WiHM 12: Scratching the Surface: Skin that Inspires Horror by: Aliya Whiteley
At first, he’s relaxed. He helps himself to food from the fridge; it’s going to be a long night. He’s there to watch for ghostly activity – the signs of spirits at work. Sounds ridiculous.
He finds a chicken leg. Tasty. Then he decides to cook a juicy steak. Finds a frying pan. Puts it on the hob to heat up.
The steak, on the counter, moves.
He watches as it slides along, as if being dragged by an invisible force. Then it erupts, from the inside out, spewing chunks of rotten meat. The chicken leg falls from his open mouth, and he sees that, too, is rotten. Filled with maggots.
He has to be sick. He runs to the bathroom, heaves over the sink. Splashes his face with water. Looks at his own reflection. Then he sees it: a fine crack in his skin. Running over his cheek, down to his chin. The skin is broken. He puts his fingers to it, and it splits further apart. It peels back, and he reaches in, and begins to pull out chunks of his own flesh. They fall into the sink, clog up the plughole. He rips at the skin until there’s none left The eyeballs, staring, lidless. His teeth bared, in the broadest grin. He claps his hands over what is left of his face.
When he dares to look again, his skin is back in place. Intact.
I first saw that movie scene at an age I’d consider to be tender. Poltergeist was the PG horror film that children of the 1980s watched, and talked about. His skin came off. He peeled off his own face. I couldn’t bear to look in the bathroom mirror for weeks. I was terrified I’d see a crack, and be compelled to pick at it. I knew what it would feel like. I was a nail-biter, nervous and obsessive. There were always peeled edges of skin around the raw ends of my fingers.
Skin is the largest organ of the body. You’re probably carrying about eight pounds of it. It insulates, protects, and regulates. Human skin regenerates its layers from birth to death, and is thickest on the soles of the feet. I was very young when I found out that some creatures shed their skins, leaving them behind, rather than endlessly renewing them. Playing in the dunes above the local beach, I found the intact skin of a small snake, an adder, so delicate, the diamond pattern still visible. I took it into school and showed it around from a tin only I was allowed to touch. I was the most popular girl, for one day.
Skin is not permanent. Neither are emotions. I worked that out quickly, from the way those moments of classroom triumph and disgust never lasted long. But those feelings did come back, every now and again. Something would trigger the memories of that peeling face, that intact snakeskin, and I would be back there, small and full of wondrous horror for the way bodies worked.
It came back to me when I first read Roald Dahl’s short stories. I was a huge fan of his books for children, and launched myself into his adult stories to find worlds of terror, humour, and oddness. One particular story, Skin, told the tale of an old man bearing an intricate and beautiful tattoo across his back, given to him by a renowned painter. Starving and destitute, the man attempts to sell the tattoo – but how to peel it from his body? Is the painting worthless if it can’t be removed from him without killing him? The conclusion is subtle but chilling.
From Dahl to Bradbury: The Illustrated Man grabbed my attention next. The description of a man whose skin seemed to come alive, his tattoos telling their own stories from which it’s impossible to look away, Bradbury described the man’s awareness of the images moving of their own accord as he tried to sleep. Skin not under control: I had a crawling sensation from the thought of it.
And then, later, Buffy the Vampire Slayer came along and injected humour into my cemented love of horror. But still, some of the moments that stuck with me were the darkest ones, such as a bereaved all-powerful Willow ripping the skin clean off Warren as revenge. And, later, when she returned to Sunnydale, falling into the prey of a demon who liked to take its time slicing off and eating the skin of its victims. There was an intriguing and unpleasant symmetry to that. It played on my mind.
All of these moments were in my brain when I started writing my novel The Loosening Skin. I created a world in which people shed their skins regularly. When the skin peels away, the strongest emotion – love – peels away too, ending relationships, destroying bonds. Nothing is permanent, and the delicate shrouds left behind after moulting are bought and sold for high prices, containing the feelings that have been forgotten.
I wanted it to incorporate elements of body horror, but just as Poltergeist could be said to be about family and Buffy could be said to be about self-discovery, The Loosening Skin is really a book about change. What changes, and what stays the same?
I’ve changed a lot since I was that young girl who was afraid to look in the bathroom mirror – but some elements undoubtedly remain the same. My fascination with body horror, and with the eight pounds of skin that we carry around, continues. In this world not all childhood repulsions and infatuations – and certainly not all emotions – are only skin deep.
Editor’s Note: Disclaimer, this paragraph includes an affiliate link which means a small portion of the sale at no additional expense to you may go to Horror Tree.
‘The Loosening Skin’ will be released on February 23rd, 2021 and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.
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