Sex & Horror: Forever Intertwined but Why?
God bless Spencer Mitchell. Just when my blogging mind is getting weary, he comes to the rescue with another indepth look at our favorite genre. I absolutely love this particular topic. I mean, horror without sex is like Halloween without candy, football without arrest records, politics without worthless bastards. OK, enough of me. Spencer, take it away…
Sex and horror have always had a twisted relationship ever since the iconic shower scene of Hitchcock’s Psycho, but there’s a lot more to it than simply providing titillation for the genre’s target demographic. In fact, just about every horror flick has some sort of sexual insinuation or encounter that leads to the untimely demise of those involved. The Cannes Film Festival hit It Follows, recently released on Blu Ray, involves a sexually transmitted “haunting” that follows its infected victim with the intent of murder. Sitting as a prime example of an examination of the relationship between teenage sexuality, taking that step into adulthood, and typical horror tropes, this film does not condone or condemn the sexual encounter like others typically do.
1980’s Friday the 13th (available on Vudu) practically created the slasher subgenre, and a running theme of that and countless other horror franchises is the villain’s tendency to punish those who engage in drinking, drug use, or premarital sex. This almost always leads to a finale in which a “virtuous virgin” who has abstained from temptation throughout the film is able to defeat the monstrous evil she confronts. This “Final Girl” trope, originally coined by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, is typically portrayed as the conservative idea of what a women “should be,” and has pervaded horror cinema for decades, leading to dozens of predictable climaxes.
But as the trend became more obvious, horror filmmakers began to examine and deliberately subvert it, to varying effect: Cherry Falls (hard to find, but you can get a copy here) tells the story of a killer who targets virgins at a high school, and Wes Craven’s Scream (currently on Netflix) gave us characters who were fans of horror films and knew about both the sex and Final Girl rule – rules which the film cheekily broke in its third act. The 2009 film Jennifer’s Body (on Verizon on-demand) gives us a demon who possesses a gorgeous teenager and feeds on her male classmates. When the trope is inverted in this manner, the killing often occurs during intercourse. This is made as explicit as possible in the unsettling French film Trouble Every Day (hiding, but is on Google Play), about a femme fatale who seduces men so she can eat them, and in the 1995 sci-fi thriller Species, in which an alien takes the guise of a beautiful woman for the purpose of mating with a human and creating a new breed to destroy all of humanity.
Regardless of how the trope is utilized, the misogyny behind it remains intact. There often seems to be a notion that women’s sexual behavior is to be scrutinized, revealed, and accounted for, whether she is villain or victim. This idea has close ties to the puritanical culture that demonizes sex in the first place, and reinforces the concepts of “slut-shaming” and male-dominated, patriarchal society. The flip side of the argument is that the Final Girl trope itself originally grew out of feminist ideals; the physically strong male film hero who fights his way through danger had been replaced by a willful young woman who uses guile to escape a grisly fate. Whatever the reasoning, the stubborn trope continues to exist, even in films that set out to deconstruct it.
The use of the monster as an STD metaphor in It Follows further strengthens the link between sex and death in horror, and reinforces the absurd notion that having sex, which creates life, could lead to murder, which ends it. Why is this link so durable in horror cinema? Perhaps it’s the commonly held belief that premarital sex is somehow wrong and deserving of punishment. A more plausible psychological explanation is Freud’s “death drive”, the impulse in us that is drawn to danger and actually thrilled by the prospect of potential harm. Furthermore, Freud presented the overarching idea that this death drive coincides with a drive to seek pleasure, inexplicably linking sex and horror as part of human nature.
Regardless of what drives it, sex and horror will continue to have a long and fruitful relationship. As long as films like It Follows and Cabin in the Woods (see here) continue to find new and intriguing ways to explore the connection, there’s no reason for it to stop anytime soon.