Long Live the New Flesh
My affinity for body horror helped me realize I could be reborn as my true self
I don’t experience my dreams from a first-person point of view. My gaze exists only as a third-person stranger at a theater, watching it all like a film. The whole spectacle even comes with letterboxes and sometimes subtitles as well to complete the experience. After all the skin is ripped apart, all the blood is spilled; only then do things take a positive turn. A celestial and welcoming light surrounds the bloody and messy scene. There are many close-ups of the corpse. Then, I emerge victorious from the corpse of my old self. I am sculpted in a way that finally feels natural. My outsider gaze changes into my gaze, erupting out of my new body. Long live the new flesh. I see my hands reach out to the cozy light. Though I cannot see it, I know I’m smiling. In the end, I am born anew. At that point in the narrative, I always wake up from this dream, with a weak smile continuing from the dream and some tears rolling down my cheeks bringing me back to the real world. This cannot be the end, I think to myself.
A low-income district in a Middle Eastern country in the mid-2000s. It’s summer and I, a primary school student, finally get to enjoy summer break and spend the days with my cousin playing games. We’re neighbors in the same apartment building—same floor even—and we hop from one place to another the entire day. We play many types of games, but one of them is our favorite: we watch cartoons with superheroes and magical girls on the television. Then we role-play, immediately after the show is over. Our role-playing games are as formulaic as the shows we watch. Always, she is the damsel in distress; always I am the mad scientist trying to kill her. My methods are almost always absurdly grotesque, and sponsored by ACME Corporation or Doofenshmirtz Evil Inc.—at least, they are in our expanded cinematic role-playing universe.
“Oh my God, here’s the evil scientist again! I’m trapped by your newest trap and weapon! The Unbelievably-Heavy-Pillow-Fort-Trap 3000!”
“Hah! Think you could escape my ultimate scientific inventions? Well, think again!”
“Oh no, it’s getting worse! Not the Incredibly-Precise-Laser 6000! Are you going to kill me with that or what?!”
My cousin strikes a dramatic pose under the couch’s pillows. I smirk devilishly. I have the high ground. The laser in question is a very-2000s pencil with a small sparkly Hello Kitty toy attached to its top. The pencil is never sharpened since it’s a recurring prop for our games—far more important a purpose than summer break homework.
“I’ll do much worse than simply killing you—I’ll cut your vocal cord with my Incredibly-Precise-Laser 6000! You’ll be the next Ariel the mermaid!”
“Not my voice!”
She emerges from the pillow fort with newfound energy. We fight as if we are about to wrestle. When I pin her down, I get on top of her while also holding both hands up by her head, proudly exclaiming my next villainous goal.
“Hah! You fell for my trap; you are done for! Now I shall do something even worse for you but fun for me! I will cut your tits off clean instead! Bwa-ha-ha!”
There is a reason my cries get highly specific, and highly graphic. The cartoons we watched weren’t my only source of inspiration. Whenever I performed these lines, I mimicked the villain that I came across in a low-budget horror film that I’d watched, in secret, under cover of night.
I have always had sleeping problems ever since I was a child, so when I couldn’t sleep, I instead got up and went to our living room. I wanted to see what was airing that night, but my parents always hated me staying up late. I pretended to be a secret agent. I quietly and slowly rose from my bed, walked on tip-toes to reach the living room, and turned on the television.
In Turkey, they used to exclusively air low to no-budget horror B films after midnight. The funniest part is, this went for almost every single channel available on the satellite, so basically you were zapped through them and greeted with masterpieces—Plan 9 from Outer Space or Killer Klowns from Outer Space—all on a single night. It felt as though I was walking through an open buffet of $20 budget films in one hand, and a dream in the other.
While I loved binge-watching all kinds of B films during those restless nights, I gradually realized that I most enjoyed those containing intense gore or body horror. It was extremely satisfying to see the blood splash and the organs fly out. I couldn’t put my finger on it back then, but those scenes felt familiar in their visceral visuals. My eyes went wide with excitement, my lips curled into a smile. I wanted to see the blood and more. This wasn’t like seeing something you liked on the screen, it was much more than that. So, as a result, to quench my blood thirst, I grabbed the newspaper every Sunday and religiously combed the television schedules for every channel listed. The criteria: The film must air after midnight, and it must have a weird or intense title suggesting gore or body horror. To my delight, I realized I could watch these films multiple times nearly every week, often each night since the programmers kept going for such titles—something we had in common.
Looking back on all those film nights, I can’t remember the names of those films I so eagerly awaited. However, I still remember how I felt whenever I saw some character’s guts spilling out or another’s skin peeling off, blood and everything everywhere. Even after I watched, say, The Thing, my primary memory of it was not the character arcs or story progression; it was the grotesque death scenes. Yes, those scenes felt relatable for some reason unbeknownst to me. As a result, I often found myself dreaming—or maybe nightmaring—myself into those scenes anytime I had a bad day, which was usually triggered by glancing in the mirror and seeing my body or face’s reflection. Those dreams/nightmares were all similar in their narrative. It began immediately with the death scene of the week.
I kept searching for another film with a gory body horror scene just to make sure I will be able to be reborn in my dreams and feel happy and natural once again. I kept finding myself looking for that transient and dreamy feeling of realness constantly after that. Though, even though it all looks crystal clear now, I still do not understand the connection between those gore scenes and my own gender identity. There is a very simple reason for that – I simply did not have any idea about the existence of a queer side of the world yet as I was trapped in the typical binaries of life here visible to my eyes.
Being a child in a low-income and conservative family in the Middle East comes with a very common starter pack. You are pushed toward the pursuit of education and a career in either law or medicine by one’s parents. This was the case for me as well. I was the first one in the family that showed signs of “getting numbers and stuff” so my path was clear – I simply had to study medicine. I internalized that idea so fully that the evil scientist became my recurring character in my role-playing sessions with my cousin.
Soon after, I learned more about medicine, science, and everything in between as I kept breezing through primary and middle school. Seeing the diagrams of organs or skeletons always brought me joy. I often tried to draw anatomical drawings and then cut the drawing into pieces while imagining rivers of blood gushing out from the incisions. I’d found my career goal; I decided to become a surgeon. Cutting the skin and organs? Count me in! That goal quickly died and was kicked to the curb when I realized my math and science skills were no match for high school calculus and biology. I had the blues for a while, but I did have something else to fall back on, to keep me motivated. Yes, it was those cheesy yet iconic, gory B films themselves. Those unrealistic body horror moments made me feel at home every single time.
I frequented the art platform DeviantArt. I have always been into story-based cinematic video games as well as horror films, and games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill still rank among my all-time favorites. As you can guess, they predominantly have body horror and gore elements within their character designs. I would browse the fan art sites with great admiration as I would type in the names of the characters with the most grotesque designs onto that search bar and see the results pop up. Whenever I would see any new masterfully crafted artwork of a scene from the games with full gore, they got registered into my mind’s storyboarding territory, and eventually, showed up in the sequences within my dreams. My internet surfing adventure eventually spread to another crucial site – Tumblr. There, I found not only artworks but also writings of all sorts. This curious rabbit hole eventually led me into the world of queer perspectives and ideas. Among the many memes and other viral content, I noticed a common type of text entry on Tumblr. It followed along the lines of “I create gory body horror artwork and writing because duh! I am trans!” and it was at that point that my subconscious started to consider the possibility that I might be too. It still was not clear to my waking consciousness, though.
I was in high school during my Tumblr exploration stage. It was not the only thing I explored, I also realized that I was not straight. I did not have any access to anyone or anything in real life that would help me navigate what was going on within my mind and soul, so of course, I went back to my comfortable corner online. I started to actively learn about the queer community, queer identities, and more. I was finally starting to find the puzzle pieces, one by one gathering everything in a big huge bag. I felt myself reaching close, but I also could tell I was still missing that finishing touch.
Surely, that obsession with my wanting to become a surgeon must be related, right? Also, pulling all-nighters constantly just to watch brutal horror films from my childhood days to now too, right? It must be, it simply must be that way.
I finally came across that one quote that gave me my eureka moment. It was from the book Something That May Shock and Discredit You written by Daniel Mallory Ortberg: “As my friend Julian puts it, only half winkingly: “God blessed me by making me transsexual for the same reason God made wheat but not bread and fruit but not wine so that humanity might share in the act of creation.” I still vividly remember the very first time I read that quote. I was speechless. I could almost hear the puzzle pieces in my brain connecting and then finally forming the big final picture.
Watching those films and reading those quotes made me realize why I kept feeling so inclined toward watching grotesque horror films even when no one around me did so, and doing that was even condemned silently by everyone else around me. It made me realize why I hated my body so much that I kept killing it off in my dreams—every single night—and why I was so obsessed with the goal of becoming a surgeon in the first place. It also made me understand why I found gory scenes in cinema comforting – it was as if looking into a mirror. I, as a queer creative in both orientation and identity, wanted to create a body of my own from scratch, a body in which I felt natural and real. Watching all these body horror and gore horror films was a passive yet highly effective way for me to concretely visualize those ideas, ideas which were further developed in my dreams. When this narrative cycle reached an ending for the night, I felt a sense of completion, and of finding my home with those films., After reading so much about the theory and watching the films, I finally realized that I could partake in that completion by simply creating my works. So now, I am a graduate student in film and television, learning both theory and practice. As I open Celtx, the screenwriting application on my computer, I realize that writing scripts with body horror helps me feel as if I am creating something relatable for people like me, while also expressing myself. In a way, I feel as if I am helping others explore their own identities. As I’m typing this now in mid-2023, I’m preparing to write my master’s thesis as well. This topic, body horror in cinema as a way of expressing transness or non-binary identities, will be my thesis theme. It feels like something of a small-scale miracle to have had this topic approved by the institute, now that the Islamist regime here won the majority in the May 2023 elections once again, trapping me in this open-air jail of an oppressive ideology for five more years.
I cannot help but wonder what else I will discover about my identity as I keep walking on the path. There is a place for people like me, there is a piece of freedom to exist and experience somewhere. While I feel like losing hope for the future, I try to motivate myself with the progress I have made so far. I know I must go on, not only for myself but any potential others who might come across my writings online someday, the same way I came across Ortberg’s writings. Just like others, I have the power to exist and experience freely, and hope there also will be an opportunity to fully go through it openly, on a different side of the world. Until that hopeful, longed-for escape, I will keep turning on the television at night and letting the seas of blood shine into my eyes.