Sex has always had a role to play in horror, just look at Dracula. But, the Tramp asks, is this relationship a healthy one? Have we moved beyond the allegorical to something far more disturbing and Ballardian than Stoker could ever have dreamt of?
If I consider horror, I begin by thinking of arguably literature and film’s oldest and most dominant horror character, the vampire. Uniquely the vampire bridges horror and romance, which is perhaps why even in the truest of ‘horror’ genre vampire films there is an erotic charge. Personally I think Polidori started it off in The Vampyre. This short story is a thinly veiled portrait of the man he both loved and loathed, the original romantic bad boy, Byron. If allegorically horror confronts what we fear, as individuals or as a society, and that fear has a sexual context, then a man writing about the homoerotic love he has for another man, one who treats him with a barely concealed contempt, and the self and projected loathing that he felt as a result contextualised as a character of horror – well it’s not surprising that there’s a sexual frisson to it all.
But it’s not Polidori who is most often referenced, but Stoker. His Dracula has influenced and spawned not only a sub-genre, but also the broader horror genre.
As a character of horror Dracula is a leech. He feeds on human blood to survive. He is a parasite. He has hairy palms and his breath is so rank that it makes Jonathan Harker, on first meeting him, nauseous. In the novel he represents a foreign threat. He seeks to subvert and corrupt, not just kill and that subversion is sexually charged. In London, he nibbles the exposed necks of buttoned up Victorian ladies. As smoke he wafts through the locked bedroom door of chaste married Mina. He turns Renfield (the only male character we see directly subverted by him) mad, leaving him alone in a lunatic asylum. In animalistic form he pierces the neck of the more wanton, sexual tease, Lucy and subverts her into becoming one of his own. He may be a monster, but he gets about a bit.
Lucy, representing woman corrupted, can only be saved through beheading. Mina, representing the pure ideal of womanhood, is saved from her own sexuality (she becomes increasingly the temptress as the Count’s influence grows) by killing the Count, the object that sparked her unnatural desires.
Theorists claim that the horror genre (films in particular), deals with the repression of sexuality, and with these two examples you can clearly see why. Apply this blueprint to the broader horror genre and it often fits. A heroine, often an adolescent on the cusp of womanhood and gaining awareness of her sexuality, is tormented. The ‘monster’ that she battles is a representation of that sexuality. In Ginger Snaps quite literally so, as Ginger’s first period proceeds her becoming both more sexually alluring, and a man-ripping and eating werewolf. In films like Halloween less literally, yet the blueprint still fits. Even in Scream, the reboot for horror as a multiplex (not just home-video) event, this is applied- albeit knowingly so and with arch winks to its audience.
This rather paints the way that sex is used in horror films in a pleasingly intellectual cultural context. They are an extension of Red Riding Hood and the wolf, rather than something darker and far less wholesome. So what then of the Human Centipede or the Hostel films? Films that seemingly glorify a horrific fetishism, where women are surely objects rather than heroines?
In Crash, J G Ballard examined the erotic nature of twisted broken bodies, in particular of the twisted broken bodies of women. With every scar there was a sexual thrill to be had. It was in the broken and battered nature of the female form that the straight males of the book found sexual gratification. It was in the unhealthy, stalker like, pursuit of the female sexual icon of Elizabeth Taylor that one of the male protagonists sought erotic gratification. Fantasising, not of red roses and marriage, but automobile accidents and phallically piercing body holes, old and new. It was in destruction that these men found satisfaction. This was not about women as virgins or whores, or burgeoning sexuality, but about control and the dark, seductive, subversive undercurrent of the need to dominate and fetishise.
It is hard not to view many horror films this way, as the camera lingers sensually on the broken, bloodied body of a female victim. As film makers find new ways to torture and kill their generally young female characters and in so doing titillate their audiences. This isn’t sex in horror as symbolism. This is far more disturbing. It is finding eroticism in death, in the many varied and ever more horrific deaths of the characters, generally female. Surely this is something more Ballardian than allegorical. This is the dark under belly of desire. A desire to dominate, silence and destroy in the most terrifying fashion dressed up as entertainment.
As a woman I find the lingering gaze of the camera on a woman’s murdered and mutilated form distasteful. Watch Top Gear and see the ‘porn’ filter applied to the cars it features. The slow shot along the body, sweeping the curves, offering a close up as it speeds around the corner, water or grit splashing provocatively at the lens. Now watch a horror movie and the way that the camera sweeps along the body of the dead woman. The focus on the face, silenced, often frozen in a last expression of fear. The dialogue may be respectful, but the camera’s gaze is offering a visual image quite at odds.
Am I reading too much into this? Are the Hostels of today merely a reinvention of the Texas Chainsaw Massacres of yesterday? Has distance offered a haze of naivety to these films? Is the redneck in a leather mask, chopping at young women with perky breasts, no less disturbing and sexual than the Slovak torturers in the Hostel? Is the cinematography merely a reflection of improved technology rather than a more disturbingly fetishistic erotic gaze? Indeed, has that gaze always been there, take Psycho for instance, is the piercing of the knife sexual, or is it the camera’s gaze on the lifeless body of Janet Leigh that offers the true erotic charge?
If horror represents what society fears, am I, as a woman, seeing the horror of a literal silencing of women that has been orchestrated for my gaze? Or are these films, as I believe, and in the Ballardian sense, for the gaze of men and therefore representing something far more disturbing?