My status as a horror fan for life was cemented in the summer of 1986, when I was 13-years-old. Sure, I’d seen horror movies before this (and enjoyed them), but my love for the genre blossomed thanks to two seminal film releases. The first was James Cameron’s Aliens (which came out that July); the second was David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly (which came out that August).
It’s important to note that I saw both of these films in theaters (despite the R-ratings, thanks to my awesome Aunt Leslie and my dear old Dad). In the darkness, on huge movie screens, with powerful surround sound: This is how horror movies were really meant to be watched. And as an impressionable youth, this made these experiences all the more impactful. At the time, the sensation was so immersive I actually felt like I was inside the films I was experiencing.
Aliens absolutely blew my young mind; I found the mix of explosive action and creature horror absolutely intoxicating. I’d go on to see Aliens 4 more times in theaters that summer and, months later, it became the very first film I owned on VHS. To this day, I’d say I still know 90% of the film’s dialog by heart.
Cronenberg’s The Fly was just as compelling for me—but for very different reasons. Honestly, I found the film profoundly disturbing, and was literally haunted by the film’s imagery for years. It wasn’t just that The Fly was extremely gross (Aliens has it’s gross-out moments as well), rather there was something about Seth Brundle (played by Jeff Goldblum) and his transformation that left an indelible mark on my developing psyche.
I had yet to learn the complexities of the horror genre. When I enthusiastically entered the theater to see The Fly, I expected to have an experience on par with watching Aliens. Obviously, I was in for quite a shock; there were several moments where I was pushed to the verge of a full-fledged panic attack!
While I didn’t know it at the time, The Fly is part of a subgenre known as Body Horror, a subset that deals with the fears associated with bodily mutilation and decay. Wikipedia states: “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.” Notable practitioners of the subgenre include Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator), Clive Barker (Hellraiser), and, of course, David Cronenberg.
My sensitivity to The Fly went beyond an aversion to Body Horror, rather it was Cronenberg’s twisting of common tropes that really got under my skin. Whereas most films of this subgenre (like Dead Ringers or Thanatomorphose) illustrate a process that ends in death, The Fly ends in a terrifying transformation. Remember, I was 13 years old when I saw this film—and in the throws of my own personal transformation.
Seth Brundle’s transformation from human to insect-man works as a near perfect metaphor for puberty, the period of change during which a child’s body becomes capable of sexual reproduction. Consider:
The story of one man’s transformation into something other-than-human terrified my young pubescent mind. The idea that I was transforming (whether I wanted to or not) was nerve-wracking. I had already begun to notice changes, like body hair and acne—my limbs were becoming lanky and awkward. I felt as though I was turning into a creature, a gross and mutated version of my younger self. As such, my feelings towards Seth Brundle were largely sympathetic—but his final transformation felt like a potential warning: Physical change can be dangerous.
During puberty, boys especially need to learn how to control a growing “monster” within. An increase in strength and aggression can combine with sexual frustrations to create a potentially dangerous mix.
Master of Body Horror: David Cronenberg
Whether or not Cronenberg intended The Fly to be a metaphor for puberty is ultimately inconsequential when it works this well. Sex and death are common themes in most horror movies, and these elements are rich in subtext. A developing mind within a changing body will view horror movies through a particular lens, meaning adults and teens will come away from viewing horror movies with vastly different experiences and interpretations.
Whether of not The Fly had a positive or negative effect on my developing mind is open for debate—it certainly didn’t alleviate any of my anxieties regarding puberty. But, obviously, I came through the other side as a fully functional member of society, relatively undamaged.
For better or worse, The Fly made me the horror fan I am today.
What do you think about my interpretation of Cronenberg’s The Fly as a metaphor for puberty? Sound off in the Comments section!
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