From the onset of his work on instincts and perversions, Sigmund Freud emphasized that sadism as an active and masochism as a passive posture enlacing pain with pleasure are the two faces of the same perversion, although the one aspect may be more strongly developed than the other. At the same time he also emphasized that while these two terms could not be studied in isolation, it was equally true that the underlying contrast between activity and passivity extended beyond the question of sexual perversion, proving itself to be among the universal characteristics of sexual life. As such, the polarity reappears in psychoanalytic theory in the opposition between phallic and castrated, as well as in the opposition between masculine and feminine (231).Obviously, for Freud, sadomasochism was not exclusively, or even primarily, a sexual disorder. Instead, it is the basis for all human activity. As such, it could be the ground of activities between male-male participants or between male-female participants. If sadomasochism were to take place between two men, it would be characterized as involving a phallic participant (the active, dominant party) and a castrated (passive, submissive party), whereas if sadomasochism were to occur between a man and a woman, the man would be masculine, the woman feminine. (Freud doesn’t seem to have reckoned a place in his scheme of things for masochism between two women, but, perhaps, sadomasochism between two women could be said to follow either the male-male paradigm, with the active, dominant participant adopting the role of the phallic woman while the other performed the role of the feminine party, or the male-female model, with the active, dominant participant adopting the masculine role while the other woman performed the feminine role.)
If sadomasochism truly underlies all human behavior, it is obviously a component of the conduct of horror fiction characters. Initially, the monster functions as the sadist, which is to say, the phallic, or masculine, and antagonistic, aggressive character, while the hero or heroine and the victims adopt the role of the castrated or feminine characters. However , during the course of the story, these roles are apt to be reversed, so that the sadistic-phallic-masculine monster becomes the masochistic-castrated-feminine character and the masochistic-castrated-feminine hero or heroine and the victims--those that remain alive, at any rate--become the sadistic-phallic-masculine predators. Indeed, in slasher movies, it has become a common motif for the sole survivor, a female character, to outlast even the monster, often banishing or destroying it so that she becomes the final girl (the last character standing). During the course of the story, the viewer (or, it may be, the reader), who identifies with the protagonist, is allowed to experience both poles of the sadomasochistic continuum (and, no doubt, several points between them).
The sadomasochism of the drama or narrative can be provided by an external source or it can occur internally, within the character, as Bronfen points out in the closing paragraph of her article:
Within Gothic literature phantasy enactments of sado-masochism can be found in the intersubjective conflict, the domination-submission played through in narratives where political institutions are shown to inflict violence on their subjects, notably [in]. . . scenes of torture. . . . But they can also be manifested in the register of intrasubjective conflict, where characters enact the struggle between a sadistic super-ego as a representative of the law and a masochistic ego as representative of forbidden pleasures, by suffering from guilt, self-punishment, or self-purging. . . (232).As examples of novels in which the sadomasochism derives from “intersubjective conflict,” Bronfen cites the works of Anne Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, and Charles Maturin; as examples of stories that contain “intrasubjective conflict,” she mentions the works by Charles Brockden Brown, Herman Melville, and James Hogg.
For my own part, I believe that Freud’s theory concerning sadomasochism as a universal basis for human behavior has merit (although, typically, I am myself anything but Freudian in outlook and am not, in general, a big fan of psychology or, at least, of psychologizing), and Bronfen’s division of “enactments of sado-masochism” into “intersubjective” and “intrasubjective” conflict seems valid, although films like The Descent, it may be argued, are predicated upon both types of conflict, the threats to the characters coming at once from without and from within.