My status as a die-hard horror fan was cemented in the summer of 1986 when I was 12-years-old. Sure, I’d seen horror movies before, but my love for the genre exploded after I saw The Fly (and Aliens, also in 1986, but that’s another story). I’m amazed and somewhat overwhelmed by the fact that David Cronenberg’s paradigm of 1980’s body horror is turning 30-years-old in August. That’s 3 decades of horror for this guy right here!
Official Synopsis: When scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) completes his teleportation device, he decides to test its abilities on himself. Unbeknownst to him, a housefly slips in during the process, leading to a merger of man and insect. Initially, Brundle appears to have undergone a successful teleportation, but the fly’s cells begin to take over his body. As he becomes increasingly fly-like, Brundle’s girlfriend (Geena Davis) is horrified as the person she once loved deteriorates into a monster.
I found myself both fascinated and profoundly disturbed by The Fly, and was literally haunted by the film’s imagery for years. It wasn’t just the extreme grotesquery, rather something about Seth Brundle’s transformation (coupled with Goldblum’s stellar performance) left an indelible mark on my developing psyche.
While I didn’t know it at the time, The Fly is part of a subgenre known as body horror. “Such works may deal with disease, parasitism, mutilation or mutation. Other types of body horror include unnatural movements, or the anatomically incorrect placement of limbs to create ‘monsters’ out of human body parts” (per Wiki). Notable practitioners of the subgenre include Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator), Clive Barker (Hellraiser), and, of course, Cronenberg.
My sensitivity to The Fly obviously had nothing to do with an aversion to gore; actually, it was Cronenberg’s twisting of common tropes that really got under my skin. Whereas most films in the body horror subgenre (like Dead Ringers or Thanatomorphose) illustrate a process that ends in death, The Fly ends in a terrifying transformation. Remember, I was 12 years old when I saw it—and in the throes of my own transformation.
Seth Brundle’s conversion from human to insect works as a near perfect metaphor for puberty. Consider:
- Brundle was inspired to experiment with his “Telepods” while in a fit of jealousy. The flood of hormones in a pubescent body exposes a person to intense new emotions—and often leads to poor decision-making.
- One of the first signs of Brundle’s transformation was thick hair sprouting from his back. One of the first indicators of puberty is an increase in body hair.
- Brundle experiences increases in strength and stamina, which is also an indication of pubescent development. While not necessarily negative, bodily development can be mystifying.
- Brundle experiences mania, arrogance, and violent tendencies: All pitfalls of puberty—especially in males.
- Brundle sheds his teeth and fingernails, similar to the pre-pubescent process of losing one’s baby teeth and other softer features of youth
- Brundle’s skin begins to change in both color and texture. Skin conditions (usually acne) are common throughout puberty.
During puberty, boys especially need to control a growing “monster” within. An increase in strength and aggression mixed with sexual frustrations can create a potentially volatile mix.
Whether or not Cronenberg intended The Fly to be a metaphor for puberty is ultimately inconsequential when the parallels work this well. Sex and death are common themes in horror movies. A developing mind inside a changing body will view genre offerings through a particular lens, meaning adults and teens will come away with vastly different experiences and interpretations.
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