To be human is to hate your own physical existence – every inch of flesh and tissue and bone, every little protuberance and functional bit. This goes beyond even Puritanical values – it seems that as part of our development as self-aware organisms, we have come to despise what we are, the mind hates the body. We may have figured out how most of our bodily functions work – there remains a few biological mysteries within us, but they are few and seemingly within our grasp – but the entire idea of this semi self-sufficient system that is greasy and gross, but also who we are, remains a sticking point for some, with the rest of that nasty business (disease, rot, parasites, etc.) there in the wings to make it all the worse. Gore isn’t just a reminder of pain of death, it’s a reminder that we are sacks of blood and viscera, something we are not confronted with regularly.
Is this why so much fantasy and horror fiction is focused on changing or destroying the body? Tales have long told of people changing into animals – werewolves are just the tip of the iceberg - could that be because our body dysmorphia means we would rather be anything other than ourselves, (sort of a “grass is always greener” deal as all animals are all sacks of meat as well)? Of course, there is just as much fiction about animals turning into humans, too – rabbits, coyotes, foxes, snakes, spiders, horses, the lot – maybe they were considered to envy what we had, our ingenuity and society (as the song goes, “I wanna be like you”), just as we envied their forms, often seeming far more streamlined for useful purposes. In either case, we seem to have a desire to get out of our own skin, and project a similar desire onto the other members of the animal kingdom – we are all in this together, a desire to control our physicality, and possibly to escape it altogether.
When we imagine the machine-beings as taking over, do we see them as advantaged because their sleek combination of metal, wire, and electricity, is a perfection of our own form, no longer hindered by the cells and juices? That could be the twinned fear/desire of the cyborg – the man made metal – replacing our own faulty parts with specialized steel ones, finally finding an escape from ourselves outside the spiritual one pushed for so long (and even more so the idea of uploading one’s entire “identity” to some digital device), or even the animal transformation. It also ties into some of the biggest part of our body hatred – fear of ageing and mortality – which both the classical religions and the technology-obsessed Futurists claim solutions for. Of course, the reality is that those metallic designs are far closer to our own body scheme than many realize – it’s just different kinds of machines, right? Metal rusts and falls apart, too. Maybe all these are the reasons those obnoxious Transformers movies seem to go out of their way to make the robots as drippy and gross as possible – it’s a kind of subversion of our idea of the “perfection” of technology.
Then there’s the undead, the fear of death made into a “living” being. More so now than before, when zombies were still connected to magic and spiritualism of the Vodou religion, the emphasis in the look of the zombie is on exposing as much of the internal workings as possible – torn limbs, open wounds, exposed organs – making them the ultimate visual shorthand for what we despise about ourselves: blood, organs, disease, rot, and animal instinct. No wonder we want to blow their heads off so badly. It is not difficult to read a bit of macho apocalyptic fantasizing into the whole zombie invasion story, but it could just as easily be a weird bit of self-loathing fantasy as well – the chance to conquer our own shambling, disgusting bodies.
The most straightforward representation of all this is, obviously, found in the “body horror” subgenre – which contains trace elements of all the others: animal transformation, cybernetics, broaching life and death, the works (David Cronenberg has managed to make movies that include all those things and more.) What body horror does is collect and codify our of our tensions and fears about our physicality, both real and exaggerated – the kinds of things that we have been basing our horror stories on for many years. One of the go-to ways to craft a menacing creature’s appearance is to take something of ours and make it bigger, more noticeable, more to the forefront. It is then not just the metaphorical danger posed by the thing that frightens us, but that it reminds us of ourselves, of all the things we are and have.