story revolves around a young couple, Tadashi and Kaori. Kaori expresses a sense of vanity, paying close attention to her appearance and accusing Tadashi of not loving her because she isn't beautiful. Once she becomes infected by the gas virus, she’s unable to recognize herself in the mirror, and no longer knows what to do with herself due to her shattered sense of worth. Body horror analyzes identity so well because it allows for the writer to remove things that we consider a part of ourselves.
Taking the idea of “identity” even farther, body horror pushes the boundaries of humanity as well. At a certain point, the characters are unsure of who they are as a person, but in time, there’s a question of whether or not they even count as a person anymore.
In The Fly, scientist Seth Brundle begins transforming into a human fly after an experiment gone wrong. By the end of the film, it’s hard to even use the term “human fly” due to Brundle’s monstrous form. Junji Ito’s Tomie follows a young girl who is murdered over and over again by the men who fall for her, but she always comes back to life — usually through means of grotesque regeneration. At times, Tomie’s eviscerated pieces change into shambling masses of flesh, unrecognizable to anyone.
What’s more, most of these monsters definitely started out as human. The thought of any one of us devolving into something so monstrous scares us, forcing us to reevaluate our roles as people. Through examination of these abstract concepts, writers force us to consider things that make us uncomfortable, and doing so in a scary fashion helps frame the concepts in an easy-to-swallow manner that engages the audience.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.