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The Horror Body: Transgressing Beyond the Anatomy

The Horror Body: Transgressing Beyond the Anatomy
© Photograph by Flo Delabioteam

Cinema has learnt to exploit it as a very valuable source to create anxieties in the audiences through displaying images of bodies suffering these actions, making explicit what our awareness prefers to hide and certain filmmakers show in order to scare, horrify us or even provoke sick feelings.

It has traditionally been the female body the one which has been subjected to pleasures of the male gaze, preferably relying that body on teenagers or immoral figures that have been longer representing both the spectator and the murderer who “penetrates” her with the phallic object par excellence, the knife and others. However, during the 1980s we could attend some examples shifting from this traditional point of view to another one: the male body being highly altered, opened, and transformed: images of the boundaries of the human body being trespassed and the flesh being rotten. The narratives that displayed these premises were conceptualized as the “horror body” or alternatively “biological horror”, a concept of horror not only subverting the body but also the conventions of the genre.

Through the analysis of two key examples of the decade, ‘The Fly’ (David Cronenberg, United Kingdom, Canada, and United States of America 1986) and ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’ (Shinya Tsukamoto, Japan 1989) we will define the horror body on screen, how it works and how it is played in order to make explicit our most hidden fears.

David Paul Cronenberg’s filmography is highly representative of the horror body and the Canadian director is one of the most obsessive filmmakers in displaying images of bodies being transgressed. We owe to him the concept of “New Flesh”, making reference to the sentence “Long Live New Flesh” which is mentioned in one of his most discussed and analyzed movies, ‘Videodrome’ (David Paul Cronenberg, United States of America 1984). What “New Flesh” represents is directly linked with the horror body, the ultimate mutation of the body producing, as a last resort, the disintegration of the identity. It is also a concept involving anxieties of the contemporary societies, especially of the human phobia to a disintegration of the self in a world constantly shifting. According to Linda Badley, “The world of the New Flesh is the world hystericized, hysteria having become virtual reality and regime.”1

We find several examples in David Paul Cronenberg’s movies of the body being transformed in this manner and, in fact, this is the leitmotiv of ‘The Fly’ since its main character, the scientist Seth Brundle, suffers a slow, lingering transformation into a monster as consequence of the failure in an experiment of teleportation during which a fly gets into the telepod and their genes are accidentally scrambled. Despite the plot is a remake of a B feature from the 1950s also called ‘The Fly’ (Kurt Neumann, United States of America 1958), David Paul Cronenberg’s work is quite much related to the surrealistic nightmare of Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s ‘The metamorphosis’ than to the one that Vincent Price played in Kurt Neumann’s movie. Also connected to the Czech author’s key text is ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’. Post-modern, post-punk, post-industrial, ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’ is a super-short black and white film in horror body imminently representing fears and worries which we see a man mutating painfully into metal, a transformation that displays the status of the modern world, again a nightmare in which the loss of identity is invoked by pain and deformation. These fears displayed in ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’ and ‘The Fly’ can be read as allegoric representations of the body submitted to decomposing diseases and the panic unleashed as a result of them. In ‘The Fly’, Seth Brundle announces he is scared when, in an advancing state of decomposition his ear falls off and cannot stop his vomits.

But the transformations of the body displayed in ‘The Fly’ and ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’ not only are significant in the sense of the transgressions they unveil but also by the matter of gender.

According to Mary Baine Campbell, “[David Paul] Cronenberg, at one time in his life a biochemistry major, gives us creepier transformations and more destructive multiplications, looking at alchemy’s gender-suffused mutabilities through very dark glasses.”2 The gender shifting, being blurred or transferred is a common pattern in the Canadian’s filmography since his earliest works, frequently defeating the male body and conferring masculine organs to the female figure, contradicting Laura Mulvey’s influent theory about the need of an image of the castrated woman in order to give order and meaning to its world.3 Mary Baine Campbell takes two examples in order to illustrate this: “In both ‘Shivers’ (David Paul Cronenberg, Canada 1975) and ‘Rabid’ (David Paul Cronenberg, Canada 1977), transformations involve transference and confusion of sexual characteristics, resulting in ominous parodies of the “Androgyne: men parodically giving birth to monstrous lumps of flesh in the former, a woman with a phallic organ that sucks in fluids rather than expelling them in the latter.”4

The presence of female figure “provided with phallus” displayed by David Paul Cronenberg attempts to make the predominantly male spectator’s gaze feeling uncomfortable and highly disturbed, in this way externalising his anxieties through unimagined fantasies of his own disintegration on screen. They are constructed as a nightmare that violently subverts the traditional “visual pleasure”. In ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’, this nightmare comes true precisely through the display of a Tetsuo’s nightmare, in which the male figure is whipped and penetrated by the long, metallic pipe/phallus of the female one. Representing these surrealistic images of horror, ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’ exposes sadomasochistic fantasies that involve extremely painful penetration by the mechanic tentacles of an industrial era and anxieties stemmed from sex and technology also present in David Paul Cronenberg’s ‘Videodrome’. To this respect, Ian Conrich argues: “The man-machine monstrosities of the Tetsuo films mutate through rage, which at a certain level of transformation would appear to be irrevocable. They are a version of Cronenberg’s New Flesh and share a degree of Videodrome’s sexualisation of the effect of transmutation, and even its images of sadomasochism.”5

In fact, there are several scenes in ‘Videodrome’ showing sadomasochist acts, the most of them channelled through the female figure of Nikki, the (idealised) projected an image of Renn’s sexual fantasies, whereas in ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’ these fantasies lead us to repulsive fusions between sexual and industrial nightmares. The Japanese film thoroughly represents images of cruel penetration, castration and substitution of the male member for monstrous mechanical devices, and, in one of its wide range of hard-core, horrifying representations, Tetsuo asks “You want a taste of my sewage pipe?” involving in just a question the transgressor premises of Shinya Tsukamoto’s film.

Both ‘The Fly’ and ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’ are examples of cruelty towards the body, mainly the male body and mainly as a terrible consequence of technology in the former, or hyperbolic and forced mutation into it in the latter. David Paul Cronenberg and Shinya Tsukamoto’s works are irrevocably technophobes as are many films in 1980s, narratives related to nuclear Apocalypses like ‘Akira’ (Katsuhiro Ôtomo, Japan 1988), replicant/cyborg’s narratives like ‘Blade Runner’ (Ridley Scott, United States of America 1982) and ‘The Terminator’ (James Francis Cameron, United States of America 1984) or Franz Kafkian surrealistic fictions like the two examples here subjected to study.

1.
Linda Badley, ‘David Cronenberg’s Anatomy Lessons’ in Film, Horror, and the Body Fantastic (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995), p. 126.
2.
Mary B. Campbell, ‘Biological Alchemy and the Films of David Cronenberg’ in Planks of Reason: essays on the horror films (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2004), p. 337.
3.
Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema’ in The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader on Sexuality, ed. Screen, (London, Routledge, 1992), pp. 22-34.
4.
David Paul Campbell, 2004, p. 339.
5.
Ian Conrich, ‘Metal-Morphosis: Post-Industrial Crisis and the Tormented Body in the Tetsuo Films’ in Japanese Horror Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), p. 103.

Also published on Medium.




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