A father lay dying and gave his son, a woodcutter, the family ancestral axe. The father made the woodcutter promise that he would always use the axe in his trade.
During the next season, the axe blade, old as it was, snapped in half on a stubborn tree. Being a dutiful son, the woodcutter had it replaced by the best metalsmith.
During the next season, the wooden handle began to fall apart from age. Being a dutiful son, the woodcutter had it replaced by the best woodworker.
During the next season, admiring the new blade and new handle, the woodcutter wondered if in dutifully executing his promise to his father, he had inadvertently broken the same promise.
Is it the same axe? Just like the Ship of Theseus, the question of fidelity of identity lingers. Is the intent enough to call it the same axe when the sum of the whole have all been replaced? It's also a question that lingers from the shadows during the first season of DC Universe's Doom Patrol. How far do you have to push and stretch something before it's no longer the same as it once was?
Now what if the thing that is getting pushed and stretched once was a human being. That's where you start getting into the realm of body horror. Body horror is one of those topics that is very polarizing. Being a subgenre of horror, another topic that is very polarizing, body horror lies in the Venn Diagram section of people wanting to read or learn more about it are a small but ravenous subsection, while everyone else would rather not even broach the topic. To put a definition to it, body horror focuses on "graphic or psychologically disturbing violations of the human body" - and not just slasher style horror. A big division between basic slasher and the realm of body horror is the transformative element of the changes in a human (and more importantly the flesh) through the horror. Are they becoming something more monstrous like the Brundelfly in Cronenberg's The Fly or transcending to be something more? Like genius and madness the difference between the monstrous and the next is a thin fleshy line that body horror relishes in investigating closely.
But back to Doom Patrol. In the show, there are four freaks salvaged from the grips of their respective ruin by Niles Caulder, The Chief. In the spirit of the source material, he brings them together to form the "World's Strangest Heroes" whose powers are less a boon and more are a cause of "alienation and trauma." Each one has drastically undergone either physical or psychological changes on a horrific scale. The main characters of the show are Cliff Steele, a deceased race car driver whose brain was placed in a robot body to preserve it; Rita Farr, a 50s Hollywood star who came across some poison (or something) in the African jungles during a movie filming and now doesn't have complete control of her body; Larry Trainor, an experimental Air Force pilot who flew through a radioactive cloud and came into contact with an interdimensional being that now shares his body, after giving him incredible burns all over his body; Crazy Jane, a woman suffering from 64 unique personalities, each one with its own unique superpower; and Victor Stone, none other than the Justice League's own Cyborg.
Each character wrestles with their own identity in their own layered way through the course of the first season, but it's actually Cyborg's that stirred interest in writing this article.
Warning: spoilers ahead
In the first half of the season, the good guys were confronted with an omniscient and omnipotent villain, Mr. Nobody, who messed with each of their heads in some way to knock them off their game. Cyborg was given a vision that he would lose control to the machine within him and go on a murderous rampage. This made Victor question if he could prevent that... and if he even had control over his own body to begin with.
This was followed over the season with the Grid, the operating system running in Cyborg, allegedly running rampant and developing a distrust in Cyborg of his father, Victor's savior but also author of the Grid. A fear took hold in Victor that the machine side of him might have been taking over. Grid began to act invasively, forcing Victor to make the decision to deactivate Grid. He hoped to gain some control over his own body.
We further learn that when Cyborg is injured he has nanites inside him that replicate more machinery when necessary (if the injury is too traumatic to heal on its own). He began to fear that Grid approved of replicating more machinery without injury, slowly taking over inside of him. To determine whether the veracity of that fear, Cyborg did the only thing he thought he could do: he literally cut his arm open, poking around for visual confirmation.
It's that moment why I may have realized why I am attracted to body horror and the question of is the axe the same axe. I am personally interested in transhumanism and the philosophical quandaries it raises. Primary, when you start replacing physical elements, when are you no longer you? When are you no longer human? Cyborg's fear of losing his humanity when Grid allegedly began replacing his human side with machinery is instilled in that same fear.
Watching Victor dig into his arm, desperately searching for evidence of his own humanity among the flesh and bone struck a deep chord with me. How much of Victor would have to be replaced before he was no longer human? Is he even human when we first meet him? Mr. Nobody's reality manipulation lead Cyborg down the path of distrust that took a detour through turning off Grid and ends with him beating his father into a bloody heap, barely hanging on for dear life. When he's staring down at his bloody fists and unconscious father, was it really the machinery that made him lose his humanity? It's hard to tell when Grid was turned off.
Each character's story has lead to a unique line of questioning on identity and humanity and it has been a delicious show to watch. I'm so glad that DC Universe leaned into the horror elements of Doom Patrol and that, of all the properties, they're following it up with Swamp Thing with modern master of horror, James Wan, at the helm. And, just like with Doom Patrol, I have a feeling with Swamp Thing we'll be asking how much of Alec Holland will change before he's no longer the same man that started.