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A New Skin: Losing Control of Your Body in the 2020s

If the 2020s were going to be any film subgenre, they would be body horror. It’s a genre preoccupied with testing the limits, pleasures, and possibilities of the flesh. It also has a streak of fear under the radical physical transformations it showcases: the loss of bodily autonomy. The fear of losing control of your body is a deep-seated and primal one. Body horror classics like “The Fly” and “Possession” had this in their bones, understanding that losing control of the corporeal can be frightening but also freeing. In more current titles, like “Crimes of the Future,” “Infinity Pool,” “Immaculate,” and “The First Omen,” the fear and anxiety of losing control feels more pertinent and terrifying than ever.

From the uptick in anti-trans legislation that denies people gender-affirming care and threatens lives to the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022, being alive in the 2020s is a constant struggle. We all exist in a world that wants an increasingly strident and narrow definition of what our bodies can do. It’s no wonder our fears are slipping into the collective subconscious. Horror has always been and will always be a political genre, but the body horror of the last four years has felt especially relevant. 

In the 2020s, it’s not so crazy to imagine a world where the government tries to restrict human evolution or one where an acceptable answer to murder is executing clones of the wealthy people responsible. Movies where nuns are forced to carry unwanted, potentially demonic children to term seem just feasible and nightmarish enough to be released within months of each other. With an election on the horizon this year, the fight for bodily autonomy through abortion rights and gender-affirming care continues with ever-increasing intensity. This ongoing battle happens daily in the real world and the dark spaces of our cinemas.

In David Cronenberg’s “Crimes of the Future,” the human body is a new frontier that the government wants to tame. Humanity has reached a turning point in our evolution. Infectious diseases and pain are rare, and some humans can grow extraneous organs, like artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen). With his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux), Saul is sliced open, while Caprice removes and tattoos the novel organs for an audience. Pleasure is a significant part of “Crimes,” often found when characters do what they want with their newly advanced bodies. “Surgery is the new sex,” a breathless Timlin (Kristen Stewart) whispers, and in this world, she’s right: body modification, on Saul’s terms, is an exhilarating act. His organs are removed and tattooed in front of an audience, with the artist writhing in pleasure as the act unfolds. 

However, the repression of this new kind of human evolution is just as present as the pleasurable possibilities. Saul is required to register the organs with the National Organ Registry, which sees the evolution of the human body as a security threat. “Human evolution is the concern,” an NOR bureaucrat says. “That it’s going wrong, that it’s uncontrolled.” The human body has grown too unruly to leave to its own devices. World governments in “Crimes of the Future” would rather stifle evolution and peoples’ desires than let those experiencing these changes make decisions for themselves. 

The pain and difficulty Saul endures when trying to eat is a direct result of the suppression of one of the next steps of human evolution: the ability to eat and digest plastics. When Saul takes a bite of plastic at the end of the film, he sheds a single tear of relief, finally breaking free from the restricted way the NOR and attitudes about human evolution have held him back from living a free life. The world of “Crimes” mirrors our own, specifically regarding attitudes and legislation around the trans community. The government, in our world and Saul’s, would rather criminalize people than let them live authentically. “Crimes” knows that the only way forward with an authentic life is to take it into your own hands.

In 2023’s “Infinity Pool,” we see another side of the need for control of the body through wealth, this time from the privileged who exact control. We follow author James Foster (Alexander Skarsgård) and his wife, Em (Cleopatra Coleman), as they vacation in the fictional nation of Li Tolqa. The pair soon meet Gabi (Mia Goth), an eccentric fellow tourist whose true, unhinged nature reveals itself throughout the film. When James accidentally hits and kills a citizen with his car on his way back from an excursion, he gets arrested and discovers he must be executed for his crime. 

There’s a loophole James can use if he’s willing to throw money and morality at the problem: clone himself and have the clone executed in his place. However, James must witness his clone’s execution. What starts as a one-time solution to a horrible problem soon becomes a habit for James as he begins to indulge more and more in the brutal hedonism Gabi and other tourists have awakened in him. In this case, the godlike control of a clone’s body is a shield from the consequences of James’s actions but also an irreparable act of dehumanization. “It’s like a new skin working itself into place,” Gabi explains a day after his first clone is executed. 

The “new skin” here is a callous -- numbing James to the real cost of his actions and humanity. This government-sanctioned loophole allows the privileged a way out when they face real consequences. While it comes at a monetary cost for the rich, the local Li Tolqans are terrorized by the actions of these unhinged tourists and have no respite. The bodies keep piling up, but only a small amount of people can fly back to their homes and leave behind the bloodshed. “Infinity Pool,” understands that for the rich, bodily autonomy will never be a battle they have to fight, but a right they can simply buy, no matter the cost.

More recently, films like “Immaculate” and “The First Omen” continue to explore the loss of bodily autonomy in extreme ways through a grounded and sobering lens: institutional abuse. In “Immaculate,” Sydney Sweeney plays Cecilia, an American nun who finds herself in Italy at a convent that doubles as a sort of hospice center for elderly nuns. While there, she finds herself inexplicably pregnant, and the convent takes this mystery and claims it as a miracle. Eventually, it turns out that the pregnancy is thanks to the workings of the convent itself, which has been trying to create a new messiah. Similarly, “The First Omen,” a prequel to the 1976 film, follows Margaret (Nell Tiger Free), a devout American nun in training who’s sent to work at an orphanage in Italy before taking her vows. Margaret soon also finds herself in a tangled web created by the institution she put her trust in, used as nothing more than a means to create the anti-Christ to bring people back to the Catholic church. 

In both “Immaculate” and “The First Omen,” loss of bodily control is not just a betrayal, it goes hand in hand with abuse. Both are let down in the most egregious of ways, impregnated against their will, and kept in the dark until they seek answers for themselves about what’s happening to their bodies. It’s all couched in the familiar trappings of demonic horror, but it feels like a reflection of what happens to real people every day, especially in the wake of Dobbs overturning Roe v. Wade. 

“The First Omen,” in particular, isn’t afraid to let us see the world through the eyes of Margaret. We are with her through the movie, seeing the hallucinations she suffers from, experiencing the ecstasy of her first dance at a nightclub, and discovering all the horrifying secrets about her past and her church when she does. This strong point of view solidifies the gruesome betrayal she experiences -- and the foreshadowing in her hallucinations articulates the horror of being forced to carry something inside you against your will. In a sequence destined to be an instant classic, Margaret watches a pregnant woman giving birth through the infirmary window at the orphanage. A long, pointed hand reaches out of the woman and into the world, demonic and dreadful. 

It’s a terrifying way to portray the unforgivable: being forced to carry something that can kill you, something that you didn’t even consent to in the first place. Not long after Margaret realizes she’s carrying the anti-Christ, her body begins to lose control quite literally, her belly growing instantly with pained contortions and bodily fluids, mirroring the iconic subway scene from “Possession.” The abuse she’s endured has tangible, debilitating consequences.

These films understand the fears, anxieties, and anger at living in a world that constantly wants to exert control over the human body. They understand the stakes of our fight for bodily autonomy and let us confront them in the cool dark of a theater.

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