A Perfect Machine author Brett Savory on body horror

Author Brett Savory writes about why body horror freaks us out so much

Body Horror: Express Your Inner Fly/Cockroach/Robot!

What is it, precisely, that terrifies us so much about body horror? Is it the fear of losing control of who we are, who we imagine ourselves to be? Maybe the inherent pain associated with any physical transformation? Perhaps it depends on what we’re going to turn into. In movies and books, what the characters become is nearly always horrible: a fly, a cockroach, a giant metal behemoth incapable of controlling its rage, a gelatinous blob of flesh, et al.

It’s probably all these things, and others. But what if the stories told of becoming something amazing, wonderful, life-changingly positive on every level? In most stories, if that happens, there’s always a price to pay at some point. Shit always goes bad. But what if it didn’t? How would we feel about becoming a smarter, stronger, more emotionally connected race through some means of transhumanism? And in this scenario, there was no downside? Would we still feel as repulsed about the transformation if we simply became enhanced, but had to endure a physical change?

For instance, if it was possible to take a pill that would trigger something in you that made you a better human on every level, physically and emotionally, but your body would grow tentacles out of its chest, and your face would grow spiky little BrundleFly-type hairs all over it, leaving only your eyes exposed. But those were genuinely the only downsides. Would our idea of beauty change over time to embrace this appearance? I think it might. I think if this admittedly magical pill had no other repercussions, and the transformation legitimately meant a stronger, smarter, more empathetic/sympathetic race would evolve from its continued use, it would be a paradigm shift. This would be humanity’s new path.

But that movie is terrible. No one wants to watch that film because there’s no conflict. It’s just a pipe dream with no true societal currency.

In preparation for writing this piece, I watched and rewatched a bunch of body-horror films, like The Fly, Rabid, Naked Lunch, the Tetsuo trilogy, The Ruins, The Skin I Live In, and others. In every case, there is no control or agency exercised by the person being transformed; once the process has begun, it’s irreversible, nothing can be done. So loss of control, as with any run-of-the-mill disease, is a huge part of our fear. But even in my utopian vision of the magic pill for side-effectless improvement, there would still be fear. And there would still be people who wouldn’t want to take that pill—this time for fear of simply not being who they currently are. Even if it made them into someone ten times more beautiful, smart, funny, empathetic, they would argue that it’s not them, the person they were born as. And that’s a fair enough point. Happily, since the people who did take the pill (and I believe they would be the majority) simply became better people, more understanding on every level, there would be no punishment whatsoever for these outliers.

So again, no one wants to see that movie.

Clearly, though, what we turn into is a big factor determining the scale of our horror. An insect of any kind will almost always be met with repulsion, while a robot or some metal/human hybrid is a little easier to swallow. Personally, I think it’d be pretty rad to turn into something metal. The feeling of power and strength would be intoxicating. Then again, Seth Brundle from The Fly is, at one point, pretty pumped to be turning into a fly when he realizes the strength and heightened sensory awareness he’s developed, but that happiness is short-lived as his transformation continues, and he loses his human shape—which is also a distinct aspect of what terrifies us about body horror: we no longer appear human. Even if Brundle had not gained molecular-level “flyisms,” but remained human in every way except physically, I don’t believe his horror would have been lessened whatsoever—it would perhaps even have been greatly increased because his mind would have remained exactly the same, just trapped in a giant fly’s body.

I think there’s one more aspect of fear that goes along with tales of body horror, of changing into something we’re not, and it’s the diametric opposite of the person who is comfortable in their own skin, the non-magic-pill taker mentioned above. Some people would be okay with this transformation because they’re not happy with who they are, so a change—almost any change—is welcome. That, too, is frightening because to admit that is to admit one’s deep unhappiness when we are raised to pretend everything is okay, that things will get better, that there is always hope.

And usually there is. But the idea that there is always hope for everyone in every situation is silly, naive. Some people recognize this, and they’d be the first people in line for that magical pill I talked about—whether or not it had terrible side effects, whether or not it fundamentally changed who they were. Because that’s what they want—to simply not be who they are.

But even in those people, I think hope might simply lie dormant. Perhaps to be brought out by their inner fly/cockroach/robot.

Body horror is terrifying on a level that most other forms of horror are not, but losing hope is worse.

About Brett Savory

Brett Savory recently stepped down as the Co-Publisher of the World Fantasy and British Fantasy Award-winning ChiZine Publications so he could dedicate more time to writing. His title is now Editor/eBook Czar/Webmaster, so he apparently thinks he can hang on in the company simply by increasing the titles he holds. He’s had over 50 short stories published – some of those collected in No Further Messages – as well as two other novels, In And Down and The Distance Travelled. He’s halfway through his fourth novel, Lake of Spaces, Wood of Nothing, is the drummer for the metal band Ol’ Time Moonshine – who just released their first full-length album, The Apocalypse Trilogies: Space Wolf and Other Dark Tales on Salt of the Earth Records – and lives in Peterborough, ON, Canada with his wife, writer/editor/publisher Sandra Kasturi.

About A Perfect Machine

Henry Kyllo is a member of a secret society called the Inferne Cutis. A Runner whose goal is to achieve full-body lead content. He is chased through the city every day by Hunters whose goal is to shoot the Runners — with the threat to both sides that if they do not participate, through a mysterious force no one understands, one of their loved ones will simply vanish from the face of the earth.

Rumours abound about what happens when a Runner achieves “ascension”, but it has supposedly never happened before, so no one knows for sure.

Except that it has happened before. And it is happening again. This time, to Henry Kyllo.