New Feelings Roach Complex

Body horror memes express the dread of unwanted metamorphosis

NEW FEELINGS is a column devoted to the desires, moods, pathologies, and identifications that rarely had names before digital media. Read the other installments here

The longer one spends on Twitter, adrift among the consciousness of others, the easier it becomes to lose any sense of self, afraid that abhorrent ideas might rewire your mind. The site’s heaviest users often borrow the imagery of body horror, making memes out of dissociation and ironized despair. When a hack comedian confesses to impersonating their own wife, or a journalist claims that some dogged troll must be a Russian intelligence asset, the diagnosis is always “brain worms,” the victim driven to writhing derangement by party chatter heard in nightmares. Their line of thought has locked into a decaying spiral. It’s as if Gregor Samsa fell asleep the night before his transformation captioning pictures of roaches with “same.” All of us joking about brain worms sound resigned to the prospect of metamorphosis, tasting unreality between our lips like a benediction — at times you can almost sense anticipation for the alien presence.

The Marxist theorist Raymond Williams once argued that social change can be observed in the shifting “structure of feelings,” defined as “a pattern of impulses, restraints, tones, of which the best evidence was often the actual conventions of literary or dramatic writing.” When I scan my Twitter feed, reliably dramatic if nothing else, the dominant feelings seem to be thirst and menace, with glib hyperbole negotiating extremes of anxiety. Social media amplifies self-loathing; the memorably wretched tweet gets the likes. (Roland Barthes anticipated that impulse: “I want to be both pathetic and admirable, I want to be at the same time a child and an adult,” which is to say, I’m baby.) Twitter’s own denizens call it “the hell site” out of feigned affection, and the underworld has long been described more lavishly than paradise.

The underworld has long been described more lavishly than paradise

The platform disorients its visitors with intimacy turned malignant, horror’s smothering domain. You can find several Twitter accounts devoted to the “cursed image.” Certain genre tropes show up over and over, whether uncanny cartoon characters or strange arrangements of meat, but these photos seldom look monstrous in the classical sense; their wrongness simmers beneath everyday life. At the end of The Thing, Kurt Russell blows up an entire Arctic research station to destroy the murderous alien that assimilated his crewmates. One last survivor emerges from the snow, each unsure whether the other remains human, but suspicion gives way to a grim camaraderie as they share sips of whiskey. Cronenberg’s Videodrome captures the panic of total immersion, the fear or thrill that media will overwrite you, like light passing through a camera. Not joy, not even anguish, but a hopeless euphoria.

One of the most cryptic memes used to express that ambivalence comes from “The Enigma of Amigara Fault,” a 2001 story by the Japanese cartoonist Junji Ito, which shows a young man scaling the side of a cliff, crying: “This is my hole! It was made for me!” The image first circulated online over a decade ago, but it keeps appearing lately, evoking some damaged thought or unhealthy fascination. “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” begins during the aftermath of an earthquake, which has sundered Amigara Mountain and uncovered human-shaped tunnels lining the remains. They look like bound silhouettes. More and more people start traveling to the area, building camps in the rubble, compelled to fill each matching void with their bodies. The narrator dreams of an ancient past, when prisoners were herded to the mountain for execution.

Creepy memes can be read as intimations of doom, morbid thrills, straining to process apocalypse as mood

Though I would warn any claustrophobes away from reading “Amigara Fault,” Ito eschews gore, relying on a slightly goofy image instead; those holes remind me of Wile E. Coyote, after his cunning yields to gravity. What lingers is the mounting dread, the sense of repulsive recognition. Japanese readers know Junji Ito well (he once got hired to draw official Pokemon art), but his work is only fitfully available in North America: “Amigara Fault” originally spread via amateur bootlegs, the perfect way to gather a cult. I first came across it through an anonymous image-sharing site. The comic was presented on a single unbroken page, a sickly cascade which seemed to narrow while descending, as if I had finally arrived at the end of the internet.

Appearing at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival last month, Ito said his greatest fears were climate change and “beautiful people.” About the trend of everybody begging their favorite celebrity to run them down with a car, the writer Brandy Jensen suggested that “the ideal resolution of a crush is to be completely obliterated by it and suffer no longer under the terrible demands of desire.” What you want can often be frightening. Murder-by-crush jokes salvage beauty from violence, imagining a martyrdom for contemporary cruelties. If abjection inspires passion, what’s more romantic than Rachel Weisz shoving you down an elevator shaft? This is my hole, it was made for me: A phrase destined for meme status, given how it sounds both depressed and horny. There’s a strange species of pride inspired by enduring punishment, remaining perversely committed, as if people suspect that, in the ruins of the time after this, the most gnarled among them will be revered as a sage.

For most of the past century, the imagined end was sudden and visceral: Atomic explosions, asteroid, blitzkrieg. But entropy rules modern nightmares. A fear of collective effort failing, of crisis not averted; that capital will conspire with fascism again, and compel its servants to unravel the last scraps of value from Earth’s boiled husk. The approaching disaster is all sublime agonies: What will night sound like once the insects fall silent? Fascist rhetoric has always relied on crude inversions — underclass as oppressor, brutality as nobility — and now the far-right dreamscape conjures up foreign “invaders” to manipulate anxiety about humanity’s wake. Creepy memes can be read as intimations of doom, morbid thrills, straining to process apocalypse as mood. That risks listing towards fatalism, a feeble yet soothing torpor. When someone staggers away from the massacre instead, crawls up from under that sexy celeb’s car with a bloodied half-smile, it startles you out of melancholy.

At the climax of horror movies, I shiver watching the lone survivor soaked in gore, bearing a family resemblance to the evil they just overcame. During the final pages of Junji Ito’s “Amigara Fault,” researchers discover the other end of those mysterious tunnels; no longer human-shaped, they have the formless architecture of fractals. Scientists peer inside one hole to find a hideously distended creature inching closer, its blind eyes swiveling high above like a lighthouse beam. If this figure were still capable of coherent speech, it might say: “Having a normal one!” There’s another Ito comic about a woman obsessed with dissection; when that fantasy does eventually come true, her dead flesh reveals living specimens, a surreal collage of fur and scales. In his essays about horror cinema, the film critic Robin Wood suggested that capitalist society turns people into “a neurotic or a revolutionary (or both).” I love that both. Where would a chimera begin to trace its anatomy?

Chris Randle is one of those Canadian writers living in New York. He has contributed to Hazlitt, the Guardian, Pitchfork, the New York Times Magazine, and other publications.