Watching Cronenberg’s The Fly with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome

This is a (re)posting of an article I wrote for an entirely different blog, back in 2018. It has been edited for clarity, length, to add images, etc.

The idea for this post came on a whim, as most things do. I was intending to write about trauma, specifically intergenerational trauma and how it affects women. It’s portrayed beautifully and bloodily in Halloween 2018, but it’s something about which only a handful of bloggers have written [at time of writing]. Something about the concept began to frustrate me, however, which I can’t quite put my finger on, and I began to think about trauma as it relates to me personally.

Think of this as a secondary introduction post. Sort of a look into the way my experience as a horror fan is colored, beyond the already very specific lens of other identities. Disability as it relates to existence as a horror fan is…more delicate than people realize.

Disability in horror is something I will address more with time. Photo taken from A Quiet Place, 2018.

When I was a child, I was in a low growth percentile. Small, overly fragile, and horrendous internal problems that my poor parents barely knew how to mitigate. As I grew, I had mysterious growing pains, including–it seemed–in my ribs. I developed asthma, and my weight fluctuated violently between being too much to too little. I was too tall for my age, too skinny for my height (or too big for society, depending), and simultaneously too much and not enough of about a dozen different things.

Eventually I stopped growing.

The growing pains didn’t stop.

It wasn’t until college age, that a doctor entered the room with little fanfare and violently dislocated all of the fingers on my right hand without any sort of warning. He told me derisively to stop crying and that I had a rare disease called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. He left the room without telling me what that was. I was left to read Wikipedia with bouts of random panic.

Silver Bullet, 1985

Years later, a much kinder doctor would explain to me all of my symptoms and how they related to a genetic deformity on my collagen markers. You see, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome is a connective tissue disorder, which systematically affects everything in your body with collagen, including your organs. As the years continued, I would have to have surgery to tie my stomach into a knot (my faulty tissue would reverse the surgery a mere three years later), I would be in and out of the ER with dislocated and micro-fractured joints, and my heart would start to rush so much I would pass out cold in the bathroom. There is no cure, there is barely any treatment aside from symptom management, and–despite what some doctors say–it is degenerative in the sense that you only get worse as you age.

As you might imagine, I have a strained relationship with the concept of body horror.

This brings me to David Cronenberg. Cronenberg may not be the progenitor of body horror–that honor would most commonly and likely go to author Franz Kafka–, but he is certainly the director most famous for its portrayal on screen. With films like The Brood, Videodrome, Crimes of Futures Past, and probably most notably, The Fly, it’s no wonder he was given such a venerable title within the horror genre. His films have frightened people for decades, and with good cause.

After all, what is more terrifying than the betrayal of your own body?

The Fly, 1986

I watched the Fly during one of the worst parts of my illness. I recall throwing up at least twice, not out of fear or disgust necessarily, but out of the degenerating path my own body was taking. At the time, my stomach was over-producing so much stomach acid, it was wearing away holes in my esophagus and the lining of my stomach. It was resistant to most medications at the time. I often would compare myself to the Xenomorph Queen in that everytime I would get sick, I’d spit up acid, and I would be throwing up acid at least three times a day. After seeing The Fly, I would say that I was just digesting a bit early and externally.

No one found my gallows humor quite as funny as I did.

I related strongly to the plight of Seth Brundle in the film. Though my body wasn’t changing out of my own jealous hubris, it was changing nonetheless into something I didn’t recognize. That said, I don’t believe Cronenberg necessarily intended for The Fly to be a chronic illness metaphor. A terminal illness metaphor, most definitely; perhaps it was even an unintentional treatise on the horrors and betrayals of aging. However, I doubt it was meant for someone whose illness would keep them alive for an indeterminate amount of time.

The Fly, 1986

Just as Kafka’s metaphor of the cockroach for physical disability could also be read as a metaphor for depression, however, so did my viewing of The Fly. Through no fault of my own had I become freakish and in pain, likely destined to die before reaching a very old age, and having a strong chance of passing the monstrosity I possessed down to any children I may have had had I not learned about my condition’s hereditary nature first.

With that said, my view of body horror is inherently tainted. It’s also, at the same time, painfully intimate. Much like Seth’s transformation into the Brundlefly, talking about it is difficult at the best of times. However, I hope that by writing this post, I have given someone the words to relate to horror in a way they hadn’t realized before.

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