The Unexpected Lightness of Mutilation: The Horrors of Evolution in David Cronenberg’s ‘Crimes of The Future’
By Sumit Ray
Horror fiction, even when it is a vehicle for metaphorical concepts of morality and autonomy, is typically a depiction of the attack by external forces on a victimised individual. The sub-segment of “psychological horror” replaces external agents of violence with the violence of mental instability and degeneration. A recent film by Canadian master of horror, David Cronenberg, has taken a novel approach whereby there is no external threat, and no psychological disturbance – it is the horror of the human body itself as an agent of mutilation acting upon itself.
This film brings up many provocative and suddenly urgent questions. What is desecration if it occurs naturally? What role does our image of ourselves as a species play in what we regard as blessed and cursed? And, as the filmmaker himself has wondered in the past, can civilisation accept unrepressed creativity?
Body Is Horror
From its very earliest days, horror fiction has taken the desecration of the human body as an integral part of its mechanism. Occult practices and improper burials or cremations (one may call them irreligious acts) have been quite a perennial source of those stories that unravel the horrific effects of such disregard for propriety. It could be thought as demonic influences.
Such a tormented person may become possessed (The Exorcist, , The Conjuring ), or find themselves seeded with a devilish child (Rosemary’s Baby , The Omen ), or a fallen/body-less spirit cursed to haunt the material realm (the novel Dracula , Ringu ). The fiction then needs to explore how such a creature can be released, either through anti-occult rituals, or the restoration of the sanctity of the body (The Sixth Sense ).
In the punishments seen in ancient Greek mythology, Prometheus having his liver devoured over and over, for example, or in ancient art, for instance, the sculptures of the Fasting Buddha, one finds that even narratives and depictions that do not intend to be horrific are, nonetheless, capable of extracting visceral responses from us many thousand years later.
Within the rich diversity of horror fiction, one of the more gut-wrenching niches (perhaps literally) is that of Body Horror, which deals with the defilement of the human body through metamorphoses or possession. Classic examples include The Fly (1986), The Thing (1982), and more recently Lovecraft Country (2020). Body horror often affects the viewer quite palpably, wherein they may feel unease within their own body in a manner that imitates what the fictional character may feel. According to Xavier Aldana Reyes, a noted scholar in horror studies, “The victims in body horror are not merely maimed, killed, or metamorphosed, but brutally and usually irrevocably so.” There is no coming back from body horror.
For instance, watching Ash Williams cut off his hand in Evil Dead (1981) may be an enjoyable horror event without the viewer feeling anything in their own hand. But, when watching a parasite enter Neo’s belly button in The Matrix (1999), which is not even intended as a horror film, it is hard not to feel nervous twitching in one’s own abdomen. A scene like that can affect us physically more than the entirety of a psychological horror film. The feelings of disgust and unease one experiences thus, according to some biologists, are evolutionary traits like Trypophobia, Haemophobia, Entomophobia that are meant to protect us and our bodies from genuine threats in nature such as predatory animals and disease.
Evolution itself becomes a plane of horror. And this is the plane on which David Cronenberg’s new film Crimes of the Future (2022) operates.
Body Is Art
In an unspecified future, the human body has started undergoing changes. Pain and infection have all but disappeared from the human experience allowing people to perform extreme acts of self-mutilation in order to feel pleasure and enhance their own bodies as they see fit. Extreme mutations have begun appearing in some individuals, like Saul Tensor (played by Viggo Mortensen) whose body produces new organs at a prolific rate because of a condition called accelerated evolution syndrome. Along with his medically trained partner Caprice (played by Lea Seydoux), Tensor has turned the extraction of these (possibly) vestigial organs into a performance art.
In another instance, some humans like Lang (played by Scott Speedman) are part of a group whose members have surgically altered their bodies to be able to digest plastics. His son, miraculously, is born with the natural ability to do the same. Tragically, this abnormality so he boy’s mother that she smothers him to death with a pillow and later describes him as some kind of detestable worm that grew in her belly.
Monitoring all these changes are governmental agencies, which act on the belief that modifications to the fundamentals of the human body, natural or surgical, are changing the meaning of what it means to be a human being. As such, they wish to control all bodily transformations before they can become part of a wide human population. New organs are thus tattooed, not as art but for registration. The realm of, what Foucault termed, biopower, becomes vastly expanded as the playing field of bodily changes and autonomy expands. As the subject starts to change, the methods of control (by many institutions, but especially by a ruling government) are compelled to attempt to stay a few steps ahead. A sense of paranoia blossoms like fungi and starts to cover all surfaces of the mind.
Without a doubt, such concepts as presented in the film appear ludicrous and extremely imaginative. However, one must note that mutilation of the body for art and performance has been a common practice among human beings for centuries. Extensive tattoos in tribal and prehistoric cultures, festivals of crucifixion (among Christians in the Philippines), body piercing (Thaipusam among Hindus), or self-flagellation (zanjeer-zani among Shi’a Muslims during Muharram), have long cultural histories.
Furthermore, the many possibilities of plastic surgery in our own time shows what mutilations can be willingly undergone as long as anaesthesia can be used to make us senseless during the procedures. If pain itself is removed from the human body, as imagined in Crimes of The Future, one can foresee an acceleration in such forms of mutilation.
Yet, for us viewers stuck in our bodies, we feel pain watching these characters even if they don’t feel any pain themselves. There are no screams in the film, only in our minds.
While extreme mutilation in service of art and performance is one part of Cronenberg’s story, the other is pain in service of sexual gratification. Sex is not discussed broadly in the film, but we are shown some signs of sexual thrill on the face of Tensor when he is being operated on in front of an audience for the extraction of a new organ. Tensor and Caprice are shown using a machine to give each other matching wounds as an act of mutual pleasuring. Even more provocatively, Caprice appears to have oral sex with Tensor using a zippable gash on his abdomen, reminiscent of Max Renn in Videodrome (1983), another Cronenberg film. The character of government registrar Timlin (played by Kristen Stewart) makes the statement, “Surgery is the new sex,” meaning being unnaturally penetrated, including by machines, deep within our bodies is the next step in penetrative sex.
A lot of additional contexts have developed within this film that needs to be assessed. Human bodies are upgrading old organ systems and creating new organs. Absence of pain and infection means that the human body has come fully under the yoke of the mind as far as sex and self-expression is concerned. Tensor’s male body is giving him the experience of creation (moderately similar to birthing children) and being penetrated during sex. And the government is trying to tie down the definition of a human being by trying to oversee and restrict natural changes among the population (the aforementioned demonstration of biopower).
What does this say to us about the blessed sanctity of the human body and the cursed desecration in a horror film? Is evolution itself an act of horror?
According to most religions this is certainly true. In fact, most religions do not accept the facts of evolution and wish to deter their adherents from the same. Among most societies, babies born with extra digits or missing organs are seen as monstrosities and often discarded. So, if the mutilation of the body is happening from within the body itself, it is equally an affront to God and the human body, as if it were being done by some agent of evil.
But evolution does not care for these beliefs. If one were to take a photo of humans each year for the last 50,000 years then play it backwards and forwards as a time lapse, we would see humans turning into werewolves and back. That would look rather horrific, even though that’s our own history being played back for us.
When this process is sped up, a scenario that is not too hard to imagine given the rate at which human beings are interposing themselves into natural processes, then it could easily look like horror in real time even to those who do not use religion or culture as markers of natural and unnatural. In fact, a child that has evolved to eat plastic sounds like a solution to a man-made problem we are all familiar with in our own world, and yet watching a child in the film bite off and eat a plastic bucket gives us an eerie and hair-raising feeling.
Body Is Reality
A television in the background during one of Tensor and Caprice’s performances displays the phrase ‘Body is Reality’. The world of the future appears to have taken this maxim to heart by giving the body prominence over soul. In conventional religion, it is always the soul that is considered trapped in the body and seeks release and reunification with the universal soul (God or Brahman, for instance). This is also the reason why desecration of the body is hurtful to the soul. But it seems that without pain to play moderator, the body ascends into its own. Humans are free to play with it as they want, use it for extreme self-expression, and explore it as the ultimate spiritual field. Is this a fall from grace as earlier generations might view it, or the human being coming into its own?
But the process of making meaning isn’t clear at all even for all those in the future who are seeing the changes in the human body. Different characters react differently.
Tippet, an organ registrar: “Human evolution is the concern, that it’s going wrong, that it’s uncontrolled, it’s insurrectional.”
Timlin, another organ registrar, speaking on Tensor’s body art: “He takes the rebellion of his own body and seizes control of it.”
Caprice, Tensor’s performance partner: “An organism needs organisation. Otherwise it’s just designer cancer.”
Dani, an engineer and attendee for one of their shows: “Saul Tensor is an artist of the inner landscape.”
The human mind’s reaction to its own body is perplexing. Each person can and does make their own meaning out of the situation, although meaning may, as Tensor implies, be within the organ and not the mind. The organ alone may know what it is there for and why it is evolving. After all, we all have organs and bodily functions that have no explicit purpose, so even scientists can only conjecture. Human bodies have been evolving far longer than the mind, and from far earlier. Our mind, one can assume, did not play a deciding role when our organs were developing. But we are now in a state where the mind is all we can observe grow and evolve, so we have cast our bodies outside of our imagination.
In early 2022, Cronenberg was auctioning a photograph of his kidney stones, stating that the photograph “engages with the mystery of my essence, my reality, which is my body, inside and out.” William Shatner, in 2006, had auctioned the actual stone he had passed. One wonders what strange perversion of art and commerce these are until one thinks of all the other bodily productions we attach value to without questioning. Pearls are calcified debris. Musk Deer scent glands are situated next to the animal’s genitals and are similar to testicles. Ambergris is a foul-smelling discharge from a whale’s stomach. All these items are not just commercially valuable, but they are, or have been, integral to the beauty industry.
So then how do we attach value to changes within our own body? How can we call something a perversion or an aberration when the process of change is far longer than our lifetimes. In fact, while we may assume we are at the resolute end of the process of evolution in the human body, there is no evidence to suggest so. Unless, that is, we decide to terminate our own species forever.
For the 2014 edition of Franz Kafka’s classic novella ‘Metamorphosis’, Cronenberg states in his introduction,
In the case of Gregor, a young travelling salesman spending a night at home in his family’s apartment in Prague, awakening into a strange, human/insect hybrid existence is, to say the obvious, a surprise he did not see coming, and the reaction of his household—mother, father, sister, maid, cook—is to recoil in benumbed horror, as one would expect, and not one member of his family feels compelled to console the creature by, for example, pointing out that a beetle is also a living thing, and turning into one might, for a mediocre human living a humdrum life, be an exhilarating and elevating experience, and so what’s the problem?
When mutilation is mutual, and pain no longer restrains us in the interest of self-preservation, there cannot be any crimes of violence. These metamorphoses can be embraced by individuals. However, evolution itself can threaten the modern neo-liberal world order and therefore the metamorphoses become a threat to state-organised stability. Then, even a mother can murder her child because his evolution challenges her concept of what is natural and hence stable.
In a 1987 documentary on his body of work, Cronenberg says, “…if you accept, at least to some extent, the Freudian dictum that civilisation is repression, then imagination and an unrepressed creativity is dangerous to civilisation.”
Evolution, this film seems to be telling us, is the body’s imagination. But unlike the imagination of the mind, the imagination of the body cannot be repressed. It is an unstoppable force.
Shapiro, Stephen and Mark Storey, ed. The Cambridge Companion to American Horror. Cambridge University Press, 2022.
Kafka, Franz: The Metamorphosis. Trans. Bernofsky, Susan. W.W. Norton and Company, 2014.
Long Live The New Flesh (1982), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGlpA9C8lnM
Sumit Ray is a writer and photographer living in Mumbai. He was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2016, and The Hindu Playwright Award in 2018. Like any good writer he alternates between hubris and paranoia. You can find more of his work at sumitray.in or on instagram.com/sumitwry
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.