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Body horror

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A woman in zombie makeup

Body horror, or biological horror, is a subgenre of horror fiction that intentionally showcases grotesque or psychologically disturbing violations of the human body or to any other creature.[1] These violations may manifest through aberrant sex, mutations, mutilation, zombification, gratuitous violence, disease, or unnatural movements of the body. Body horror was a description originally applied to an emerging subgenre of North American horror films, but has roots in early Gothic literature and has expanded to include other media.[2]


According to the film scholar Linda Williams, body horror falls into one of three "gross" genres or "genres of excess" which also includes pornography and melodrama.[3] Williams writes that the success of these body genres "is often measured by the degree to which the audience sensation mimics what is seen on the screen".[3] For example, an audience may experience feelings of terror through horror, sympathy through melodrama, or sexual arousal through pornography.[4] Body horror specifically focuses on the limits and transformative capabilities of the human body.[5]

Body horror often overlaps with, but is distinct from, other horror subgenres. For example, while elements of mutilation may be present in body horror, other similar subgenres such as slasher, splatter, or monster horror may also share this trope, but differ in message and intent.[6] A common difference in the body horror genre is that violations or distortions of the body are rarely the result of immediate or initial violence. Instead, they are generally marked by a loss of conscious control over the body through mutation, disease, or other tropes involving uncontrolled transformation.[7] The genre can invoke intense feelings of physical and psychological disgust, or squick, and play upon anxieties of physical vulnerability.[8] In addition to common tropes used within the broader horror genre, some tropes specific to the body horror subgenre may include invasion, contagion, mutation, transformation, disease, mutilation, or other unnatural or violent distortions of the human body.

Body horror films, such as Crimes of the Future[9] and Titane,[10] have been likened to erotic horror.[11]


The term "body horror" was first used by Phillip Brophy in his 1983 article "Horrality: The Textuality of the Contemporary Horror Film".[12] He coined this term to describe an emerging subgenre which occurred during a short golden period for contemporary horror film.[13] Although Brophy coined the term to specifically describe a trend within cinema, film director Stuart Gordon notes that the body horror trope had existed before its adaptation to the screen, most notably within fictional writing.[14][5]


Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) is an early example of the body horror subgenre within fictional writing. The success of gothic horror in the 19th century, in combination with the birth of science fiction as a literary form, is thought to be the origin of body horror as a literary genre.[2] According to Halberstam, "By focusing on the body as a locus of fear, Shelley's novel suggests that it is people (or at least bodies) who terrify people... the landscape of fear is replaced by sutured skin."[2]

Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis is another early example of body horror literature. It shows Gregor Samsa transform into a large bug for unknown reasons. The work has influenced other body horrors like The Fly.


Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg is considered a principal originator of body horror through early films such as Shivers and Rabid, and his remake of The Fly. However, body horror tropes existed within film prior to official recognition of the genre. Early examples of the body horror genre arose out of 1950s American horror cinema including The Blob and The Fly, both of which set the standard for the genre due to the films' primary focus on mutation and visceral special effects.[15][unreliable source?] Many contemporary films of the horror genre (those produced after 1968), including body horror, are considered to be postmodern in contrast to classical horror.[16] Because of this, delineations between the genres are difficult to define, since postmodernism is concerned with blurring boundaries between categories.

The body horror genre is widely represented throughout Japanese horror and within contemporary media, such as anime.[17] Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 film Akira is an early example of body horror within anime. The film uses the genre to explore the "notion of the adolescent body as a site of metamorphosis, a metamorphosis that can appear monstrous both to the figure undergoing it and to the outside world."[18]

Comics and graphic novels[edit]

Many manga authors, such as Junji Ito, specialize in writing within the horror genre and use body horror tropes in combination with narrative storytelling devices of Japanese horror.[19] Highly influenced by the literary works of H. P. Lovecraft, Ito's manga depict obscene body horror through both aesthetic and narrative in order to invoke feelings of abject terror.[1] In contrast, Canadian cartoonist Michael DeForge incorporates recurring body horror aspects within his work through less graphic aesthetic and narrative styles.[20]


Examples of videogames of this genre are The Forest and Sons of the Forest.

Controversy and censorship[edit]

Since the eighteenth century, the horror genre has been popular among readers but dismissed as controversial by some critics who saw the genre and its thematic elements threatening or dangerous to society.[21]

Because of the use of graphic and gratuitous violence or themes that may be considered taboo, horror media that fall within the body horror genre are often censored or banned across a variety of countries.[22] For example, the Saw and Human Centipede franchises have been referred to as "torture porn" and widely criticized as including overly "exploitative, gratuitous portrayals of destructive sexual perversion."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Cruz, R. A. L. (2012). "Mutations and Metamorphoses: Body Horror is Biological Horror". Journal of Popular Film and Television. 40 (4): 160–168. doi:10.1080/01956051.2012.654521. S2CID 194091897.
  2. ^ a b c Halberstam, J. (1995). Skin shows: Gothic horror and the technology of monsters. Duke University Press.
  3. ^ a b Williams, L. (1991). "Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess". Film Quarterly. 44 (4): 2–13. doi:10.2307/1212758. JSTOR 1212758.
  4. ^ González Montero, Sebastián Alejandro (August 29, 2007). "Pornografía y erotismo". Estudios de Filosofía (36): 223–245. doi:10.17533/udea.ef.12747. S2CID 255928889.
  5. ^ a b Cardin, Matt. (2017). Horror Literature Through History: an Encyclopedia of the Stories That Speak to Our Deepest Fears [2 Volumes]. Santa Barbara, California : Greenwood.
  6. ^ Reyes, X. A. (2016). Horror Film and Affect: Towards a Corporeal Model of Viewership (Vol. 47), p. 16. Routledge.
  7. ^ Hutchings, Peter. (2009). The A–Z of Horror Cinema. A–Z Guides 100. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
  8. ^ "The Future of Body Horror: Can Our Art Keep up with Our Suffering?". The Rumpus.net. January 26, 2017. Retrieved March 15, 2018.
  9. ^ Kaufman, Sophie Monks (June 5, 2022). "David Cronenberg Creates a World Where "Surgery is the New Sex"". Hyperallergic. Retrieved October 22, 2023.
  10. ^ Haddad, Natalie; G’Sell, Eileen (November 4, 2021). "The Automotive-Erotic Body Horror of Titane". Hyperallergic. Retrieved October 22, 2023.
  11. ^ Walker, Billie (January 9, 2023). "Is Body Horror the New Intimacy?". Hyperallergic. Retrieved October 22, 2023.
  12. ^ Brophy, P. (1983). "Horrality – The Textuality of the Contemporary Horror Film". Art & Text, Melbourne, 1983. 3 (Having read the referenced article, the term 'body horror' isn't used). Archived from the original on September 10, 2018. Retrieved November 1, 2018.
  13. ^ Brophy, Philip. "die body crap cut me up smiling". Philipbrophy.com. Retrieved from http://www.philipbrophy.com/projects/rstff/Horrality_H.html
  14. ^ Kane, Paul and Marie O'Regan (2012). The Mammoth Book of Body Horror. Philadelphia: Running Press.
  15. ^ "A Quick History of Body Horror in Cinema". Gehenna & Hinnom Books. April 7, 2017. Retrieved March 12, 2018.
  16. ^ Pinedo, I (1996). "Recreational terror: Postmodern elements of the contemporary horror film". Journal of Film and Video. 48 (1–2): 17–31. JSTOR 20688091.
  17. ^ Gateward, F. (2002). Bubblegum and heavy metal. Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice: Cinemas of Girlhood, (29)269, p. 283.
  18. ^ Napier, S. J. (2001). Akira and Ranma 1/2: The Monstrous Adolescent. In Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke (pp. 39–62). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
  19. ^ Bush, L. (2001). Asian Horror Encyclopedia: Asian Horror Culture in Literature, Manga, and Folklore. iUniverse.
  20. ^ Jones, T. (2014). "Aw Dude, Gross": The Mundane Body Horror of Michael DeForge.
  21. ^ Cooper, L. A. (2010). Gothic Realities: The Impact of Horror Fiction on Modern Culture. McFarland. ISBN 0786448350.
  22. ^ Bramesco, Charles; Tobias, Scott; Fear, David (October 28, 2016). "Banned and Brutal: 14 Beyond-Controversial Horror Movies". Rolling Stone.

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