Updated: Aug 29
By Leticia Urieta
Finding the culprit
In John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi horror classic, The Thing, a group of American researchers are attacked by an alien life form that can imitate other life forms and transform into them, feeding off of their bodies. When the alien is mid-transformation, it takes on a hybrid body made up of all of the life forms that it has consumed to survive.
In one pivotal scene, Kurt Russel’s character, MacReady, tests the blood of each of his teammates to see which of them might be the alien in disguise. He heats a metal wire with a flamethrower because the creature reacts to heat, and then presses it into a petri dish filled with each person’s blood. His team members wait with bated breath as their blood sizzles against the hot wire, until one teammate’s turn comes and his blood explodes out of the petri dish in a violent reaction to being exposed as the real monster.
I love this scene for how it depicts both what is hidden in the body and what can be so easily revealed. If only there were such a simple blood test to confirm so many maladies of the nerves, the muscles, the brain and the unspoken things that live inside.
The alien, the “Thing,” is the antagonist, the monster in the horror film, but what is most terrifying about this film is how easily this alien creature invades and takes over the bodies of others to the point that they do not know that they are becoming a hybrid thing capable of swallowing their teammates whole. It is a film about how the alien sows discord and distrust among the team to the point of violence, but it is also a film about how easily we can lose the ability to trust our own bodies.
This has been my life for six years, navigating a neurological headache condition that gradually progressed to a debilitating point where I need daily preventative medication and ongoing care to be able to function from day to day. Even with imaging and diagnosis, doctors I work with cannot give me an answer as to why I have daily pain and migraine episodes that can last for days. Was there an injury to my brain stem or is there a blood vessel pressing against my trigeminal nerve that sets off the pain? Was the nerve damaged by a virus? Or, is this neuropathic pain? Where my brain has forgotten how to not be in pain and my neural pathways only know how to send false alarms. I cannot pinpoint the moment when my body was overtaken by this unknown force, I can only care for it like the beautiful monster that it is.
There is no shortage of films, television, comics and horror media that depict the real and imagined horrors of inhabiting a body. Some of them are exploitative and often miss the point of body horror entirely, which is to show that what we fear the most, that our bodies will age, change, decay and die without our consent. This is not supernatural at all but a reality. What makes these stories successful is not how much they make people cringe or want to shut their eyes, but how they make people understand that we are all vulnerable, something that people who live with chronic illness and disabilities know all too well.
We know that there are often not clear cut blood tests, radiological imaging and solutions that lead directly to a straightforward diagnosis and treatment. Sometimes diagnosis can take years, if they ever come at all, and a body in pain, a sick body without a solution, is exhausting to healthy bodies. Nothing has made this more clear than living through the Coronavirus pandemic with no end in sight. Countless apocalyptic horror films depict life after a virus has swept the world and killed millions, but not how governments and societies abandon those most vulnerable to fend for themselves. The kind of discord sown by not knowing who is vaccinated, who will be wearing a mask, who takes your safety as a vulnerable person seriously, is one small horror story after another that happens every single day.
Carmen Maria Machado is a master of creating stories that show how patriarchy, trauma and violence can transform a woman’s body. In her graphic novel, The Low Low Woods, women of the town “Shudder to Think,” are continuously transforming into hybrid creatures in response to the violence and forced amnesia visited on them by the men of the town who would seek to harm and control them.
One of the characters transforms into a deer-person, another teen girl becomes a living sinkhole, her trauma an inherited pain from her mother as her body opens a hole to the earth.
When I trace the origins of my sinkholes in some of my old journals in an attempt to learn where everything started, when my headaches began, I find an entry that charts the second year of my graduate program, the peak of my physical and mental exhaustion in a program that was called “community” but felt like a place where my energy was being swallowed whole. On the page, I have noted an assault, a violation by a man in an authoritative role. I remember clearly, the next semester, trying to drive the hour to campus from my home to meet a professor I was assisting and having to pull over into the parking lot of a motel to vomit over the side of my car door from the pain throbbing in my left temple. In the six years since that first headache that stopped me in my tracks, I had always looked to the pain as a problem in my body to solve and not a place where chronic stress, exhaustion and the subtle violences of academia unlocked the dormant pain in me.
In the graphic novel, Vee and El are two best friends who are on a mission to discover what happened to them on a night that they can’t remember and how to help the other women in the town who have been violated by the men there. They are able to find a mushroom that causes the forgetting to begin with and one that makes a person remember their trauma. In the end, they leave it up to the women they encounter to choose to remember, or to live in the forgetting.
The elixir of remembering is to document, to resist forgetting, and to make peace with the one and only body I have.
Point of no return
Sometimes pain is a quiet invitation, starting behind the eye and slowly spreading out to the other regions of my face. Sometimes it is a scream through the body. Sometimes sleep is the only place where pain cannot follow me.
Other pains come and go. The prick of a needle to start an IV, sore ankles from wearing the wrong shoes, cramps and indigestion, but this pain is the only pain I can recognize like the voice of a growing storm as it rides in underneath my skin and makes a home in my body.
I have lain in bed during a headache so intense I wanted to scream, to scratch out my own eyes, to do anything for relief. When the pain comes, the last place I want to be is in my body. Pain can strip away the limitations of shame, where my insecurities about the sweat collecting in the rolls of my tummy or my mussed, stale hair after being in bed for two days are wiped from my brain.
I have felt a magnitude of pain that crescendoed to a space where there was no pain, like I was transcending beyond the feeling and I could experience something untouchable across portals, across time. I felt energy and life running through me like pure fuel, and if I didn’t calm my body I would burst into flames and burn alive in my bed, in my house with me in it.
This kind of pain is not dissociation. There is no relief in these moments. There is only the higher consciousness that comes with understanding that pain has ripped you open and laid bare the most truthful, screaming you.
When werewolves transform in films, their bodies come undone. Sometimes this transformation happens beneath the skin; knuckles expanding, bones breaking and swelling, hair sprouting. Other times, the wolf inside the person bursts through their skin and they are made anew. In all of these depictions and stories, the transformation is excruciating. But pain leads to power. The ability to defend oneself, and to inflict harm, to release what has been fighting to get out.
In some of my favorite monster shows and films like Supernatural, Penny Dreadful and even the very campy Van Helsing, transformation into the werewolf, the monster within, is both violent and inevitable.
These kinds of transformations are the closest I have come to seeing how the body is capable of tearing itself apart and surviving, the violence internal, a form of care.
When I miscarried, I couldn’t look away from the blood gushing out of my body, over my underwear, even running down my leg and smearing across the bathroom floor, so much blood that my protective animal brain told me that I was dying, though my body was reacting exactly as it should to the four pills that I swallowed to begin the process of releasing the contents of my pregnancy, my not yet but still mine baby who the doctor told us was not growing, and had no “heartbeat,” the fluttering electrical pulse of growing life.
The feeling of clumps of tissue slipping out from inside of me were what I wanted, to rid my body of a not alive baby who was not yet a baby and never would be. At six in the morning, I felt the most intense cramp that sent me running to the bathroom just in time to feel the largest bit of tissue burn through me and plop into the toilet. Sweating, with tears in my eyes, I cleaned myself as best I could and looked down into the toilet at the full blood moon floating in the toilet water. Why do I want to immediately call it a moon? Does calling it a moon make it sound more sacred, more tied to the natural ebbs and flows of what can happen to the body? After a time, when my heartbeat slowed and my clammy hands stopped shaking, I forced myself to flush the toilet, leaving behind no trace.
I envy the monsters in the monster movie for their transformation, their ability to be torn open and become something more than they are, their pain, their scar tissue healed instantaneously through the power of monster magic. They are not left with remnants and scar tissue that reminds us of how transformation and the creation of life can go horribly, horribly wrong.
The Madwoman stays home
Bodies, like houses, can be haunted. The houses are described like faces looking out onto the world, the windows are eyes staring out, the door an open, gaping mouth. In the Netflix adaptation of the Haunting of Hill House, the infamous Red Room is described at first as the heart of the house, and then as the stomach that digests the family and their pain, leaving nothing but broken spirits behind.
In other stories, there is only one person that haunts the house, the woman who has been locked inside, or who cannot leave, having nowhere else to go. She is mad, or disfigured, bed ridden, her torment a contagion that must be kept from the eyes of others.
But then a virus spreads, a pandemic ravages the globe, a country, a community. In a time of social isolation, now she is not the only one.
Now, she is no longer the old crone, the sickbed wife, the unhinged woman in the attic, the witch who chases children from her front lawn covered in weeds. She is simply the woman in pain who stays inside to heal, to prevent more pain, and though the world rages and cries around her, there is something about being at home that allows her to retrace her steps, to remember the self that she once was, and remake the self she is now.
The world slows down, the world is grieving for the dead of now and the dead of the past and the living blood and bones of this world and so she sees that grief is remembering when no one else wants to. She sits in her hammock, she reads the beautiful words of others, she tries to write down some of her own and makes a sanctuary out of small loves at home.
Damage lingers. There is still so much that I am learning about what the body holds onto.
After my miscarriage, I had a D&C, the surgery to clear my uterus of the contents of my pregnancy, the one that would allow my uterus to become a blank slate. Without knowing it for two years, this procedure caused scar tissue to grow in the wake of the scraping of tissue. This reaction is called Asherman’s Syndrome. The scar tissue had grown to the point of blocking my fallopian tubes, causing infertility.
A hysteroscopy with the possibility of more procedures to clear this scar tissue from my uterus was necessary to make this chronically ill body a home for another being where it can grow. As the doctor described the procedure to me in her sterile white exam room and how my case was more “severe,” I pictured her sawing away at a coral reef, a colony of growth inside me. My body has healed in its own way, protecting me and impeding me at the same time.
After the surgery, I was shown pictures of the insides of my uterus. Thankfully, my case was less severe than the doctor had originally predicted. Still, I was shocked when I saw that one of the photos showed a small yellow flap of tissue, a piece of placenta that was still adhered to my uterine wall. It sat inside of me for two years, the reminder that our bodies hold onto grief in so many ways.
Struggling with fertility makes you consider what you have to lose, but it is never so simple. There is a deep hope to be able to get pregnant and to have a child safely. In my bones I am terrified to bring a growing being into a body that is unstable. I am afraid of my own pain yes, but I am more afraid of being a mother in pain.
Body horror speaks to our realities; these stories depict being infected, changed without consent, and the loss of control that so many of us feel. What if we told more stories about embracing the monster, the unruliness inside?
In her book, Women and Other Monsters, Jess Zimmerman writes about what we can learn from the monstrousness and ugliness of Medusa in Greek myth, “The freedom of ugliness includes the freedom to make a new kind of beauty, a kind that nobody’s thought to denigrate or control—to create it out of your body or blood or out of the dirt or out of the stones of the people you petrify.”
In another life, I am not thinner, or perfectly healthy; I do not even live without pain. In that life, doctors listen and help me to understand the best ways to care for my body. I want nothing more than to embrace the grotesque and beautiful in my living body. I lean my ear close and listen to the whispers of my body through the cracks in the walls.
Leticia Urieta (she/her/hers) is a Tejana writer from Austin, TX. She works as a teaching artist in the Austin community and is the Regional Program Manager for Austin Bat Cave. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and holds an MFA in Fiction writing from Texas State University. Her chapbook, The Monster is out now from LibroMobile Press. Her hybrid collection, Las Criaturas, which was a finalist for the Sergio Troncoso Award for Best First Book of Fiction 2022 from the Texas Institute of Letters, is out now from FlowerSong Press.
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