On Freaky and the Horrifying Connection Between Meat and Mind

Freaky, the enormously entertaining 2020 body-switch horror-comedy, is a movie that straddles several different genres. Yet more than anything it’s a coming-of-age story. While hardly a novel subject, the film also stages a discourse on bodies, on human meat, which allows for a resonant and interesting take on its tried-and-true story. Freaky proposes that bodies are central to the development of self and that the body’s role as a mediator to the external world is both a terrific asset and a terrifying liability.

In the movie, a brilliant Kathryn Newton plays Millie Kessler. A bullied, shy teenager, Millie lives with her mother (Katie Finneran) and police officer sister (Dana Drori) in a small town menaced by the Blissfield Butcher (a rarely-better Vince Vaughn) – a hulking serial killer. One evening, while waiting for a ride home from school, Millie is accosted by the Butcher, who brutally stabs her after a brief chase. In a supernatural twist, Millie doesn’t die. Unbeknownst to both killer and victim, the Butcher’s knife (stolen during an earlier murder) has supernatural powers. It causes Millie and the Butcher to switch bodies and forces them into an intransigent conflict.

Millie’s nascent coming-of-age journey begins in a difficult place. Her father has recently passed away. Her mother has become highly dependent on Millie, monopolizing her time and bristling at her desire to go away for college. Millie herself is a muted figure without a strong, discernable self. Instead, she is largely an expression of the needs, wants, opinions and expectations of others. Stop “being everything to everyone but you” her best friend, Nyla (Celeste O’Conner), tells her one morning as they walk into school, aptly summing up Millie’s current condition. Millie corroborates this when the conversation turns to her crush, Uriah Shelton’s Booker Strode, and the upcoming school dance. “Booker is gonna be at the dance. This is your chance to land that plane,” says her other friend Josh (Misha Osherovich) during the same scene. “I’m not landing that plane or any plane. He hardly knows I exist,” Millie says in response. “Are you serious? You’re a fucking piece girl,” retorts Josh. “Oh, I’m a piece?” Millie responds, genuinely incredulous that she partially is, or at least possesses, a body.

The friends’ conversation establishes two things. First, a person’s self, their very existence, is strongly shaped by their body and how the world interacts with that body. Second, Millie possesses a startling disconnection from her form. Despite her almost comical level of beauty, Millie is a pariah in her high school, carrying herself with a wilted fragility. It is, of course, tempting to connect her posture, demeanor and lack of confidence on simple grief. But in Millie’s case, this seems unlikely; it is suggested that she has been bullied and/or largely ignored by her classmates long before her father’s passing. Without a sense of her body, Millie remains incapable of opening up or developing a fully realized personality.

Ironically, it takes switching places with the Butcher for her to start developing a more visceral connection to the body and, later, a stronger sense of self. Millie’s awareness begins at a rudimentary place, with raw observation on physical particulars. “I’m tall,” she groans at one point when she, as the Butcher, crashes into a tree branch that she, as Millie, would have easily passed under. “I have balls!” she cries later when her friend Josh kicks her in the genitals before she can explain her corporeal changes.

Freaky then shows how bodily awareness shapes one’s emotional life, dictating what can or cannot be expressed. After Millie has convinced her two best friends about what has happened to her, the trio goes on the lam, a logical development considering that she now looks like a hardened (and wanted) psychopath. They hide out in a mall to escape the police, with Millie running into a dressing room to elude her sister, who has joined the manhunt. The dressing room is located within a store that coincidentally is also the workplace of Millie’s mother, Coral. As Millie shuts herself inside the room, her mother comes to check on her, believing her to be a random male customer. The two strike up a conversation, with Millie not revealing her true identity.

Powerfully acted by Vaughn, this scene that follows is textually rich. Coral quickly opens up about her husband’s untimely death and how it has made Millie go “quiet” to such an extent that Coral now “can’t figure out what is going on inside her head.” In response, Millie states that maybe she just needs “some space” and “some time to figure out who she is.” Millie also begins pouring out her feelings regarding the loss of her father. She can connect to her emotions due to the anonymity offered by the Butcher’s body. She can, at least, connect more powerfully to them than while she was in her own form and acting under the expectation of addressing her mother’s grief above her own.

Millie’s coming-of-age journey has another important breakthrough once Booker becomes involved in her and her friends’ efforts to reverse the body swap. During a down moment in the adventure, Millie and Booker speak about the mystical events that have occurred, in addition to their budding romantic attraction. Throughout their conversation, it slowly becomes clear that Millie has not only gained a conscious awareness of her new body but also how said body impacts her overall being. “I felt oddly empowered being in this body,” she states to Booker. “Like invincible, or kinda badass,” she continues. “I know, it’s ridiculous, but when you’re someone like me and you’ve been bullied most of your life and sorta put down a lot, it does feel sorta good to feel strong for once.” “Strength doesn’t come from size,” Booker kindly responds. “It comes from up here,” he then says, pointing to his head. “And from in there,” he states, pointing at Millie’s heart. Booker then reveals that he has always had feelings for Millie and states that he wants to kiss her. She appears excited but anxious over this prospect, remarking that technically he would be kissing “a mass murderer with yellow teeth.” Booker, unfazed, then says, “You’re still Millie to me,” before going in for a successful smooch.

On one hand, this bit of dialogue rebuts this essay’s thesis, suggesting that bodies are largely irrelevant to either the development of a strong self or to the foundations of human attraction. But that ignores how the scene attributes Millie’s newfound strength and the ability of both Booker and Millie to realize their desires primarily to bodies. Thus, the scene reinforces the body’s centrality to the self and establishes it as the primary conduit of experience – both of the amazing and appalling variety.

With Freaky being partially a horror film, the filmmakers hammer home the latter, evoking how the body can be reduced to something animalistic or geometric. One spectacular example of this is the murder of Millie’s shop teacher, Mr. Bernardi, played by the iconic Alan Ruck (of Ferris Bueller fame). The Butcher (as Millie) slaughters Bernardi by pushing him through the classroom’s sawblade. The blade reduces the entirety of a human being into two separate meat shanks. Now, Landon and cinematographer Laurie Rose could have shot this scene in any number of ways. But the filmmakers stage Bernardi’s death head-on, with his body being cut in two in clear sight, erasing any human resemblance and evoking the bisected halves of a cow in Francis Bacon’s iconic painting: “Figure With Meat.” Another example is when a trio of jocks attempts to sexually assault the Butcher, who is still in Millie’s body. One of the jocks makes clear the group’s horrifying intentions by saying, “Are you good at math, Millie? Cause the way I see it, you’ve got three holes, and it all adds up.” The line is positively Sadeian in nature, characterizing bodies as mechanical apparatuses or geometric shapes, with holes or things that to be put into holes – a terrifying prospect.

Director Christopher Landon establishes Freaky’s finale as another testament to self being a product of bodily experience. After Millie and her friends successfully engineer a reversal of the body switch, the Butcher seemingly dies in a hail of police gunfire. Yet in a nod to his character’s inspirations, Vaughn’s serial killer comes back to life. He escapes and turns up at Millie’s family’s home, assaulting all three Kessler women, while taunting Millie about her weakness of body and its impact on her heart and soul. “I’ve been in your body. I understand why you feel so weak. Why you feel so meager. And all that anxiety you got. Clinging to your dead dad. That’s not a life. But it’s all right. It’s ok. We’ll fix it,” he says to Millie before preparing to kill her. What the Butcher is asserting is that the body, that is, how a body feels, is deeply intertwined with a person’s mental and emotional being, to whether life itself is deemed worthwhile. His statement is a refutation to the body as somehow irrelevant to one’s being. The Butcher may be a sociopath, but he is an insightful sociopath.

The scene’s eventual conclusion solidifies this further, with the Kessler women getting the upper hand on the Butcher. Millie delivers the final blow by ramming a sharpened piece of wood into the serial killer’s back and then kicking it clean through his chest – definitively killing him. “Damn Mill,” her sister mutters in shock. Millie herself states, “I am a fucking piece,” – a callback to Josh’s comment earlier in the movie. It is also the film’s final statement on the subject matter, communicating the conclusion of Millie’s coming-of-age journey and the film’s discourse on the meat that constitutes much of the human experience.

For Millie, not only has she reclaimed her body by film’s end, but she has powerfully embraced that “she” is, in fact, a body, a “piece,” and that her body is not only connected to her self but that it is, in fact, the same. Freaky lives up to its title with this final point. The movie’s title is a sly ode to Freaky Friday, the classic Jodie Foster body-swap film and its 2003 remake. It is also a testament to the freakiness of not only having a self tied up in matter but that the matter in question is both highly useful and highly vulnerable. From the film’s perspective, one’s body helps conceptually birth a sense of self and a place within society’s structures. It does so by being a conduit for experience, for engaging with or shaping the world and the self. The body, in short, can be a terrific asset. It can help you kiss your crush or save your family by kicking a wooden spike through a serial killer’s chest. But it can also be a terrifying liability, its meat vulnerable to being temporarily damaged or permanently destroyed. Our viscera and sinew, bone and fat can be the nexus of our creation but simultaneously the harbinger of our doom. As the body shapes itself, so, too, does the soul; but conversely, as the body dies, we, our “selves,” are immediately destined to follow. And that is Freaky’s major contribution: an encapsulation of the horror and the beauty of our organic lives.

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