A type of fiction, known as body horror, is based upon the fear that something may be amiss with one’s body. One may be sick. One may be disfigured. One may have been born with a physical defect. One may give birth to a deformed baby. One may undergo some sort of hideous physical transformation. A number of horror films and literary texts fit this subgenre of horror.
Sometimes, body horror references men's fear of castration and the twin fears of sex, erotophobia (fear of the erotic) and genophobia (fear of sexual intercourse). The motif of the vagina with teeth, or the vagina dentata, is an example. This story has a moral. It's a cautionary tale, warning young men to be wary of having sex with women whom they do not know: not only may such a young man acquire a venereal disease, but he may also suffer a fate worse than John Wayne Bobbitt’s. (At least his wife used a knife!) In one such story, a bestial element is added: the vagina is not itself armed, as it were, with fangs, but is inhabited by a fish with teeth.
The movie Teeth (2007) is based upon the vagina dentata theme: a chaste, innocent young woman, Dawn, discovers that her vagina is equipped with teeth. (The movie’s tagline is “Every rose has its thorns.”)
As the movie’s official website points out:
Looking into, touching or entering the female orifice seems fraught with hidden fears, signified by the confusion of sex with death in overwhelming numbers of male minds and myths. Since vulvas have labia, "lips," many men have believed that behind the lips lie teeth. Christian authorities of the middle ages taught that certain witches, with the help of the moon and magic spells, could grow fangs in their vaginas. They likened women's genitals to the "yawning" mouth of hell.
As odd as it may seem, like many of the other horrors of horror fiction, the vagina dentata motif may also have a factual (and physical) basis. Dr. Dean Edell reports one of his colleague’s experiences: “a gynecologist. . . reported that he actually saw some teeth in a vagina.”
She had a dermatoid cyst, Edell explains:
Dermoid cysts are derived from the outer layers of embryonic skin, and they are
capable of growing hair and teeth and bones, anything that comes from the outer layers of the embryo. They can occur anywhere.
So this woman had one in the pelvic region and the cyst grew teeth, and when it ruptured through the wall where her uterus joins her vagina--there were the teeth.
Edell himself also saw a patient who was a victim of dermoid cystitis: “In my practice once, I saw one in the eyelid."
Science fiction author Philip Jose Farmer wrote a pornographic sci-fi-horror novel, The Image of the Beast, that features a character, Vivienne, with a vagina dentata of sorts. A sharp-toothed snake-like creature, reminiscent of the lamia of Greek mythology, lives inside her womb, devouring various body parts of her male lovers. She appears again in a sequel, Blown: Sketches Among the Ruins of My Mind.
The vagina dentata is one of the more shocking examples that show that things can and do go wrong with the body. However, it is certainly not the only example that is horrible, as any number of birth defects, physical abnormalities, genetic anomalies, and medical conditions indicate.
Several other such conditions involve primary or secondary sexual characteristics. Normal human males (with the requisite X-Y chromosome combination) have been born without penises; others have been born without testicles. Human females have been born with multiple nipples (multiple nipples syndrome, or supernumerary nipples) or with multiple, or accessory, breasts (multiple breast syndrome; also called polymastia, supernumerary breasts, and mammae erraticae).
Body horror recognizes that the body is subject to these, and worse, conditions. Even before Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote “The Birthmark” and “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” there were stories that demonstrated that, with regard to the body (as is true of the mind and the soul as well), sometimes whatever can go wrong does go wrong.