As a hypochondriac, being afraid of my own skin is a daily struggle. I am always conscious about the potential of contracting diseases or already having them. About once a month I panic about being infected with an STD even though I use protection and show no symptoms. I have no idea where this anxiety comes from, but it probably does not help that I am a fan of body horror.
A subgenre, body horror is designed to make you fear your flesh. It aims to induce an intimate feeling of discomfort that cannot be achieved with conventional methods. No one knows their body better than you and when you see something that reminds you of your flesh, the scare hits on a deep level. It can be anything from the alien in The Thing or a nut-shot from Jackass.
Body horror revolves around flesh, but it is more potent when derived from sex. David Cronenberg pioneered this concept since his early work Shivers, where a plague of parasites turn their hosts into sex-crazed maniacs. Rabid is about a woman who has sex with people to feed on their blood while spreading rabies. In The Fly, the protagonist Seth impregnates Veronica after he fuses with a fly in a teleport accident.
Most of his movies are not explicitly about sex, but Cronenberg uses it as a means to enhance the feeling of discomfort. Naked Lunch has an organic typewriter that moans whenever the main character types. eXistenZ features a virtual reality game that is accessed via flesh cables plugged into sockets at the lower back. The bathhouse scene from Eastern Promises has graphic nudity punctuated by brutal violence.
The use of sex is more effective because it is so personal. What is more intimate, more human than intercourse, the act of exchanging bodily fluids with another? Part of why rape is so horrible is because it makes such a personal experience awful. Sex is something everyone wants and when you shame that desire, you got them by the heart.
No recent film is so flawless in this process than It Follows from 2015. Set in Detroit, the story follows (no pun intended) Jay, a teenager cursed with a walking ghost that will kill her if it gets close. She contracts the curse after having sex with her boyfriend, who received the curse from a stranger. Jay struggles to survive while trying to divine ways to stop the ghost.
Unlike many a contemporary horror movie, It Follows is almost a masterpiece. The film is shot with a wide-angle lens with long shots and tableaus. The cinematography conveys a sense of overwhelming dread where the scene around the characters is large and open. You never know what is hiding just off camera or out of focus given the nature of the ghost. The movie is also well written and does not hold your hand. It shows you enough without telling you what is happening. All this culminates into a legitimately scary and well-made horror film that is grossly underrated.
As mentioned before, intercourse is an intimate expression of organic love. There is nothing more terrifying than an STD contracted in such a moment of passion. The curse ghost is an allegory for STDs. It is always with you, every waking hour, and will appear when you least expect it. Though the fastest it can move is a walk, the ghost will not stop its pursuit. The only solution is to flee and pass the curse onto whomever you can.
The seemingly invincible ghost is most effective because it is something you just get. There is no way to tell if someone has it or if you have it post-coitus. You know that you are cursed if a random person starts walking toward you without warning. Like an STD, the risk of contraction is high because it is difficult to determine if your partner is infected. The curse may not be well known, but that does not mean you cannot get it.
That is the essence of body horror. It is a physical fear that invades and roosts in your flesh. It will never leave you because it is you. It Follows is not just body horror, but carnal terror. There is always the possibility you caught or spread something during intercourse. You can be as careful as an accountant and still be at risk. Replace the curse ghost with an STD and you have one of the scariest horror films in recent memory.
Fear is subjective. No one is right or wrong, and what you find scary others will not. However, almost everyone enjoys sex and virtually everyone is driven by its insatiable hunger. A fear of the flesh is universal because we are driven by lust. When you make an act of organic pleasure disgusting, you are bound to make someone squirm. It Follows is simple body horror with a layer of complexity that many did not notice at the time of release. It is an underrated masterpiece that deserves recognition for its achievements.