Body Horror and Growing Up Trans
Body horror is trans. Cressa Beer explains why.
When I was 17, I had to give an almost hour-long presentation on an artist of my choice in my high school art history class. As other children presented icons like Van Gogh and Dali, I tortured everyone with giant projections of feverish landscapes featuring melted fetuses and metal towers resembling bones, portraits of biomechanical creatures demons whose bodies contained both penises and vaginas, complete with clips from the iconic horror film Extraterrestrial. My classroom activity involved having two friends hold body pillows on either side of the door, forming a recognizable vulva shape, and passing the students – and the teacher – around while my friends “twitched” around of their entry. I was this child.
I was of course introducing HR Giger, whose surreal and nightmarish work is best known as the Oscar-winning conception of the xenomorph monster movie. I’ve had a lifelong obsession with the xenomorph, as well as Giger. My parents liked to say it started while I was in utero, when they went to a screening of the sequel. aliens and (supposedly) I kicked; during my teenage years, while other girls were pasting NSync posters, I had pages from my Giger calendar pasted on my wall; when i was old enough i got a xenomorph tattoo looking at you over my shoulder if i wear the right top. But it wasn’t until I recognized myself as transgender that I fully understood what the obsession really was.
As I grew into my teens, I found myself gravitating to movies that all shared a certain thematic element, which I learned as “body horror.” Many media that fall into this category can be quite narratively diverse, but their common thread is always around a human whose anatomy begins to change against their will, usually in grotesque and gruesome ways. What particularly interested me obsessively was Cronenberg’s book. Flythe Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation TNG, and even the Phalanx in the x-men comics.
For me, there was something beyond the terror I was witnessing, there was a fascination, a strange recognition. The slow transformation of Jeff Goldblum into an unrecognizable mutation of himself, Rogue transformed into fleshy circuit boards, or Picard mutilated in order to turn his body into a vessel for the further reproduction of a virulent race; it all completely destroyed me when i was a kid, but i couldn’t stop biting that sore tooth. Because there, right inside of me, things were happening during puberty that I couldn’t control and couldn’t stop, let alone understand, and I didn’t even have room to explore the why all this. It drove me so crazy that I ended up trying to kill myself.
With this silent devastation now a staple of my life, I gravitated towards body horror even more, craving stories where I could see someone going through what felt like my experience, whether or not I fully acknowledged the right at the time. One of the most extreme examples I’ve found is Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo the iron man, which even deals directly with how terrifying your genitals get (even if this movie does it in a horribly misogynistic way). This movie hit like a hammer in the face, the disturbing and nauseating body transformations. All I could do was keep watching and say “yes, kind of like that”.
I’m not being profound or original when I say that body horror is something trans people will always know better than cis people, even if we don’t have the language to articulate why. “Puberty sucks for everyone”, of course, yes. But for a trans person, it can be daily, almost hourly misery; your body ceases to be yours, actively betraying you. It’s almost like a split. There is now the you that you are and the you that is seen by the world, the sight of which can be enough to ruin your sanity and can lead to self-harm.
Of course, I cannot overstate the need for free and easily accessible transition health care. The example I always like to set is that if a cis boy started growing boobs one day, there would be literally no questions or barriers to getting immediate care; Trans kids basically get patronized and dismissed: “it’s just a phase” or “deal with it”. Although I may not have developed any mechanical appendages or extra mouths, my body was in pain until I could transition.
Cis people, mostly cis men, make these movies because I imagine to some degree for them that there’s no greater threat than your body working directly against you, making something monstrous out of you . The thought of losing agency on your fragile meat vessel is enough to send shivers down your spine. There’s also the politics of the body-horror film, which is a long-standing patriarchal version of morality that carries us to the present day with the passage of violently transphobic laws and the repetition of absurd violent transphobias by celebrities with giant platforms: your deviation from the binary, from your conditioned usefulness, makes you something to be feared, a wicked beast. It gives me and other trans people extra layers of understanding. “Monstrosity” is defined by the larger cultural system of acceptance, “beauty” and ultimately the capacity for work and reproduction.
Various cultural mythologies have given rise to body horror, monstrous transformations for those deemed deviant. The older I got, the more affinities I found with some of the Greek myths. Before my xenomorph idolization, Medusa was a precocious love (thanks to Ray Harryhausen and Clash of the Titans). Her change is even more terrifying because it is her “punishment” for being raped (the message here loud and clear for anyone living in the world as a woman).
Ovid’s version of Scylla also places a lifelong burden on a woman who has stepped out of her expected role, her lower half turning into vicious dog heads. Body horror considers “evil” anything that doesn’t fit a very specific body type (cis, able-bodied, reproductive); I, and other trans people, can perhaps resonate with what happens to these characters whose bodies morph to their horror. But in these stories, it’s now bodies that must be destroyed to return to a more “normal” state and do their part to reinforce a conservative view of a binary (which, writing it, sounds a lot like this that the GOP and TERF would like to do).
This is in fact what can lead to identification with the monster, the “bad guy”. Queer people of all kinds are no strangers to this idea. For me my body was changing in ways that I fantasized about ending violently, and yet now happily and healthily transitioning all I have to do is tune into the news or social media to deal with a daily onslaught of people trying to convince me that I am the degenerate, terrifying monster here to infect and corrupt others. (Trans people are currently in the crosshairs. But this is a hate conspiracy that has been used against different marginalized people for decades to stir up cultural hysteria for political power and the ideology of supremacy The lack of self-awareness would be comical if it weren’t so dangerous).
It wasn’t until a highly controversial French film last year that we saw anything to reverse that paradigm. Although not directly a Trans film, Titanium struck me in a way that no other body horror had before (or really any movie in general). It’s because there’s so much Trans experience not only in the “horror” element, but also in its reversal of common Trans stereotypes in movies. Here we see a character’s unwanted transformation met not only with compassion and love, but its own outcome is to discover the authenticity within. The more monster they become, the greater their humanity and ability to connect with others they find.
Director Julia Ducournau seems to understand and present in her film both the idea that “deviant” bodies (and directly, Trans bodies) are not horrible, but in reality the gateway to somebody learn to understand their body and what it means to exist within. Ducournau, in his own words, views monstrosity as a good thing no matter where you fall on the genre spectrum.
Recently my best friend and I went to see the little HR Giger exhibit here in New York. We stumbled into a discussion about how, as closeted trans kids, we developed fixations on all those things that other people found terrifying, and how that carried over into adulthood. It started with having an adoration for a monster like the xenomorph, which was the gateway to Giger’s world of surreal fluid bodies composed of flesh and metal, organics tangled with inorganics, and heavy doses of sex. There were recognizable forms, but everything was mixed and bent against any kind of expectation and preconceived notion, because in Giger’s landscapes and creature designs there was no fixed definition of what was a body ; there was no normality, because for him the bodies were not normal to begin with.
In fact, their abnormality – arguably taken to extremes in his work – is what gave them a sense of beauty. Giger mixes phallic and yonic imagery (even the xenomorph head design features both), and that’s what makes them powerful; very often, his creations are even in a sort of ecstasy, celebrating themselves. For him, as for Ducournau, the body is as fluid as the imagination. There is no “normal” ideal of a body; only new and undefined beauty can be found outside the confines of any sort of boundary. And there is nothing more Trans than that.