The messy realities of bodies
Sexual anxiety has been an animating force of the horror genre since its inception. Grimms’ Fairy Tales, brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm’s’ 1812 collection of European children’s stories, is stuffed to the gills with incest, bride theft, and all manner of unsavory undertones, all echoing even older oral and written traditions from around the world. It’s not hard to draw a line from the infanticidal cannibalism of the Titans to, say, the scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula in which a grinning Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) feeds a living infant to his brides. The image of crisis in both stories is the perversion of the social institutions of childbearing and parenthood. Our society’s most precious class of people, infants, become sticky sweets to be wolfed down without a second thought.
The infanticide scene in Coppola’s film follows directly from a sort of curdled wet dream in which Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is enticed into bed by Dracula’s brides (Monica Bellucci, Michaela Bercu, Florina Kendrick), who then proceed to feed on his blood. The sequence is highly sexualized, remaking the generative and/or pleasurable act of sex into a parasitic, consumptive one. In horror, this idea of putrid or rancid sexuality serves as a way to explore both forbidden desire and sexual trauma. Sex as we see it all around us, tidily packaged in glossy glamor shots and airbrushed ads for horny local singles, is an exterior phenomenon, cold and smooth and austere. It exists not to probe or expose, but to satisfy, a square block for a square hole.
Sex as it exists in horror film tears open that clean illusion to expose the sopping wet filth beneath, depicting sexuality not as a discrete series of images and experiences but as a kind of fluid in which we are soaked, immersed, and even drowned. When Jack embraces and kisses the alluring woman in room 237 in Kubrick’s The Shining only to discover he’s pushed his tongue into a rotting corpse’s mouth, it’s a breaching of the veil between life and death, madness and sanity, fuming repression and bloody catharsis. Jack hasn’t been “tricked” so much as he’s been exposed to the truth of his own latent urges, a fetid soup of violence and resentment left to rot in the darkness of his subconscious. What was repressed becomes inescapable, a parasite transforming its host into a terrible new shape.
Sticky, Slick, and Stinking
Horror’s most heavily sexualized images are more often than not accompanied by generous volumes of blood, piss, cum, and other, less readily identifiable muck. Think of the urine trickling down the entity’s bare legs in It Follows, or the blood-soaked bed in which the titular Barton wakes beside his fling, Audrey, in Barton Fink. The underlying images are commonplace—a scantily-clad woman, a couple lying in bed the morning after their first tryst—but the addition of their respective fluids, both substances which stain and saturate, reveals the thinness of the membrane between sex and revulsion, intimacy and physical collapse.
The inclusion of unclean substances in sexual settings, often after a more or less uncomplicatedly erotic scene has begun, is a potent way to confront the viewers’ conceptions of sex. Using familiar tools, horror forces us more fully into the depicted moment. All of us know what blood tastes like, what it feels like as it dries, how hard it is to scrub out of anything and everything. We all recognize the acrid smell of piss and recoil from it with instinctive revulsion. By introducing these fluids into sexual contexts, horror complicates and deepens our emotional reactions to it and forces us to combine sensations which are, to most of us, incompatible and adversarial. Imagine holding a lover close and bearing the blood rush through their veins, smelling the sour tang of their morning breath, feeling the slickness of their sweat against your skin. These visceral sensations are integral to our knowledge of ourselves and the people with whom we’re closest.
Horror, a genre intimately concerned with provoking a physical response from its audience, must create images of disgust in order to strip away viewers’ defenses. Once this incision is made, so to speak, the vivisection of our primal drives can begin. What repulses or attracts us, and why? How do these things intersect, and do they share common roots? With the soft tissue of our psyches laid bare, we have a chance to see ourselves at our most vulnerable and debased, and to accept these states as an essential part of us.
Libido and Destrudo
At the root of all great depictions of sex in horror is the idea that our self-loathing, our anger, our worst and most unforgivable impulses are often bound up inextricably in our sexualities. Lola Stone’s series of brutally violent schoolgirl crushes in The Loved Ones exist as a way to sublimate the incestuous tension between her and her father (John Brumpton), enacting corny homecoming dances at which the kings to her queen are captive boys reduced to squawking zombies by amateur lobotomies, their chests adorned with sweetheart initials she carves into them before the night’s photo shoot.
Throughout the film Lola listens to Australian country singer Kasey Chambers’ “Not Pretty Enough,” wrapping her warped fantasies of beauty queendom and parental incest around the idea of herself as a tragic figure in need of love and protection. By the time we meet her lobotomized mother, Bright Eyes (Anne Scott-Pendlebury), it’s not hard to figure out why. Imagine growing to adolescence and coming to grips with your sexuality knowing that your father is a serial killer, your mother a handpicked receptacle hollowed out to accommodate his fantasies. Wouldn’t the smartest thing be to make sure you embody them yourself?
The “libido,” Freud’s term for human sexual drives, lives in intimate proximity with the “destrudo” or “mortido,” the psyche’s violent, destructive drives. Both are linked to states of vulnerability, both are involved in the formulation of deep emotional bonds over the course of one’s life, and both inform our reactions to stress and intimacy. In Dracula, Arthur and Lucy never consummate their marriage, but when he and the rest of Van Helsing’s (Anthony Hopkins) band confronts her in her crypt and drives a stake through her heart, it’s difficult not to see her vomiting up of blood in explosive gouts as a morbid species of orgasm. Their wedding night and Lucy’s funeral are synthesized, woven together by the fabric of the bridal dress in which she’s buried.
Life—like Lola’s fantasies or Lucy’s crypt—is messy. Sex is messier, carried out with faulty, fallible bodies by distractible, selfish people. When we pretend it’s clean and easy, that it proceeds like clockwork from point A (steamy kissing) to point B (a simultaneous orgasm), we lose sight of it as a thing shared between vulnerable minds and bodies, a thing which is imperfect, dirty, and sometimes, for one reason or another, an outright failure. By allowing ourselves to experience revulsion and eroticism at once, to understand their connection and accept it, we come closer to the people we love.