It has been almost ten years since I cut up a human body and I still wonder why we were so compelled to begin by praying over the corpse. This requires some unpacking.
First, I have found my personal theology to be quite peculiar when compared to others. While I do appreciate and respect the discipline that ritual prayer offers to us humans, at the mercy of time and physics, I am not into ritualised prayer. Prayer is a communication, yes, but not in the traditional sense. For me, prayer is beyond language. Rather, it is lived action, even a lifestyle. It has a resemblance to a dialogue or even a polylogue – lest we let it become a monologue. It does not really end or begin much as our correspondences with parents, loved ones, or dear friends are all just continuations of one long script. For God, who is beyond all, direction and quantity are arbitrary. It does come with a degree of awareness (which we all ought to seek in our own time). But to reduce it to some specialisation, another woefully human propensity, reduces the overall sanctity of it. Asking for prayers or specialising prayers for one or something feels mildly abusive and renders me ever so uncomfortable. As if prayers were an Amazon Wishlist that if we all vow to be good little humans then at the end of the year, we will get an invoice stating our loved ones are in paradise, happy, and Timmy got into his first-choice uni. For me prayer is also quite personal, intimate. And I am as comfortable in an assembly of praying persons as I am in a communal shower. Exposed and strangely ashamed of any deviating thoughts that spring into my head.
Second, the bodies before us, I was assured, were expired. Definitely deceased; they were no more. Plumage notwithstanding, they were ex-living people. And regardless the eloquence of our prayers, I did not realistically think we could do anything about such a permanent condition. The prayers we were to offer were more of a giving thanks. An appreciation. As it were, a beautiful gesture similar to how indigenous American peoples would give thanks to the Earth and all its spirits and creatures for the sustenance allowed before each feast or how the Australians have inculcated the thanking of the aboriginal community, whose land they conveniently occupy, before certain events. So, why was I so bent out of shape about praying over dead bodies amongst my student peers? Well, you see, the whole thing felt a bit redundant, we had technically already done this.
Every year around the delightfully inappropriate holiday season, the Saint Louis University School of Medicine, in conjunction with the Center for Anatomical Sciences and Education, hosts a sort of gala to thank the families of those who donate their bodies to the school for overly optimistic youngsters to carve up over the course of a semester. The evening includes a beautiful service, now made interfaith, at the St. Francis Xavier College Church where families open up old wounds to again re-eulogise the deceased while first year students smile, most blissfully ignorant of how far medical education has come in terms of body procurement. Only a couple of hundred years ago, dopey smiles and awkward dinner talk would be replaced with shovels, lanterns, and, preferably, someone keeping watch. The acts, which out of context could be described as ‘grotesque’, we would soon commit in that laboratory on the top floor of the ancient (by American standards) School of Medicine building would connect us to greats like Leonardo DaVinci or William Burke and William Hare. As American college students, we were just happy to have a free meal.
My mind tends to over think when I find myself in the middle of tasks that must be done, regardless of how pointless I find them to be. First comes comedy. How fitting we all are weeping in our prayers. Within stainless-steal sarcophagi, the bodies before us lay in body bags that, while airtight (to preserve the moisture, we are told), did little in the way of keeping the aromatic formaldehyde molecules from wreaking havoc on our eyes and airways. Thus, streams of tears fittingly run down our cheeks. Then comes reasoning. You can sell me on the logic of praying over a human regardless of my personal belief, but these are not humans, they are just bodies. Finally comes the ultimate irony. This opening prayer completely betrays the veneer put up to dissociate us as objective scientific practitioners-to-be from the antithetical act of what is effectively dismembering a fellow human. Great measures are taken for us to mentally be aware that these are bodies, husks – no longer the persons that used to inhabit, or if you prefer, be them. Their names are withheld from us, they are anonymous (though, be nice to the right people and ask the right questions and inquiring minds are always fed). We were given a story about a young female med student who, prior to the strict anonymity policy, came to discover she had been dissecting her grandmother. Never given a proper ending to the story, the assumption was that she went mad over such a revelation and had to therefore be interred at a mental facility for the rest of her days. Otherwise, we would have no reason to fear breaking the policy!
But really think about it. We were trained to use an entirely new vocabulary, they say for respect, but really it is all sugar-coating. They are not bodies, they are cadavers. Or maybe it was all to get us ready for HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996), a set of regulations put in place to keep private the sacred medical history of others. In other classes, this would present in our case studies where patients would be referred to by broad (and quite racially charged) generalisations instead of by name. But is the point to keep private other’s deep secrets or to save ourselves from the legal repercussions. Lesson one of medical school is save thy self first, then save that patient, and make sure they cannot sue you! So much for the Hippocratic Oath (or as I call it, the Hypocritical Oath). And so, you see the roots of why I excised myself from any love or desire to be a part of the American medical establishment.
But let us return to this veil of ignorance. A cloth was even draped over the faces of the cadavers, that is, until it came time to dissect the muscles of the face and finally extract the brain (easier said than done, I assure you!). As that lesson tends to be saved to the end, there is not much left of the body by that point, suspending any humanity we may cling to the flesh. The less human they were, the easier it would be on us.
But prior to standing in that laboratory, I was acutely aware that dead bodies were not human. I was fortunate to never have lost anyone close to me, at least since I can remember, until I was in university. My Uncle Tony passed away my freshman year of university, from cancer only after making a rather miraculous recovery after suffering severe burns incurred by a horrendous car accident almost a decade before. Jordans, as members of my family would often like to restate, are not an easy people to put in the ground. And while the human my uncle was has lived on in the eulogia and photographs, and of course the memories, what rested in the coffin at the Nebraska City funeral home was not my uncle. And I take comfort in that. Released of the limits and the pain.
Less than a year later my grandfather would pass away. And while both my Uncle Tony’s and my grandfather’s preparations, it must be said, were carefully and masterfully done, what lay in the casket was just a body, a relic.
Before too long, this became sort of a recurring thing. I have these hardened memories of attending funerals with my father. It was as if it was the thing to do when I was too old for things that entertain kiddies but too young to simply go to the pub and have a pint with my dad. My father did not do what your stereotypical American father does. He did not teach me to shoot a gun (and I continue to retain no interest in that skill), he did not teach me to drive a manual transmission (which I do deeply regret), he did not even teach me to shave (my mother did at my impassioned behest over the horror of pubescent whiskers). But, he did teach me to deal with death.
Like a horse teaches its foal to take its first steps that become the mad dash that only ends one way, I learned to always speak in whispered tones, to listen, to give condolence, and then to present yourself to the body. Before the host you could speak, offer a prayer, recant a memory, you could even touch the body respectfully with a pat on the shoulder, a compassionate hold of the hand, or even a kiss on the forehead. All depending on whatever helped. Admittedly, it is a rather one-sided affair. I recall going to three funerals over the course of a year for people I did not know. They were connections to my dad’s work and whenever we showed up the bereaved families were always happy to see us. And my dad would walk with me to see the body and as if he knew I was just standing there overthinking the pointlessness of standing next to a body who was not a person, he would begin complimenting the funeral staff’s preservation techniques and then filling my head with stories about the person who used to be this body.
When it came time to be present over my own father’s body, he was unfortunately not there to fill my overthinking and wondering mind, but instead confirmed that in the end, we just become bodies. This point was driven home by the state I found my father’s body in. Prior to the funeral I was shown my father’s body to give the final okay, all looks good here. As I looked upon him, I could not help but burst out in laughter. His face was adorned with Elvis Presley’s mutton chop sideburns that he wouldn’t be caught dead in, but, well. While the nurses at the hospital he spent his last moments with did a relatively good job of keeping him cleaned up – he had kept the same clean-cut moustache and haircut since his time in the Navy three decades prior – the way the apparatus that assisted his breathing was fastened to his face allowed for that curious facial hair to grow as if groomed that way. No matter, this was an easy fix and did not require the ever-so-sorry funeral director’s apologies. My father had gotten the last laugh, and this was just a body, an imitation. The human that was, certainly now in a better place. The freezing cold December day we put him to rest prevented doubt of this and the chaotic madness that was the preceding year, 2020, certified it.
Admittedly, I had it easy. Regardless my history with corpses. My group’s cadaver had belonged to a woman who lived well into her eighties who, as a quick extracurricular investigation determined, had died from ‘natural causes’. Existential conundrums were overshadowed by our fear that what organs remained within this well-lived body would be in considerably less than ‘textbook’ condition. The cadaver in the group next to us was that of a fit and healthy male, aged twenty-five who had passed away from testicular cancer – one top ranking fear throughout my twenties. The faculty rightly feared for our fragile little psyches, faced with such an existential crisis inducing mirror.
Or, were we supposed to be praying, ‘Please God, do not let me become this.’ But a prayer against what we all know to be an inevitability seemed problematic as well. Bodies are scary. And the difference between the thing in the bag and those of us in our scrubs could be one simple decision. A drunk driver, inclement weather conditions, sleep deprivation, ignoring for too long that one thing that seems off, or simply going down the wrong path at the wrong time – any or all of these could put us in the stainless-steal sarcophagus. We had one professor, a lung specialist, who said statistically if it is not the heart that gets you, it will be the lungs, and neither are particularly pleasant, so pray for getting hit by the bus. It is not clean, but it is quick. But aside from being the only real evidence we all eventually leave behind there must be more to the body.
I want to believe that the body is more than just a shell for the soul. There must be something different between what I feel experiencing a dead human body and encountering a rotting piece of fruit. Perhaps there is an instinct to cringe at death rooted in an inability to square the circle of expiry as a living being or perhaps it is just one of our survival feedback loops. I cannot be sure either way. The macabre of a dead body fills us with dread. But horror becomes me when I see a dead squirrel on the other side of an automobile’s encounter (a common occurrence when walking or jogging along Midwestern American roads). Is it just as when I see a body in preparation for a funeral? But what I see is not that individual, but a body. I do not fear the individual, I fear the corpse. This is why the dread is so compounded when we see images of ‘walking corpses’ such as in old photos and films documenting the Holocaust. We look upon piles of bodies or mass graves and feel sad for what humans can be capable of, but there is a different horror when bodies that look like they should not be capable of bearing life, walk on. More contemporaneously we see starving children roam the Horn of Africa, or the pulsating bellies of maimed innocents in the real horror-show that everyone has seemed to have forgotten now taking place in Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan.
Two photos from my primary education are burned into my memory.
The first image was published on the front page of the Chicago Defender and was the cover of Jet magazine depicting the body of Emmet Till after his brutal murder in 1955. It is hard to say what killed fourteen-year-old Emmet Till as he was lynched, his body mutilated, and shot several times. His mother insisted on an open casket funeral stating, ‘there was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see’. Organic matter twisted in ways once thought impossible, an image that reasonably makes onlookers ill to their stomachs. This was the punishment for his interacting with a white woman in Mississippi. No one living could say for sure, but Till could have done anything from whistling at her (he was trained to whistle to himself to assist with his mild speech impediment) to grabbing her by the arm in an attempt at playful flirtation. Because the body was so badly mutilated, a defence could not, without a reasonable doubt, indicate that the body recovered was, in fact, Tills, and no justice was handed down by a court of law, including that concerning the charge of kidnapping, which the white woman’s husband and his half-brother admitted to having done during the trial.
The second photo forever pasted in my head depicts a large crowd of white Omaha denizens gathered in jubilant victory. Perhaps the Cornhuskers had taken home the National Football Championship, or it is one of the many autumn festivals. Centred before the posed mob is what appears to be a statue, perhaps they are about to set it in place. A memorial? On closer examination, one notices odd flashes around the statue. It is not a statue, it is a body, still smouldering in the flames that have turned it into an ash cast of an individual that had recently been lynched from a traffic signal. The remains were once William Brown, a black man. The Omaha police had arrested Brown on suspicion of raping a nineteen-year-old white girl. Trials can be very slow and this was the Red Summer of 1919, where over twenty race riots took place all across the US. A mob, possibly ignited by an old crime boss and an alliance of poor white union labourers, demanded a swift act of justice. The mayor at the time would not allow his city to fall to mob rule and barricaded the Douglas County Courthouse in preparation for a siege with himself and Brown inside. Today that courthouse still stands, now with a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. in the front yard. The mob quickly grew out of control and had at one point drawn out the mayor who declared if anyone would hang tonight, it would be him first. The mob kindly obliged. Luckily a couple of journalists, with the aid of an automobile, cut the mayor down and trafficked him off out of town. After the courthouse was doused in petrol and set aflame, the remaining alliance of black and white police and prisoners agreed to hand over Brown to secure their own safety. The mob lynched Brown, used his body for target practice, then dragged his body by chains from the back of a car that made several laps around the streets of downtown Omaha, all this before the body was unceremoniously burned. Years later, it would come to light that the girl who was raped never made a definitive identification that William Brown was indeed the man.
An interesting insight I have taken away from my time in the anatomy lab is that the fixing process used for our cadavers gives the skin a sort of iridescent opaqueness and ethnicity does not shine as bright without oxygenated blood flowing in under the surface. And even if your brain must seek the racial identity of your cadaver, once you get past the skin (a layer thicker than you’d think that can be a hell of a job to cut through even with a fresh scalpel) we are all the same colourless heaps of bones and guts. The insides of bodies are February, endless grey, unless you are lucky enough to have gotten one of the bodies where the veins are filled with blue wax and the arteries with red. Alas, even medical schools work on tight budgets (which was hard to believe based on what they were making us pay for this joy) and only a couple of the bodies got this treatment, which in the long run feels like a cheat. The amount of time spent deciphering veins from arteries without the indication of colour makes you want to rip apart every colour-printed anatomy textbook you come across. The aggravation grows when you reason that just as your undergraduate education does little to prepare you for graduate education, this practice is rather futile as we are parsing through worn and lifeless flesh. The real thing must be a whole new world.
The truth behind that assumption is yes and no. The beauty you learn in dissecting a cadaver is that while yes, we all have our little differences and may miss this or have a more present that, we are almost nauseatingly similar. It really takes the mystique out of medicine. Medicine has an artistic element to it, but very quickly resembles maths. When you hold a human heart in your hands and see, wow, it really is the size of one’s closed fist (and if it is not, then you have one serious condition on your hands), the magic may be lost, but hope is somewhat reignited. The differences, which everyone is so eager to let define humans, are truly surface level or existent in the depths of the brain. Jeremy Henzell-Thomas discovers this in his quest to reconcile the saying ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus’, which he comes to find out is far more programmed than we may be tempted to believe. The Patriarchy lives indeed, but only in our educations and development. The gendered roles can be unlearned or even rewired. Since our course director was a neuroanatomist, we had the privilege of a healthy dose of neurology. And you would think that everything concerning the brain and neurons is incomprehensibly complex, but it can at times be relatively simple. If you can interpret circuit charts, you can trace back and deduce many neurological ailments.
Medical school application essay templates would make you think everyone goes to medical school to fill some past trauma over some family member’s sickness. If only there had been a doctor who understood more about Alzheimer’s or whatever. But, truth be told, I was a knowledge junky and discovery was my motivation. The only family history I had was my dad’s unseasonably young heart attack and the heart was boring to me. We almost understand every little detail about the thing. So much so that we are within grasp of 3-D printing the things, and what’s more, I just read that a heart transplant using a genetically modified pig’s heart was successfully completed. Since I have a crippling fear of the vastness of outer space, the brain was my final frontier. So, you can imagine my disappointment when I learned that a great deal of neurological disorders can readily be diagnosed by looking at the face, the eyes, and how people walk.
A psychological theory is proposed which has been adopted by certain artists to explain what is at play here from the reduction of the human to a body as machine as well as to explain the feelings evoked through the photographs of massacred bodies. It is referred to as abjection and is at the heart of the abject art movement. Objectification of the body, or breaking the complexity of life down into compounded, simple processes, fulfils the notion of abjection, detaching the subject from the many other objects. The self becomes lost in the other or even in just things. I explore this theory with trepidation as it is rooted in a lot of Freudian psychology that I feel has created more problems than it has solved. The root of the idea is found in the phenomenon that occurs when a child first looks into a mirror, it sees itself as something independent of its environment, particularly the mother. Often motherhood is the emphasis of abject art pieces. The pain as well as the gross bodily display that is the reality of childbirth serves as subject. The human body is frequently portrayed in all its gore as object. More frequently the female body, particularly the breasts and vagina, the mysterious internal genitalia – an unknown to be feared – replace common objects or are replaced by other objects. Religious icons are also free game for the abject artist to give bodily disgust or to soil in the biological. Though the point is not transposition, but to blur the lines between object and subject, inside and out, animate and inanimate, the sacred and the profane. But what is it saying about the body?
Here I do not wish to go too far into it, as a whole host of philosophies, dipping transdisciplinarily, can provide almost as many answers as one desires. My fear in abjection is that while it forces the audience to face a reality, it does nothing in the way of navigating them towards resolution. So, we are left to say the body is an object which we possess, on one hand the ultimate metaphor for empowerment and agency or, on the other hand, we can let others possess it on our behalf or find our bodies repossessed.
Seeing the body as a thing to simply be possessed leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Far too easily dialled into the capitalistic business-as-usual approach to simplifying everything down to exchanges. The ease with which this mentality consumes everything in its sights makes me at the very least long for the body to be something greater than a piece of capital on which God sends us forth to make profit. Sins and saintly deeds just debits and credits. At the final judgement you are given the bill and pray your card does not get declined. The invasiveness of capitalism is experienced first-hand when Themrise Khan reflects on her umrah. While in Medina, she notes the unabashed acceptance of an H&M and a Starbucks right across the street from the iconic Masjid-e-Nabawi. These contradictions were only the beginning for Khan who, with her mother and two aunties, embarked on the journey once Saudi Arabia reformed their policy to allow women above a certain age to travel without a male guardian. Khan’s introspective quest takes on the contradictions within Islam alongside of those which need not be, but constantly are, thrown into conflict between tradition and modernity. Across the Holy Land she rages against the patriarchy that dominates the religion, even limiting not only what a Muslim woman is, but how a Muslim woman can be in relation to the world and God. The hope, a valiant hope ripe amongst a great deal of other changes demanded in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, is that a space can be created for women to have the same relationship with God as men.
Khan’s recounted normalcy of Western capitalism in the Holy Land strikes a chord with the brutality of normalised domestic violence in India uncovered through Chandrika Parmar’s raw headfirst plunge into how deeply the notion of property can be corrupted. When India, like most of the rest of the world, went into lockdown, the globally trending message of ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ was stretched beyond parody or farce. Home, that owned safe place, became a prison for victims already suffering the abuse of a spouse or parent. And in the accounts of abuse, it is not just the surface level husband’s ownership of the wife’s body – stripping the wife down to the level of duty-free property – but the possession stretches to encompass her whole identity and dignity in some cases. Old laws resist reform in India where spousal rape continues to be unrecognised while lack of education or will for public discourse on matters of sex, mental health, and family maintains an atmosphere of complacent normalcy – a truly threatening global trend that lurks in just the right places to prevent progress or change where it is needed most.
Khan and Parmar’s articles call for a break from convention. Ultimately, you could tie their aims together as a decolonising endeavour, but this is not a simple repossession of the body or gaining of the space desired. It is breaking, once and for all, broken systems. Wiping the board clean and starting anew does not quite accomplish the trick. Reform and recovery are needed so that a society can, together, become something new.
Samia Rahman grapples with similar issues in her analysis of Salman Rushdie’s novel Shame. Interesting here as Rushdie expands the metaphor of the body to represent an entire nation or is it the state, the difference here is the people or the borders. Overall, the novel speaks of a system, and a fragile one at that. The body is a limiting structure, much as a state’s borders are, but the transformation depicted in Shame strikes at the transformation of the people, this new nation, which is largely seen in an ebb and flow of identity crises. Shame then is the result of having one’s identity space denied or even othered. Shame’s main character, Sufiya Zinobia transforms into a great beast, unable to find a space for herself in not only a misogynist world, but one bearing the alienating double indemnity of being both a woman and a person of colour, or of being a Muslim woman. In pairing Shame with the blogs of Mona Eltahawy, Rahman identifies emotion, something strongly tied to woman, also a weakness, but as something which ties the body to the mind or soul, what makes one a living human. ‘If emotions are what enable people to construct national identity, the irony is undeniable, because emotionality has long been associated with women, the same women who are consistently denied their rightful place in nation-building’, writes Rahman. Emotion, something established as requiring a body, allows us to become. If hindered, it can be contained or haunted by shame, but if embracing the shame or even becoming shameless there is little limit to what constructions it can be capable of.
In reflecting on his own Malay-ness, Shanon Shah looks at how this becoming force can be subverted by bad, yet strongly perpetuated, narratives. Stereotypes cast Malays as ‘lazy’ and incapable of higher intellect and creative prowess. Yet while these stereotypes may have been forged by outsiders and colonisers, it did not stop elite powers within what is modern day Malaysia from using such narratives to maintain a status quo. Such narratives are engrained in culture through film and even enshrined in constitutions. The danger today is that their continued existence allows for serious crimes and corrupt practices to proceed unchecked as possession of the mind allows for possession of the body and resources, meanwhile the whole planet suffers and the same communities that have always been victims of such extractions are now the first to suffer from the climate fallouts.
Shah’s essay shows how narratives, often purported in films, solidify stereotypes and fears into the form of phobias and -isms. I would name them here, but I am bound to forget your favourite. Shah cites the classic monster film genre as one way these graft onto the subconscious. I think this can be taken a step further. Where abjection presents with a certain passiveness beyond the initial shock factor, the genre of body horror forces an interaction.
Body horror as a genre is quite an unwieldy beast when you really consider what it encompasses. The genre is so broad it can include classic monster films with basic cinematography all the way to the seizure-inducing hyperbolic cyberpunk posthuman nightmares of science fiction. And even if the film can be categorised under a variety of other genres, elements of body horror can always be sneaked in to assist with worldbuilding or give a new challenge to an overly flat character. Body horror also spans almost the entire history of human storytelling. Ancient civilisations the world over are filled with myths and legends of beings capable of transforming between various species and states. So, to keep the body of this piece from becoming its own pulsing, tumorous Akira-esque monstrosity, clarification will be necessary.
The body horror I will speak of here is generally broken down into two categories. First is the type of body horror brought about through biological transcendence. This would be films that involve people transforming through a mutation, disease, pregnancy complication, or curse that sees the body do ‘unnatural’ things. The second type of body horror is that provoked by technological intervention. This deals with all matters of cybernetics and posthumanism, even promiscuous and killer robots or automobiles. But, the best body horror synthesises the two. In so doing, an interesting revelation is surfaced.
The first name that often comes to mind when considering the body horror genre in film is The Baron of Blood himself, The King of Venereal Horror, David Cronenberg. His most mainstream and accessible film (though of course, as goes for all body horror, not for everyone) is 1986’s remake, The Fly. It should be noted that David Cronenberg does a remake as they ought to all be done. Not a simple copy-paste job. In fact, the only thing in common with Cronenberg’s The Fly andKurt Neumann’s 1958 versionis the use of a molecular transmission device, a common house fly, and they both give credit to the short story ‘The Fly’ by George Langelaan which of all places was first published in a 1957 issue of Playboy. In Cronenberg’s version, scientist Seth Brundle is molecularly fused, down to the level of DNA, with a house fly when transporting himself via his invention the telepod. At first, Brundle notices peak physical condition only to see himself rapidly degrade into a horrifying fly-man. While this lies more in the realm of the biological transcendence body horror category, since a piece of technology instigates the mess (and at one point his hybrid body again is hybridised with the machine itself) you get all the wonderful modernist hubris added to the package of themes.
But Cronenberg’s true all-in-one body horror masterpiece is 1983’s Videodrome. We follow Max Renn, the president of a sensationalist television station on his quest for the future of television. Desensitised to violence and pornography, Renn stumbles upon a show called Videodrome, which is simply the live feed of people being tortured, believed to be being broadcast out of the most lawless and random place Cronenberg could think of – Malaysia. In his quest to gain the rights he learns that Videodrome carries a broadcast signal that causes its viewers to develop a brain tumour that instigates hallucinations and, eventually, death. But a man found to have died years prior to the film’s storyline, kept ‘alive’ only by thousands of pre-recorded VHS tapes, explains that the death is only of the old flesh. The hope is that television will replace every fascette of human life. ‘Long live the new flesh’ is hailed numerous times throughout the film. The film is chalk full of sexual inuendo, blurring the lines between the biological and the technological, and constantly keeps you asking what is real and what is not. After a viewing one could not be blamed for desiring a CT scan.
Cronenberg’s son Brandon has shown promise in his filmography and that the rein of Cronenberg shall be long indeed. His most recent contribution is 2020’s Possessor, when a team of assassins use a machine to enter the consciousness of seemingly random people to carry out their hits. After each assassination, the host commits suicide, releasing themselves from the mind of the possessed and hiding any hint of their involvement. Such work requires its assassins to cut themselves completely from their humanity to make sure the process can run seamlessly and the assassin keeps their psyche separate from those they imitate. The heart of the story is a woman, Tasya Vos, attempting to keep her work life separate from her domestic life with her husband and son. This all goes wrong when an assassination is botched, and the host Vos has possessed begins fighting back for control of his body.
This particular example is interesting as the expectation is flipped. A woman possesses a white male to use him to carry out her will. Although it is unclear whether or not her employer is using this all to convince her to give up her last links to her humanity. Honestly, the whole thing could have been in Vos’s head and the film simple a metaphor for choosing between one’s family and one’s career, which in the hyperbolic consumerist reality of the day, is not much of a choice at all. Kafka’s Metamorphosis anyone? But the idea holds, which reaffirm’s Parmar and Khan’s desire for the body, particularly those of minorities and disenfranchise individuals, to be more than an object of possession, but powerful spaces.
Some of the greatest body horror has come out of Japan. Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 classic Akira is often hailed as the gold standard and required watching of the body horror genre. But, Shinya Tsukamoto’s low-budget, underground, indy, almost experimental, sixty-seven-minute Tetsuo: The Iron Man raises the bar on what body horror cinema can do. Two male characters cross paths when one hits the other with his car. The first, known in the script as the Metal Fetishist, inserts a metal rod into his leg, that after festering causes him to run into the street where he is struck by the Salaryman. The Salaryman, accompanied by his Girlfriend believe the Metal Fetishist to be dead, so they dump his body in a nearby wooded area. The Salaryman and the Girlfriend, racked with guilt, hide out at their home where they give in to carnal desires to take their mind off the whole ordeal. Slowly the Salaryman notices metal pieces overtaking his body. From their meals to their sexual encounters, first the soundtrack – all normal bodily sounds are replaced with the sounds of metal on metal, then slowly the Salaryman transforms into the Iron Man. This reaches a head when the Salaryman reveals a massive drill to have erupted from his pelvis region. As the Salaryman continues to transform, it is revealed that the Metal Fetishist has also transformed and that the two, finding themselves presumably in a town only big enough for one Iron Man, engage in battle. As those familiar with the trope in anime know, when two mighty forces fight for a while without defeating each other, they are destined to become best friends. This time the Salaryman and the Metal Fetishist transform into one massive metal tank, one man mounted upon the other, with a free arm, now wielding a massive gun. They then set off on a mission to ‘rust the world into the dust of the universe’, creating their own ‘new world’.
What is most fascinating about the best of the body horror genre is that at their root, they are all simple stories when you get past the guts and bolts. Possessor is just about a woman trying to find a work/family balance in an advanced consumerist society. The Fly is just the timeless tale of a man attaining ultimate success and it costing him everything. Videodrome is a story of addiction and the futile road to sate it. Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a story of two men learning that their sexuality is, since it can be considered rude to ask, let us just say ‘generally socially unacceptable’. So, faced with the existential threat of sexually transmitted disease, they seek to make a new world where they can be accepted. Though, it should be reiterated, since the last line of the film is roughly translated as ‘our love can destroy this whole fucking world’, that militant apocalypse probably is not the best strategy to go about changing the world.
Body horror is even becoming increasingly common in post pandemic cinema, though I think the pandemic only added to a world already suffering from a series of identity crises concerning racial tensions, gender and sexuality considerations, and a long overdue updated discussion of fundamental human rights. The 2021 Cannes Film Festival gave its top award, the Palme d’Or, to not only a body horror film, but one that expands upon the ideas and themes of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Julia Ducournau’s French-Belgium feature Titane. Titane has it all, technofetishism, cyborgs, sex with cars, impregnation by cars, gender subversions, themes of motherhood and parenting, religious iconography, and all the body horror your heart would desire. Although the film is rather gory, there is very little blood as most of the blood is replaced with black motor oil. The story opens with a series of scantily clad women dancing erotically on top of muscle cars as onlookers gawk and request autographs. The whole scene reminds me of Dionysian ritual where the gods are replaced with sports cars. We learn that one of the dancers, Alexia, is a serial killer who as a child was involved in a car accident that required a titanium plate to be put in her skull. After having sex with and becoming impregnated by one of the sports cars, Alexia proceeds to burn her parents’ house down and run away. Unable to run too far, she cuts her hair and breaks her nose to resemble a boy who had gone missing ten years prior. A delusional father accepts Alexia as his long-lost son as she attempts to blend in by cutting her hair and taping down her breasts and increasingly pregnant belly. Aside from being a fresh take on the gender-swap trope, and also almost seeming to intentionally group as many trigger warnings into one film as is humanly possible, Titane presented the human body as an incredibly tough thing. Something enduring and capable of defying assumed limits.
The expansion of limitations is an interesting theme that resonates in almost all body horror. In fact, in reviewing a lot of body horror films (more than I would recommend to the casual viewer) I noticed an obsession with the perception of an evolutionary step forward. It is the posthumanist thesis but usually said with less foaming at the mouth than what you hear from the fanatical devotees to that particular -ism. Wendy Schultz explores this idea in her survey of developing body enhancement techniques. But, with the exception of a few who drank the high dose postmodernism Kool-Aid, each of these films falls short. The real theme is that the expansion of the limitations we perceive on the body is not overcome through a literal evolution into a new species, but through a doubling down on what is important and essential towards the ever so precious idea – what is human? Indeed, certain limits can be bent, but humanity must remain.
Three profound, reflective essays in this issue explore the concept of the body as a limit. Aamer Hussein, finally free to travel for the first time since the lockdowns of 2020, finds his body less than cooperative in such freedoms as a luggage mix up results in his being without essential medication. As a small army of friends attempt to assist him in his quest for his medicine and a fresh change of clothes, he comes to terms with an unwelcomed hunter that lingers inside his body. Hussein will decide if the body in which they are both contained is destined to be a prison or a home. Robin Yassin-Kassab reflects on his memories, trying to make sense of his body’s history of interesting and awkward medical encounters, how his beleaguering migraines may have actually saved him and his son’s lives, and finally philosophises on the self and body asking, ‘if the body is limitless, am I limitless too?’ Naomi Foyle seeks greater understanding of a condition she had recently been diagnosed with. Though to call it a condition presumes the darker narratives that have twisted public perception of those with autism. In her study and critical reflection, Foyle wonders if we may have it all wrong about what is medically normal and abnormal, for the abnormal could also present with extraordinary abilities.
In the anatomy lab, I learned, hands on, the fragility, limitations, and frank toughness of the human body. When you attempt to carefully dissect the pancreas you learn why pancreatic cancer is nearly impossible to remove. Like an ash structure, when touched it crumples away to dust, you’d never be able to remove the whole thing without allowing the cancer to get into the blood stream. Again, restricted by budget, while a bone saw was available for opening the skull and the rib cage, we all had one to share amongst us; and so we were encouraged to begin with a chisel and hammer. It was hard work and I had chosen my group for reasons other than strength, so found myself the strongest member of my group and thus delegated to bone cracking. The whole semester was a constant struggle between being gentle out of respect and applying the necessary muscle and brutality to break open a human body. While it may seem counter intuitive, in the end my worries subsided and I learned to love the body even more.
I see scars in a different light after my time in the anatomy lab. Often, we think of them as blemishes, but really they are proof of the power in bodies. The power to heal. I am fortunate that I have a quality of skin that allows for scars to fade into nigh invisibility. One thin white line remains on my inner wrist. I was in primary school, somewhere around the age of ten and had earned the trust-based responsibility of a key to the house, so that I could come home after school until my mother got off work. These were the days of ‘stranger danger’ so I was not allowed to talk to anyone I did not know, nor answer the door for anyone other than my mother, especially if there was a man claiming to be Jesus at the door. On one of these journeys home I inserted the key, twisted the nob and not minding my surroundings neglected the torn and exposed metal in the door frame as I push the door inward, slicing open my right lower arm. I remember there being a lot of pain and a lot of blood, but I knew I had to quickly shut the door to prevent home invaders from taking advantage of the situation. Door shut, deadbolt locked, I then proceeded to the telephone to dial my mother’s work number, to be dialled only in the most extreme of emergencies, I reasoned this should qualify. But my mother was in a critical meeting and beyond anyone in the office’s reach. Woe to the days before mobile ubiquity. Through, what I assume was, a high-pitched voice accented with hysterics and strained by uncontrolled sobbing, I must have gotten someone’s attention, for after hanging up, resigned to what I could not imagine as anything but the cruel end of yet another innocent boy’s life, I heard the phone ring. In defeat and shame I uttered a pitiful ‘Hello’ into the phone. To my surprise, on the other end of the line was my grandmother, a nurse. She was not one for indirect communication. ‘No one is coming to help you, but I am here, and I am going to walk you through this,’ she said. So, we talked and I explained what had happened. The tears dried up and she told me that I needed to clean the wound and dress it. The time that passed with her on the other line probably lasted tops thirty minutes before my mother was located and made a mad dash home to check on me, but my childhood memory compares the event to the cliché scene in an action movie where the hero removes a bullet from his shoulder, stitches the wound closed, and cauterises the wound with an iron. In the end, no stitches were needed.
I always had a special bond with my grandmother. We graduated from the same university exactly sixty years apart from one another. She was one of the few intellectual members of my family who I could look up to and gain support from. She read everything I managed to get published. And in 2021, that grim and dastardly sequel to 2020, she passed away when I was stuck on the far side of the world, something she always thought was so cool that I had a chance to see. And I, along with a world of others was not able to see my grandmother off to her final resting place which is such a critical part of saying goodbye. Not only supply chains, but cycles of mourning were also victims of this global calamity. Also in 2021, I attended my first Muslim and Malay funeral and quite frankly would be happy to never attend another one again. We were fortunate the body we were putting to rest was Covid negative, or else, detached men in hazmat suits would be dumping the lifeless body into a hole to be buried as quickly as possible. And even as someone who can readily dissociate the living from the dead, there’s just something wrong in that and whatever a body may be, it breaks my heart for it to be given that sort of a farewell.
Suddenly I hear my mother singing/spelling along with Aretha Franklin’s 1967 classic, R-e-s-p-e-c-t, a song my mother was always ready to belt out regardless of the feelings of my brother and I, and whether or not we found ourselves in crowded public places. Embarrassment notwithstanding, it remains an essential lesson. While my father taught me how to deal with death my mother taught me how to deal with the living. Easier said than done indeed! My mother, a trained nurse, was always very open about the human body with us and no topic was taboo. Bodies come in all shapes, sizes, colours, with a little more this and a little less that but nevertheless earning your utmost respect and admiration. They always change, sometimes breakdown, but never any less beautiful. Something worthy of the same appreciation you give to a storied forest or a majestic mountain. We were to respect the beauty of the body and maybe if we spent less time concerned with how we looked, we could get ahead on real issues.
The body, whatever it may be, makes us human. And in exploring our bodies and reaching deeper understandings of their limits and their powers, we can grow to live better with one another. And that, I would say, is worthy of a prayer or two.