Mimicry and Mutilation
By: Date: July 26, 2020 Categories: Essays Tags: , , ,

May 20th, 2019

Horror is built on elements of the abnormal.  It is, by definition, meant to be horrific.  Short of causing myself bodily harm or going though the untenable quest to prove that ghosts are real, makeup and special effects are the closest we can get to bringing horror to life.  Whether the imagery is created for a production of just out of inspiration, it in itself is a horrific act.  

When doing gory makeup, I often do not refer to it as makeup.  I will not tell my roommate that I am going to try and recreate the effect of a slit throat.  I tell her, while coating my neck in liquid latex, that I am going to slit my throat on Instagram Live.  It sounds macabre, but it is, I feel, accurate.  The impression that special effect makeup gives, when done well, is that of the simulated injury or condition.  In film, when we see characters go through trauma, we react to it as if it were real.  Assuming, of course, the effects are convincing, we tend not to think of an actress going through hours of makeup, but rather just see a screaming and bleeding person.  My parents, while proud of and impressed by my skill in makeup, sometimes cannot look at the looks I create because all they see is me getting hurt.  My friends sometimes have to delete images I send them from our text conversations because it makes them nauseous.  My friend Eric who was my model for one of the images from my project could not look at his hand while I was working on it.  And that is exactly what I want.

The joy and challenge of special effects makeup comes in two parts.  The first part is replication.  I take great joy in seeing an effect in a movie and trying to reproduce it on myself of someone who I can coerce into sitting still.  There are plenty of moves I watch simply to get context on a look I want to reproduce.  While watching Videodrome in class I got restless halfway through because all I wanted to do was try and recreate VCR slit in Max’s stomach.  The motion of it, the visceral gore of it, the complexity of it, everything about it demanded to be recreated.  I wanted to see if I could do it, how it would look, if it would turn out the same with much more limited resources.  I looked in behind the scenes images and was unsurprised to find that they used a prosthetic chest to create the effect of Max reaching inside of himself.  I was very excited that it was still a practical effect, much more straightforward to replicate than a CGI effect.  Practical effects also really bring a sense of reality to scenes and to films.  They set off real reactions.  Body horror is one of my favorite types of makeup because it instantly sets off the discomfort and disgust response in viewers.  Even though my work is not perfect, body horror still gets a reaction.  The reaction to injury and gore is unavoidable, especially when its a practical effect.  It an excellent media to practice with, one that is very rewarding when comparing effort to outcome.

The second part is remediation.  As much as our other senses are important, we live in a sight-oriented world, making it our main focus.  Our greatest responses come from visuals.  Imagery causes an immediate reaction.  Sounds are easy to interpret differently.  Landmark sounds only work if you are in the ingroup and can easily be missed.  Written descriptions are easy to breeze through if you do not take care to generate you own visuals.  It is for those reasons that I really enjoy bringing descriptions from the page or from audio into the visual realm.  Untethered disturbance is an affordance of the written and spoken formats.  A scene or an image constructed from words does not need to obey any modicum of reality and it uses your own imagination to achieve its grim work.  Though translating words into images could ostensibly limit their scope, I feel like this serves more as an addition than anything else.  The image or physical work becomes just another facet of the original media.  I had read Dracula several times before this class, and every time I fixated on, unsurprisingly, the vampires.  The imagery of the bloodstained mouth and over-sexed body is a touchstone of horror iconography.  However, this time through, Lucy caught my attention, specifically her process of wasting away.  I have done vampiric looks before, complete with fangs and blood and suitably brunette hair.  But the tuberculosis-esque withering and the plain pallor of death was not something I had touched.  It is an effect that goes beyond the convincing nature of an isolated injury and asks you to consider the body and form as a whole.  It begs the disturbance of a human form that’s just not quite right.  It is slightly too skinny, slightly too pale, and is slightly too unnaturally bent to still be breathing.  Lucy’s human death was a challenge of skill that I had to see through to the end.

Outside of the realm of makeup, my project has a lot to do with performance.  In the same way that the application of special effects makeup is really a simulation of an injury or an effect, casting, costuming, and posing also have intended purposes and responses.  I asked one of my cis male friends to pose in my photograph from The Cipher.  Initially, I tried to use my hands.  First and foremost, my hands are very small and did not look quite right for Nicholas’ character.  But more importantly, my hands were not the right representation for Nicholas.  Adherence to a performance of gender, as well as using prescribed gender roles as a guide to interpreting the behavior is quite common (Mundorf 657-58).  Nicholas is a distinctly masculine presence in The Cipher.  His toxicity, his disturbing view of women, and his very lot in life is an emulation of all the worst that horror fictions assumes about men.  The disgusting nature of The Cipher comes in part from its unrelenting presentation of a man from horror.  In order to replicate the feeling of The Cipher with the image of the Funhole in Nicholas’ hand, I needed first a more accurate Nicholas.  My small hands remove a viewer from the nature of the scene.  I also, to some degree, thought it fitting to give the Funhole to someone else.  The ooze that I mixed to spill out from underneath the grubby bandage was disgusting.  It smelled like rot and set off my, my friend’s, and our cameraman’s gag reflex and left us retching long after we took the photo.  It also, according to Eric, my hand model, felt horrible and like it “would never come off”.  Though the image is entirely fabricated, its creation cannot help but bring in elements of the fiction into reality and force viewers to react to them.

The next key point in my project revolves around the presentation of women in horror.  Within society itself, women face undeniable disrespect and violence.  The horror genre just makes it all the more clear.  This cultural norm feeds into how we watch and enjoy horror: “for males, the enjoyment of pornography is a strong predictor of preference for graphic horror featuring the victimization of women” (Mundorf 656).  This link between victimization and pornography is not limited to viewers.  Sexual themes and mutilation tend to be linked in horror, particularly when ascribed to women.  The majority of what we read and watched for class forged this link, some cases more graphically than others.  Videodrome and The Cipher had the most obvious depictions.  The brutal and often disgusting sex that Nakota and Nicholas had was intrinsically linked to the mutations and damage of the Funhole.  Murder and its role in pornography was the stated theme of Videodrome.  On the gentler edge of the scale is The Red Tree.  Sarah’s growing fear and scary experiences are set against her past relationship and her preoccupation with sex.  Dracula is an incredibly sexually charged book as well as being one with a good deal of violence, but their link is more implied than literal.  The exchange of blood is a metaphor for a sexual exchange, just as the appearance of the female vampires indicated their nature.  

I chose The Red Tree and Dracula for my project for many reasons, including my fascination with both of them, but mainly for the above reason.  Both novels entwine violence with women, but they do it in more stubble and palatable ways.  The creation of the images I made based off of both of these books had many factors.  The first of which was simplistically, what looks could I recreate and what looks should I recreate.  My kneejerk reaction to the question “What should I do for The Red Tree?” was to recreate the images of hanging described in the novel.  After much thought, I realized that this, while an accurate look and an interesting project, would not be appropriate.  We dealt with suicide a lot in this course, but replicating its imagery seemed to be the wrong move.  The second and more serious issue was the inherent objectification of women that both of them would garner.  I would not ask any women who are my friends to model this for me.  If I had asked, I’m sure any of them would have assisted me, but I did not want to perpetuate the image of women as objects of terror and gore.  I also wanted to force some of the fear of the situation onto the viewer.  It was because of this that I decided to make both these looks drag looks.  This decision was for many reasons.  Drag is intentionally uncomfortable.  It is meant to blend very rigid lines that we have established for social behavior.  Female impersonation is campy and strange and, when not taken in a glamorous or theatrical route, grotesque (Baker 23-24).  Though drag performance is becoming more and more mundane and “normal”, at its root it is meant to be a subversion.  The subculture of club culture and gender performance is meant to make its audience both entranced and uneasy.  

Part of the effectiveness of the images I created is due to the complexity of their interpretation.  I know, even for me, there is something unnerving about seeing myself every day, styled in an intentionally masculine way, appear not only in makeup simulating death and gore, but in a feminine light.  It was my intention to make a viewer who knows me grapple with the sudden presence of a chest, a cinched waist, and a femininely styled face.  Part of the description of Lucy being fed on by Dracula over a period of time was her progression into emaciation.  This was something that while I tried to create it through makeup and posing, is aided primarily by my suddenly feminine appearance.  It is off-putting at first.  In preparation for presenting, I chose my outfit very carefully.  I dressed to look very masculine as well as very cheerful in a Hawaiian shirt.  The brightness of my outfit contrasted the grim appearance of both the images and the gore while my masculine look was meant as both a reminder and a comparison.  

The act of mimicry is also very present in both my project and the works we consumed.  The Red Tree and House of Leaves have the act of coping very clearly at their core and are what inspired this framework in the first place.  My desire to try and replicate the gore in the films we watched and the books we read was involuntary but made grim sense when compared to the narratives themselves.  Pulse only enhanced the idea, bringing in the idea of spreading a compulsion and a series of actions like a disease.  It was strange, when trying to formulate my presentation in terms of the creepypastas we had been discussing, how many influences and affections I could trace back.  It was surprisingly easy to create a fiction centered around something as simplistic as wanting to do special effects makeup for my presentation.  This potential fiction became part of the project itself.  

The creation of horror media is in itself horrific.  It must be imagined, it must be developed, and it must be put into the world.  Its effect is real.  Its creation impacts the model and actor in realistic ways.  Gory special effects makeup is physically uncomfortable, the sensation of dipping concoctions with unpleasant scents are disgusting, and the presentation of not only death but gender performance is ill at ease for both the model and the viewer.  Norms are subverted by horror in both its violence and its penchant for the supernatural and the unreal.  Making horror media welcomes the unsettling and the macabre into the world. 

Baker, Roger. Drag: a History of Female Impersonation in the Performing Arts. New York University Press, 1998.

Mundorf, N., Weaver, J. & Zillmann, D. Sex Roles (1989) 20: 655. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00288078

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