A Work in Progress: Surviving Body Dysmorphia via Horror
By Jerry Smith
I look in the mirror and want to vomit every single time I see the stranger looking back. Over my 41 years of being alive, it’s something that has never gotten easier with time, age, wisdom, or life experience. One of my earliest memories is of my mother acknowledging the fact that my teeth grew pointed as a child as if I looked like a real-life vampire. I spent my childhood terrorized by an abusive stepfather who made a young boy who already struggled with BDD (Body Dysmorphia Disorder) face that struggle in an even more heightened way. I have never felt like a human being. The word “regular” (whatever that is) felt so alien to me that it became a measure of everything I wasn’t.
Growing up in a very religious, conservative family, emotions were nonexistent. Anything and anyone outside the “standard” put on us as children were said to be of the devil. I didn’t know how to be me because I didn’t even know who that is (and still don’t). Looking back, it feels as if every single element could have and should have led to my demise — the chips were stacked against me from day one. I can’t tell you the first time my parents gave me one of the important talks (they didn’t) and I do not know much about my childhood, aside from the moments I desperately tried to erase or block as a form of self-preservation. I do, however, know the first time I felt like I wasn’t alone.
Experiencing John Carpenter’s Starman taught me how to feel, how empathy is crucial to survival, and that while some of us might feel like aliens, we’re all but works in progress, forever adapting to our true selves whether in a spiritual or physical sense. Watching the film showed me that while I am not comfortable with the person staring back at me in the mirror, and in reality, most likely never will, there is something lifesaving about seeing yourself in the art you consume.
In 2020, Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor floored me like a punch to the face. While I am sure the film means something entirely different to Cronenberg, my takeaway from the body-and-mind-horror gem was that it’s an internal battle of identities colliding and fighting to gain control, a battle I have always felt. When I was a child, other kids my age were happy, carefree, proud, and sometimes downright arrogant. I envied their confidence with passion. I wasn’t a kid popular with the girls nor looked up to by the boys; I was the kid with crooked teeth and messy hair, sitting alone with a copy of Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon, staring at the other kids, and wishing I felt comfortable with myself. I’d go home and get lost in films like Videodrome, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and other films that spoke to me, a child forever wishing he could smile at himself.
When I was 16, my cousin and I took a three-hour bus trip to see a double feature of David Lynch’s Lost Highway and David Cronenberg’s Crash in an arthouse theater. The experience meant so much to me that I tend to not speak of it very often. The former was a film I gave my own meaning: a movie about a man so mournful of who he was, he created a version that was more youthful, more successful with the opposite sex, and regained the traits he lost in his real identity. I lost myself watching that film, feeling like I wasn’t the weirdo my family members and fellow church attendees made me feel to be. Watching Crash, one thing that stood out to me, even at that younger age, was how Cronenberg’s work deals with progression, whether it be physically, spiritually, or other. The desire for metal and sex was an out-there concept, but it felt like it was more about people who didn’t fit within society’s norms, as fucked up as those norms were. Both films were transcendent experiences for me.
I gravitate towards films that deal with the ways we try to find ourselves within the horror and pain thrown at us in life. I lose myself in Hellraiser and its Cenobites, Nightbreed and the monsters just beyond the gates of Midian. Seeing Seth Brundle evolve in The Fly spoke to me as a child. It’s still comforting to watch these films and feel, for a small amount of time, like I belong. I’ve always identified with the monsters like Frankenstein’s creature not asking to be born but scorned for it anyways. I think about the films that helped me feel like I wasn’t an alien or, better yet, that it’s ok to be myself, and I am grateful for them.
I still look in the mirror and feel gut-wrenchingly depressed every single time. I look at the body covered in tattoos to cover the scars of cigarettes put out there, the face that resembles people I’d rather it not resemble, my weight fluctuating every other month. I see all of the things society says are wrong with me and it crushes me, readers. It truly crushes me. It’s incredibly difficult to feel like you will never know what will make you accept yourself, the answers so far beyond reach, you’ve spent your life wondering who you are and what makes you, YOU.
However, I can say thanks to people like John Carpenter, David Lynch, David and Brandon Cronenberg, and many others, art has and will forever be a safety blanket for me, a comfort that allows me to make sense of my own dysmorphia for even a short amount of time, something I find amazing. Art can show us what we need to see within ourselves…and it’s wonderful. 🩸
Jerry Smith is a film journalist and composer, hailing from the Central Valley of California. For over a decade now, they have annoyed readers of many sites and magazines with an overabundance of Halloween 4 love and personal essays. Follow them on Twitter @JerryisjustOK and visit their website Rainydaysforghosts.bandcamp.com.
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