The Hidden Meaning Of Sex And Horror
Sex sells. Whenever I ask someone why horror movies are always populated by some of the most breathtakingly beautiful girls in the industry, it’s the only answer anyone ever seems to be able to give me. Don’t get me wrong, I know there’s an often joked about trope in horror movies where some dumb sorority girl ends up topless running from the killer and, sure, it’s usually good to sell a few extra tickets, but I think there’s still something more to the sexual liberation that exists in horror movies.
Look at characters like Morticia Addams or Ellen Ripley and some of our favorite scream queens like Jamie Lee Curtis, Sigourney Weaver (yeah, I know I just said Ripley) or Linnea Quigley. Hell, my personal favorite of them all, Elvira –a character who blatantly jokes about and uses, to her advantage, the hyper sexuality of her character. These aren’t your run of the mill, running for their lives horror vixens. You’ve got strong women with even stronger personalities living and thriving in dark, strange, and terrifying worlds.
Let’s look at an underrated, maybe even unheard of killer comedy called Sex and Death 101. The movie stars Patton Oswalt, Simon Baker, and Winona Ryder as the serial killeress Death Nell. The story is that Baker’s character comes across a list of all the people he will ever have sex with in his life and decides to run through that list as quickly as he can so he can find what he hopes is his true love. Meanwhile, Ryder’s Death Nell is a femme fatale going around putting sexual predators and criminals in comas using her feminine wiles and physique as a ruse to lure them in. While not really a horror movie per se, it does have some of those classic elements and tropes, not the least of which being a seductive and mysterious female lead attacking her unwitting “victims.” Bit of a twist on your normal serial killer storyline but still compelling to think about.
So often times we find ourselves captivated, especially today, by strong women who retain a certain feminine allure while being complete horror movie badasses. I Spit on your Grave –and its subsequent sequels and reboots- are all about women being abused and tormented because of their looks and supposed weakness only to turn the tables and seek revenge on their attackers. The story centers on a woman whose sex appeal and allure made her a target for deranged sickos intent on taking advantage of her and leaving her for dead. Meanwhile, House of 1,000 Corpses uses the hyper sexual antics of Sherri Moon Zombie’s character to disarm us to the fact that she, and her entire family, are a bunch of sadistic, homicidal maniacs about to kill the unwitting “heroes” of the story. Even the porn industry has gotten into the regular habit of making their own horror film knock offs as well as legitimate horror/grindhouse offerings like the upcoming Brides of Satan. And it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to expect that some of these films are actually going to be very good.
The late 60s and 70s were rife with exploitation films of all kinds and many directors and writers wanting to make a more unique brand of horror had to be lumped in with the highly taboo pornographers of the day. These creators ran in the same circles, worked with the same actors and producers and brought about the Golden Age of schlock horror from the classics of Hammer Films and Christopher Lee to the rise of Troma, and titles like Humanoids from the Deep, Satan’s School for Girls and Blackula. It wasn’t uncommon to see the more gruesome flicks rated NC-17 or even the dreaded X and a lot of the same directors, writers, and producers intermingled and collaborated on these arthouse and grindhouse splatter pornos in order to keep both industries afloat. Boundaries were routinely pushed and taboos shattered using those same notions of monsters and men and things that go bump in the night as a means to look at our society with a measure of fantasy and safety for the audience. While this marriage of the porn and horror industries can account for some of the sexualization in horror films with crossovers designed to appeal to two very different groups I still think there’s more to it than that.
But it doesn’t just stop with film. Music, art and photography are always full of scantily clad women covered in effects make up or done up to be gender swapped versions of their favorite horror movie characters. From Rob Zombie’s collected works including the video for Living Dead Girl or his animated movie El Super Beasto to online modeling groups like Girls and Corpses and Dead Chicks are Cool we see people blending sexy and scary in everything they do. It becomes a part of life, a way to express ideas about sexual hang ups and taboos, to liberate us from the concept of the human body only being a sexual vessel. The fact that they do it isn’t the question, though. I want to know the why and for that, I’ve turned to fans and creators in horror culture to find the answer.
@bearded_horror, the Instagram alter ego for online horror promoter Bearded Horror had this to say: “I think it has to do with the vulnerability of both of them. When it comes to sex, love, passion, you’re at your weakest point. It’s a time when a person has the chance to get hurt the most. Your fate is dictated by the actions of another.”
Vulenerability. Definitely sounds like a cue for Jason Voorhees.
Meanwhile, our own editor-and-chief, Jeff had this to offer: “It's a popular trope that when teenagers have sex or do drugs, they invite the monster in. Sex in horror –and in general- is about freedom and freedom comes with a cost.”
There are consequences to our actions, terms and conditions if you will for living our lives and taking chances, especially in horror. When you open yourself to what some in society still deem taboo, you invite in a host of other unspeakable notions into your reality.
Jeff also had this to say on the matter: “…we as humans are too young to fend for ourselves when we are first born and must live with parents till we are old enough and physically strong enough to "make it." But what happens before we can fully venture out on our own? We go through puberty. We get the strong sensation of the opposite sex and when we finally get to have sex, it is an act that for almost everyone we remember, not only with who, but where and when. We even give our time before that simple act a name: virginity. Some call it the loss of innocence.”
And there is certainly a loss of innocence in horror films. Characters like Bruce Campbell’s Ash in the original Evil Dead film was forced not only to fight for his life but to brutally kill his own sister and his closest friends. We’re put off guard and have to come to grips with unpleasant realities that often leave us questioning as the credits roll “What would I do?”
The alt-model group Dead Chicks are Cool had this to add: “…it’s mostly raw human nature. The beast in us awakens to sex and horror with the same sensations… Sex and horror induce the same feelings and emotions of pleasure and pain. They complement each other while contradicting one another at the same time.”
There seems to be something downright primal to the way that sex exists in horror culture. Those same sensations of pleasure and pain interconnect with one another on an almost animalistic level. The dilation of the eyes, the tunnel vision and hyper focus as adrenaline and endorphins dump into your system as your whole body spasms and readies itself for the ultimate end of the act, be it a fight for survival or the release of orgasm. I mean, aside from some folks in the BDSM community, most of us prefer to keep our pains and pleasures separated in our conscious mind but the elements are all there. In Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart (Hellraiser on film) Frank is a man of worldly pleasures who seeks something beyond his flesh. The Cenobites offer him just that with a sudden culmination of ever sensation imaginable followed by dragging him to hell where they rip the flesh from his bones to explore a deeper sense of pleasure within his pain.
Our evolution, that primitive underlay of instinct and animal need has hard wired us to look at our interactions with other people for what they might have to offer. Security, shelter, food, sex, there’s nothing altruistic about our personal interactions. We form emotional connections but in the end, we still seem to be frightened apes struggling to survive. For men, seeing some tall, buxom, toned goddess on the screen suggests a fulfillment to sexual desires and, subconsciously, the idea of a better genetic legacy to be left behind. For women, the strapping, rippling abs of a bronzed Adonis suggests a powerful, virile lover who can safely protector and provide for her every need and desire. For some, it’s the notion of seeing a woman, deemed in many aspects of our culture to be the weaker sex, struggling to overcome something more powerful and malevolent than what she represents. The heroine becomes a sort of pure feminine ideal conquering a more misogynistic force or notion while maintaining or even saving what it is that defines her womanhood. For cosplayers and models, it’s all about the fantasy of putting their own mark on their favorite character. I’ve seen some absolutely stunning gender swapped cosplays of Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, zombies, werewolves and other monsters reminding us that danger and death can be just as seductive and inviting as they can be devastatingly horrible.
Sure, there’s plenty of exploitation for the sake of exploitation out there but it really is bigger than filling seats or selling merch. Fans want to feel connections with the characters we see on the screen while also having those larger than life, unattainable figures to look up to. It may be some chainsaw wielding every-man or badass, been through the wringer female underdog that saves the day but we also need to see those perfect, Olympian standards toppled over, trampled and devastated by the monsters and madmen we label as the bad guys in order to satisfy us. It’s watching that perfect image degraded and destroyed that horrifies us and entices us all at the same time. “If it happened to someone like her, it could definitely happen to me.”
Nothing sums it up better than 2012’s grossly underrated Cabin in the Woods. Sigourney Weaver’s Director elaborates near the films end that the only crime that Dana and her friends had to pay for was their “youth.” For many of us, that first time was just that: youthful indiscretion. It was two kids who didn’t know anything about anything doing something because it felt right, made them think that they were suddenly all grown up when in fact they were still just as weak and unprepared as anyone. It was heart racing, breathtaking, and usually ended in some kind of heartbreak or personal tragedy.
Inexperience, youth, vulnerability. All these things that make for the best horror stories are in fact the same things that make for some of the best romance novels as well. Desire and passion are how we love and it’s how we stay scary. Sex and horror are one in the same. Risking danger and loss in the hopes of finding something greater than we are is the human condition and nothing exemplifies it quite like horror.