Antiviral: A Transgender Take on Body Horror

TW for discussions of: abuse, sexual violence, forced institutionalization.

As I entered into adulthood, I didn’t have a way to name my dysphoria. I had three queer friends, one of whom came out as trans my senior year of high school. I remember feeling a little envious, wondering why I couldn’t be trans too. I spent hours trying to find information about medical transition, reading everything I could. Unfortunately a lot of what I found were trans-exclusionary blogs that assured me I’d want to detransition, and that I would be much happier as a cis butch lesbian. That, and bodybuilding forums. Even the supportive, useful resources I found scared me off. They often greatly exaggerated testosterone’s effects. Puberty sucked the first time. I didn’t want to go through it again. But I did know my body didn’t feel right, so I kept looking.

That was about the time that I discovered the body horror genre. It was inevitable that I’d run into it. I loved cult horror, I loved anything psychological and atmospheric, and I loved special effects. The genre scratched my itch for weird, unforgettable movies. In retrospect, my fascination made a lot of sense. The creeping horror of watching your body mutate, transforming into something improper, inhuman, and wrong is something I think a lot of people with dysphoria can relate to. I knew that horror from my own adolescence. And I was afraid I’d know it again if I transitioned. What if hormones and surgeries only made me hate my body more?

Buried deeper was another, quieter thought: What if it didn’t? What if it wasn’t horrific at all? What if I liked it? What if I was happy? I think that’s why David Cronenberg’s filmography quickly became one of my favorites. There’s this weird, erotic undercurrent to his version of monstrosity. As someone first navigating intimacy in a “wrong” body, I related to that. And I related  to the desire for a body that felt right, regardless of how “wrong” other people might say it is. In many of his films, the characters undergoing transformation loved it. They loved it so much, they alienated their friends and family. But they were really alive. They abandoned their old selves and became entirely new.

My fascination with these characters was balanced with shame and disgust. Cronenberg’s combination of horror and sex usually means sexual violence, and in many cases, the monsters were the perpetrators. I remember first watching Videodrome and loving it. Max Renn’s final battle cry, “Long live the new flesh!” remains an all-time favorite line. Despite this, last time I tried to watch it I only made it twenty minutes. I shut it off in disgust. Max becomes a monster because he’s already violent and unlikeable. Other Cronenberg monsters start out innocent, but become sleazy killers by the film’s end. Their weird bodies are warnings, which speak about perverted desire, invasion, and gross excess. They left me wondering if there was something wrong with me, for identifying with them.

These kinds of portrayals aren’t exclusive to Cronenberg. Plenty of horror movies prey on the audience’s fear of abnormal sexualities, broken minds, strange bodies, and moral corruption. This is something I know all too well as a queer and mentally ill horror fan. When I go about my regular ritual of selecting a random horror movie on Netflix, I know there’s a good chance I’ll abandon it after the first 15 minutes. I might quickly find it’s a movie about a guy whose PTSD makes him kill his family, it might be a movie about rape, it might just be really hetero. Even when a film manages to avoid the worst of these offenses, I often find myself wishing it could capture my imagination like Cronenberg’s work, with all its gory, excessive details.

These movie binges are a bit more exciting every October, when streaming sites get into the Halloween spirit by beefing up their horror categories. In 2014, I entered “best horror movies on Netflix” into Google. Something on the list caught my eye in particular. It was a Cronenberg film, called Antiviral. It’s set in a world where celebrity worship has run wild, a world where clients pay top dollar to be injected with celebrity diseases or even eat cloned celebrity meat. The story follows protagonist Syd March, played by Caleb Landry Jones, who works at one of these celebrity disease clinics. He uses his body to incubate and smuggle infections to the black market. One day, after self-injecting a terminal illness from superstar Hannah Geist, his life spirals out of control. He finds himself wrapped in a web of political intrigue, where his body is no longer his own, and for all it sounds like David Cronenberg’s work, it’s not. His son, Brandon Cronenberg, wrote and directed it.

Antiviral doesn’t mess around with the guts-and-gore excess of body horror from the 70’s to the 90’s, but it’s within that tradition. There’s a few sequences that fit that classic body horror bill. Flesh may twist into strange shapes or merge with machines, but most of the horror comes from suspense and atmosphere. If you’re familiar with David Cronenberg’s movies, you’ll recognize the common themes: transformation, conspiracy, media and consumer culture. But Brandon’s first film feels, more than anything, like a rebuttal to his father’s work. No matter how monstrous Syd becomes, he’s still human. He’s not a cautionary tale, he’s a survivor story. His monstrosity doesn’t make him a threat to the world. It makes the world a threat to him.

The first time I watched the movie, I was convinced Syd was trans. On repeat viewings, I only found more evidence. The way Syd talks about Geist, his interactions with her, the way the movie constantly juxtaposes her face with his, all speak to his identification with her. Customers and coworkers chat about Geist’s genitals, arguing about whether she’s intersex. Syd responds coldly, avoiding the voyeuristic conversation. Men in power psychoanalyze Syd, suggesting that his connection to Geist stems from celebrity worship, from sexual perversion, or from gender confusion. Syd fights back, as best he can. His final retaliation is to venerate Geist’s body. In doing so, finds some semblance of peace.

It’s messy though, especially the ending scene. One might argue Syd ends up abusing Geist’s image like the rest of the world. It reminds me of the anxiety I experienced in my own transition. Trans-exclusionary feminists argue that since womanhood is built on exploitation, being trans is exploitative. They say trans women are participating in a stereotypical, damaging version of femininity, and trans men are cashing in on male privilege. I encountered those beliefs early in my transition, and they left me frightened. Was I somehow exploiting people? It is ethical to transition? I felt I was watching Antiviral navigate these same concerns. Ultimately, the ending is Syd’s solution. It’s a compromise between what society will allow, and what will let him live authentically. His inspiration for Geist’s Afterlife may have been less than wholesome, but in execution, it’s empathetic to her memory.

Regardless of what people might argue, trans folks are the victims of massive amounts of violence. Syd quickly discovers that the similarities between his body and Geist’s put him at risk for gendered, sexualized violence parallel to hers. A man who makes money off pornographic simulations of Geist is the same man who tries to use Syd’s body to make money. He holds Syd down, draws fluids from him and thrusts a biopsy needle into his skin. Everyone claims to know Syd’s body and mind better than he does. He is afforded no privacy, no agency, no humanity. He’s a queer, monstrous, and defective body. They’ll squeeze out his resources until he dies, and continue to use his suffering for profit after his death.

While I identify as nonbinary, I’m usually seen as woman, and am usually closeted. I have been turned away, suicidal, from an emergency room for mentioning my gender identity. I’ve been forced by doctors and police into an inpatient program, where I had to remain closeted. Disclosing my gender to my psychologist and psychiatrist was terrifying, I had no idea how they’d react. But if I keep secrets, I run the risk of losing my freedom. It took me a year and a half of mandatory, expensive group therapy to earn the right to hormone therapy. If I were to stop seeing a therapist, or stop taking my pills, I would lose that right. And because I experience psychotic symptoms, a vast majority of doctors can’t perform surgery on me without violating the WPATH Transgender Standards of Care, unless I lie to them about my symptoms. In the eyes of many transgender healthcare providers, I’m too mentally ill to be trans. In the eyes of many psychiatrists, I’m mentally ill because I’m trans. Even though my dysphoria contributes to the severity of my mental illness, I could not receive treatment for that dysphoria until I stopped being severely mentally ill.

There’s a long history of queer people being institutionalized, forced into psychiatric programs, and stripped of their privacy. Gender nonconformity or being gay were once mental illnesses, after all. Even if that’s no longer true, many gender clinics still require patients to have their gender dysphoria diagnosed by a psychologist.. Combined with the higher rates of mental illness, suicide attempts and addiction LGBT folks experience, a huge number of queer people are still subjected to institutionalization against their will. Even if you’re not court-ordered into inpatient, experiences like mine ensure that there’s a high psychiatric paywall to transition.

I think a lot about the public therapy in David Cronenberg’s The Brood. The movie opens with Dr. Hal Raglan he hosting a public “therapy” demonstration in a theater. His psychoplasmic treatment makes his patient’s “rage” visible on their skin. He roleplays as a patient’s father berating him. “It probably would have been better for you if you had been born a girl,” he says. The patient removes his shirt, shocking the audience with the angry, red welts covering his torso.

The scene still stands out to me. We do know that trauma manifests in the body. PTSD changes your body chemistry, and it primes your brain for constant danger. I wonder sometimes, if my trauma appeared on my body, what would it look like? And here again, the total lack of privacy. Your most intimate fears for the world to see. Not even your body is your own. It’s just a tool for demonstration, something on display. How often does Dr. Raglan do these demonstrations? Do other emotions manifest? Is it really rage at all, or something else?

Rather than exploring these interesting questions, The Brood instead taps into stereotypes surrounding mental illness and violence, presenting all of Raglan’s patients as rage-filled and potentially dangerous. The main conflict of the story is between Frank and Nola Caveth. Nola is an inpatient at Raglan’s Somafree Institute. She’s involved in an ongoing custody battle with Frank over their child, Candy. In a highly unrealistic scenario, the court favors Nola despite her mental health, because she’s the mother. Her psychoplasmic treatment causes her to grow an external womb. This organ births rage-filled mutant clones of Candy. Nola sends one these clones to kill her own abusive parents, and then perpetuates a cycle of violence by attempting to kill Candy.

The Brood is a good case study for what exactly Antiviral is responding to. The Brood was written during Cronenberg’s own child custody case, and Nola was based in part off his own ex-wife. Nola is a woman with a queer body, and a woman who rejects motherhood. She’s jealous, illogical, and selfish. In contrast, Frank is the rational male hero, who upholds his heterosexual role by protecting Candy. Even though Nola is a victim of violence (being abused by her parents, being forced into an institution, and being abused by Dr. Raglan), she’s still the villain. She enacts supernatural revenge on her oppressors, rather than taking things silently like a proper wife. I understood she was someone like me. A queer, mentally ill woman, rendered unfixable by her parent’s abuse. I tried not to think about it, and instead read between the lines. She was a woman fighting back, no matter if the movie tried to convince me otherwise.

Having come of age with movies like The Brood, Brandon Cronenberg’s film is powerful experience. In a genre where I’m so used to being a killer, I instead recognized myself as a survivor. Antiviral understands the social forces that label some bodies as queer and monstrous. It shows us that those forces are far more dangerous than any monster. It recognizes the difference between oppression and fighting back.  And more than any horror movie I’ve seen, it felt like a genuine representation of being thrust into the medical system, and the horror that entails. Also, it’s a damn good movie. Caleb Landry Jones’ performance is outstanding. The set design is packed with interesting details, the visuals will haunt you, and there’s cringey needle-based gore, if that’s what you look for in a movie. I’m definitely looking forward to Brandon’s future work. His next movie, Posessor, a sci-fi thriller about mind control, looks set to similarly expand on his father’s films. Here’s hoping.

Hey folks, Samwise here. A big thank you to GenderTerror for hosting this article! Having recently finished school, I’m hopping back into art and writing after a long absence. You can follow more of my work on movies, media, and personal experience at Cinematic Refuse, or check out more of my creative work on tumblr.

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