An essay about horror and identity written for Pride in Horror, June 2022
The doctor calls my name in the waiting room and I take just a little too long to respond. The name she calls out is not the one I use anymore in my daily life, but is still my official title, the one my parents chose for me. I realise, rise, smile, and apologise, but offer no explanation for my delayed reaction. For that name serves as an uncomfortable reminder that who I am now is not who I was.
My real name, the one I chose for myself, is T, and who I am, amongst an assortment of many things, is a horror writer. I am also queer/pansexual and nonbinary/gender nonconforming. If those words are unfamiliar to you now, don’t worry. I will explain them in a little while.
Right now, I am surrounded by countless other reminders; this is a “Woman’s Clinic” (the words are emblazoned in 6-inch letters on the wall) and I am here to discuss a “woman’s issue”. That I no longer consider myself to be a woman, is irrelevant to my appointment. In fact, to bring it up now might adversely affect the care I receive. Safety is paramount to those who live outside of gender norms, and such safety can be difficult to assess. So I stay quiet, despite my discomfort. I watch how her mouth moves as she says my old name, notice how strange it feels hearing it used to address me. It is not anger, disgust or even sadness I feel, merely an unusual sense of disconnect. An awareness of the assumptions this stranger has made about me, and how very, very wrong they are.
* * *
I do not know, and never have known, what being female means to me, only that I have never felt like it applied to me very much, not even as a young child. Equally, I have felt no actual disgust at my physical form other than an occasional musing that, had I been born a cis male, certain things would surely have been a lot easier for me. (This is not any indication of transness, by the way, more, a pervasive effect of a patriarchal society. A lot of cis women I know feel the same.) My physical body serves to assist me in moving my consciousness from A to B. As a creative and expressive individual, I also know I can dress up however I want and present any image I desire. I can effectively manipulate how others see me, and “read” me based on their own gender expectations. My skin is a canvass ripe for decoration, and I can paint it any way I choose.
The outdated, narrow definition of being transgender implied a movement across the gender binary: from female to male or vice versa. Modern definitions now also include individuals, such as myself, who have stepped completely outside the gender binary or move fluidly from one to another. (Note: I am cautious about identifying as transgender, preferring instead to use nonbinary or gender nonconforming. While the word applies to me, and I can claim it, I feel that those who have fought much harder to use it than I have more right to it than I do.)
Binary means to have two parts—when we consider the “gender binary”, we mean male and female. Nonbinary or genderqueer is an umbrella term for gender identities that are outside the binary. It took me a while to realise that while I had shrugged off the mantle of “woman” and I definitely wasn’t “man,” I also didn’t feel like I simply fell somewhere in the middle.
Some people are nonbinary in a no gender or androgynous way. Others, like myself, are nonbinary in a way that embraces many varieties of gender. Some are both or something else entirely. I like to refer to myself as “Fifteen Genders in a Trench Coat,” a.k.a. a Pokémon-type nonbinary in that I, “gotta catch ‘em all.” I believe the most accurate descriptor might be pangender or even omnigender. In all honesty, the label is far less important to me than it seems to be to others. Those of you who have seen Schitt’s Creek may be familiar with David’s assertion, “I like the wine, not the label.” He uses this analogy to describe his sexual orientation (pansexual) but it works equally well for me to describe my gender identity. The label is insignificant. It’s what’s inside the bottle that matters most.
Perhaps that’s why body horror has always fascinated me, even when I didn’t fully realise it. As a kid, I found the 80s body-swap movies like FREAKY FRIDAY, VICE VERSA and BIG to be uniquely riveting, as I considered how it might feel to find yourself in another body. I didn’t find it frightening or disconcerting, but curious and exciting. I was drawn to lycanthrope (werewolf) mythology for very similar reasons. How empowering it must be to embrace a fierce second self, unbeknown to even your closest friends. At thirteen, when I first read Robert Louis Stevenson’s THE CASE OF DR JEKYLL AND MISTER HYDE, I wished there was a potion I could drink to experience another part of me, and to be someone else; someone new. I joke with my family that on some days I, “cosplay as a girl”. Like Jekyll and Hyde, I can change how I present myself as I see fit.
The first “proper” body horror I remember watching was TETSUO: THE IRON MAN. I was eighteen, and my then boyfriend showed me to it, I suspect intending to gross me out. Such intentions backfired; it utterly fascinated me. Of course, I had already seen movies such as AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, CANDYMAN and ALIENS, but I hadn’t really considered how they fit into the body horror genre. The visceral intensity of TETSUO sparked something in me and I sought as many flesh-rending and face-melting movies as I could. Like many other body horror enthusiasts have done before me, I turned to the “Baron of Blood” himself, David Cronenberg.
I exhausted Cronenberg’s back catalogue at the time (to wit: SHIVERS, RABID, SCANNERS, VIDEODROME, THE FLY, DEAD RINGERS and EXISTENZ) before I realised I mostly preferred more a more subtle style over movies that went all out on the gore. I was drawn to an understated, creeping kind of body horror, one that relied on a loss or transition of identity rather than extreme violence and bodily trauma. Films like JACOB’S LADDER and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, NIGHTBREED and ROSEMARY’S BABY.
For many of us, horror as a genre is as comforting as it is confronting. It awakens our hidden fears and desires and shows us where the boundaries are between feeling safe and being scared. Horror scholar Linda Williams suggests in her essay, Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess that horror, like pornography, is a genre of excess that looks at the limits and the transformative capabilities of the human body. Fictional horror allows us space to recall our own personal, traumatic experiences, enabling us with the tools to explore—or find peace with—our uncomfortable feelings safely. In this way, horror can often be beneficial to our mental health, particularly when we are looking inwards for answers to questions we don’t yet know how to ask.
Joe Koch (author of THE WINGSPAN OF SEVERED HANDS and CONVULSIVE) begins his essay, A Transmasculine Horror Writer Looks at Lovecraft with, “If we speculate that all horror is body horror—and we may because the emotional energy experienced interacting with horror arises physiologically in the body,” then I want to continue what Koch begins by asking, what does body horror do that other horror can’t? As horror echoes in our bodies, body horror is obsessed with the flesh.
Body horror is: invasion, contagion, mutation and transformation. It’s mutilation, distortion, violence and disease. It is viruses, infections, parasites and deformities. It is growths and tumours, and trauma of the flesh. It normalises horrific things and allows us to make peace with the discomforts we might feel. By doing all this, body horror reinforces humanity and what it means to have a physical body, a vessel that can be disfigured, malformed, destroyed and infected. It highlights how disturbing and disorientating it can feel for your body to be alien to you and yet still retain what makes it human.
While most horror focuses on the body being destroyed, body horror looks instead at how it can be transformed. It relies on changes or transformations to elicit revulsion and traverses broad spectrums of extremes. It delights in embracing gore and powerful visuals, and can be extreme in concept and presentation. Yet, it can also be subtle, a slow creeping dread, wrapped in layers of subtext and metaphor. It redefines boundaries and expectations by transmuting the familiar into something terrifying.
Equally, although body horror often focuses on things being done to the subject—usually against their will—some stories explore the wilful acceptance of transformation as empowering and something to be embraced. With this physical change comes an emotional confidence, a “leveling up” of a sort. The adjustments to the physical form may be excruciating to experience, but the power gained can be worth the pain. Likewise, what changes occur on the outside are not necessarily reflected within. What others perceive as monstrous can be euphoric, even beautiful, to the subject.
Just as all horror holds up a mirror to people, so they can look more closely at themselves, body horror gives us an opportunity to shine that mirror back on ourselves. It allows us space to see beyond the confines of the flesh and understand that what we see in the mirror does not always reflect how we feel inside. In subjects involving gender dysphoria, body horror allows a safe space to explore any uncomfortable feelings and embrace them. It toys with distortions of the human body, and plays with gender in ways that challenge how we think about it by blurring the lines of what is acceptable. In this way, body horror acknowledges the complicated relationships many of us have with our bodies.
I grew up in a small town where pretty much everyone knows who you are, and everyone knows everybody else. If you feel like you fit in, that sense of safety, community, and local identity wraps around you like a comfortable blanket. But if you don’t fit in, grow tired of the smallness, or want out, that same blanket grows smothering and heavy. There is a sense that others have already predetermined who you are and what you are capable of. Such attitudes may push you to move away, to find an escape from the past and Past You. Like every angst-filled, rebellious, and misunderstood BREAKFAST CLUB teen, you long to scream, “You don’t know me!” as you slam the door behind you.
I can practically hear my mother’s voice in my head as I type this. “You always were very dramatic…”
Being labelled as a “Woman in Horror” filled me with the same existential unease and confusion I always felt while spending time in my hometown. I wanted so badly to embrace it and endorse it, to be a part of that wonderful crowd, but it felt so dishonest. Seeing my name added to lists alongside other talented, creative women, I knew deep down I was an imposter amongst them. I became obsessed with writing stories about menstruation as biological horror, filled with (what I thought at the time to be) an irrational rage at the injustice of having to endure such a messy and painful imposition every month. I channelled my anger into almost everything I wrote. Hell, I even won an award for an essay exploring menstruation in horror fiction (published, ironically, for Women In Horror Month). And as the years marched on, I embraced every hot flush, change in my cycle and debilitating monthly pain as a delightful reminder that menopause was surely coming and with it, freedom from the horrors of blood. But rather than being cathartic, writing about it was an ugly reminder of how I constantly felt like my “female” body was taunting me every bloody month. (Pun very much intended.)
I rarely set out to write a body horror story. In fact, it took a good friend of mine to point out just how many of my published works fall into that category. When I was considering sending something to TWISTED ANATOMY, a body horror charity anthology, I bemoaned that there was no way I could write something suitable.
“I just don’t write body horror,” I said.
“What are you talking about?” my friend replied. “You’re always writing body horror!”
On inspection, well over fifty percent of what I write can be classified as body horror. Looking back on older stories with fresh eyes and a new lens, knowing now what to look for, I can see the desperation and longing in my words. The search for something that made sense, being very clear about what I was not without knowing exactly what I was. Through fiction, I scratched an itch of discovery, exploring themes of identity and transformation in a safe space without ever realising I was writing about myself. Every author knows that peculiar feeling when re-reading old works. The resounding question of, “who was I when I wrote this?” coupled with, “I hardly recognise myself in these words.”
“Little Teeth” ended up in the anthology as a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of vanity and aging. Of pinning your entire identity on the way you look, and of hiding the inevitable truth.
How very cliché.
Myles Hughes says in The Body Horror Genre: Our Meat Machines are Terrifying, “The fear [from body horror] comes from the notion that while the specifics of a given plot may be allegorical, the core truths about the ways our bodies can be taken over and manipulated by internal or external forces feels all too real.”
“Butterfly” was the second story I ever sold. It is an exploration of body horror and disability, of a body remade after trauma and described as “Lovecraftian” as the editor. But it misses the mark. I was writing from a place of confusion and resentment. I was still cookie dough and not fully cooked. In the tale, the father believes he can remake the daughter, just as she is coming to terms with her disfigurement. I hadn’t considered the message I might be sending to others, or, worse, what I was saying about myself. I was unaware of my own unresolved personal struggles with disability and gender and how I thought others saw me. It is a religious allegory (as many of my stories are, but that’s a separate essay!) in which the father believes that death and rebirth can heal his daughter through metamorphosis.
“Butterfly” is the first true body horror I can attribute to my confusion with gender and I express the horror through the experience of living with disability and the judgement of our peers. It is a story about outside forces meddling with things they have no business with. The daughter did not need to be “cured” and the father is no saviour. As a mirror for how I was feeling then, it works extremely well, showing the confusion I was experiencing, thanks to messages from others—particularly my extended family—about who I “should” be. The trauma I had internalised about what was acceptable and “feminine,” what was appropriate behaviour as a woman.
It was all bullshit.
I tell my kids, “Don’t make yourself small to make other people comfortable” and, “Never let anyone else tell you who you are.” Somewhere along the line, I forgot to take my own advice. But I didn’t have a grand awakening. I didn’t burst out of the closet in a moment of euphoric realisation, more vaguely saunter in a different direction without fully knowing where I was headed. The name I used when I introduced myself went from seven letters, to five, to one. I experimented with different pronouns to see how they felt until eventually I decided I didn’t much care (she/her/they/them/T are all fine, just FYI.). And then Lana Wachowski went and gut punched me.
More proficient writers than myself have talked about the concept of transness in THE MATRIX (and of course, the more recent addition to the franchise …RESURRECTIONS) but while THE MATRIX is marketed as science-fiction, it often fails to acknowledge the massive amount of body horror it also exhibits, specifically the eradication of identity and the Self. It shows a hairless body kept alive in a pod or an egg (and many transgender individuals know the symbolism of “cracking the egg”) attached with tubes to a nutrition system, fed with the liquified recycled remains of others that you too will also become. As the System regurgitates who they are into who you are, your entire existence becomes dependent on the biological feedback of others, your body nothing more than an energy source, while you are destined to do the very same to each following generation of pod people.
Heavy thoughts, huh? Put like that, who wouldn’t want to crack that egg? Shatter it into a thousand pieces and grind the shell into dust with your heel.
And the gut punch? It was while watching THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS I felt the sudden realisation that I’d been holding in all these thoughts, all these feelings, all these questions and insecurities for easily thirty years (maybe more!). I’d been writing about gender, reading about gender, figuring out how it all fit together in my head like a jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the lid, but never actually going all the way to embrace the reality. There was no egg encasing me anymore, just like for Neo, there was no spoon.
* * *
Back home, after my appointment, I take off every layer of clothing, remove my jewellery and scrub the makeup from my face. I remove my “girl cosplay” and return to my true self. I stand in front of the bathroom mirror and examine every bump and crevice, every pimple, scar and bruise. I regard the skin as if it were yet another piece of clothing, which some days I wish I could unzip and shake myself out of. Not because I dislike it. No, most of the time I am simply ambivalent about it. It is skin and bone, blood and sinew. It is a vessel for my consciousness and a canvas I can paint, not much more. But if I could change it? If I could peel off certain parts of me and replace them with others, as easily as trying on a new coat? I would. Of course I would.
As Koch so beautifully explains:
“The common term for what drives us to change is gender euphoria. When we are addressed using correct names and pronouns, and when we see ourselves represented in the body and external world as we know ourselves in our minds, we experience gender euphoria. Our motivation is not hatred, but joy. We simply want to feel at home in our bodies, which I think is a very reasonable human wish.”
Why am I drawn to, and write, body horror? To push the boundaries of extreme fiction to elicit reaction? To explore my (complex) feelings about gender? To tap into my insecurities, my impermanence and mortality? Even aging is utilised as a form of body horror, particularly that of the feminine body. Hagsploitation exists to portray the aging female form as repulsive and shocking; an Othering based on failing fertility, of desire tied to sexual youth. My journey into menopause serves as a reminder of that.
Body horror author and aficionado Lor Gislason says in their essay, An Ode To Flesh: My Love of Body Horror “[one of the] strengths of horror: [is] using it to open discussions of deeper issues in a safe and interesting way. … For body horror, it’s often confronting the inevitability of death or the limitations of our physical selves. The human body is both one of the most incredible and complicated systems and extremely fragile.”
Body horror lets me see past my own skin. I no longer feel like I have to drape it around my shoulders, wearing it like someone else’s castoff—a hand-me-down from my parents, ex-boyfriends, or past friends. Writing about the body through horrific narratives lets me explore my identity in fluid and nuanced ways. Through body horror, I can remake the familiar into something terrifying, something empowering, or both. I can transcend the limitations of the flesh to stimulate euphoria through dread. It was through finally understanding the power of transformation, of putting that into words, that helped me make peace with who I am.
When I write body horror, that sense of peace is what I appreciate the most.
NO HORROR WITHOUT THE BODY.
Addendum: A note from the author
I originally wrote this essay for Pride in Horror to bring awareness about gender identity and horror. It was accepted for publication by a wonderful website, for which I was deeply grateful. However, almost as soon as I sent off the email, I started to feel a great deal of anxiety. For some inexplicable reason I didn’t feel fully comfortable about someone else publishing the piece, and I wasn’t sure why.
As is often the case for marginalised people who identify outside the gender binary, there are people in my life—friends and family— who are still unaware of my true identity. People like me are often forced into a corner by circumstances beyond our control. Often we stay quiet and we stay small. Sometimes we hope by doing so we will be left alone and will stay safe. Except such safety is never guaranteed. Those who seek to hurt us will also seek us out. Our silence might be seen as complicity or cowardice, when it is most certainly neither; it is for safety. I’ve never been the sort of person to stay quiet about something important just because it might upset someone else. That’s why, over the years, I have been so vocal on my blog and social media about issues such as: mental health, suicide, PTSD, autism and ADHD, family trauma, and body autonomy.
In the past, I have experienced intolerance and hate, sometimes from complete strangers, across multiple social media platforms and in physical spaces, likely linked to my gender-expression. In this essay I make it very clear that I will never let anyone tell me who I am, nor will I make myself small for the comfort of others. Likewise, I will fight for every other person like myself to ensure their right to body autonomy is upheld. It took me a great deal of time thinking about and sitting with my feelings to understand that although I was fully comfortable sending these words/this content out into the world, they were also deeply personal. I was exposing some parts of myself that I had not spoken about in public before. For all of these reasons, I decided it was more appropriate to put this piece on my own author website.
Thank you for reading.
Gislson, Lor An Ode To Flesh: My Love of Body Horror (February 2022)
Hughes, Myles The Body Horror Genre: Our Meat Machines are Terrifying (December 2019)
Koch, Joe, A Transmasculine Horror Writer Looks At Lovecraft (February 2022)
Williams, Linda Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess (Film Quarterly, Vol. 44, 1991)
Some of my favourite body horror movies:
ALIEN | ALIENS | AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON | DISTRICT 9 | EVENT HORIZON | GINGER SNAPS | HORNS | IDLE HANDS | INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS | JACOB’S LADDER | HELLRAISER | NIGHTBREED | REANIMATOR | ROSEMARY’S BABY | SAW | SCANNERS | SLITHER | THE FACULTY | THE THING | TUSK | US | VIDEODROME