The key elements that define the genre

Horror can come in so many forms that a terrifying story can bear no resemblance to the entries next to it, despite conveniently occupying the same genre. Some subgenres focus on masked serial killers, others take on larger political issues, but only one focuses on the horrifying truth of what’s inside.

Horror cinema fans will hear about many different subgenres, some more prolific than others. The boundaries are almost always a bit vague when breaking a genre down into even finer groups, and there’s always quite a bit of crossover, but most people know body horror by the time they see it.


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Body horror is the subgenre of horror that deals with the disturbing violation of the basic structure of the human form. Of course, most horror media shows unspeakable things being done to flesh and bone, but body horror places a special focus on the process and the unique meaning behind its effects. Noted film scholar Linda Williams defines it, along with melodrama and pornography, as “genres of excess” designed to evoke extreme emotions. These works aim to incite and provoke specific neuroses that produce physiological responses. Body horror typically pushes the physical form of its subjects to their limits and beyond. Though the imagery can feel like empty spectacle to the uninitiated, body horror is a subgenre prone to social commentary. At least in the good examples, the visceral disgust exuded by this unique subgenre is rarely pointless.

The key to distinguishing one subgenre of horror from another is determining what the scary part is about it. The villain of a slasher movie might hack his victim to death with a kitchen knife. The abomination from a monster movie could eat its prey like a wild animal. The esoteric elder in a cosmic horror story could corrupt the minds of all who perceive it and drive them insane. Body Horror is about the human body being transformed beyond its natural limits. This is seldom the result of direct violence, it does not involve injury or bloodshed. Instead, body horror is about disease, mutilation, invasion, and corruption from within. Parasites that distort their hosts, tumors that rot their suffering victim from the inside out, or innocent people transformed into something else entirely through unethical intervention. The genre has a long and rich history with several interesting and strange entries.

Arguably, the first example of body horror was Mary Shellys Frankenstein, in which a medical student violated the peace of the human body in order to create a living being from exhumed corpses. The work that founded science fiction also served as an introduction to much of the subject matter of the body horror subgenre. The next century brought the world Franz Kafka’s seminal work of 1915 The transformation. The story of mild-mannered salesman Gregor Samsa, who inexplicably wakes up one morning transformed into a giant insect, skips the most common aspect of body horror to get straight to the heart of the matter. Most modern incarnations would give audiences a long visceral account of Samsa’s body transformation, but Kafka gets straight to the social implications of his new form. While body horror has some origins in literature, it lends itself much better to a visual medium.

The term body horror was coined by Australian writer Phillip Brophy in 1983 to describe a then burgeoning movement in cinema. It was codified then as now by the works of a certain David Cronenberg. Those looking for a quick crash course in body horror could probably just grab one of his films and walk away with a solid understanding of the subgenre. Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, Crash, eXistenZ, Crimes of the Future, so many of the best-known and most respected works of the subgenre bear his name. Its name is interchangeable with the concept. The term “Cronenbergian” follows body horror more often than it doesn’t. He didn’t invent the concept, but he codified it and he’s still working on it today. His influence can be felt on modern filmmakers like Julia Ducournau in her films Raw and titanium and his own son Brandon’s standout 2020 feature Owner.

Body horror is often packed with subtext that’s just as difficult to ignore as its imagery. Common themes include the fear of intimacy, the limits of humanity, the importance of perception, the impact of media, and the difficulties of identity. Technically every horror story about a werewolf or a zombie is a piece of body horror, but the focus really makes the difference. Body Horror asks its audience to question what we are when we are forced to change. What can we become if we are allowed to grow unchallenged? What can go wrong when we choose to play God? It is the ship of Theseus applied to the human form. How does the body affect the soul? How much of that can be obscured before we stop being human and become something else? There is only one subgenre of horror that addresses these questions while also leaving audiences disgusted.

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TaraSubramaniam is a Interreviewed U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. TaraSubramaniam joined Interreviewed in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

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