Horror Movie Analysis

Human Murals, Human Honeycombs, and Human Centipedes—Oh, My! : Body Modification Surgeries in 21st-Century Horror


A week after the Season Two finale of Hannibal, Bryan Fuller’s delicious television adaptation of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, I found myself restarting the series from the beginning with my mom – who, after adamantly rejecting the show for its “gratuitous scenes of torture as entertainment,” finally conceded. If you haven’t jumped on the Hannibal train yet, don’t worry. There’s still time to binge. Season Three is said to air later this year (or, to the disappointment of Hannibal devotees like me, early 2015). Though I’m going to try to keep this relatively spoiler-free, I should add that if you haven’t seen the show, and you don’t appreciate spoilers, you should probably stop reading.

Now that I’ve gotten those formalities out of the way, allow me to begin: Yesterday, my mom and I watched “Kaiseki” and its ‘accompanying’ episode, “Sakizuki,” in which the FBI discovers a serial killer who collects his victims based on skin color in order to create a human color palette (otherwise known as the human mural or human silo). The killer achieves this by pumping his victims with a near-fatal dosage of heroine, rendering them unconscious; hand-sewing their limbs to their ‘neighbors’ in the palette; and coating their bodies in resin, creating a seal for his mural. Scary? Definitely. Awesome? Hell yeah.

human trees

Watching these episodes got me to thinking about the allure in the horror genre with the [surgically] modified human body. In addition to the human silo, Hannibal brought us human trees, human cellos, and let’s not forget the cringe-worthy human honeycombs. Though the former two examples weren’t quite the result of surgical procedures, they can certainly still be considered body modifications. Outside of the Hannibal series, body modification surgeries have also appeared in film. We’ve seen it in Tom Six’s Human Centipede sequence and, most notably, in Jen and Sylvia Soska’s female-fronted indie horror flick, American Mary. Equally worthy of discussion would be Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, but I shamefully have not seen the film. Yet.

Now, I never thought I would be writing in any sort of capacity, save to ward people off, about The Human Centipede. And, for the purposes of this post, I’m only going to focus on the first installment in the trilogy, because: (a) that’s the only one I’ve seen (read: the only one that my psyche can handle, until further notice) and (b) based on what I’ve read about the second and third films, the plot is the least contrived. In other words, it seems like something that could actually happen. But before I unpack the significance and implications of surgical body modification in the film that forced me into a four-month period of horror movie celibacy, let’s talk body modification.

There is nothing new about body modification. All around the world, humans have been modifying their bodies for centuries. In some cultures, they serve as demonstrations of religious or romantic devotion; while, in others – and this seems to be particularly true for people in the United States – body modifications are performed predominantly for aesthetic purposes. Overall, it can be said that, no matter what culture one belongs to, the body is a blank canvas; its paint, tattoos, piercings, implanting, scarification, and arguably, cosmetic enhancements. Better yet, the body is, as plastic surgeon Joseph Rosen explained to the bloggers behind Stuff to Blow Your Mind, “a conduit for the soul, at least historically speaking. When you change what you look like, you change who you are.” Let’s meditate on that last statement awhile: When you change what you look like, you change who you are. Rosen intends, presumably, for his statement to have a positive connotation. Body modification and cosmetic surgery are transformative, maybe even validating. But then, what happens when surgical modifications are forced upon the individual, as in a movie like The Human Centipede, or in Hannibal?

mary 1

Quite honestly, I don’t have a clear-cut answer. One of the reasons I started this blog and hope to continue rolling with it is that horror is an incredibly speculative genre. Even when the writer or director of a horror film states the intentions of his or her (or whatever gendered or non-gendered pronoun said-writer/director chooses to use) work, there is still plenty of room for further speculation. But I do have a few hypotheses (read: more questions and uncertain statements that I am going to try to frame as “answers”). First of all, I think that the “meaning” of forced surgical body modifications largely depends upon the perspective of the “surgeon.” Does the surgeon believe that the modifications are an enhancement, an improvement, or even a beatification? This was certainly the case in the first installment of The Human Centipede, in which world-renown German surgeon Dr. Heiter’s obsession with Siamese twins leads him to experiment on a sort of reverse-Siamese separation – first on his dogs and then on three human subjects – by stitching a triad connected ass-to-mouth. In porn, and for many sexually-active people in real life, ass-to-mouth is a sexual act in which a penis-owner penetrates someone else’s mouth after said-penis has been in said-partner’s ass. In The Human Centipede, ass-to-mouth stops being cute when the person in front needs to take a dump. But I digress….

In Hannibal, though the perpetrators differ from episode to episode, for the most part, the body modifications that occur are enhancements. It’s true in the case of “Kaiseki” and “Sakizuki.” For the perpetrator in these episodes, skin color is such a prominent and striking aspect of human kind and the human experience that he wanted to document it by creating a human mural. If these beatifications of the body are forced, though; if the perpetrators of such “violence” are perceived as mentally ill or suffering from some sort of psychosis, are they still “beautiful”? Or do they become grotesque, frightening?

mary 2

American Mary is unique, even genius, in its depiction of body modification. Here, body modification, particularly cosmetic surgery, possesses multiple meanings. When Ruby Realgirl asks Mary (Katharine Isabelle) to remove her nipples and seal off (for lack of a better phrase) her vulva, allowing her to complete her dream of becoming a human Barbie doll, it’s because she wants to be desexualized. She becomes a living manifestation of the idea that women should look sexual – Ruby retains her breasts, for instance – but should not actually use their sexuality. As her surgeon, Mary helps Ruby adhere to this standard. In this respect – and this seems to be true not just for Ruby but also for Mary’s other patients –Mary has the power to give women the bodies that they not only desire but also need in order to navigate a male-dominated world. I could wax poetic about American Mary and its nods to third-wave feminism, but that deserves a post in and of itself, so I’ll end on that note.

Considering the prevalence of body modification not only in Western and Southeast Asian cultures but all over the world, it’s a wonder why it becomes the subject of fright in horror movies. What’s so “scary” about body modification – or, rather, at what point does body modification become scary? And moreover, what does it mean for body modifications to become scary? Could these films simply be literalizing conservative anxieties, or in the case of American Mary, critiquing social structures and impositions? After all, one of the most titillating aspects of the genre is its ability to make real tangible and intangible, real and irrational, social anxieties. Or, is there something more behind it?

dr. heiter

Body modification isn’t always depicted as grotesque in horror – at least, not so explicitly. American Mary is probably the most blatant example of this. The surgically modified characters who seek Mary’s help are beatified, humanized, in contrast to the dehumanized “victims” of, say, The Human Centipede sequence. But perhaps the beauty, the humanity, of the modified women in American Mary is contingent upon the fact that they are given much more interiority. They are sensitive and, for the most part, intelligent women making conscious decisions. To the credit of Tom Six, the victims of Dr. Heiter’s triad are not entirely devoid of interiority, even if they are rather shallow and stereotypical characters. I also think it’s worth noting that – and perhaps I’m reading too deep into this – the doctor’s victims occupy non-privileged bodies. This is compared to “privileged” bodies” – typically white (heterosexual) cis-males. (I know that privilege manifests itself in ways other than race, gender, and ethnicity – such as through ability, indigeneity, and age – but I couldn’t think of a better word.) Two of Dr. Heiter’s victims are women and the third, who is positioned at the front of the “centipede” because of his inability to speak English, is a Japanese man. Could Dr. Heiter’s surgery, then, still be read as a beatification? Or does it become a punishment for non-white bodies? Or, better yet, could it be a purification?

Overall, I think that body modification in the horror genre is a subject worth further investigation and inquiry. There is a whole host of horror films out there on the subject of surgical body modification, I’m sure. This post has just barely skimmed the surface of what’s out there. As I continue to write and, in/while doing so, expand my mental “collection” of horror films viewed, I hope to watch some of those other films and maybe expand on the subject.



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