These Real-Life Body Horror Stories Put the Movies to Shame
Move over, Hellraiser. The human experience is already a slow motion experiment in body horror. From tearing out of the birth canal, screaming and covered in blood and tissue as a newborn baby, to the subtle but unstoppable reckoning of aging on the body, it's an existential terror to recognize that your continued existence is at the mercy of your deeply fragile physical form. All it takes is one accident, one virus, one unseen consequence to completely change your body and your life forever -- or worse.
In the horror movie genre, horror creators frequently explore the dread of feeling like your body is out of your control. In the latest episode of Eli Roth's History of Horror, director Eli Roth chats with famous faces in cinema to break down the cinematic themes of body horror. In the episode, they explore how deeply unnerving it is to confront the fact that your body can be turned against you -- by sickness and chronic pain, by a bad science experiment, or by a chance encounter gone terribly wrong. Featuring commentary on The Fly, Society, Hellraiser, The Elephant Man, and more, horror creators explore how gruesome it can be to be at the mercy of the body's fallibility.
And yet, despite how grisly the movies can be, real life body horror is worse. God, it's so much worse. While the onscreen viscera of body horror flicks can induce a full body cringe while you're watching, real life body horror is unrelenting in its prolonged distress. And the worst part? It could happen to anyone.
Here are true stories of body horror scares:
Tumors are already terrifying as it is. A runaway mass of mutated cell production, tumors are at best uncomfortable and unsightly growths in or on the body, and at worst, destroy the body from the inside. But Teratoma Tumors really take this to the next level. From the Greek for "Monster Tumor," Teratomas can develop their own bone, muscle, hair, teeth, eyes, and more bodily tissue. Teratomas are born of rogue "germ cells," typically found in the ovaries or testes, which can give rise to multiple forms of tissue. When a cell that can produce a number of different tissues snowballs into a large tumescent mass, "demonic" looking tumors can result. Imagine cutting into a tumor and having eyeballs and teeth staring back at you. Except you don't have to imagine it, you can google it (except...I wouldn't). Fortunately, most teratoma tumors are actually benign. Plus, studies of teratomas have given rise to groundbreaking stem cell science and other breakthroughs in scientific research. Despite their freakishness, teratomas have an important place in the legacy of medical science.
Alexis St. Martin's Ghastly Contributions to Gastroenterology
In fact, much of medical science is based on early experiments that can really only be described as pure body horror. The trials of Alexis St. Martin and his unfortunate contributions to the study of gastroenterology are one such example. In 1822, Canadian fur trader Alexis St. Martin was accidentally shot at very close range with a shotgun, which resulted in blasted off muscles, ribs, and a hole in his stomach. St. Martin was treated by U.S. Army surgeon Dr. William Beaumont, who was stationed at a nearby post. Beaumont did his best to treat St. Martin, using a pen knife to fish out pieces of broken ribs, pushing the lung back in its proper place, and bleeding St. Martin for "impurities," which was a common practice at the time. (Really, just anything related to early medical practice is a body horror nightmare.) Miraculously, St. Martin survived, but the hole in his stomach never fully healed. Instead, it became a permanent gastric fistula, in which the edge of the stomach healed with the edge of the skin, creating a tunnel of sorts directly into St. Martin's stomach.
Dr. Beaumont quickly realized what a prime opportunity he had on his hands for medical research. He hired St. Martin to be his "handyman," keeping him out of the vigorous fur trade industry, and instead under his watchful eye. After some persuading, Beaumont convinced St. Martin to allow him to conduct experiments on his stomach. This is where it gets yucky.
Beaumont's experiments included tying pieces of food to a string -- mostly meat (sometimes raw meat) -- and dangling it into St. Martin's exposed stomach, leaving it there for a few hours and then pulling it back out to observe how it had changed. He would stick a spoon into St. Martin's side to scoop out spoonfuls of stomach acid to test how it works outside of a body. He stuck food and such into St. Martin's stomach under various weather conditions, and under various emotional conditions, to see how different variables affected the digestive process.
It wasn't not long before St. Martin grew tired of this "arrangement" and fled back to Canada. But for nearly twenty years, Beaumont wrote to St. Martin like a jilted ex-lover, begging him to come back (and be experimented on). And every now and then, St. Martin agreed! Despite the deeply stomach-turning nature of the experiments, Alexis St. Martin's side-splitting accident provided a significant amount of new and important knowledge about the gastrointestinal process and how humans digest food. Yikes.
Parry-Romberg syndrome is still a largely mysterious, rare disease in which an abnormal and accelerated breakdown of tissues beneath the skin basically causes the face to start collapsing inward. Yep. Your face can just slowly start receding into your skull. There are theories that Parry-Romberg syndrome is an auto-immune disease, but so far, it seems to occur randomly, for unknown reasons. It's not part of genetic history, nor is it a foul consequence of some dark vice. In theory, it can happen to anyone. Just another thing to worry about!
Dracunculiasis, or Guinea-Worm Disease
Until only very recently in human history, drinking untreated and unfiltered water from a river or stream in Africa carried the risk of contracting a deeply unfortunate parasitic infection called Dracunculiasis, or Guinea-worm disease. If a person ingests water fleas infected with guinea worm larvae, the larvae will then hatch and grow inside the person's body. They larvae grow into full adult worms over the course of a year, without showing any symptoms. An adult female guinea worm can grow to be 20-40 inches long. After about a year, the female worm forms a blister on the skin (usually on a lower limb), and after the blister bursts, revealing the rear-end of the worm (yum), the worm then emerges from the blister over the course of a few weeks. Sufferers of GWD report that the feeling of the worm moving through the body toward the lower extremities, followed by its slow escape from the body, feels like an agonizing, burning sensation that frequently causes vomiting, dizziness, and the inability to walk or move. To get rid of the burning sensation at the site of the blister, the person will turn to water to soothe their wound -- but that's exactly what the guinea worm wants! Once the blister has broken and the worm is exposed inside the body, the female guinea worm can release more larvae into a water source to possibly infect others and begin the infection cycle anew.
The deeply squicky part of treatment is that it's terribly important that the guinea worm doesn't break while it's being extracted, so the process of extraction is a horrifically patient endeavor. Plus, the lesion the worm is protruding from can't be allowed to close, or encouraged to heal fully before the worm is extracted, which can add on different infections at the grisly site of the worm's removal. If the worm does break or die while still inside of a person's body, the worm's body can putrefy or petrify in the human host, leading to other dire consequences. If the worm putrefies, the skin around the worm will start to slough off. Petrifaction can cause arthritis, paralysis, or a slew of other issues if the worm dies while being wrapped around joints, veins, the spinal column, or another important area.
Thankfully, cases of Guinea-worm disease have so drastically decreased in the last 40 years that it's on track to become the first parasitic disease to be globally eradicated. Still, let this be a reminder that it's important to clean and filter your drinking water -- just in case.
Epidermodysplasia verruciformis (EV), or "Treeman syndrome," truly looks like something out of a horror movie when its symptoms are severe. The extremely rare skin disorder manifests as lesions that can grow to look like tree bark or tree roots, some even growing so large as to develop horn-like structures on the body, protruding out of the face, hands, feet, etc. This is actually due to a bizarre bodily reaction to wart-causing variations of HPV. EV is a lifelong condition that currently has no cure, though there are treatments available to alleviate the conditions.
Ready to leave the terrors of reality behind and indulge in some onscreen horror? Click here to stream the latest full episode of Eli Roth's History of Horror on amc.com, the AMC apps for mobile and devices, and AMC+, the company’s premium subscription bundle (currently available to Comcast Xfinity, DISH and Sling TV customers. and with Apple TV Channels and Amazon Prime Video Channels).
Eli Roth chats with AMC.com in this Q&A about what fans can expect from the latest season, the scariest movie he’s recently seen, who he would interview for the show if he had a time machine, and more.
Want even more horror movies? AMC’s annual horror movie spectacular, FearFest is underway now, all through October until Halloween. Check the on-air schedule here, and see what’s streaming here on amc.com, the AMC apps and AMC+.
For the latest news from Eli Roth’s History of Horror, sign up for the AMC Insiders Club.