From the earliest films depicting strange monsters rising from decrepit pits to prey on the vulnerable to the “pod people” of the 1950s invading everyday life and the monstrous aliens and zombie plagues of recent cinema, horror films can be said to reflect, address, and respond to cultural anxieties. The 2000s have seen the resurgence of the “body horror” film, whose most common feature is the often-graphic destruction or degeneration of the human body. A rich genre whose parameters are difficult to pin down, body horror has also been commonly called biological horror or visceral horror due to the propensity of films within the genre to deal with portrayals of decay, disease, mutation, mutilation, and parasitism.
In recent years, films have become increasingly likely to cross generic boundaries, borrowing elements from one genre or another in their construction. The imagery and filmmaking techniques of the conventional horror film, if they have ever existed, have become “dispersed” outside the genre, with elements of these films appearing in “hybrid films” (such as the science fiction horror film), or even more unexpected and startling forms, such as the body-horror-comedy film, with much modern scholarship discussing how films outside conventional genres are still able to use their generic elements in order to convey their message.
‘District 9,’ a 2009 science fiction film directed by Neill Blomkamp, is a prime example of a film that draws from outside its conventional genre to make a commentary that is both local (it addresses apartheid in South Africa) and global (xenophobia on a broader level). ‘District 9’ has been lauded for its ability to draw from various genres: it has been called an incredibly smart science fiction thriller, an extremely violent socio-political mockumentary, and even a classic science-fiction horror film harkening back to the earliest days of the genre. ‘District 9’ is a text which blurs and eludes boundaries by virtue of its very construction, retaining a link to its cinematic ancestors, but also creating something new entirely.
I have chosen to focus primarily on film because of the medium’s unique ability to create an atmosphere inviting a visceral response from viewers. In addition to the narrative that may be equally compelling on screen or in print, films are capable of using sound and editing to enhance the narrative or draw the audience’s attention to a particular element. While any film genre conveys associations with its time and place, ideological and social messages unique to their time period, horror films tend to function on profound levels and elicit a fundamental anxiety shared by all human beings. Neill Blomkamp, aware of the power of horror to generate anxiety in its audience, borrows notably from body horror and turns ‘District 9’ into an incredible mental and physical experience, where the experience of Wikus van de Merwe’s change resonates with the audience through prolonged gross-out shots.
Disgust is a response unique to all humans, and, importantly, inescapable in the film. A film’s audience, cannot, per instinct, establish a critical distance between themselves and the scene that is generating the disgust response. A meticulously orchestrated scene is eliciting disgust positions the audience in adverse relation to an overarching theme, which might then lead to a critical understanding of the social problem or problems invoked in the film. In the case of ‘District 9,’ the disgust response addresses and criticises the relationship between one’s self and the broader social order; this response also speaks to the nature of xenophobia, immigration, and morality.
This article and more theoretical articles to come, explore an examination of the experience of general disgust, from which moral disgust will be distinguished. Explaining the connection between morality and “goodness,” as well as the connection between disgust and “badness,” paying particular attention to the use of disgust in language when describing perceived negative or immoral actions. Following in description the Sigmund Freud’s concept of the uncanny, especially those passages in his work describing the experience of the uncanny as that which is “strangely familiar,” as well as that which generates cognitive dissonance within the subject undergoing the experience of the uncanny due to the paradoxical nature of being simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the uncanny object.
I will also draw from Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject, which Julia Kristeva writes as that which is based in a breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of distinction between the self and the “other.” Main character Wikus van de Merwe’s traumatic degeneration forces him into confrontation with himself as he attempts to disguise his changing body (even going so far as to attempt to amputate a mutated thumb), but also forces him to confront the very ideas underpinning the society he lives in; as a being who is human and also not human, his existence disrupts the social order.
My articles will take the concepts of disgust, the uncanny, and abjection, and examine how, in conjunction with elements of body horror, they are used in ‘District 9’ to reveal a critique of the relationship between one’s self, one’s race, and the overarching social order we are expected to live in. It also addresses what happens to Wikus van de Merwe as he experiences what it is like to be on the receiving end of what his organisation has been doing to the alien “prawn” throughout the entirety of the film.
Neil Blomkamp’s excessive attention to the degeneration of protagonist Wikus van de Merwe is not without purpose. I argue that Neil Blomkamp is addressing the widely held but oversimplified notion that morality is intrinsically tied to the concept of what is not only “good” and “pure,” but also what is “human.” Neil Blomkamp inverts these notions; throughout ‘District 9,’ Wikus van de Merwe becomes more “human” as he becomes less “human.” Ultimately, ‘District 9’ is a penetrating, subversive meditation on the nature of racism and repression, an ambitious film where the elements of body horror and science fiction come together to confront the way racist ideology contends with the uncanny and the abject.
I close with a brief conclusion in which I examine other media which use elements of body horror to convey a cultural critique, and I offer potential avenues for future research. I also suggest that the resurgence of body horror, as well as extreme graphic elements in a recent film, is a reflection of a broader anxiety toward the idea of the other, the outsider, the abject, in general. The foreigner, the alien, has been symbolic of infection, filth, and danger in our modern culture — the twisting knife to the inside and the transforming body speak directly to the loss of one’s self, and one is higher identity.