Sexuality in Horror
Stephen King articles
John Dickie interview
Zex und Zex und Zex
They're fucking animals, man
by David Carroll and Kyla Ward
First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#4, 1994
It's an extraordinary feeling when parts of your body are touched for the first time. I'm thinking of the sensations from sex and surgery.Alright, this is thesis material. So what fits in eight pages is a heavily biased survey of the bits we remember and some of the conclusions we extrapolated; all hopefully adding up to an 'idea' of how sexuality appears and is utilised in horror fiction. If something as ordinary as taking a shower, or being laughed at at school or work, or as broad as facing another person in combat can be a suitable basis for horror, then sex; oh my, yes.
And don't think we're talking cheap exploitative thrills -- necessarily. Exploiting sexuality is, after all, one of our culture's great industries, and the things that happens time and time again in Barbara Taylor-Bradford, Danielle Steele and ads for chocolate bars, are just another form of it. They are also in many ways safe -- by-passing the dangers, avoiding the need of a conspiracy of at least two -- but they also tend to simplify matters a little, and if horror has one thing going for it, it introduces complications, lots of them.
There is a potential for vulnerability here -- emotional and physical. There are power games and social pressures, issues of self-esteem and physical safety, there are religious taboos and a surrender of the mind to the needs of the body -- potential weaknesses, you might say, in the business of being human and good (re)productive members of society.
We found three aspects to our material, as we considered it. Remember, no flicking through to find the dirty bits.
...for sexuality is all too often the territory of the sentimentalist or the pornographer, too seldom that of the visionary.Sex and horror have been intertwined since about the year dot, and will continue to be so for quite some time to come. But actual depictions of sexual activity is a different matter altogether. Perhaps it is only that any actual love expressed through intercourse is out of place amongst the gloom and doom. Perhaps it is just that nothing slows down the action more than ten minutes of wobbling appendages.
In many ways sex plays as an undercurrent in horror fiction. Certainly vampires are creatures defined by seduction and penetration, but on matters actually sexual they are aloof, above the concept and, more importantly, the need for the concept. It is not a weakness. Even without all the clues left on the cutting room floor, the Alien is a rape-monster.
So what about humans, is it only true that sex is the last playground before slaughter?
Before we answer that one, we should point out some of the environmental factors of the genre, the company it keeps. It's not too hard to watch a pretty random selection of horror movies and see voyeuristic intent. And it's not too big a stretch from here to the world of pornography , and whatever your thoughts are on that particular subject, there's a lot of it about -- and horror has some pretty direct ties. We aren't talking about vague notions of authorial intent or audience expectation here, we're saying that Stephen King would still be a laundry press operator if it wasn't for the girlie magazines that were the only market for his kind of fiction in the seventies . He's not alone, and it's not just that decade. Neil Gaiman got into professional journalism by conning Penthouse and stayed a while (his Looking For the Girl for the magazine's twentieth anniversary is an odd little ode to male fantasy -- and his Foreign Parts a nice example of the line where horror diverges incredibly rapidly from the snug confines between the staples), whilst Knave formed quite a nice little nest for horror writers including himself and Kim Newman for a while. Graham Masterton (whose prolific writings include the Scare Care anthology) edited Penthouse and Mayfair for quite a number of years before getting the break into full-time writing. Now, these newer ones are all English examples -- for the Americans had by then discovered the joys of mass-market horror publications, after King and Co showed that the audience was there. Same thing for cinema as well -- a lot of US horror directors in the seventies were alternating with simple and profitable porn, usually in the form of nudist 'documentaries'. And Bob Clark broke his run of films along the lines of Silent Night, Evil Night and Deathdream to give Porkies to the world. On the other side of the camera, Marilyn Chambers appeared in one non-porno movie, Cronenberg's Rabid, and Traci Lords seems to be trying to make the change permanently into Scream Queen territory. To the present day exploitation and horror videos are sold hand in hand.
Even Val Lewton wrote an erotic novel back in the 1930s, and there's always Anne Rice... 
What's going on here is a simple confusion, in the public's mind if not the artist's -- horror and porn are both 'adult' subjects, often slightly disreputable in the best of conditions, and both handle material taboo to our particular cultural background. And as such they tend to cling to each other. Last century, depictions of sexuality were a big no-no, and so horror fiction carried the load. This century, or at least the portions wherein horror has had to work its way back up to respectability, the roles have been reversed.
In some horror the link is too explicit to be ignored -- the likes of Richard Stanley's Hardware in which we get a scene of the heroine doing her naked aerobics -- said scene being totally disconnected from the rest of the movie. And in the horror as action movie the visit to the strip joint is about as obligatory as the car chase.
(In this association with porn we see the need for the sexually-aloof monster -- to buy the latest Penthouse might be a cool thing to do, but being hunched on the toilet with your copy in one hand decidedly isn't.)
But Hardware was an incoherent (and pretty awful) movie anyway, and the addition of super-natural elements into an action flick does not a horror film make.
In fact, the 'language' and the structure and mood of pornography simply does not mix well into horror. By language I mean the way the camera looks at the body, and, more particularly, the way the body responds. We see the heroine vulnerable and naked, but there is little flirtation -- and then only by the strong and the self-aware, Nicki Brand in Videodrome, and the girl who seduces Freddy Krueger to (well...) destroy him. More explicitly, horror in prose doesn't use the phrases of porn (people such as James Herbert tread the line, and cross over sometimes but, then, he can also effectively manage 'an accumulation of awkward detail which is the opposite of pornographic' ).
Stephen King has taken this to the extent that he has had only one scene in his fiction which even approaches erotica -- in Needful Things when he discovers what a clitoris is (and to see the stark difference between his work and a more mercenary approach, check out the arguing couple in Children of the Corn and Linda Hamilton dancing round in a negligee on screen). But perhaps the best example I can give is Dan Simmon's sex scene between the headstrong scientist and the doubting priest in Children of the Night (lots of children in there...) It is a 'perfect' sex scene, everything goes right -- and it fits perfectly into a book which, despite its subject, is never a horror novel.
There is, of course, explicit sex in horror. Mostly heterosexual, though Anne and Poppy are doing their best (there is also a much older (sub?)sub-genre of lesbian vampire stories and films, which theoretically are there to turn on the straight males in the audience, but tend to find their own dignity. My favourite example of a more discrete, non-vampiric, case is Hellraiser II -- like all good heroes, Kirsty's boyfriend is knocked off early on, and she and Tiffany walk off at the end, about as close to hand-in-hand as you could want).
More traditional stories use sex to bind the heroes together before the confrontation (It comes strangely to mind) or reward them for surviving it (and perhaps prove that the heroine can out-smart the bad guy, but still succumb to the good guy's dubious charms). But one of the recent trends (and we can probably blame Messieurs Barker and Cronenberg for this as well) is authors increasingly using sexual imagery as a part of the horror, not just a quick release of tension. It's very 'body-conscious' (in a similar but more intimate way to gore FX), and the most obvious indication is the number of anthologies appearing on the subject, the likes of the In Hot Blood series, I Shudder at Your Touch, Lovedeath by Simmons and the brilliantly titled Scared Stiff by Ramsey Campbell ('nobody rebels like a good Catholic boy').
Or girl, which brings us to
Sex, in this universe, proceeds from gender, not the other around. A figure does not cry and cower because she is a woman; she is a woman because she cries and cowers. And a figure is not a psychokiller because he is a man; he is a man because he is psychokiller.What's the difference between men and women in horror? Damn right, women scream. But surely this is a rather old-fashioned view; these days, the female character is just as likely to pick up an uzi and start blasting the monster, with a cry of 'Eat this, creep!'
There used to be a clause in the censorship guidelines of the BBFC, 'women fighting with knives'; along with white men behaving decadently in the tropics, and foreign customs offensive to the British public. Apparently the idea of women fighting no longer offends people. In recent horror films it has become a sequence almost as necessary as being carried off into the night in a long white gown used to be. It's part of having 'strong, female characters'.
Horror has a particular problem with gender stereotypes. Victims. And although socially entrenched ideas of what is 'reasonable' behaviour are, of course, common to all genres, people who may find a woman playing the role of victim in a historical or domestic romance perfectly normal, will draw a line when the setting becomes gritty, the language foul or the abuse physical. Victims are a social convention. What happens when a man becomes the victim shows that.
It happens extremely seldom. When a man is subjected to stalking, menace and torture, they are challenged, rather than victimised. It is difficult to make a man a victim -- unless you also make him seem un-masculine. This is the predicament of Jonathan Harker, legendarily one of the least effective heroes in all horror. In certain versions, he even gets bitten by Dracula, as well as drained of his 'vital fluids' by the trio. It is almost inevitable that the situation of a victim will be interpreted sexually; the victim feels the sensations, the victim acutely aware of every inch of endangered flesh. Horror fiction always gives ample expression to this aspect.
The exception that may possibly be allowed is Howard Phillip Lovecraft, who makes an art form of victimising male heroes whilst sidestepping the entire issue of domination by male/female. This is certainly his intent. In the one story of the Mythos that does apparently feature a woman, The Thing On The Doorstep... well, that's just the point. Lovecraft enables his male heroes to feel. To scream, if you like. Of course, how you interpret a passage like;
It was the ecstasy of nightmare and the summation of the fiendish. The suddenness of it was apocalyptic and demoniac -- one moment I was plunging agonisingly down that narrow well of million-toothed torture, yet the next moment I was soaring on bat-wings in the gulfs of hell; rising dizzyingly to measureless pinnacles of chilling ether, then diving gaspingly to sucking nadirs of ravenous, lower vacua...is up to you and Freud. But to say that all Lovecraft's heroes are terrified of sex, and worse, to continue with implications about the author, may be considered a rather small-minded tactic. There are more academics and right or left-wing politicos using bad Freud to justify their gut feelings than is safe to speculate, eg. Erg, that's icky; so I'll say it's a compensatory fantasy dealing with the male spectators castration anxiety. Comments like this, although sometimes having their place in appreciation of a work, if used carelessly write-off all things such as authorial intent, satire and character, that can qualify and give rise to more subtle, more interesting, but equally valid meanings, eg. Sure, it's icky. Maybe it's reminding you of birth. Or decay. And are we supposed to just ignore all the, say, Celtic imagery, that shows the character to be the Fisher King and his wounding part of the natural cycle?). Towhit, there's more to sex than gender, and more to either than Freud.
So, what about those strong, female characters, in a milieu which traditionally depends upon them writhing and fainting in the monster's grip? In 1979, Lieutenant Ellen Ripley told them not to violate quarantine procedures, discovered the conspiracy of the Company that would sacrifice them all to gain the alien, faced it down one on one and even managed to save the cat. She is not the first; the survivor of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre predates her by five years, as do many of the classic 'rape-revenge' films. But it is hard to deny that in these earlier movies, lengthy and graphic sequences of the reason for the female protagonist's eventual action (revenge) undercut the point. And also, there is a difference between a heroine managing to run faster than anyone else, and turning round and fighting her way out, that even today most publicists talking about their strong, female characters haven't realised.
What this means is nicely exemplified by Nancy in A Nightmare On Elm Street (the original). This is a milieu where no one can run fast enough, and she is 'into survival', as she so quaintly tells Johnny Depp. Having watched one friend after another drawn into the nightmare and 'victimised', she turns around and refuses the role. Simple as that!
Of course, she doesn't manage to rescue Johnny Depp. That is why I mentioned the cat, and, of course, Newt in Aliens. Sarah Connor, too, in Terminator 2, acts to rescue a child. It is as if we can watch women fighting with knives, but having them being the hero to a man is still a problem. Anyhow, the most interesting thing about Sarah in T2 isn't that she's a maternal figure, but rather her struggle to maintain her humanity, after that tremendous scene of her assassination attempt on the programmer reveals how close she is to losing it. She is very nearly one of the more interesting examples of female villain.
In one set of stereotypes, a strong female, that is, one capable of action, is a villain; especially if capable of sexual action. The Vamp, named for Harker's demonic trio, has a classic tradition and some very good literature -- and a lot of bad vampire films. Demure young maiden gets the bite, next thing you know she's wearing a low cut dress and trying to seduce the hero. Going back to the heroes of Dracula just once more, watching the reaction of Arthur Holmwood to dear Lucy is an instructive part of every adaptation. In these cases the threat is overtly sexual -- well, just as much as it is with any male villain. Give way to my desires. Mention must be made of Alfred Hitchcock's especial use of this idea. Creatures such Melanie as in The Birds, and even Madeleine/ Judy in Vertigo do not constitute the remotest threat in plot, but the hero's action consists in hunting them down and destroying them, one way or another. Vertigo is a masterpiece in this line, literally equating the hero's impotence with his inability to overcome the enigma of Madeleine. The only respectable position for him, it appears, is still on top .
Such conventions exist in the expectations of the audience, and the expectations of that audience held by artists and backers. This does cover a lot of ground. But gender conventions/expectations give the artist who is looking to do so something to play with. Not much of this 'play' has found its way onto the screen to my knowledge, other than perhaps the take-off Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But what is, after all, Clive Barker trying to do in The Madonna, where the protagonist changes sex and escapes his previous victimisation? Anne Rice too, has done some fascinating things amongst her all-male cast of vampires, with females such as Claudia and Akasha playing other roles outside the standard set-up -- Akasha and her slight 'remodelling' plan for the world. Hard to consider this a matter of sexual gratification. And Rowan Mayfair -- hardly a maternal figure. Or, for real audience saturation you might consider Stephen King, very much the male POV, yet starting with the highly symbolic merging of Detta Walker and Odetta Holmes at the end of The Drawing of the Three, followed by his superb characterisation of Kathy Bates in Misery , he is making his attempts to fairly sketch the other half very apparent.
Female points of view -- male points of view; I am not saying we should get rid of anything. After all, most of King's early work is very powerful -- and more focussed -- and a book like David J Schow's The Shaft is very 'male' without being wanky about it. And please do not confuse female or male point of view with female or male authorship -- of course a woman can use a male point of view, look at romance fiction for crying out loud. The problem comes, when any point of view becomes set into cliché. And speaking of which
You've also got sequences where sex and gore are played out together. I think that's a combination that will make everybody happy.we come to the slasher movie.
Films along the lines of the Friday the Thirteenth and the Halloween series formed one of the most prominent niches of horror in the 1980s. Saturation has lessened their appeal somewhat (after all, just those two examples encompass thirteen movies), but the reason for that appeal is still very much of interest. The slasher flick is a well defined entity. It doesn't seem to have any real prose equivalent (well, except for the Richard Laymon novel I just read, Night Show), and there's never been too much stuffing around with the basic premise, except for those who introduce humour into the equation -- usually (and unfortunately) because it's the haven of first resort when the horror just ain't working . But the slasher is by no means an isolated phenomena, and is just a way of presenting another, hardly uncommon, idea -- the act of rape.
Rape is not something restricted to horror fiction (not, intolerably, restricted to fiction at all). The Accused is a powerful drama based around the idea. Guy Gavriel Kay's fantasy trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry has a enormously brutal rape within, and Thomas Covenant, the supposed hero of his two trilogies, starts with a similar act. Donaldson then developed the themes from this early work to form a central part of his science fiction Gap series. And movies such as A Clockwork Orange and The Baby of Mâcon really fall into the horror genre only because of the extent to which the sexual brutality is depicted. Those particular examples move, if only temporarily, above any sort of intellectual message or satire -- horror is the only reaction.
But we've said that sex and its mores is usually subtext in horror, and that's where the slasher comes in. He is always male, pretty much always armed with a knife (which is about as phallic as you can get -- short of Leatherface sticking the blunt end of a chainsaw in his crotch and wiggling), seeking out whichever young female comes his way. And of course we get long sequences where we follow his point of view, let's play hunt the girlie.
With that evidence it's pretty easy to draw a conclusion about the mindset of the audience for such entertainment. It's just that in doing so you can miss a lot of other evidence that might not be so easy to pick up from a casual acquaintance.
A brief history first. Hitchcock's Psycho in 1960 is pretty much the first example of the genre, the shower scene with its slashing knife and soft-focus nudity in particular taken up by later 'devotee's'.
Psycho had its fair number of imitators, but the next stage in our history goes to the much more savage pictures of a decade later, The Last House on the Left and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which mellowed out somewhat into Halloween and finally became truly production-line with Friday the Thirteenth. And intertwined within these is the career of Dario Argento, whose style and (occasionally) substance leaves the others sadly wanting. And each of the examples is a good film. Last House has a pair of incompetent cops who don't do anything for the movie at all, but otherwise they are tight, well-structured and well-conceived. But conceived for whom?
Now the modern horror slasher is always a force -- never a character. Be it Jason Vorhees behind the hockey-mask, or Loomis' insistence that Michael Myers is Evil personified (Loomis' name is a Psycho joke), certainly the actor in question is listed way down the credits (and is usually a stuntman anyway). Indeed the movies are almost structurally identical to something like, say, Piranha II: Flying Killers  in which the forces of nature descend on rutting teenagers and punish them for their sexual transgressions.
But don't forget that the audience in question are those very same teenagers.
We are close, I think, to perhaps the most important point of these movies, and the horror genre itself. They can be perceived as being very externalised experiences, the dispassionate viewing and exploitation of atrocities. But rather, horror works best, only really works at all, when the conflict is internal, the atrocity is committed against the self or its loved ones.
After all, someone reading Dan Simmons' stories that, more often than not, revolve around the abuse of a child, who fails to recognise his love of children, and horror at their vulnerability (he must have loved The Library Policeman) is going to have a puzzling time.
But can we really say the same thing about the visceral thrills of the slasher?
Yes, and why not? The essential conflict is of sexual repression and the difficulty of living and growing 'normally' under that threat -- the details of striving for peer and self acceptance often form a very important part of the background for the characters. It's a conflict that would strike home to much of the audience. The horror fan is, in general, not the (gender-specific) sportsman who has no trouble making friends. And here is the conflict writ large, in absolute terms, and though the casualties may be great, the 'evil' is always banished -- at least for this movie. And I am not forgetting the very real presence of slasher POV. Without that POV, without the audience feeling it, where is the conflict at all? Where is the horror?
Carol Clover uses the example of Brian de Palma's Carrie in her introduction to . This story about a girl picked on by her classmates and then taking her ultimate revenge. Carrie is the monster and the victim and the hero, and Ms Clover points out Stephen King's quote about the film's popularity -- 'Carrie's revenge is something that any student who has ever had his gym shorts pulled down in Phys Ed or his glasses thumb-rubbed in study hall could approve of'. That's male students he's talking about there. A simple assumption that the males in the audience identify solely with the males on screen just ain't necessarily so.
(Interestingly, the central character of Christine is very similar to that of Carrie -- Arnold Cunningham is as much a put-upon 'loser' as Carrie White, and gets his day of retribution. But as Carrie finds herself in the transformation, Arnie loses himself, becoming only a pawn of Roland D LeBay and his car.)
It is this identification, I suggest, that saw the slasher flick move away from the deceptively normal Norman Bates past the brutal but very real characters of Krug, Fred and Sadie of Last House, to Michael Myers and his painted William Shatner mask. Each transition makes the character less human, a safer villain. And at the same time the females, to a lesser extent, are progressing, becoming more familiar characters (and less prone to taking showers at odd moments).
Having said all that, it is perhaps less than obvious that females would be thankful for the attention. It is still very much a male-dominated genre in terms of the audience and the artist. These quests for survival are all about living in the real world (and more specifically, a US schoolroom), and the female is the perceived victim in that environment. The male is the Sportsman. It is the female characters that go through hell, while the males are merely discarded by the wayside. And further (getting back onto the topic under the discussion), the sexual dimension is critical, the (real but guilty) feeling of arousal at the victim's distress, along with the 'punishment' (and longing) for of overt sexual activity, is part and parcel of the ambivalence.
If the male fans like psychokillers, female horror fans tend by the same generalisation to be interested in vampires, but we won't go into that now.
Yet we seem to be forgetting something. Something vital. What could it be?
I like women. If they are pretty and have a good figure I'd rather watch them be murdered than a fat ugly man.Ah yes. There's nothing at all wrong with a good slasher flick (says the male member of the editorial team), but it's still a formula, still a great simplification, aimed at a particular sexuality under particular circumstances, and the vast number of examples are testament to the money-making potential of the form last decade.
But horror fiction is vaster by far than such simplifications, and much more interesting when it is the artist, and not their pay-check, that is calling the shots.
For a start, one may be suspicious of this 'male' and 'female' view at all. Sexuality and gender can certainly play a big role in the themes of fiction, but they paint only coarse strokes when it all comes down to individual characters and their idiosyncrasies, the very characters that horror fiction is reputedly about.
Dario Argento does not apologise for his preferences in that single shocking moment of slaughter, but a study of his work reveals far more detail and variation of theme at all levels than such a preference might suggest (just look at Creepers). Reducing criticism down to the portrayal of 'bad sex', however this is interpreted, (recall all the gay Nazis?), does tend to close off the possible ways for reform to come. David Lynch's Wild At Heart is often described as depraved, perhaps overlooking the sheer repulsive quality of its single rape scene. For that matter Blue Velvet has been described as a sizzling erotic thriller. Not something that comes to our mind. And if Fire Walk With Me works as a powerful examination of child molestation, it has other concerns as well. It seems to us that sexuality has a place in most situations that a book or film can find itself covering, and sexuality in some places, times, genres, is going to be less palatable than others.
It is worth emphasising that not all sex is horror, and not all horror is sex. But the idea of the two combined attracts a lot of automatic morality. The old problem, how do you talk about enjoying horror? -- and as for horror involving sex... If the right phrases are used, most people in the 'general public' will agree that, for instance, women should be able explore their sexuality, or that men have the right and need to express their emotions. But the wrong words, or the sometime unpleasant words, will provoke that barrier that keeps the Bad Things at bay. You say it's denigrating, disgusting and demeaning, in bad taste and banned in Australia. But at what point do we have to stop fucking round with the idea?
Bibliography Cronenberg on Cronenberg, Chris Rodley (ed), faber and faber, London, 1993, c1992. A wonderful book, much restraint was needed to stop quoting all of it.
 Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Carol J Clover, Princeton University Press, 1992. Have you noticed most works described as 'balanced' usually use highly emotive terms to put across the describer's point of view? Oh well, this is an extremely good study of a genre that the author, 'against all odds... ended up something of a fan' of, detailed, well researched and, I'd go as far as saying, balanced.
* Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection, Barbera Creed, in Screen No 1 Vol 27, Jan/Feb, 1986.
* When the Woman Looks, Linda Williams, in Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, edited by Mary Anne Doane, Patricia Mellencomp and Linda Williams, University Publications of America, 1984. One of those essays where you feel the author is justifying why she doesn't like horror films -- and why you shouldn't either.
Notes Let's not get too carried away with semantics (yet). For purposes of the present discussion pornography is simply 'adult' magazines and videos, Playboy, Electric Blue and down the line. Erotica is the same thing but with more dialogue.
 Unfair, you cry, and yes, it'd take more than that to get between this man and a royalty check. We'll mention Mr King a number of times herein, but his most vivid use of sexual imagery is simply as metaphor for writing itself.
 The trouble with a large section detailing Ms Rice's erotica is that I find it rather boring. The soft-core Belinda was fine when on the tried and tested ground of the obsessed artist with his New Orleans background, but stumbled with the depiction of the girl herself. The hard-core Beauty series is... an interesting idea, and is well enough written for those more attuned, but since I personally don't find B&D a turn-on I gave up about half way through. Indeed, apart from the odd twinge of less painful sex that struggled through to me, the only bit I really liked was the incredibly satisfying moment when Beauty betrays her master at the end of the first book.
 The strange doubling of female villain and strong heroine, by virtue of their sexuality. It can be used as the misogynistic equivalent of 'all men are potential rapists'.
 Perhaps coincidentally, these two novels are easily the best of his post -- It work.
 Watching the Prom Night series backwards is incredible -- the latter ones are pure (and quite enjoyable) spoof, and then you've got to cope with Leslie Nielson as a distraught father in the original.
 James Cameron didn't direct this, by the way, he's credited but the producer Ovidio Assonitis took over a week into production.
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