The Painful Reality of Body Horror in ‘Sharp Objects’

'Sharp Objects' is a new kind of body horror.

Sharp Objects

Editor’s note: the article contains discussion of self-harm and body dysmorphia.

In Wind Gap, Missouri, the tips of a tongue cut deeper than any knife. Life is fickler than an errant eyelash, plucked by a grieving mother with trichotillomania. The words carved bloodily into skin are easier to understand than the whispers and layered secrets of ostensibly happy, good people. Kind country folk, away from the city and its crime and violence, its selfishness and urban sprawl of depravity and moral decay. Hog slaughter and rollerblading down the street, jaunts to cabins in the woods and baths in the creek; that’s what life ought to be. So, it seems.

The late Jean-Marc Vallée and Marti Noxon, working from Gillian Flynn’s sensational debut novel Sharp Objects, crafted a masterclass of gothic, distinctly feminine horror. Men in Flynn’s novel are peripheral. They are rendered objects, no differently than genre fare has done with women ad nauseam. They’re skeptics and bullies, monsters and obstacles. They are things to be feared, especially at the outset, following the brutal homicide of the second young girl within a year. Amy Adams stars as Camille Preaker, the St. Louis investigative reporter tasked with returning to her hometown to develop a Pulitzer pâté of local color as two unsolved homicides orbit around her. It’s a dense, deeply personal, languidly paced (in a good way) reversal of what prestige true crime has historically been. It’s about two little dead girls without being about two little dead girls.

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Core to Camille’s character, both as Adams and in written form, is a history of alcoholism and self-harming, both of which resulted in a brief stint in a psychiatric hospital before the story begins. Resultantly, Camille’s skin is permanently scarred, with the elevated, keloid reminders of the different words she etched into her own body, perennial impressions of her grief and pain. In other words, Sharp Objects is less about dead girls and more about bodies. The ways bodies trick and deceive. The way dominion is yielded over them. Possessing and coveting bodies. Bodies working against oneself. Bodies as vessels to heal and hurt.

Camille, at the outset, is unseasonably dressed. Long sleeves and jeans despite the gauzy, southern Missouri heat. At boggy funeral services, she’s dressed in sleeves and stockings while the other bodies flanking her let shoulders and knees remain free, capable of catching an errant breeze or the cool exhale of a central A/C unit. She’s hiding her body from the world. It’s been hurt enough, and exposure to anyone else would solidify and compound that hurt.

Sharp Objects is objectively a horror show. Jean-Marc Vallée deploys quick cuts of mutilated corpses, creeping bellflowers, past and present merging into one. In the early goings, viewers unfamiliar with the source material might find the narrative unsteady, with mood serving as the impetus for narrative progression, scenic and temporal cohesion be damned. The scariest component, though, is how astutely both Jean-Marc Vallée and writer Gillian Flynn understand body dysmorphic disorder.

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Body dysmorphic disorder is a mental illness that involves an obsessive focus on perceived flaws in one’s appearance. Often, these ostensible flaws are imperceptive to outside observers, though to the person suffering, it supersedes all else. The narrative strands of Camille’s body dysmorphic disorder might seem irrelevant to the murder mystery at Sharp Object’s center, though it’s part and parcel of the same ideal. Sharp Object’s killer doesn’t just murder young girls; they torture and mutilate the bodies, far beyond recognition, removing teeth and carving skin. When the bodies are discovered, they’re closer to Missouri bog mummies than vivacious, carefree young girls. Body neutrality contends accepting one’s body as a necessary, physical sac, nothing more or less, though dysmorphic disorder perverts that ideal, rendering one’s body an enemy—a monster.

Life is perennially impacted. Days are arbitrary. One perceived flaw can derail an entire weekend. On-camera appearances are rendered nightmarish. A good or bad day at work is predicated not on productivity or success, but on whether hair falls just right, whether the day’s outfit is freeing or constraining. Cosmetic changes, a never-ending rut of temporary gratuitous dysmorphic solvents—a new styling tool here, a new shirt there—prove ephemeral. There is always a new scar, a new bone or angle poised to reignite cosmetic uncertainty and terror.

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Sharp Objects concludes one particular interpersonal thread of Camille’s in dual ways. Two men in town, one of whom she is intimate with, the other not, are given explicit, visible insight into Camille’s scarred body. One doesn’t care, deciding to be intimate with her anyway. The other is horrified, committed to completing professional duties before severing all contact. It’s an honest, transparent approach to the lived experience of body dysmorphic disorder. For every perceived flaw, there’s one that someone else will recognize and weaponize. Camille’s scars don’t define her or reduce her worth in any capacity. But there are those in Wind Gap who exploit it to hurt and alienate her.  

Body horror is often externalized. Seth Brundle is turned into a fly. The beach-going denizens of Old are aged rapidly. John Carpenter’s The Thing is abounding with fantastic creatures and gnarly gore. It’s easy to recognize the horrific, nonexistent limits of how a body can be twisted, marred, and transformed. The internality of BDD is altogether different, and in some ways, considerably more terrifying. It isn’t so easily seen and understood. The monsters exist under the skin, unrecognized by anyone but the host. Cinematic horror has especially struggled with BDD in large part because of that internality. The likes of Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ Swallow get pretty close, but those enterprises are few and far between.

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In however small a measurement, however, Sharp Objects engenders healing by bucking body horror convention. Body dysmorphic disorder is oft-misunderstood in contemporary media, usually reduced to the shallowest platitudes of self-love. Wonderful in theory, yet by dint of mental illness, dysmorphic disorder is not so easily combatted with power stances in the mirror. Our bodies are not neutral. They hurt and scar and bleed. There are conspicuous reflections of the self, easy targets for the people who desire to hurt someone terribly. They can be accepted, though. Horror and bodies go together. Body horror is a subgenre unto itself, exploring the most fantastical, horrific perversions of the human form. Sharp Objects grounds that horror in the very real.

The tapestry of Sharp Objects’ Southern Gothicism is a nightmare well worth falling into. It’s painful. It’s scarred. And it’s horrifying. Yet, at the same time, it’s honest. In its depiction of body dysmorphic disorder, it’s transparent in its healing. These bodies suck sometimes, and it isn’t easy, but life trundles on. Recognition exists that, in time, there will be someone who doesn’t perceive the ostensible imperfections. Better still, one day, you might see beyond them, too.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential. Contact social media outlets directly if you are concerned about a friend’s social media updates or dial 911 in an emergency. Learn more on the Lifeline’s website or the Crisis Text Line’s website.

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