SEX & HORROR
Lately I've been thinking a lot about sex and horror. No, it's not libido running rampant or a fixation on just how scary sex can be. It's a career move. I recently turned in an anthology I edited to Masquerade, the world's largest publisher of erotica, for publication next year. Entitled New Blood: Dark Erotica*, its highly sexual, decidedly adult stories delve into non-traditional modern dark fiction -- not the sub-generically clichéd "erotic horror" of sensuous vampires, supernaturally virile demon lovers, winsome ghostly waifs whose weird wantonness overwhelms even the most wary, and their ilk.
There's nothing wrong with this traditional sex-and-horror combination when done well. After all, sex has always been a constant in horror -- Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was full of metaphor and innuendo; Sheridan LeFanu's "Carmilla" seethed with veiled vampiric lesbian sexuality; Bram Stoker wrote of gothic desire in a hot-blooded Dracula; H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu can be seen through Freudian eyes as a monstrous version of female genitalia; the pulp magazines' basic horrific cover motif for years was a fearful shapely female running or trembling out of what few clothes she had on to start with. And, of course, the movies recognized early on that flesh was as important, if not more so, than blood for cinematic horror.
Sex, as traditionally used in horror, has been of many varieties. The theme of divine retribution for having sex -- most simplistically seen in teen scream movies where to have sex means almost instant gory death -- is common. More metaphorically the inevitable stranger -- monster or human -- is often used as a threat to society and its sexual mores. The "evil place" -- haunted house or disquieted cemetery or the like -- can be seen as the primary sexual symbol of the womb and exploring it as a way of dealing with sexual fears. The psycho/sexual predator preying on (usually) his (usually female) quarry often employs grossly violent sex as integral to its plot, but it is certainly not an erotic use. Or, as with Stoker's Dracula, victims can be allowed to experience sexual ecstasy because they are overpowered by primal animalistic evil. (Hey, what can we do but swoon and come? The Devil...uh Dracula...made me do it.)
The old motifs, like the vampire, still work -- especially for those of whatever age who are still trying to come to grips with their basic sexuality. The seductively dominant vampire is everything we know we should forbid ourselves -- sexuality with no guilt, violence, bizarre sex. The ultimate in dangerous sex -- sublime orgasmic experience at the risk of annihilation -- is offered, yet vampires defy death (and aging) and, if the victim survives s/he is reborn and conquers death. Anne Rice de-emphasized the vampire as pure evil and made the monster a member of a subculture of outsiders. She introduced more androgynous, more contradictory creatures trapped by their nature in a universe in which God is not an assured presence. Other writers, including Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Nancy A. Collins, and Poppy Z. Brite have also updated the vampire. Brite's two anthologies, Love In Vein 1 and 2, are full of imaginative, fresh takes on the basic myth that show, in the right hands, even the standard tropes can be evocative and erotic. Film -- from The Lost Boys to Blade --took to this new breed of bloodsuckers as readily as it originally did to Dracula.
One way to evoke the emotional response we term horror is to play on our basic fears and vulnerabilities. Death is an obviously ever-present and universal fear; sex and sexuality, particularly in Western society, is another vulnerable area -- and there is a direct connection between mortality and sex that can be utilized. Threats to sexual identity, prowess, attractiveness, the exchange of power inherent in the sexual act -- all have overtones of mortality. The orgasm itself has been euphemistically referred to as "la petite mort" -- the little death; "to die" was a Shakespearean orgasmic metaphor.
But sex can also -- like the vampire's kiss -- be transformative, a passage that leads to some form of rebirth. Moving into this particular darkness is both desirable and frightening. Transformation is not easy or assured, it is the miraculous exception, and failure means, at the least, emotional death. In today's culture the traditional equation of sex with danger and death is not only metaphorical, but a reality.
Horror elicits a physical response as well as an emotional one -- and that response is similar to sexual arousal: your pulse races, your breath quickens, your eyes dilate, perhaps you shudder, gasp, and moan. Fear and sex are still unexplored primal parts of our individual and cultural psyche. The unknown is both terrifying and titillating and sometimes the things that turn us on -- as a society as well as individuals -- are very close to the things that frighten us the most.
Horror writers, as Stephen King put it in Danse Macabre, have "a clear -- perhaps even morbidly overdeveloped -- conception of where the country of the socially (or morally, or psychologically) acceptable ends and that great white space of Taboo begins." In Western culture, for all the public discussion and surface exploration of sex, the deeper transformative aspect of sex is still taboo. Opening doors to the forbidden, finding fresh perspectives, touching on the more complex issues of sexuality, and using sex and horror as a mirror by which we can sometimes discover things about ourselves and society -- those are areas that are as inherently frightening as they are revelatory. That's the borderland into which I see modern non-traditional combinations of sex and horror being able to venture.
Not that I expect this to happen to any great extent. Publishing, after all, has nothing to do with complexity and revelation, fresh perspectives or taking chances. The dwindling reading public prefers, even with fiction that is supposed to disturb, a certain element of comfort. For the reader who wants something more, however, horror is always changing, advancing, and testing taboos -- even in its usage of sex.
*NOTE: The name of the anthology eventually became Embraces: Dark Erotica and was published by Venus or Vixen Press in October 2000.
About the Art
Two works of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944) are used to illustrate this essay. "The Scream" (or "The Cry"), probably his most familiar painting, is typical of his anguished expressions of isolation and fear. Munch became a celebrity in Germany overnight when his painting of a man-destroying "Vampire" (above right) was considered "objectionable" and caused the closing of the Verein Berliner Künstler exhibition of 1892. The engraving of "Death and the Maiden" (above left) was executed in 1894, a year after his oil painting of the subject. Death is shown as a skeleton. Unlike traditional representations in which Death was portrayed in a dominant sexually aggressive manner, here the artist shows the girl passionately embracing Death, not being dominated by it.