History and Recommendations in Body Horror

Categories
Best Horror Books Best Of Best of Movies Featured Lifestyle Reviews

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. 

Hope…for the Future, Vol 1 – A Neo-Noir, Pulp Crime Horror

Categories
Best Of Best of Comics Featured Reviews

Imagine the black and white pulp crime world of Dick Tracy mixed with the neo-noir of Frank Miller’s Sin City. Now, add in a dash of occult magic and envision the love child of James Ellroy and Alan Moore, a genre-bending mashup of L.A. Confidential and Hellblazer. Starting to get the picture? If you love any of those genres as much as I do, then you will be head-over-heels for 2000AD’s gritty detective graphic novel Hope…for the Future. 

Puzzle Box Horror may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site.

Hope for the Future comic book cover
Hope for the Future comic book cover

In an alternate post-war 1940s Los Angeles, where occult forces are a fact of life, Mallory Hope is a private detective haunted by his past… and by the demon he works with. When a new case involving a missing boy reminds him of his own lost child, Hope is determined to find him. But he soon discovers all is not what it seems, with dark powers lurking behind the lights of Hollywood

Our protagonist, John Mallory, is very much a John Constantine type: a hard boiled private investigator who’s tuned into the magical world existing beneath everyday reality. He’s a man on a mission, navigating the dark underbelly of 1940s Los Angeles with a dry wit and a grim disposition that makes him immediately likeable. He’s rough and tough, and when given the option to run or double down he always chooses the latter (at one point shrugging and saying “It’s been hours since my last beating”). But he’s also compassionate – demonstrated when he risks his life to save a misfortunate child threatened by a gang of violent goons. I was invested in him from the very first page, his narration really helps to carry the story and give it the necessary exposition and snark.

john mallory art from Hope for the Future comic
John Mallory takes a beating

In this story Hope is tasked with finding a young movie prodigy, a child star who has suddenly gone missing. His investigation will take him to various Hollywood locales, from glitzy film production studios to seedy underground clubs. Along the way we learn about his use of magical powers and how these supernatural interactions are slowly draining his life force. We learn about the enigmatic spirit he accidentally conjured, who wears a nun’s habit and gas mask and feeds off his misery. And we learn, to my great excitement, that there is an overarching storyline about him tracking down the dark being who stole away his wife and son.

demon kidnapping art from Hope for the Future comic
A demonic kidnapper

The writing of Guy Adams is on point here. Literally every single wistful, droll, and pessimistic line from Hope is gold. The story includes a good mix of drama, horror, and humor, and the core mystery of the missing boy would be compelling enough, but the added occult elements really elevate it. Inserting scenes of snake-tongued demons into a detective thriller plot is jarring, but in the best way possible. I definitely appreciate that magic is simply part of the story, and that it’s the dynamic characters who drive the momentum. We get just enough backstory on Mallory to make him engaging, but there’s suggestions of more intriguing reveals in the future. 

And that art from Jimmy Broxton…wow. Normally, I’m a fan of vibrant colors in comics, but the black and white illustrations here just fit so superbly. They’re grungy, gritty, and the art certainly feels like an homage to earlier horror/crime comics. I love the shading and stark contrasts, and how the style bends towards realism in the way the characters and settings are drawn. I also love how Broxton overlays swirling runes and symbols across the panels to let us know when magic is (literally) in the air.

Occult magic art from Hope for the Future comic
Seeing the world through dark magic

This first volume, in my opinion, is a near perfect story. It’s a horror crime thriller with a solid plot  and great pacing, populated with wonderful character archetypes plucked from the supernatural noir genre that bred it. It has a self-contained storyline, but it expertly weaves in a larger plot and perfectly sets up the next book. At 66 pages it’s a very quick read and it leaves you hungry for more. I absolutely cannot wait to join Mallory Hope’s further adventures in the next volume!

Hope…for the Future is available now from 2000AD Comics

Signup to our newsletter