The Human Body as Raw Material

DownloadedFileIn World War Z , an otherwise uninteresting and emotionally flat film, the most powerful and disturbing images are those that depict masses of zombies coming together as one enormous mass. Throughout the movie, these creatures rush forward like flooding water or armies of ants. They pile up on top of one another, obliterating all individuality and creating the appearance of undulating mounds. They flow in torrents, like lava, knocking over those obstacles that stand in their way. While normally I find computer animation much too artificial and clean to be truly horrifying, in this film the only feelings of horror that I experienced were precisely the result of these effects. What CGI has made possible in World War Z is the depiction of the human body as raw material on a massive scale.

There is a sense in which all horror might be thought of as derivative of this idea. In horror, there is usually a visceral component that engages with human embodiment and with our fears of death, dismemberment and the loss of bodily integrity. Juneko Robinson, in her paper Immanent Attack: An Existential Take on The Invasion of the Body Snatchers Films, makes this argument, claiming that the horror in the Body Snatcher films is connected to “motifs of engulfment and forced transformation.” (p. 25) Images of human bodies mutating, losing form and melding with other bodies produce in us feelings of horror precisely because they challenge our sense of individual uniqueness and dignity. Such imagery reminds us of our brute, physical, bodily nature, which is governed not by intellect and free will, but by the natural forces of cause and effect. It is horrific to think of ourselves as “things” that can be torn asunder and utilized for purposes that have nothing at all to do with our own personal desires.

The masses of dead bodies discovered by the allied forces in Nazi death camps are the closest real-life equivalents to the masses of zombies depicted in World War Z. The two main differences of course are that: 1) the bodies in the death camps were real; and 2) the bodies in the death camps did not move and attack others. In a horror movie, part of what makes the imagery entertaining is the assurance that what is being depicted is a fantasy. So while looking at photos of death camps is simply depressing and repulsive, looking at images of zombies is somehow enjoyable. While such images are frightening, disgusting and awful, they are also spellbinding. They absorb our attention while also provoking a visceral feeling of horror. Robinson offers a possible explanation for this strange ambivalence toward such depictions when she notes that while engulfment and transformation are frightening, they are also associated with feelings of awe and transcendence. The same awe-inspiring sense of being overwhelmed is described by Immanuel Kant in his book The Critique of Judgment as the experience of the “sublime.” When encountered in this manner, loss of individual identity has a positive cast to it, being associated with wholeness, connection and unity. In the encounter with the sublime, we move beyond the confines of our separate and finite experience of reality, moving instead in the direction of the infinite. This is the path toward God, Being and Totality.

imagesSo it seems thaty while depictions of the human body as raw material are horrifying, they may also potentially provoke other sorts of feelings. Such depictions can provoke sexual arousal (as in porn films), curiosity (as in documentary and instructional films), awe (as in religious depictions), and even humor. Commonly, more than one of these reactions is provoked at a time. So, for instance, in World War Z, there is a sense of horror mixed with sublime awe concerning the flowing tide of thousands of zombie bodies. On a smaller scale, in a film like The Human Centipede, horror is mixed with curiosity about the medical possibilities of surgically joining three bodies, mouth to anus. (The film was advertised as “100% medically accurate.”) Horror and humor co-mingle and become confused in Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, a film in which body parts pile up to such ridiculous extremes that all sense of individual identity gets forgotten. Then there is the unsettling mix of sex, horror, humor, and history in a film like Caligula where human bodies are sexually used, abused and dismembered in all sorts of inventive and creative ways. In Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, one human body is subjected to more than two hours of torture for both horrifying and religious effect. In all of these films, the dramatic results are achieved – at least in large part – by means of the human body being treated as a “thing,” an object that can be manipulated, stimulated, torn asunder or sewn together like any other objectively present “thing” in the world. In this, the potentiality of the human body as raw material for any sort project, good or bad, is revealed.