Body Horror: Explaining the Controversial Subgenre

Body Horror

The recent release of Nicolas Winding Refn’s body horror Neon Demon caused an uproar at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. A depraved mix of self-indulgent cinematography and a muddled plot led to audience members literally yelling at the screen. Refn is all too familiar with strong reactions to his work, the jarring violence within Drive (2011) being heavily criticised upon release. However, there is one element within Neon Demon which, for better or for worse would have aided in the audience’s reaction – a throwback to the Body Horror Genre.

Body Horror’s “scares” are in the name; mostly centred on the destruction, degeneration, or mutation of the human form. It finds its roots in our primal fear of the uncanny and from an internal, not external threat. This leads to an alienation of our own physical self, ensuing in tension and paranoia pitted against our own biological makeup. Bodies designed or moving in a recognizable but jarring way, the Uncanny Valley, often provoke this reaction and feed into our subconscious fear of the other. This is why body horror is so disturbing, the images stick in the memory and the source of fear is inescapable, coming from within ourselves.

David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) are brilliant examples of every day made strange. As a storytelling device, Body Horror lets the writer have free reign over the internal logic and “rules” of their story world. This is due to the fact that they are working beyond realism and invites the audience to suspend their disbelief, a liberating place to be as both audience and filmmaker.

the thing

Often Body Horror relies on physical effects such as the animatronics in The Thing and the prosthetics and use of latex in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Dawn of the Dead (1978) also relied heavily on practical makeup. George A. Romero’s visual effects and makeup artist Thomas Savini was inspired by his time serving in the Vietnam War.

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