Body horror is a horror genre that is defined by graphic destruction, degeneration, or transformation of the human form. David Cronenberg is considered the master of this genre, and so it is fascinating that his approach and philosophy to the genre differs drastically from others who have contributed to the body horror canon. Cronenberg’s cyberpunk works, Videodrome and Existenz, are particularly good examples of this. When body horror is employed within cyberpunk fiction, it is often a mechanism for demonstrating the dehumanization of a character. For instance, in Akira, Tetsuo begins to transform into a being of unorganized flesh as he taps into a inhuman power, or we could channel another Tetsuo: Tetsuo The Iron Man. In Tetsuo The Iron Man, a man (who is simply referred to as the Man in the film) begins to transform into a machine as he loses more and more of his humanity. This transformation begins when he hits a pedestrian with his car and he attempts to cover it up. There are also less cyberpunk examples more rooted in the supernatural, such as From Beyond, where the transformation occurs because of contact with another realm of existence. What separates Cronenberg from these examples is that his works are less of morality tales, than they are postmodern examinations of how we perceive reality and how this perception is linked to the physical self.
For Cronenberg, there is no mind, body duality. He told Flavorwire in an interview:
I don’t believe in an afterlife. I don’t believe in a spirit that exists apart from the body. It is all body.
To understand Cronenberg’s works, we need to understand his influences. Unlike many directors who count other directors as their influences, Cronenberg draws from the literary. Cronenberg counts William S. Burroughs, J. G. Ballard, and Jean Baudrillard as influences. It is no coincidence that these authors inspired Cronenberg, as well as cyberpunk authors such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, who share his postmodern sensibilities. Given this, it is no surprise that Cronenberg has created cyberpunk works. In particular, Baudrillard’s idea of hyperreality, as presented in Simulacra and Simulation, is apparent in Cronenberg’s work and acts as a mechanism for understanding the nuances of that work. Incidentally, Simulacra and Simulation was also an influence of The Matrix by the Wachowskis. Cronenberg’s treatment of these concepts is more accurate to how the ideas were originally presented by Baudrillard, however.
Hyperreality according to John Tiffin and Terashimad Nobuyoshi in their 2005 paper, Paradigm for the third millennium, is defined as:
Hyperreality is an inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality, especially in technologically advanced postmodern societies. Hyperreality is seen as a condition in which what is real and what is fiction are seamlessly blended together so that there is no clear distinction between where one ends and the other begins.
According to Baudrillard, there are a number of reasons for this. The first is our perception of reality. Because we experience reality through the filter of our senses, we can never be sure that our senses are not deceiving us. Thus we only experience as “simulation” of reality. This simulation is a representation of reality, not reality itself, and thus every person has a different representation of reality, even if there is an objective reality, we all experience it through our simulation of that reality. Because of this condition, we don’t know when something has come from objective reality or from our simulation of that reality.
This situation is further complicated by the idea of simulacrum. Simulacrum is something within our simulated reality that has no original. It came from the simulation entirely. The danger in simulacrum, according to Baudrillard, is when we mistake them for reality. These ideas provide context for Cronenberg’s movies.
Videodrome, which emerged alongside the cyberpunk zeitgeist in 1983, is an exploration of how media can distort our perception of reality. Max Renn is the president of a television network and is always looking for new content that pushes the envelope of sexuality and violence. Renn is made aware of a broadcast called Videodrome by Harlan, one of his employees, that depicts torture and murder. After adding Videodrome to the network’s programming, Renn is invited to a talk show where he meets Professor Brian O’Blivion, who only makes appearances via broadcast. O’Blivion believes that at some point in the future, real life will be replaced with television. To those ends he runs The Cathode Ray Mission, where the homeless are encouraged to watch television marathons, in addition to being fed and given a place to stay. O’Blivion is preaching the replacement of reality and our simulation of it, with simulacrum. Later, we learn that O’Blivion has been dead for years and all of his television appearances have been made up of tens of thousands of hours of recordings that he made before his death. Thus, O’Blivion himself has been replaced with a simulacrum. A simulation that no longer has a real life equivalent. We learn that Videodrome is a virtual battleground in which a war is being fought for the control of the minds of its viewers and that embedded in the broadcast is a malicious signal that causes the viewer to develop a brain tumor. Once Renn has developed this brain tumor, he begins to hallucinate and envisions himself with a vaginal hole in his chest that acts as a VCR. This is the beginning of how Renn’s body is transformed by his perception of reality and his perception of himself by the introduction of simulacrum via Videodrome.
After Renn begins to experience this distortion of reality and subsequent body horror, he is contacted by the Spectacular Optical Corporation, an eyeglasses company that acts as a front for a NATO weapons manufacturer. This corporation is itself hyperreal, seeing as it is actually a weapons manufacturer, but is perceived by the public as being an eyeglasses company. Symbolically, the eyeglass itself represents the manipulation of our perceptions. Spectacular Optical Corporation invites Renn to come to their office and use the opportunity to insert a brainwashing videotape into Renn’s chest and program him to murder all of his colleagues at the network. This is motivated by the fact that the Spectacular Optical Corporation believes the networks audience is a bunch of lowlifes obsessed with sex and violence and need to be purged both morally and ideologically. Before Renn can kill her, Bianca O’Blivion, Brian O’Blivion’s daughter, reprograms him again to defeat Videodrome. As a consequence, he kills Harlan, who manipulated him into broadcasting Videodrome in the first place on the behest of the Spectacular Optical Corporation, and Barry Convex, who is the head of the Spectacular Optical Corporation. The supposition here is that media has the power to program us as viewers by introducing convincing simulacrum alongside simulations and thus slowly distort what we perceive as true and thus control our actions. Advertising and consumerism anyone? The film ends with Renn, at the behest of a televised version of himself and his perception of reality significantly distorted, shooting himself in the head to ascend to the “New Flesh.” In the context of the film, although it is never explicitly stated, it seems that the technology that allowed for the creation of Videodrome was created for the purpose of transitioning humanity from their physical selves into a televised reality where we all exist as simulacrum, like O’Blivion.
The “New Flesh,” takes on a different form in the film Existenz (1999). In Existenz, the body horror elements are bio-ports at the base of the spine and game-pods, which are organic game consoles that plug into the bio-ports and create the virtual reality environment that the players experience. The act of the game-pod plugging into a human subject is analogous to introducing a new perceptual organ, literally making the technology an extension of the user. Existenz actually turns the concepts in Videodrome on their head. Instead of reality slowly distorting around the characters, we begin the story inside the simulacrum. The plot of the movie is that two game companies, Antenna Research and Cortical Systematics, are competing for control of the game market and that a terrorist organization called the “Realists” are actively working to punish the companies for deforming reality. How should we react when companies intentionally introduce simulacrum into our cultures? In the wake of a Realist attack on a demonstration of the new Antenna Research game Existenz, Allegra Geller escapes with Ted Pikul, a low level security guard. Geller discovers that Existenz may have been damaged in the attack and convinces Pikul, who is one of the few remaining people to not have bio-port, to have one installed so that he can help her test the game. Once Pikul has a functioning bio-port, he enters the game with Allegra and is surprised at his rudeness to a game character. Allegra explains that this is because his game character is programmed to act that way. This moment reflects the influence that simulcrum can have on the way we are programmed to interact with one another, just as Renn was reprogrammed in Videodrome. After spending some time in the game, Pikul pauses the game to return to reality for a moment and discovers that he can no longer tell reality from the illusionary world of Existenz. This is a reflection of Baudrillard’s idea that simulacrum can easily be mistaken for reality. During the course of the game Pikul and Geller come across a diseased game-pod within the game and Geller’s in game game-pod becomes infected resulting in Pikul destroying it, and Geller nearly bleeds to death. The pair find themselves back in reality, but somehow the virtual disease has managed to follow them from the virtual reality to their actual reality, something that should be impossible. This is one of the strongest moments in the film in that it calls into question whether the characters are actually in the “real” world. In the immediate aftermath of these events, Geller kills her mentor and Pikul, who reveal themselves to have opposed loyalties, and then they all awake on a similar stage from which the movie’s inciting incident occurred.
We learn that the entirety of the movie has been a game, called tranCendenZ, played on electronic counterparts to the bio-ports/game-pods and that the Realist undertone to the game existed because Geller and Pikul’s real life counterparts were in fact, Realist terrorists. As the movie ends, one of the characters asks, “Are we still in the game?” This supposition is supported by how the audience reacts to the actions of the players, in a similar fashion as virtual characters did in Existenz. At first, this plot twist feels like a ham-fisted attempt to have a surprise ending but in the context of Baudrillard’s philosophy it shows us that line between reality, simulation, and simulacrum has become so blurred that the actual state of affairs is impossible to identify, and Baudrillard asserts that this is the state that we live in. We have been so exposed to simulacrum and simulations of simulations, that we have no semblance of objective reality if this reality exists at all. Are we still in the game? Are we plugged into the Matrix unaware?
In the same Flavorwire interview mentioned earlier, Cronenberg said:
I’ve always felt that technology is us. Technology are us. In the 1950s, all the sci-fi stories were about how dehumanizing technology was and how soul-destroying. But in fact, it’s an extension of us. I’m talking to you on the phone, the phone is an extension of my ear and my voice, to that extension is an extension of my neurological system. All technology comes from human beings — from their creative imagination and so on. Therefore, it embodies all that is good and bad in us — from the most horrifying war machines to the most beautiful creations possible.
Just as Videodrome becomes part of Renn and the game-pod becomes part of the users in Existenz, Cronenberg believes that our technology is a literal extension of our abilities. It would be easy to look at Cronenberg’s films and assume that he is telling an anti-science/anti-technology narrative. But as we look deeper, it becomes apparent that Cronenberg is saying through film, that our self (mind) and our bodies are intimately intertwined. That any change we make to our bodies will change who we are and that any change we make to our minds will reflect itself in our bodies. Technology too is merely an extension of our bodies. Through our bodies, we craft our reality. But as a consequent of our physical senses, we are in constant peril of being deceived, and with the advent of augmented senses, this peril only rises. Cronenberg’s films are not anti-technology, they are simply cautionary. A violent suggestion that we infuse our “New Flesh” with “beautiful creations,” rather than “horrifying war machines,” and at our behest, rather than that of corporate entities.
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