Fight Me

During dinner while discussing horror one recent magical night, I blurted out the following theory:

“All horror is body horror.”

Others in the conversation strongly disagreed. It’s not a theory I’ve really thought about before now, and as I’ve mulled it over since my brash unfounded assertion, I’ve started to think I might be right.

On the most basic level, horror is the only genre defined by an emotion, and emotions arise from the body. So I win. You can go home now.

Going a little deeper, horror exploits our fear of death and bodily changes in every story involving a monster or a killer. Survival instincts make the heart race, and the risk of becoming a monster (perfected in the zombie genre) makes it a double threat. Double the heart-palpitating fun and disgust.

Cosmic horror may seem supernatural and far removed from the body, but if the threat is the indifference or hostility of a universe that steps on humans like humans step on ants, the fear of smallness and annihilation is at work. This goes back to the primal fears of infants unable to sustain themselves without a larger protective force. We’ve all been small, and we don’t want to be abandoned to the elements in our nappy.

Understanding hell is kind of a hobby of mine. It’s my way of preparing for the breakdown of my body and the inevitable loss of familiar people and things in the world around me as I become obsolete. My worst fear is that my mind will go. Maybe it’s already gone. Because when it happens, I won’t know it’s happening. I’ll be making random unfounded statements at dinner and then trying to backpedal and make sense of them later.

Oh, wait a minute…

Even the fear of losing one’s mind is body horror. The mind is part of the body. Ah, but it’s not that simple when you really start thinking, is it? Because most of us perceive a difference between our thinking mind and the physical activity of our brain. We like to see ourselves as more than a sloshing bucket of chemicals. With electricity. And genitals.

Philosophy and religion get really messy when they try to prove there is a world or mind beyond the body. I enjoy poking at these questions and attributing unfounded ideas to characters in my stories because this sort of faith in ourselves is such a sad and lovely and sometimes scary part of being human. The arguments are self-referential, the logic is circular, but we do it all the time as a means of resisting the inescapable oppression of the body and the devastation of loss.

Clearly I haven’t worked all this out in a detailed thesis–I’m busy with a whole list of writing projects that I’m reserving my more intense cognitive energy for. I’m curious, though, if there’s an example of horror with no element of body horror, and if it will stand up to a psychological analysis.

Come on. Fight me.

Published by: Joe

Joe Koch writes literary horror and surrealist trash. A Shirley Jackson Award finalist, Joe is the author of The Wingspan of Severed Hands, The Couvade, and Convulsive. Their short fiction appears in publications such as Vastarien, Southwest Review, Pseudopod, and Children of the New Flesh. He’s been a flash fiction judge for Cemetery Gates Media as well as co-editing the art horror anthology Stories of the Eye from Weirdpunk Books. Find Joe (he/they) online at and on Twitter @horrorsong.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s