Every two weeks, I will be publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week’s essay is “Hairy on the Inside” by Amanda Lehr. Amanda is a writer and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. She thought about gender, medicine, and cannibalism for six years at Vanderbilt University. Her humor writing has appeared in outlets like McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and The Niche. You can follow her on Twitter @am_lehr.
This essay was edited by Brooke Obie.
It starts with a fragile moment of repose. A young man in an NYU T-shirt sits on an apartment couch. He’s reading a novel — and enjoying it, judging from the twitches of pleasure at the corners of his mouth. The wistful strains of Sam Cooke’s “Blue Moon” are for us alone and do not disturb him.
Without warning, he drops his book and buries his hands in his hair, his face now a mask of agony. “JESUS CHRIST!” Screaming, thrashing, he falls to his knees. Sweat pours from him. His pain and terror seem especially raw in the context of this living room, a beige nest of chintz, tchotchkes, and crocheted afghans. The camera pulls back. We watch him writhe and tear at his clothes from a distance, literalizing the gap between what is visible to us — a seemingly healthy, strong, unblemished male body — and the cataclysm unfolding beneath his skin. The muscles of his naked back tighten with a sound like meat pulling loose from the bone. Turning to face us once more, he momentarily falls silent as he extends one splayed hand. His eyes widen and water with dread, anticipating what the rest of us cannot yet see.
I’ve arguably cut off my description of David Kessler’s transformation from college student to werewolf in John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981) before getting to “the good stuff.” Rick Baker’s legendary practical effects bagged him the devotion of all Fangoria readers and the first Oscar for Best Makeup (not to mention directing jobs for him and Landis on a little music video called Thriller.) But David’s arrested metamorphosis is the part that transfixes me; lacerates me. It teeters on the border between reality and truth — between how pain looks from the outside and how it feels.
I know because my body has been trying to eat itself since I was a teenager. With the best of intentions, my immune system doggedly attacks my spine and joints, which it mistakes for intruders. This internal conflict has varied short- and long-term effects: pain, stiffening, and cracking in my assorted moving parts; erratic pangs that hit like a Mack truck and worsen with rest; and the potential for bony fusion that freezes the spine or joints in improbable shapes. Over the years, I learned how to manage my illness, but also how to manage other’s ideas of my illness.
Metaphor is crucial. Elaine Scarry famously wrote that “pain breaks language.” But language also breaks pain. It rends it into precise, bloody pieces, small enough for others to swallow and digest.
If I want to give others a basic idea of my needs, I typically describe myself as “like the Tin Man”: if I stay in one pose for too long, I rust. I need both my “oil can” (my injectable medication) and frequent movement to keep me limber. The metaphor is useful, enfolding the more counterintuitive workings of my body into a familiar narrative. It also avoids the awkward subject of pain.
I’ve paused the film on the frame of David staring at his hand. In the next frame, we get our first visual confirmation that something supernatural is occurring: the bones of his palm begin to stretch like putty, extending to a sickening length as coarse hair sprouts from his skin. Soon, he finds himself prone again as his feet follow suit, vertebrae the size of eggs bulging under the skin, audibly clicking into place. I find myself thinking, “I hate it when that happens.”
The werewolf suffers on a cyclic basis. The change is inevitable and predictable, yet always seems to catch the infected by surprise, judging by their yelps. Once in motion, they are simply along for the ride; it will end when the body decides it’s over.
Bodily memory has its own definitions of realism. My condition may not turn me into a cryptid, but it does plunge me into a world of sensations that sound absurd when spoken aloud — “my left shoulder’s too high,” “my hips are a metal pencil skirt,” “the soles of my feet feel like they shrunk in the wash. . .” The sick body and the horror film share a common dream logic. As a person with an invisible illness, I encounter body-horror transformations like David Kessler’s as acts of radical translation, turning my inner world into something I can see, pause, and rewind, rather than simply inhabit.
While its fantastical distortions of the human body help me feel seen, An American Werewolf also reminds me how I must look to others. Before David’s claws pop out, we’re just watching a college kid spike his book, strip naked, and theatrically lose his shit for no discernible reason. Without context, the imperatives of pain look ridiculous. In this way, the two halves of the transformation scene operate like split-screens for one of my episodes, evoking the stale comparison meme, “How I Think I Look” vs. “How I Actually Look.” (In the latter case, I’m the woman on the train who seems to be doing a flamingo impression: standing on one leg at a time, flexing her fingers wide, and swiveling her head in gentle figure-eights.)
Like Landis’s film as a whole, David can’t lose a certain impish wit, even in anguish. While his skeleton cracks, he cracks wise: “I didn’t mean to call you meatloaf, Jack” — referring to a late friend whose ghost similarly copes with his mutilation and untimely death through affable gallows humor. Sometimes all you can do is laugh.
In 1541, in Pavia, Italy, a farmer was accused of having torn many men to pieces. He insisted he was a wolf, but his hair was all on the inside. To check, the magistrates cut off his arms and legs. The man bled to death. Bridging one’s inner and outer worlds can be lethal.
Watching American Werewolf, I contemplate the physical demands on the actor David Naughton as if they were stations of the cross: he sat in the makeup chair for hours for each shoot; he spent ten days filming on all fours; he was partially embedded in the floor so the body could be built around him. . . static positions that would be agony for me to hold. I watch his expressions onscreen and wonder what portion of “David’s” pain is David’s.
Unlike the werewolf, I’m spared the indignity of blackouts and, therefore, can accrue my own history. You won’t catch me waking up naked in the Prospect Park Zoo. (Or, more likely, in the analgesics aisle of CVS). But I’m also forced to assimilate memories of versions of myself that I’m reluctant to own.
July 2008. Freshly diagnosed. Two days earlier, I had limped, then crawled, to the kitchen to make breakfast, before collapsing in a heap on the floor. The first specialist with an open appointment was a pediatrician with rainbows on her walls. Phrases like “incurable,” “chronic pain,” and “potential deformity” floated past me like clouds. On the way home, I began to batter my open palms against the door of the car, while my mother yelled for me to stop, pulling off the road. My grief was ravenous. It frightened us both.
October 2009. In my college dorm room, mid-flare. It is 3 A.M. I am a newly minted insomniac, due to joints that cry out at the slightest touch and a whopper prednisone prescription. The steroids have remade my physique, stripping me down to a jutting ribcage and pelvis, and gifted me a pair of downy sideburns. The moon peers through the slates of our cheap blinds. I do not howl, because my roommate is sleeping, and it’s not polite. Though I don’t know it yet, it will take me over a year to recover. No blood is spilled but my own — drawn in innumerable vials and occasionally spat into the sink — but my first real relationship will be a delayed casualty.
Blue moon / Now I’m no longer alone. There is something especially cruel about this song of hearts mending playing over David in extremis, crying out to an empty room, somebody please help me.
January 2020. I am the protagonist of the world’s most boring werewolf movie. I am waiting in line at my local coffee shop when the attack hits — a white-hot bolt down my spine that radiates into my limbs. I contort myself into all the familiar postures: rolling my shoulders and arching my back. Clenching and unclenching hands that feel gnarled into claws. Lolling my head back while my neck twists side to side, drawing my throat taut. But nothing happens. I’ve performed the lycanthrope’s equivalent of holding in a sneeze. I reach the counter and place my order with a smile, back teeth still clenched.
Back at the apartment, I bend to lace up my sneakers. The pops of my hips and knees are audible from across the room. My partner makes an answering pop with his tongue. He married me and my pain, just as I did for him. He asks if I’m okay, if I need a walk. I nod and make my usual joke: it’s like owning a husky. . . I’ve only recently unpacked the substance of this deflection. Canis lupus domesticus. A house-wolf. In the maintenance stages, I allow myself the fiction that my pain is tame — a high maintenance pet.
There may seem to be something masochistic or self-hating about identifying one’s body with a monster. The horror genre has a vexed history of using bodily differences as fodder for fear — a history I want to recognize, even if it’s not mine to narrate. For those of us with non-visible disabilities, however, horror helps us tell our truths by telling them slant.
In Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value, Dan O’Bannon, best known as the screenwriter of Alien (1979), was revealed to have drawn inspiration for the chestburster sequence from his own struggle with Crohn’s Disease, an inflammatory digestive disorder. Is it any wonder that the finished creature resembles a rogue length of intestine that punches through the host’s abdominal wall, teeth bared? The alien is iconic — instantly recognizable, yet largely unrecognized as O’Bannon giving substance to the illness that eventually killed him.
On threads and message boards for people with chronic illnesses, you’ll see quite a bit of O’Bannon’s chestburster in GIF form. Ditto the bloody elevator from The Shining, the exploding head from Scanners, and, more recently, the many sobbing faces of Florence Pugh from Midsommar. Most will be accompanied by a wry, symptom-specific caption or simply “it me.” These references function on a number of levels. First, in the company of fellow sufferers, posters can drop the habits of diminishment — I’m fine; it’s not so bad — that they use to reduce social friction in their daily life. As playful hyperbole, Grand Guignol GIFs are both fun and cathartic. At their core, however, these images serve as extensions of our bodies that simultaneously divert attention from our flesh-and-blood selves. They speak for us and to us without subjecting our individual bodies to further scrutiny. (In this way, they are perhaps the “New Flesh” that body horror icon David Cronenberg dreamed about with his film Videodrome.)
Here, I suspect, is the true draw of the horror film for chronically ill viewers: they materialize our nebulous, private sensations in the form of spectacles that we can use to better understand ourselves and communicate with others. Crucially, they offer proxy bodies to take the place of our own, which are already weary of being poked, prodded, and studied. These films transmute our hidden wounds into full-screen gory wonders: gashes and growths that curious friends, baffled lovers, and doubting Thomases can investigate. Whether eliciting screams or laughter, horror films make our insides public without requiring us to rip ourselves apart.
Trust me, I say, gesturing toward the celluloid wolf-in-progress. My hair is on the inside.