Sunday, August 3, 2008

Body Horror

As a fan of horror stories and horror movies, I've seen a lot of scary stuff. But after a while, some things just aren't scary anymore. I've seen enough mainstream horror films to be able to predict when something is going to jump out and say “boo,” and things like vampires and werewolves are becoming so familiar that they're increasingly common as heroes rather than villains (e.g. Underwold, Blade, the “Twilight” series of young adult novels, anything by Anne Rice - the list goes on and on).

Fundamentally, the reason I like horror stories is because I like being scared. As a kid, I'd watch horror films every Saturday afternoon on a feature some network called “Nightmare Theater.” Most of the time it scared me for days afterward, yet I kept coming back. Nowadays, I laugh at most of the corny movies that gave me nightmares as a kid, but it seems to me that while monsters and creatures of the supernatural lose their power with age and the onset of rationality, certain things remain frightening. There are fundamental things that everyone is scared of – archetypes of horror, so to speak.

I started making my way steadily through Clive Barker's fiction sometime last year, and found it was exactly what I was looking for in horror: something genuinely disturbing that didn't resort to cheap shock tactics (most of the time, anyway). One of Barker's recurring themes is the horror that comes from the disfigurement or transformation of the human form. Barker extends this beyond the simple horror of injury and gleefully mutates his characters into a number of grotesque oddities. Even being aware of the fact that he was doing this while I was reading, it's the kind of thing that managed to creep me out almost every single time.

It's easy to dismiss supernatural monsters as being make-believe, but nobody really gets over the fact that they rely on their physical body (and processes within that are largely out of their control) to remain alive. Whether it's a subconscious fear or not, Barker has no qualms about bringing it to the surface and taking it to extremes. Sure, imagining your hand revolting and trying to kill you (“The Body Politic”) is a bit of a stretch, but what's cancer except the body killing itself slowly? Everyone, even if it just comes from getting chicken pox as a kid, has to grapple with this issue at some level during their lives.

Furthermore, Barker draws upon the similarity of our physical form to that of our evolutionary ancestors to remind us that we have only recently become “civilized,” and that unbridled barbarism is just a step backwards. Whether it's a frightening portrayal of an orangutan become human (“New Murders in the Rue Morgue”), a trinity of reptilian, avian, and mammalian beasts merging in an accelerated evolution (“The Inhuman Condition”), or a criminal's soul that has fled into the body of a hog (“Pig Blood Blues”), we're constantly reminded that the line between man and beast is one that we have drawn arbitrarily.

It's stuff that's innately repellent, but fascinating to me when examined at a deeper level.

Body Horror on Wikipedia

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