Question: Reyes (2014), describes Body Horror as being a “fictional representation of the body exceeding itself or falling apart, either opening up or being altered past the point where it would be recognised by normative understandings of human corporeality.” How do The Void and Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth make use of this definition to explore themes of the unknown?
Shadow Over Innsmouth (Lovecraft, 1931) largely features body horror as a way to frighten the reader. It is shown through the inter breeding in the text of the people of the town with the Deep Ones to whom sacrifices are made, as well as descriptions of the Deep Ones themselves. By twisting the human body almost out of recognition, Lovecraft is able to unsettle the reader and make them extremely uncomfortable, as is the nature and intention of body horror.
Reyes says “the general understanding seems to be that, if a text generates fear from abnormal states of corporeality, or from an attack upon the body, we might find ourselves in front of an instance of body horror” (2014), which explains why Shadow Over Innsmouth is classified as body horror.
Aspects of the body horror are foreshadowed during the narrator’s conversation with Zadock, as towards the end, Zadock sees something past Robert Olmstead and is filled with horror. “The hideous suddenness and inhuman frightfulness of the old man’s shriek almost made me faint”, he describes, and is a precursor to the horror that will fill the reader later on when the Deep Ones are revealed.
The Deep Ones are later described as humanoid, but twisted past humanity with several fish-like characteristics. This is different from Lovecraft’s widely recognised Cthulhu (Lovecraft, 1928), who is more of an entity than anything comparable to humans. Cthulhu is an enormous being who represents cosmic horror, and is so far removed from human kind that it is difficult to comprehend.
The Deep Ones, however, seem to exist in the Uncanny Valley. The Uncanny Valley was first coined by Masahiro Mori when describing the emotional response to humanoid robots. He describes that as robots get closer to looking human, the emotional response from real people becomes more positive, up until a certain point (Lay, 2015). When they are almost human, but not quite, robots elicit a feeling of great discomfort from anyone looking at them. Although the Deep Ones are far removed from humanity and being viewed as anything close to humanlike, the body horror used to describe them elicits a similar feeling of discomfort and repulsion.
Another horror writer who makes use of this kind of feeling created from body horror is Junji Itou; a horror manga writer who takes great inspiration from Lovecraft. In this widely regarded magnum opus Uzumaki (1998-99), Itou makes strong use of the genre of body horror. In the three part collection, Itou describes how the shape of a spiral haunts a town and twists its residents past recognition. The images he creates of people being consumed by spirals, transforming into sluggish monsters resembling snails, and in the first chapter even curling in on themselves to become a spiral, all elicit the same emotions of repulsion as the Deep Ones do in Shadow Over Innsmouth. This shows how Lovecraft made use of the genre of body horror and how he influenced writers that came after him with his twisting of the human body.
Itou, J. (1998-1999). Uzumaki. Japan: Shogakukan
Lay, S. (2015). Uncanny valley: why we find human-like robots and dolls so creepy [article]. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/13/robots-human-uncanny-valley
Lovecraft, H. P. (1931). Shadow over Innsmouth. United States, Visionary Publishing Company.
Reyes, X. A. (2014). Body gothic: corporeal transgression in contemporary literature and horror film – body horror. University of Wales Press.