Transformation Horror is a subtrope of Body Horror
involving graphic and unsettling Transformation Sequences
or continuous random mutation
This can occur in the process of both involuntary
and Voluntary Shape Shifting
, and the final form, if there is one, doesn't have to be horrific. Even turning a person into a Ridiculously Cute Critter
can involve Transformation Horror along the way. What matters is that the process
of the transformation is unpleasant to witness, and horrifying just to imagine
There are several standard forms of Transformation Horror:
- Mutation Horror: slowly accumulating chaotic mutations. The victim gradually becomes increasingly twisted and deformed due to the growing influence of The Corruption, exposure to nuclear waste, Mutagenic Goo, or The Virus. There is no "end form", only ever-increasing levels of Body Horror usually involving asymmetric and chaotic changes and tumorous growths. This variety tends to end in either death, Face Monster Turn, or And I Must Scream.
- Horrifying Metamorphosis: Slow Transformation into a known end form. Often part of the Viral Transformation process or a particularly unpleasant form of Metamorphosis or Baleful Polymorph. The victim experiences a disturbing slow change into his new form. The end result does not have to be body horror, but the process of adopting an entirely new body plan is likely to involve quite a bit of body horror.
- Traumatic Transformation: Rapid Transformation into a known end form. Some transformations condense all the horror of a targeted slow transformation into a brief, squicktastic Transformation Sequence. Often emphasizes the face and visibly reshaping skeletal structures, and is usually accompanied by the sounds of popping bones and rearranging organs. Nearly always painful or disorienting. Common in Darker and Edgier Animorphism: The transformation of a werewolf, for instance, when portrayed realistically.
- Terminal Mutation: Targetless and Fast. A particularly nasty Cruel and Unusual Death involving rapid degeneration or mutation until death. See Rapid Aging, I'm Melting, and Shapeshifter Swan Song for just a few of the possible causes. Examples of this form should be placed on their respective pages unless they are particularly noteworthy as transformation horror as well.
- Mix And Match Mutation: Sprouting Combat Tentacles or a Shapeshifter Weapon can be disturbing enough, but when more and more are added to the mix you have the recipe for a Shapeshifter Mashup. Even more horrifying if it's involuntary, such as in the case of Power Degeneration, or an Adaptive Ability going totally haywire.
There are several layers of reasons why people find this trope disturbing. The most obvious is that transformation can be very Squicky
: even in the case of one human becoming another human, facial features and major bone structures have to distort and rearrange. The fear of transformation is the fear of losing control of one's own body or having it turn against you, and also metaphorically reflects the fears of slowly losing one's own identity
or worse, having a loved one turn against you
. In more extreme cases such as Mutation Horror or Terminal Mutation, it invokes our fears of disease and decay; in a sense, this trope is why we find diseases like cancer, rabies, leprosy, and the bubonic plague
exceptionally terrifying. Thus Transformation Horror is unusual among the fantastical forms of horror in being just as much an Adult Fear
as a childhood fear, because it has so many parallels and examples in Real Life
. All it takes to make horror from them is exaggeration.
Not all transformations are necessarily horrific; this trope can be averted in any number of ways. Lighter and Softer
universes tend to have relatively tame transformations leaving any disturbing elements to the imagination
. On the other hand, in Darker and Edgier
universes, even Voluntary Transformations
tend be traumatic for everyone involved, and depicted in all their disturbing glory
. The medium can have a huge bearing as well: distortions that would be Nausea
and/or Nightmare Fuel
in live action can be fairly innocuous in a cartoon.
The causes and circumstances of the transformation can make a difference as well. A character slowly turning to stone
can be fairly mild visually, but played for Psychological Horror
; an otherwise disturbing transformation can be mitigated
when it's the result of a character Cursed with Awesome
activating their Lovecraftian Superpower
or receiving a Power-Upgrading Deformation
An example of how this trope can be intentionally both invoked and averted is the Transformation Comic
genera, with various comics averting this trope for fanservice
, playing the trope straight as Fan Disservice
to maintain a serious tone, or even alternating between the two
Compare Clone by Conversion
, Viral Transformation
, Painful Transformation
, Slow Transformation
, Transformation Sequence
, Transformation Of The Possessed
, and Transformation At The Speed Of Plot
which often overlap.
Compare and contrast Baleful Polymorph
, which sometimes overlaps with Transformation Horror. The distinction is that the victim of a Baleful Polymorph
something else against their will, while Transformation Horror is about becoming
something else in a disturbing way.
Contrast Nothing Is Scarier
and Fridge Horror
for transformations that aren't actually shown/described, and Teleporter Accident
for similar things happening instantaneously. Bit-by-Bit Transformation
can be used both to subvert this trope by spacing out the squick into tolerable doses, and to exaggerate it by combining Horrifying Metamorphosis and Mix And Match Mutation.
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Anime and Manga
- In Naruto, this happens when Naruto goes into four-tails mode, especially when his skin peels off.
- This happens to Tetsuo in AKIRA after being wounded by Kaneda during their fight at the stadium, as Kaneda tries to finish him off he starts twitching and moaning in pain when suddenly his mechanical arm bursts open and sprouts tentacles, he becomes gigantic and bursts out of his clothes, and he mutates into a massive blob creature that consumes everything in his path including his girlfriend Kaori and he is unable to control himself.
- An American Werewolf in London almost single-handedly popularised this tropes' connection to werewolves.
- In District 9, Wikus slowly transforms into a prawn.
- The Howling. Another particularly graphic example werewolf transformation, with the squick factor turned Up to Eleven thanks to effects artist Rob Bottin. His next gig would be The Thing (1982), widely considered a crowning achievement in body horror effects.
- In The Matrix, any human possessed by an Agent transforms into that Agent's appearance in a Silly Putty–style rearrangement of anatomy. Taken Up to Eleven by Agent Smith's Clone by Conversion ability in the later films, as the process takes place much more slowly and the victim appears to be fully aware of the fact that they are being overwritten by the Agent as it happens.
- Played for Laughs on A Goofy Movie, where Max dreams that he's turning into... his father.
- Invoked and inverted in Animal Farm: The other animals are horrified to watch the pigs, who were satirical allegories of Communist dictators, gradually become indistinguishable from the humans they overthrew.
- Animorphs. Many, many examples throughout the series, played straight to the point of Lampshade Hanging as a Black Humor Running Gag. Shining examples include:
- Fish: You lose all your limbs and frequently spend a few moments either underwater with lungs or out of it with gills, and on at least one occasion a character spent several seconds with neither.
- The undiluted Transformation Horror of insect morphs. One has to become a Giant Insect/Human hybrid for the duration of changing from a human to an insect. (See The Fly if it hasn't hit you why that's horrifying yet.) Also, note that insects don't have eyelids, and frequently do have panoramic vision, so you have to watch it happen.
- In Black Bullet, this happens whenever some poor sap transforms into a Gastrea. His body bulges unnaturally as he transforms.
- H.P. Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth. The hybrids become more and more like their Humanoid Abomination relatives as they age.
- Invoked in the Discworld novels: Angua absolutely forbids anyone to watch her while she is transforming from human to werewolf and vice-versa. Especially her lover Carrot, on the grounds that what he may see could put him off her for life. One man who did watch ran away, and went to sea to put the terrible sight behind him.
- Thinner by Stephen King: An obese lawyer begins losing weight after hitting a gypsy's daughter with his car. The friends who help him cover it up develop their own body issues.
- In The Southern Reach Trilogy, expedition members entering the Eldritch Location Area X are warned to avoid "contamination" in vague, unspecified terms. They only learn the exact nature of the contamination when their bodies begin transforming. Most turn into animals similar to the existing local wildlife, but sometimes the process goes wrong and results in a hideous abomination.
- The Outer Limits (1995):
- "Quality of Mercy": During a future space war, a female cadet is locked up with a Major from another division when they're both captured by the aliens. The aliens start to transform her into one of them so they recruit her and use whatever useful knowledge she possesses, and her body gradually mutates further. Until the ending reveals that they're changing her back, and she was sent to spy on the Major so that he'd reveal the location of their forces.
- "The New Breed": A man injects himself with experimental nanotechnology to cure his pelvic cancer. The problem is that they don't stop there, or even at healing old scars and adjusting his eyesight so that he doesn't need glasses anymore. For instance, they interpret his inability to breathe underwater as a physical weakness, and he develops gills. It only gets worse from there.
- Traumatic Transformation happens when you put on the Deku, Goron, Zora, or Fierce Deity masks in The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. Thank goodness it's possible to skip them after you see it for the first time.
- The Dead Space franchise is largely built around this trope: all of the Nightmare Fuel that's trying to kill you is the result of a mutagenic plague commandeering recently dead bodies for arts and crafts projects. The kicker is that we learn in Dead Space 2 and 3 that you just have to be mostly dead.
- Final Fantasy VII's resident Mad Scientist Dr. Hojo, and what happens to him when he downs one of his serums when Cloud and Co face him. Back in the day when FF 7's graphics was top of the line, this looked horrifying.
- Many Sorceresses in Final Fantasy VIII appear to slowly mutate into no particular end form. One unnamed Sorceress boss looks less like a human being and more like a giant grub. Ultimecia's (quickly changing) One-Winged Angel forms deserve a honorable mention: first she fuses herself with a giant lion-like beast, and later turns into a form no less repulsive than the aforementioned grub woman.
- This is a favorite trope of the SCP Foundation's community, and the collection contains many examples of all forms of transformation horror. Noteworthy examples include a sentient microorganism, The Clockwork Virus, The Seven Furs, and Gaia's Blood.
- Whateley Universe: Several of the students have experienced this to some degree or another due to their mutations, but four in particular stand out:
- Fubar, formerly 'Brainteaser', who had an encounter with... something... on the astral plane, which caused him to transform into a literally Lovecraftian creature which is unable to breathe air anymore. He's lived in a pool in the basement of Hawthorne Cottage for three decades now.
- Puppet, whose blood turned into a toxic green muck which is slowly killing her, thanks to a necromantic sacrificial ritual intended to turn her into the mage's super-powered catspaw. She has been on life support for over a year, as most of her major organs have shut down entirely, including her heart.
- Migraine, who attempted to use an experimental Devise to transform herself into an Exemplar, but instead was transformed into a Gigeresque insectoid monstrosity that was trapped in an immobile exoskeleton.
- Theophany, who, under the direction of a voice claiming to be God, transformed Folder into a girl with intention of making her his 'divine bride'. Folder's reaction when he attempted to consummate the marriage by force left Theophany looking like a crumpled piece of paper - alive, but horribly mutilated and distorted to the point that even Jobe was shocked.
- One episode of Danny Phantom has the main character trying to duplicate himself, only to horribly, horribly mutate himself: little heads on individual fingers, mouths for eyes, eyeballs sticking out and so forth. On the other hand, it is Played for Laughs.
- Men In Black: Alpha collects useful anatomy and additional limbs from alien species as he descends farther and farther into evil and madness. By his last appearance, he's pretty grotesque, and an excellent example of Mix and Match mutation.
- Spider-Man: The Animated Series. Poor Spider-Man underwent quite the horrifying metamorphosis into ManSpider several times in the "Neogenic Nightmare" arc, with each iteration being more severe than the last, eventually developed into full blown Mutation Horror. Later on, the Vulture absorbed Spidey's youth and powers... and also his unstable mutating DNA, meaning he sporadically changed fully or partly into the same creature.
- The Spectacular Spider-Man has Connors' transformation into The Lizard, especially the part where instead of compressing slowly, his head partially implodes to form his new lizard head.
- Insects change form or size by shedding their skin and growing when their flesh is still supple. Sometimes this process fails. The results range from a bit odd to grotesque to downright Lovecraftian. And the insect's still alive...