The Essential Horror of the Body

The Essential Horror of the Body

The stench of decay fills the air, you hear the sound of bones crunching in the distance, a many-limbed figure stumbles through the mist, something wicked this way comes . . . 


Body horror has been a staple of the horror genre since Mary Shelley published the genre-defining “Frankenstein” in 1818. Over 200 years later, audiences have been disgusted and disturbed by an array of unsettling aberrations, transformations, and mutations. 


As an author, you can use the essential horror of the body to explore classic themes and push the genre forwards. Body horror is particularly powerful today, as advancements in biotech and artificial intelligence have changed what it means to be human. 

Origins of Body Horror

The term body horror was originally coined in 1983 by Australian academic Philip Brophy. However, writers have been experimenting with mutations and mutilations for centuries. Even Shakespeare dabbled in body horror when, in “Titus Andronicus”, he describes “Lavinia, her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out.”


Modern body horror is indelibly tied to experimentation and technology. The science behind genre icons like Mary Shelly’s monster disturbed contemporary writers and led them to produce some of the world’s most iconic stories. Tales of grave-robbing, electrical experiments, and cryogenic freezing cut to the core of the human psyche and are still fertile ground for any budding writer. 


Today, those fears have been translated into concerns about biotechnology and the spread of infectious diseases. Films like the well-received “Fears of the Future” focus on synthetic alterations and transformations that look unsightly and leave us vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation. 

Alterations and Transformations

Absurd alterations and grotesque changes to one’s anatomy have enthralled readers for well over a century. Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella, “Metamorphosis” hinges on the idea that nightmarish transformations can occur without our consent or knowledge. Gregor Samsa, the narrative’s protagonist, is turned from a regular fellow into a “a monstrous vermin” that scuttles about the ceiling and eats rotten food. 


However, Kafkaesque fiction hasn’t dissuaded people from making cosmetic changes to their bodies. Common cosmetic procedures include: 


  • Plastic surgery;
  • Dermal fillers;
  • Dental veneers.


These operations can quickly go wrong and, when they do, are the perfect source material for any aspiring writer. Even the equipment used in these procedures inspires a certain sense of dread — is there anything worse than the sound of a dentist’s drill whirring? 


While sudden alterations are terrifying, they aren’t the only form of body horror available to you. When drafting your next spine-tingling short story, consider exploring dissections and transplants, too. 

Dissections and Transplants

Dissections and transplants may have their roots in life-saving surgeries. However, fictional operations often depict surgeons with a propensity for experimentation and a morbid curiosity about the human body. This usually results in all manner of botched procedures and unnatural alterations.


Surgical body horror has been influenced by myths and folkloric fears, too. For example, old wives’ tales about the human eye suggest that corneal transplants will make you see what the donor saw before their death. Similarly, many folks fear that surgeons with too much power will run amok, resulting in the horrifying procedures outlined in films like “The Human Centipede”. 


As an author, you can lean on a rich tradition of grafting, transplanting, and dissections. There are reams of real-life surgical accounts online and you can use sites like Teach Me Surgery and Learn Surgery Online. This will give your writing an extra layer of detail and may help you brainstorm some mind-bending alterations. 


Body horror has thrilled and provoked audiences for centuries. The idea of unnatural alterations and violent desecrations have featured in the works of Shakespeare, Steven King, and Mary Shelley. As a writer, you can use real-life examples to guide your research and stimulate your creativity. Even mundane experiences — like getting a tooth filled — can be the catalyst for genre-bending, heart-racing fiction. 


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