Body horror films terrify us with the way they exploit one of our most basic survival instincts – the fear of bodily harm. While many body horror films focus on the disgust and shock factor that the genre can make viewers feel, the real terror of body horror movies comes from the unsettling violations of the body’s physical and psychological integrity that it involves.
It’s why movies about human experimentation and the feeling of loss of control during pregnancy and childbirth are themes explored in body horror media.
Because body horror’s themes tend to be varied and flexible, it’s harder to pin down using just tropes. It’s not like a slasher film where you know it’s a slasher film because it reminds you of Scream right off the bat. Body horror is more like a feeling of unspeakable discomfort, a cold chill in your bones that you can’t quite shake off.
And these body horror films are the ones we’re watching this Halloween 2022.
1. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
There’s no doubt that Roman Polanski’s 1968 psychological horror movie Rosemary’s Baby is among the most influential pieces of horror media to come out in the past century. The movie wa an adaptation of Ira Levin’s book of the same name. Levin, if you’ve never heard of him before, is also the author of The Stepford Wives, a book about women being turned into brainwashed docile housewives against their will.
Rosemary’s Baby has the titular Rosemary suffer from the paranoia of carrying a child that she feels is being used against her because everyone around her seems to be more concerned with it than her wellbeing, to the point that she is constantly ridiculed and belittled. She begins to suspect that the child she’s carrying isn’t completely innocent either, that it’s somehow a central piece in whatever evil scheme she’s been caught in the middle of.
2. The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi horror movie The Thing is another personal favorite of mine that mixes sci-fi horror with body horror in a way that makes the ‘thing’ both alien and familiar. You can’t help but feel terrified because of how uncertain the entire movie feels.
Aside from never knowing the true nature of the thing, the thing in question seems to have more in common with a malevolent spirit than any known biological entity, and the fact that it can, in a way, take the shape of people you already know makes it all the more horrifying.
3. The Fly (1986)
If you like the trope of science experiments gone wrong that result in human-animal hybrids with just a dash of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, David Cronenberg’s The Fly is the film you should be sitting down to this Spooktober.
The Fly revolves around scientist Seth Brundle who is working on a teleportation device capable of transporting objects between two telepods in different locations. Emphasis on objects because the device can’t teleport living organisms. Fans of sci-fi may already be familiar with the idea in the form of theories about teleportation, specifically, the one that says you don’t really “transport” the entire person in one go but rearrange their atoms when you transfer them.
You can probably see where this is going. A fly and Seth get scrambled together while inside the telepod and it’s just downhill into a doomspiral of madness from there.
3. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
No, not that Iron Man, though I’ll admit I was thinking of the same thing when I first heard of this movie. Full confession: this is one of two films on the list I haven’t watched yet but it was recommended for this list by so many acquaintances that I couldn’t skip it. I’ll spoil myself as a service to the horror-enthusiast community.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a 1989 cyberpunk bodyhorror movie directed by Shinya Tsukamoto who is credited with helping define the boundaries of the Japanese Cyberpunk genre in film so if you liked Akira (1988), you’ll likely enjoy this one.
Tetsuo: Iron Man is set in Tokyo and revolves around a regular salaryman who begins to have dreams about metal machinery after crashing his car into a stranger. Everything after that is kind of a body horror fever dream that you, I mean, we honestly just have to see at this point.
4. Spring (2014)
Another recommended body horror film that I’m yet to see, Spring (2014) starts off as if it’s going to be a typical romance movie about a guy finding comfort in a woman he meets during a romantic getaway to Italy before taking a turn for the worst in typical horror film fashion.
Evan flies to Italy to clear his mind after the death of his mother and meets Louise, a beautiful but coy woman wh he feels inexplicably attracted to, despite his own suspicions about her. There are hints throughout the film that suggest there’s more to Louise than meets the eye.
It doesn’t look like it’s going to be a bad movie, but you might want to skip this one if you’re looking for body horror films that can actually scare you shitless.
5. Tusk (2019)
Okay, onto the disgust-inducing side of body horror films. Tusk (2014) is supposedly a horror comedy but that seems to be in the more black comedy sense of the word because when uit comes to disgusting, Tusk is just a few steps below The Human Centipede (2009). Like The Human Centipede it’s really not all that scary since it’s stake on the body horror genre leans more towards disgust and shock than the kind of paranoia-inducing loss of control that Rosemary’s Baby inspires.
Basically, it’s going to be a fun movie to watch at a Halloween party with your friends while you’re all getting plastered.
Tusk follows Wallace Byton on his trip to manitoba, Canada where he goes to interview someone who’s been dubbed as the Kill Bill kid for severing his own leg with a katana in a viral video. He arrives in Canada to find that the kid committed suicide and is forced to change his plans and find someone else to interview.
Wallace ends up exchanging stories with Howard Howe, a retired seaman who tells him fascinating tales of his rescue by a walrus he calls Mr. Tusk.
6. Alien (1979)
Does Alien (1979) even need an introduction? This is the movie that made face hugging aliens a thing after all. But in the very unlikely event that you’ve never heard of it yet, Alien mixes the best of classic horror themes with body horror, psychological horror, and the dread of being trapped in space where no one can hear you scream.
A lot of horror films, like the usual teenagers-in-a-cabin-in-the-middle-of-nowhere formula, capitalize on the increased terror of having nowhere to escape. Alien makes it worse by trapping a team of astronaut scientists in the emptiness of space and the claustrophobic confines of a spaceship.
Alien is a crossroads of horror and if you’ve seen a lot of other horror films, you’ll likely notice a ton of tropes at work such as the vampiric invitation that heralds the alien body-invader into the ship.
7. Suspiria (2018)
As we’ve seen in Alien and Rosemary’s Baby, body horror is a great genre for exploring women’s real-life concerns in a fictional setting. Whereas Rosemary’s Baby dealt with the loss of control and personal freedom that women can experience together with motherhood and Alien turns the violence of birth on its entire, mostly male, crew, Suspiria has its female leads deal with the a malevolent force that feels like it’s a manifestation of their self-destroying pursuit of ideal womanhood.
Suspiria (2018) is a remake of a 1977 film of the same name. It follows Suzy Bannion, an American ballet student, as she joins the ranks of Tanz Akademie, a renowned German ballet school. Through her, we’re introduced to the other female students who are plagued by mysterious goings-on at the Akademie.
Don’t worry, it’s not one of those unenjoyable “deep” movies. There’s a lot to fear and have fun with in Suspiria that you can ruminate on later after you’ve already experienced the film for what it is on the front.