‘Everything comes out of the body’ – visceral body horror of Game of Thrones
Much attention has already been paid to the treatment of human bodies in Game of Thrones in the realm of popular culture. Throughout two seasons so far, we have watched the bodily form get sexed up, raped, brutally beaten, tortured, disemboweled, burnt and impaled, to name a few. We have watched so many bones break and bodices be crushed, that the casual decadence and frequency of violence in GoT has become something of a truism in relating to the series. The level of exposed flesh in the series also been placed under the microscope. The count of preened, female bodies arranged in sexually alluring ways is particularly high. Each week during the original broadcast, many voices around the internet deliver a ‘violence and nudity count’ for each episode. The sexual content is accepted as so gratuitous that it was parodied on Saturday Night Live in a skit that was set ‘behind the scenes’ where a horny and obnoxious teenager acted as creative consultant on set, ensuring that each episode reached the rightful quota of breasts and flesh. Violence and sex of this nature is in the vein of many other ‘quality’ television programs from the United States, especially those broadcast on the subscription based channels such as HBO, and comes to be expected of the territory – typical of the complex and slow burning drama involving a multi-layered ensemble cast, often set amongst a dangerous, political and patriarchal world. But after such content becomes to be expected, even predictable, in these high quality television programs, what remains in a discussion around such violence? What sort of contribution can still be made to the din, already thick with heavy-handed criticism, satire and over exposure, that can offer any light on the material? Yet for a series that is renowned, celebrated, and criticised for the casual frequency of its violence, this is the very reason that a close and acute analysis of the use of bodies on screen is necessary. These scenes, populating much of the series, stream by so quickly during one viewing, so a micro-exanimation of the type of violence occurring. And, while any number of shots could have been chosen to demonstrate the macabre nature of such scenes, a shot that was chosen indirectly reflects the violence and unrest of the series.
Fundamentally, Game of Thrones is about testing the physical limits of the natural body, human or otherwise. Thrones presents the kind of awkward injury that where the anatomy of sinew, muscle and bone represent a limitation of physicality. Like in episode 1.6, when Ned Stark’s lower calf is impaled from behind, he has to kneel to the ground before able to naturally fall down. Or, in the example of Theon Greyjoy’s botched beheading of Ser Rodrick in episode 2.6, Greyjoy hacks unintelligently away at the neck before finally kicking the head thoroughly off to the ground. These injuries suggest a cumbersome and sticky version of the way a body functions. In the series, all bodies are confronted with a corporeality that emphasises the anatomy and structure of a living thing, of brittle bone, of flesh and skin that is easily vulnerable to damage, wear and tear. Akin to the idea of ‘body horror’, a genre of horror concerned primarily with the physical body, Game of Thrones can be seen to concerned with the same principles of such a genre. As film critic Philip Brophy writes, body horror looks at how one relates to the body, "conveying to the viewer a very graphic sense of physicality, accentuating the very presence of the body on screen"1. Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg is the oft-labelled king among such style, all of his films principally embodying a sense of being ‘body-conscious’. Cronenberg’s images are always rearranging the human form, from his earlier sci-fi horrors like Scanners (1981) and The Brood (1979) to more recent explorations of human identity in Eastern Promises (2007), the crux of his films depart from the human body, dealing with mortality and identity; how the body is meant to influence identity and vice versa. In an interview, Cronenberg speaks about inventing a kind of ‘fantasmagoria’ that works to ‘create metaphors for the body and the things that happen to the body, and have part of the body brought outside of the body so that we can look at it and so on’2. This is exemplified in something like Cronenberg’s The Brood, where the female reproductive form is brought outside the body in a pulsating and slimy fluid filled membrane. These examples of body horror place the body with significant relevance to a material world, to the physicality and mortality of bodily existence. Also similarly, both thrive in the horror and abject reality of this existence, confronting the viewer with the gruesome, uncanny, and sinister reality of flesh that is pushed in extreme ways. Both examples centralise around metaphors of the body, whereby the transformations, limitations and extensions of the bodily form can be read allegorically to explore the political, emotional and existential dramas going on beneath the flesh like surface. However, dissimilar to Cronenberg, the figural body play in Game of Thrones is not an attempt to see what happens when you externalise body issues.
In Game of Thrones , the limitation of the human body also expands to any kind of physical or living entity. In the gif isolated for our purposes, Tywin Lannister methodically skins and guts a giant male stag while conversing with his son, Jamie Lannister, about the reputation of their family and the state of affairs with another as they prepare to go to war. As Tywin makes violent movements with his knife, edging it underneath the flesh of the stag, he peels the skin away. The stag is dominating the frame, positioned in the foreground of the shot as Tywin makes the following speech: ‘Your mother’s dead. And before long I’ll be dead, and you, and your brother, and your sister and all of her children. All of us dead, all of us rotting in the ground’. The non-spiritual nature of death is strongly conveyed through this scene. The sound of cold metal tearing into the flesh of the animal during this act strengthens the corporeal nature of Tywin’s task. The powerful and calculated movements that he makes suggest a kind of calm medieval reality that deals directly with mortality on a daily basis. There is no mystery here as to what a living thing is made of, and despite the fact that the series is a fantasy series at its core, the scenes always return to the living body as a material and earthly thing, devoid of any supernatural powers. The scene also refers to the fallibility of the body in a highly metaphorical manner. The stag – the sigil of House Baratheon, the current ruling family that Lannister seeks to control – is a broken and disemboweled corpse, symbolic as a statement of the Lannister’s intention. Talking of family honour, Tywin makes the point here that after they die, the only thing that will remain alive is the family legacy, and he is committed to breaking and destroying anything that crosses his path so that his reputation is not sullied. His systematic preparation of the stag body during this speech is a testament to the materialistic world view that the show esteems. What scenes such as this have in common with body horror is that they work as a visceral metaphor for the various philosophies of the body. While Cronenberg’s body is made form mutant flesh, cancerous, sculptured and formed in unusual ways, the figures in Game of Thrones are pillars of flesh that are made to be broken. They are combustible, limited beings that are constantly degenerating, being made to confront a destructible and transient nature. Ultimately, this scene, as others, provides an opportunity to explore anxieties surrounding the physicality of the body, its material limits, and the effect of other men on such a body.