Best Sci-Fi Horror Movies

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Though the sci-fi horror genre has been around for century, it’s really in the last few decades that it has hit it’s stride. Nowhere has that jump in popularity more prevalent or evident than in the world of film. The 70’s and 80’s represent a golden era in sci-fi horror movies, with the rise of such giants in the industry as John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and Ridley Scott. But even from the 90’s onward sci-fi horror shows no signs of slowing down, and some really incredible entries have come out in just the last couple of years.

There are so many excellent sci-fi horror movies out there that it was very hard to narrow this down to a manageable list. Even with an “Honorable Mentions” section at the end, we know we missed plenty of viable candidates. Let us know some of the better films we left off down in the comments below!

Color Out of Space (2019)

Color out of space 2019 poster with sci-fi horror background

Did you know colors could be scary? H.P. Lovecraft certainly thought they could be, and he wrote a deeply unsettling story to prove it. Color Out of Space is a cosmic horror film based on that titular story, and it’s about the Gardner family who find that a meteorite has crash-landed on their farm. Suddenly, their once peaceful life in the country is shattered as the family finds themselves fighting an alien being that can infect and mutate their bodies and minds. Come for the Nicolas Cage performance, stay for the grotesque practical effects. With a slow build in the first half and a wild spree of body horror in the second half, Color Out of Space is a rare example of a Lovecraft adaptation done right. 

Annihilation (2018)

Annihilation horror movie poster with scary sci-fi landscape

Criminally underrated and suffering from a shoddy release, Annihilation is a film that deserves your attention and awe. Based on the book by Jeff Vandermeer, it’s a story about a group of scientists who venture into a mysterious zone called “the Shimmer” to collect data and locate the early explorers who have vanished inside. The movie shares some similarities with the book, but writer/director Alex Garland also made some significant changes and it’s best to view them as alternate entries in a shared universe. It’s notoriously difficult to translate cosmic horror to the big screen, but Annihilation manages to do it and do it well. Full of mind boggling images and a deep unfurling dread, this is a movie that really translates a sense of hopelessness and unfathomable fear.

Timecrimes (2007)

Timecrimes horror movie poster with creepy killer

Though perhaps more of a sci-fi thriller than horror, there are enough shocking scenes and gut-twisting suspense to earn the Spanish language film Timecrimes a spot on this list. The film opens with a man named Hector spying on a beautiful woman. His moment of voyeurism is suddenly disrupted when he is attacked by a man whose head is wrapped in bandages. Fleeing the scene, Hector is able to find refuge in a remote lab where a scientist convinces him to hide in what turns out to be a time machine. To say more would be to spoil critical scenes, but just know this movie, though saddled with a low budget and amatuer actors, is a wonderfully confounding and deeply disquieting.example of sci-fi horror.

Event Horizon (1997)

Event Horizon sci-fi horror movie poster with space ship and planet

Sure it flopped on its initial release (as did several other films on this list). Sure it’s been panned by critics and holds a highly debated place in film fandom. But whether you hate or, in our case, love it, there’s no denying that Event Horizon is fully ingrained in pop culture and space horror sensibilities. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s about a spaceship that stumbles across a portal to hell. As this infernal dimension begins to assert it’s dark influence the crew is slowly driven into a violent madness. Full of existential dread and shots of pure horror, Event Horizon is a film not to be missed. Just hope you return from the experience in a better state than the crew.

The Fly (1986)

The Fly horror movie poster with a fly and black background

We’re big fans of both body horror and practical effects over here at Puzzle Box, and one of the movies that best combines those two elements is David Cronenburg’s The Fly. Really there are many great choices in the Cronenburg cannon, but picked this one for its engaging premise and delightfully gross effects. Jeff Goldbloom, who gives a particularly captivating performance, plays a scientist whose failed experiment in teleportation transforms him into a gigantic insect. It’s a disgusting and nightmarish riff on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, but it’s also a surprisingly poignant look into the complexity of human relationships. 

Re-Animator (1985)

Re-Animator horror movie poster featuring a severed head and a creepy scientist

Herbert West, a slightly off-kilter scientist, has discovered a secret formula that can reanimate dead tissue and ultimately bring the deceased back to life. After a successful trial run on a fellow student’s cat, West takes his extraordinary elixir to the morgue and from there all havoc breaks loose. Though the movie is loosely based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story, there were some major changes made and a lack of overall otherworldly dread. Instead we get a gloriously violent and darkly comedic romp full of gore and humor, all centered around the delightfully cheesy performance of actor Stewart Gordan. And really, what more could you want?

The Thing (1982)

The Thing 1982 sci-fi horror movie poster featuring a man in an arctic suit with beams of light coming through his head

John Carpenter’s The Thing is a masterpiece of paranoia and gorey practical effects. Based on the novella Who Goes There? by John Campbell Jr, Carpenter’s version is actually the third adaptation of the story and by far the most famous. In an isolated arctic setting, a team of scientists uncover an ancient alien being. Despite their best intentions, the creature is revived and begins to take them out one by one. What makes this plot particularly terrifying is the alien’s ability to mimic other lifeforms.The frenzy of shapeshifting that ensues, from the normal humanoid forms to the outrageously bizarre spectacles, keeps the scientists (and the audience) guessing on who is friend or foe. For the staff at Puzzle Box Horror, this is easily one of our favorite sci-fi horror films.

Scanners (1981)

Scanners horror movie poster from 1981 featuring a man whose head is exploding

Ok we swear this isn’t cheating, but we’re double-dipping in the Carpenter oeuvre. His movie Scanners, essentially about a group of telepathics seeking world domination and the counter-group fighting to subvert them, is what we consider essential viewing when it comes to the sci-fi horror genre. Yes it has the infamous head-exploding scene, and yes it’s as entertaining and memorable as you’d assume from a Carpenter film. But it also features some fine character acting and touches on some intriguing sociopolitical themes. Overall it’s a satisfying blend of cerebral commentary and visceral chaos. 

Alien (1979)

Alien 1979 horror movie poster featuring an alien egg

It’s impossible to talk about sci-fi horror without the angular, toothy distorted image of a xenomorph coming to mind. The whole alien franchise is fantastic (yes, even that one), but we have to give credit to the one that started it all. Ridley Scott’s Alien is dark, tense, and claustrophobic; a slow-burn of mounting dread and unseen foes until about the halfway mark when it explodes (literally) with stomach-churning horror. Featuring the unforgettable designs by H.R. Giger and inspiring decades of filmmakers after it, Alien stands as a shining example of the “horror in space” genre.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978 movie poster featuring aliens and a person in a cocoon

It’s not often that a remake is better than the original, but the 70’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is arguably superior to its predecessor. The enthralling performances of the leads, the creepy practical effects, the unnerving musical score, and the harrowing ending all work in perfect unison to make this a shockingly scary film. The cold war paranoia of the first movie has also been updated to showcase more relevant social metaphors, such as the loss of self and breakdown of community. Body possession movies have always been terrifying, and this one, about an alien plant that consumes its sleeping host and assumes their form, is a must-watch entry in the sci-fi horror genre.

Honorable Mentions

Possessor (2020)

The Invisible Man (2020)

Life (2017)

Ex Machina (2014)

Europa Report (2013)

Sunshine (2007)

Slither (2006)

28 Days Later (2002)

Donnie Darko (2001)

The Faculty (1998)

Demon Seed (1997)

Mimic (1997)

Cube (1997)

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

Aliens (1986)

From Beyond (1986)

Altered States (1980)

The Fury (1978)

Exploring the Roots of Folk Horror

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Defining the term “folk horror” and tracing its trajectory throughout history is somewhat of a Herculean task. For a term that sounds so simplistic, it is an incredibly complex and ever-expanding genre. Entire books have been written on the subject (such as Adam Scovell’s 2017 film criticism Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange), and there’s even a three hour long documentary about it titled Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror, which itself features over one hundred examples from film.

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched cover

And while much of the emphasis surrounding the conversation is placed on British movies, there are plenty of overlapping examples in film, TV, and literature from around the world. Not to mention the actual elements that make up the genre are diverse, and range from folklore to the occult to witchcraft. 

Simply put, it’s complicated.

To that end, this article is not going to be an exhaustive look at the genre (that’s what the books and documentaries are for), but rather a brief overview of the term, its tropes, and popular examples. Think of it as a primer; a starting place in the shallows of the vast ocean that is folk horror. Ready to wade in?

Origins of the Term

The British music scene experienced something of a folk revival in the 1960s, and that, coupled with the rise in Neopaganism, led to a general infatuation with and exploration of older belief systems. Bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin explored occult themes in their songs, and the writings of famous occultist Aleister Crowley gained popularity. It wasn’t long before the fascination with folk and occult themes found its way into the world of cinema. And that’s not to say that music was the only vehicle for introducing folk horror, as disillusionment with modernism and outrage at governing bodies engendered in many a desire to return to nature and the simpler, older ways of life. At the same time, our post-industrial life has made us unused to rural life and uncomfortable with isolation.

When cult classic The Blood on Satan’s Claws came out in 1971, the Kine Weekly referred to the film as “a study in folk horror”. The movie’s director Piers Haggard also used this term when describing his film. Later the term received renewed attention in 2010 when writer/actor Mark Gatiss interviewed Haggard during a section of the BBC documentary A History of Horror. These two moments, 1971 and 2010, appear to mark the emergence and then subsequent revitalization of the expression “folk horror”.

The Blood on Satan's Claws cover

Elements of Folk Horror

Though it can be difficult to pin down the exact definition of folk horror, there is a general agreement that it is more of a mood, an atmosphere, than anything else. You know it when you see it, though it may be hard to explain why. Even common tropes can vary widely depending on geographic region and time period, and movies with very dissimilar plots can still fall under the folk horror umbrella. But for the purpose of simplicity, we will highlight what writer and filmmaker Adam Scovell (owner of the Celluloid Wicker Man blog) describes as the “Folk Horror Chain”, or the four basic thematic/aesthetic tenets of folk horror: Rural Location, Isolated Groups, Skewed Moral and Belief Systems, and Supernatural or Violent Happenings.

Rural Location: This was a big one for movies in the 60s and 70s because it saw a move away from filming in studios and out into the natural world. This element typically involves a fascination with pastoral landscapes and locations outside of urban life. Often there is an outsider who stumbles upon or is forced into a rural community, and who usually becomes some sort of scapegoat or sacrifice to traditional/pagan beliefs. Some argue that this element also encompasses ideas of psychography and location being a “state of mind” in more urban communities, such as in Roman Polanski’s film Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

Isolated Groups: This element typically takes one one of two meanings – either an individual is isolated from their normal physical environment or they’re isolated from those who share their same moral beliefs. For example, the characters in David Bruckner’s The Ritual (2017) find themselves stranded in the forest but also in discord with people who worship much different gods than they. This element is a link between the previous one and the next because isolation usually happens in rural environments, and it’s made even more upsetting because the antagonistic forces don’t act or think the same as the protagonist.

Skewed Moral and Belief Systems: In Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), Sergeant Howie finds himself in a community whose religious beliefs and practices are at odds with his own. Across other examples there is a common thread of “modern” or “Christian” beliefs finding themselves in direct conflict with occult or pagan beliefs. This collision of morality and religious belief leads into or is specifically connected to the final element of the chain.

folk horror ritual

Supernatural or Violent Happenings: Folk horror stories are often steeped in, or at least influenced by, folklore of the particular region they’re set in, and this final piece of the chain usually involves either supernatural beings or some form of ritualistic violence (or both) related to that folklore. Invocations of demonic entities, horrific sacrifices, occult practices, and pagan idolatry are all par for the course. 

British Folk Horror

The current popularity of folk horror, at least what our primary audience would be familiar with, owes a lot to British cinema, and in particular the Hammer Films production company. A group of films from the 60s and 70s, known affectionately as the “Unholy Trinity,” is what many point to as the birth of the genre. These movies are Witchfinder General (1968), the aforementioned Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973). These three films helped distinguish some common characteristics of folk horror, namely the picturesque landscapes, the isolated communities, and the emphasis on sacrifices and supernatural summonings. And yet, showing how intangible the genre is, these are also three very different movies in terms of plot.

BBC's Ghost Stories for Christmas cover

Strong examples of the genre can also be found in British television from the same time period. There was the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas series, which adapted several of M.R. James’s short stories with folk horror elements, such as Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968), A Warning to the Curious (1972), and The Ash Tree (1975). There was a drama series from the BBC, titled Plays for Today, with standout hits like Robin Redbreast (1970) and Penda’s Fen (1974). And there were still other enduring examples of the genre like Children of the Stones (1977), a miniseries made for children but still incredibly terrifying.

Though the British rise in folk horror began in the 1960s and 1970s, there was something of a resurgence in the genre in the 2010s. Some of these newer British films (and in the UK more widely) took the tropes and themes from decades previous and put their own modern spin on them, while others sought to return to folk horror’s roots, so to speak, with their emphasis on ritual, folklore, and mankind’s connection to nature. While there are many examples to pull from – folk horror appears to be trending right now – several standout movies include David Keating’s Wake Wood (2009), Paul Wright’s For Those in Peril (2013), Elliot Goldner’s The Borderlands (2013), and Corin Hardy’s The Hallow (2015). Another prolific filmmaker in the genre is Ben Wheatley, whose canon of folk horror movies includes Kill List (2011), Sightseers (2012), A Field in England (2013), and In the Earth (2021).

Kill List cover
Sightseers cover
A Field in England cover

Most of the common examples in British folk horror are from film, however there are many books from Britain that include plots and tropes from the genre. In fact, as it goes, some of the oldest examples of the genre are found in literature, from authors such as Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and M.R. James. Some shining examples in more modern literature include Adam Nevill’s The Ritual (2011) and The Reddening (2019), Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney (2014) and Devil’s Day (2017), Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex (2016), and Stephanie Ellis’s The Five Turns of the Wheel (2020) – as well as numerous comics, such as Simon Davis’s Thistlebone (2020) from 2000AD. 

American Folk Horror

Though the term originated in the British imagination, the evolving genre of folk horror has set roots in American cinema and literature as well. In some cases this involves American filmmakers creating movies very much influenced by the British tradition, such as Avery Crounse’s Eyes of Fire (1983), Robert Eggers’s The Witch (2015), Gareth Evans’s Apostle (2018), and Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019). These films have strong similarities to their British cousins in regards to their emphasis on British landscapes and lore. The Blair Witch Project (1999) is another movie that could be included in this group, though it doesn’t fit the mold quite as well.

There are also many crossover elements between the genres of southern gothic and folk horror, and these commonalities can be seen in films such as Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955). There is also a sub-genre of film called “hicksploitation” or “hillbilly horror” which spawns from the southern gothic tradition and which, upon first glance, may not seem to have much to do with folk horror. Yet, when one applies Scovell’s folk horror chain theory, the similarities begin to arise. Films that would fit in this category include movies like John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977).

Old rusty tools in a toolshed

In American literature, elements of folk horror can be seen as early as the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Washington Irving. Other popular novels and short stories in the genre include Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home (1973), Stephen King’s “Children Of The Corn” (1977), Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People” (1984), Raymond E. Feist’s Faerie Tale (1988), Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall (2015), John Langan’s The Fisherman (2016), and Victor Lavalle’s The Changeling (2017).

A Genre Diverse and Divergent

As we continue to reevaluate and redefine what folk horror is, we begin to notice a few common truths: the genre has existed in some form or fashion long before the 60s and 70s, and some version of it can be found in almost every country around the world. Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, early forms of mystical poetry, and even some of Shakespeare’s plays all have folk horror elements. The earliest example in film comes from the Danish-Swedish fictionalized documentary Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages (1922). Sweden has Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968). Australia has Peter Weir’s The Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). Japan has Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968). And on and on it goes.

Scene from Haxan movie

Also the more we explore the foundations and tenets of folk horror, the more we find examples which lie outside of the commonly accepted cannon, but which end up fitting the mold in diverse and interesting ways. Some titles here would include Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992), Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007), Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018), and even the Paranormal Activity franchise. 

As it should be clear by now, attempting to box the folk horror genre into an easy-to-digest definition is simply not possible. We didn’t even get into the various histories of folklore and dark fairy tales around the world and their individual influences and appearances in the genre. We also didn’t get into the overlapping traits in genres such as science fiction and cosmic horror. What we did accomplish, hopefully, is to give you a taste of the world that you will carry with you into your own exploration of this wonderfully diverse genre known as folk horror.

Fun Facts About Rose Red (the Movie)

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Rose Red Facts, Trivia and Bloopers

Facts About Stephen King’s Rose Red You Didn’t Know

Technically, Rose Red (2002) is a TV miniseries. With that said, the film is frequently referred to as a movie, and is played nowadays pretty much like a movie. Still, however, the movie is split up into sections which are conveniently broken down for commercial spots. It is a rather long movie running a total of 254 minutes…but each scene is magic in its own right!  Today, Rose Red remains a gem among horror films, especially when it comes to haunted houses.  Without further ado, let’s go over a little Rose Red trivia and get our spook on!

Behind the Scenes Trivia & Fun Facts

  • Although they are divorced today, actors Jimmi Simpson and Melanie Lynskey fell in love and married after meeting on the set of Rose Red.
  • Rose Red is based on Sarah Winchester’s “Winchester Mystery House.”
  • Stephen King was strongly influenced by Shirley Jackson’s book “The Haunting” (also turned into a movie, and remade a few years before Rose Red in 1999.
  • Rose Red was a breakout role for actress Emily Deschanel, who played a psychic-type, Pam Asbury, in the movie.
  • Actress Nancy Travis, who played Professor Joyce Reardon, was actually pregnant during the filming of Rose Red, and can be seen in different weights throughout the film.
  • Rose Red was filmed in only 4 months!
  • Rose Red was made for TV as a miniseries and thus was not permitted to allow curse words in the script. Still, Kevin Bolinger is seen recording the words “BULL SH*T” on his notepad during his ease dropping on Professor Reardon’s slideshow about Rose Red.
  • Stephen King had super high aspirations for Rose Red being the best haunted house horror movie of all time, and ever. He planned it to be as unforgettable as it is, specifically citing the advantages of a miniseries format allowing for a larger audience and more story-telling time.
  • Actor Matt Ross, who played psychic Emery Waterman, is a very strong believer in the supernatural in real life, explaining that his mother has sworn to have seen a ghost (his real life mother, that is!).
  • Due to dance scenes, the cast needed dance lessons and attended Blue Skies Studios in Seattle to learn how to properly accommodate Glenn Miller.
  • A reference to Stephen King’s first novel Carrie is found in Annie, a girl with telekinetic powers and the ability to rain stones.
  • Rose Red was a breakout role for actor Jimmi Simpson.
  • Actor David Dukes, who played Professor Carl Miller (antagonist), died of a heart attack while playing tennis the night before returning to shoot the remainder of his scenes. He was already such a large part of the movie it were impossible to replace him (and would have been in terrible etiquette to do so). Instead, Craig Baxley Jr (a stunt coordinator) completed the scenes involving the zombie version of Professor Miller.
Guests arriving at Rose Red House from Stephen King's Horror Mini Series
  • The film had a promotional and marketing budget of $200,000.
  • The Rose Red script was delayed from finish after Stephen King suffered a car accident and required a little down time to recover.
  • Although Rose Red was released in 2002, the DVD would not be released until 2007.
  • Originally, Stephen King and Steven Spielberg were going to make Rose Red together, however, after a variety of creative differences…King decided to buy the rights to the movie from Spielberg…who wished it would have had more action-based scares.
  • Parallels can be made between Rose Red and an earlier Stephen King’s “The Shining.”
  • Although the original budget for Rose Red was a modest $3 million, which is a somewhat normal amount for such a project at that time…it ended up absorbing an astounding $35 million by the end of it’s shoot!
  • The sounds of hammers and construction throughout the house is based upon the sounds visitors report hearing within the real-life Winchester mansion.
  • There is a prequel to Rose Red, in book format only, entitled “The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer: My Life at Rose Red” (2001). This book provides a lot of backstory about Ellen Rimbauer and Rose Red itself which coincides with the movie. Ellen Rimbauer was Steve Rimbauer’s grandmother.
  • Despite being based upon the Winchester Mystery House, Rose Red was shot using the Thornewood Castle in Tacoma, Washington.
Young Girl Holding a Doll From Rose Red Horror Movie

Logical Errors and Goof Ups (Bloopers)

  • Rose Red, as polished as it may be (with a budget of $35 million for a miniseries, it should be), had a number of goof ups and bloopers, as well as logical contradictions. Some of the harder bloopers to spot include:
  • Kevin Bolinger’s graduation date is seemingly weeks away (insinuated by Professor Miller), though the year is supposedly 2001. During his public interrogation of Professor Joyce Reardon he states he is a part of the Class of 2003.
  • Ellen Rimbauer supposedly disappeared at age 70 in 1950, though based upon earlier information, she would have been 64.
  • Annie’s blood stained bandage becomes clean and then soiled again multiple times during perspective changes.
  • The color of the rose on the stained glass window of the tower changes color throughout the film.
  • During Kevin Bollinger’s public interrogation of Professor Reardon, Professor Miller is seen leaving the sound booth above the classroom and then reappears in the booth within the same scene.
  • The phone call from Steve Rimbauer to Professor Miller made from Rose Red is received by Miller’s cell phone within his car…though the movie receives the voicemail on his answering machine in his office.
  • Joyce must have smeared blood on the face of Professor Miller across a number of shots, as Professor Miller’s collar is seen with blood, clean from the blood and with the blood again in a continuity error.
  • Although the “spook hunt” planned for Rose Red is for Memorial Day weekend in late May, college football is seen playing twice in the movie as though it is live. College football season runs from September to January.
  • Although Steve Rimbauer states he will be tearing Rose Red down on the first of July, the end of the movie fast forwards six months and low and behold, Rose Red survived much longer!
  • Emery Waterman’s mother received a credit card bill that references an 11 digit customer service number, (800) 455 – 87653.
  • No one can enter Rose Red’s premises without a gate opener, however, a pizza delivery man seems to be able to get to the front door!
  • The roses placed at the front of Rose Red at the end of the movie change arrangement.

History and Recommendations in Body Horror

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Despite its miraculous properties, the human body is an incredibly fragile vehicle for existence. The outdoor elements, other humans, animals, illness, an uneven sidewalk, and so on – there are many potentially dangerous factors to consider in our walk through life. And though all bodies are different, they share in the common pain of bruising, breaking, and bleeding – the results of which also elicit a sense of betrayal. Enter Body Horror.

This fragility and commonality are what make the body horror genre so effective. The books and movies may be filled with far-fetched concepts, but the trauma inflicted on the bodies within hits closer to home. Most of us haven’t experienced the torturous mutilation presented in Audition (1999), but many have experienced the sting of papercuts, accidental lacerations, and so on, all the way up to self-inflicted cutting and physical abuse. Likewise, many of us don’t have to worry about flesh-eating bacteria destroying us from the inside out (as seen in 2002’s Cabin Fever), but we know of the affliction of disease, deformity, decay, and yes, even flesh-eating bacteria for some.

Close up of bloody eye

In this article I will attempt to briefly trace the history, characteristics, and notable creators/examples of the body horror genre. So enjoy the read, cringing and grimacing through the fingers half covering your eyes. This genre is not for the squeamish.

[Side note: as in all horror genres, there is overlap between body horror and other spaces – in this case areas like eco horror, slashers, surrealist horror, psychological horror, cosmic horror, and more]

What is Body Horror?

In its most basic definition, body horror is horror and trauma that is visited specifically on the human body.

Nailed it.

Need more? Examples of these bodily violations usually include some form of dismembering, destruction, distortion, transformation, mutilation, infection, and so on. These acts are typically graphic in nature and meant to elicit powerful reactions from viewers and readers, though there are instances where the horror is quieter (and still somehow just as effective). Monstrous mutations, debilitating diseases, invasive aliens, alarming technology, and anatomical abuse are all par for the course when it comes to body horror. 

So body horror is visceral, but it’s also emotional. The fear of aging and our body decaying, of losing a limb or an organ, and of breaking down due to some invasive disease are all very haunting prospects. It’s a deeper level of fear because it involves some sort of degeneration and devastating change to who we are and how we identify. Horror is also ripe for works that deal with social or political themes and metaphors, and the body horror genre is certainly no exception. 

Werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in London movie

Ostensibly, body horror has existed in some form or fashion for as long as humans have had bodies. The term itself appears to have originated in Phillip Brophy’s 1983 article “Horrality: The Textuality of the Contemporary Horror Film” – in which he cites specific examples like the marble slab scene from Deep Red (1976), the chestburster scene from Alien (1979), the numerous transformations in An American Werewolf in London (1981), and the shape-shifting, replicating horror of The Thing (1982). But the genre has roots that stretch back further than the 70s and 80s, reaching back into the Gothic tradition and even Mary Shelley’s seminal novel Frankenstein (also a landmark for kick-starting the sci-fi horror genre). 

But since this is supposed to be a brief look, we’re going to skip a large chunk of time and land closer to home. The modern era of body horror began in the 1950s, so we’re going to start there and move forward, looking at prominent examples in film and literature. 

Body Horror Films

Our current conception of body horror got its start back in the 50s with films like The Blob (1958) and The Fly (1958), and then skyrocketed from there. The 1960s saw films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and the 1970s had movies like Erasehead (1977) and the remake of Invasions of the Body Snatchers (1978).

Then came the 80s, which was truly a golden age for body horror. That decade produced some of the best films from giants in the field like David Cronenberg (Scanners and Videodrome), John Carpenter (The Thing), Stuart Gordon (The Re-Animator and From Beyond), Brian Yuznu (Society), and Clive Barker (Hellraiser). The 1980s also saw a rise in Asian body horror with such offerings as Akira (1988) and Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989). Both involve humans melding with machines in increasingly gruesome and disturbing ways.

Videodrome movie cover
Rabid movie cover
The Fly Body Horror movie cover

It’s impossible to talk about this genre without going into more detail on the works of visionary director David Cronenberg. The most famous example is probably his version of The Fly (1986), where a misfortuned man has his cellular structure fused to that of a housefly. The transformation is a painful one, as he slowly becomes more insect than human, and it’s made even more so by the loved ones who have to bear witness. If you’re wanting more concrete examples of body horror, look no further than the genetically engineered parasites of Shivers (1975), the experimental surgery gone wrong of Rabid (1977), or the tech-inserted-in-body-orifices of eXistenZ (1999).

Though the 1980s were spectacular, the next several decades each had their own highlights in the genre. Woven into the 2000s was a surge of “torture porn” films like Saw (2004) and The Human Centipede (2009), but also other – and arguably better – examples of body horror like Slither (2006) and Teeth (2007). Some particularly good flicks from the 2010s include American Mary (2012), Under the Skin (2013), Tusk (2014), The Void (2016), and The Beach House (2019). And if Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is any indication, then the 2020s have exciting things in store for the genre!

Body Horror in Other Mediums

There is no lack of examples for body horror in other mediums as well, such as literature, comics, TV, and video games.

Pinhead from Hellraiser Body Horror Film

When it comes to literature, someone like Clive Barker is an easy pick. Beyond just The Hellbound Heart (1986), body horror also shows up in a lot of his short stories, such as “In the Hills, the Cities” or “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament”. Other literary giants sure to have dipped their toes into the genre are Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King, Richard Mattheson, and Robert Bloch. But there are plenty of other fantastic authors with titles to make you feel queasy, from Nick Cutter (The Troop), Jeremy Robert Johnson (Skullcrack City), and Kathe Koja (The Cipher) all the way over to the extreme horror side with authors like Edward Lee, Wrath James White, Ryan Harding, and Jack Ketchum. A personal favorite is Scott Smith’s 2008 novel The Ruins, in which a group of vacationers are graphically tortured and invaded by a sentient plant.

And just to give you more examples, here’s a woefully inexhaustive list from a number of indie/small press releases: Greg Sisco’s In Nightmares We’re Alone (2015), Jonathan Winn’s Eidolon Avenue (2016), Gwendolyn Kiste’s The Rust Maidens (2018), Eric LaRocca’s Starving Ghosts in Every Thread (2020) and his later work Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke (2021), Scott Cole’s Crazytimes (2020), Hailey Piper’s Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy (2021), and Eve Harm’s Transmuted (2021).

Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke by Eric LaRocca cover
Transmuted by Eve Harms cover
Crazytimes by Scott Cole cover

When I think of body horror in comics my mind immediately goes to writer Zac Thompson, known for such excellent offerings as 2019’s Come Into Me (co-written with Lonnie Nadler), Lonely Receiver (2021), and I Breathed a Body (2021). Other exemplary choices would be Charles Burns’s Black Hole (1995), Justin Jordan’s Spread series (2015-2018), numerous instances in the current run of The Immortal Hulk (2018-present), Jeff Lemire’s run of Animal Man (2019), Emily Carroll’s When I Arrived at the Castle (2019), Carmen Maria Machado’s The Low, Low Woods (2020), and basically any iteration of Swamp Thing.

Anime has an extensive output of body horror, with examples like Parasyte, Ghost in the Shell, Attack on Titan, and Dorohedoro. In the world of manga, writer and artist Junji Ito dominates the scene. Best known for his spiral-obsessed anthology Uzumaki (1988-89), Ito’s work is shockingly gruesome in it’s originality and creativity, and it ranges from the quietly unsettling to the outright grotesque. But other manga’s definitely worth checking out include Kentaro Miura’s Berserk and anything by Kazuo Umezu, as well as the manga versions of previously mentioned titles like Attack on Titan and Parasyte

Spiral man from Junji Ito's Uzumaki manga

For video games, the series Dead Space is the first property that comes to mind, where all kinds of nightmarish mutations and body horror oddities await engineer Isaac Claarke in outer space. Other contenders would include various entries in the Resident Evil series, the Parasite Eve series, aspects of the BioShock series, and several of the games from Frictional Studios like Amnesia and Soma

What’s Next?

The beauty and tragedy of mankind is that we will continue to live out our existence in these meat suits we call bodies, at least until the zombie apocalypse or the robot uprising. These bodies will continue to hurt, age, decay, and generally betray us in surprising ways. Diseases and infections will continue to appear and attack our vital systems (too soon?). Scientists and extremists alike will continue to search for new ways to improve the body, thereby altering and transmuting it into something unlike its natural state. What this morbid but factually correct information means then is that there will always be a place for the visceral and emotional fears of body horror in the popular consciousness. 

In Search of Darkness – A Must See Horror Documentary Series

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Best Of Best of Movies Featured Horror Movie Reviews Scary Movies and Series

When I came across CreatorVC Studios’ In Search of Darkness (2019) and it’s sequel my mind instantly split itself into two warring factions. While one side revelled in the idea of two documentaries totalling around nine hours of in-depth exploration of 80s horror films, the other side focused more on the fact that it hadn’t hitherto sat through more than the ninety-or-so minutes of Blackfish (2013) or Jesus Camp (2006). To the latter side, this was an intimidating feat, though a pure love of the horror genre prevailed and to the joy and reconciliation of both sides I sat glued to the screen for the entire duration of both parts. 

A documentary this lengthy has to be informative and, equally as importantly, entertaining. In Search of Darkness: Part II (2021) boasts a wide array of guests from all corners of the horror world, some returning from Part 1, others seemingly jumping on board after its success. From pace-breaking spotlights on gore-effects legend Tom Savini to insights from the nightmare-mongering Robert Englund and the prolific Barbara Crampton to name a few, stories from backstage tidbits to production revelations lurk around every corner. A variety of perspectives are included on most matters ensuring diversity and political correctness throughout, along with some very interesting and thought-provoking takes on different events and (the many) controversies of 80s horror production. 

In search of Darkness Movie poster featuring a child watching 80s horror movies

While paying respectful tribute to the stars and the brains behind each picture, In Search Of Darkness 2 offers detailed, chronological and spoiler-free looks into a positive maelstrom of b-movies, video nasties, cult classics and creature features. The sheer volume of films I had previously glimpsed but never deemed worth my time, only to have In Search of Darkness instantly sell me on is astounding. Not only are films featured and referenced but they are explored equally on a social and ethical level, which is often surreal when such films as Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Nightmare in a Damaged Brain (1981) are made subject. Not only did I, as expected, add many titles to my IMDB watchlist throughout, I also had my perspective widened on more than one occasion. 

In Search of Darkness Indiegogo Trailer

Creator VC Studios built this epic series through the use of crowd funding and fan support. VC studies are self described as. “An independent producer of community-powered entertainment: long-form factual content that is funded, inspired, and shaped by a dedicated community of fans.”

Everything about In Search of Darkness is packaged brilliantly, from it’s neon look to its atmospheric synth soundtrack that combine to draw viewers into the hyper-nostalgic glow of the 80s, perfectly embodying a full decade of filmmaking. All bases are covered, from the Italian ‘Giallo’ pictures of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci to full dives into longer series such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday 13th. Though rather than simply acting as a grisly encyclopedic list it treats viewers to several actor spotlights, squashings of undesirable misnomers such as the reductive ‘scream queen’ moniker and conversations into several of horror’s dirtier and more questionable past avenues. Where Part 1 began the discussion, Part 2 picks up right where it left off and proves that ‘more of the same’ is not always a bad thing. 

In Search of Darkness proves unequivocally that I need to make more time for documentaries; I only hope that others can summon the same electrical interest that these two did for me. One thing is for sure: other documentaries will have to wait for the extensive list of eighties horror movies I now have on my plate. 

In Search Of Darkness Part 3

In search of Darkness part 3 coming soon poster with a skeleton and dark graveyard imagery

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