Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
Nudity is popular in film for other reasons, too, though. Its promised display, for example, is a means of creating and maintaining suspense. Moviegoers of both sexes are curious as to what an actress looks like beneath her clothes. Men and women want to catch a glimpse of a famous female’s breasts, pubes, and buttocks, to see all (or almost all) there is to see, to observe the “bare truth” or the “naked truth” concerning the performer’s true outer beauty. To lay bare the body is, we believe, to lay bare the secrets of the soul. By suggesting that, eventually, this, that, or the other actress is likely to shed her clothes keeps moviegoers on the edges of their seats. When, where, and under what conditions will the screen siren reveal her charms, in all their gorgeous glory, are questions that sustain suspense.
Besides the creation and maintenance of suspense, nudity also reminds moviegoers of female characters’ femininity. Even clothed, women typically show themselves to be women in several hard-to-miss ways: long, styled hair; cosmetics; frilly attire; shaved underarms and legs; and the wearing of clothing and accessories that are designated by tradition and the dictates of fashion as belonging exclusively to women. Primary sexual characteristics (breasts, wider hips than men may claim, fuller buttocks than men may boast, and female genitalia) are indications as well, of course, and, usually, these characteristics are more or less noticeable in most women. However, when milady is nude, the unmistakable presence of primary sexual characteristics makes the artifices by which women proclaim their sex and gender unnecessary. One need not advertise herself as female and feminine through hairstyles, cosmetics, and clothing when, quite obviously, her body’s nakedness reveals her to be so.
Horror movies have recently become less sexist, offering moviegoers male as well as female victims and female and well as male predators, but the genre, nevertheless, remains largely chauvinistic and, one might argue, misogynistic. Women remain, far more often than men, the victims rather than the victimizers. One reason, besides sexism, for this preference for female over male victims is the relative physical weakness of women as compared to men. Because women typically have less physical strength than men do, they appear to be easier victims than men do. They also appear more vulnerable than men do. Weakness and vulnerability make them more likely to be victims than to be victimizers, for predators stalk the sick, the lame, and the lazy, or, in milady’s case, the weaker of the two sexes. Femaleness and femininity mark characters as relatively helpless and, therefore, as potential, even likely, victims. The nudity of female characters, in horror films, reminds audiences of the women’s identities as prospective casualties or fatalities.
Nudity in horror movies creates and maintains suspense, reminds moviegoers of female characters’ femininity and relative weakness and helplessness, but nudity also often leads to sex, and sex often leads to death or dismemberment. There is something of an unwritten law in the horror genre that taking one’s clothes off, even when it is not an act that is intended as a prelude to sex, is punishable by death; when nudity leads to sex, there is a virtual guarantee that it will end in pain, suffering, and the nudist’s demise. Even in the ultra permissive society in which we live, in which teen sex is rampant, as is teen pregnancy, abortion, and the birth of children to children, premarital sex, like adultery or other forms of sex outside the confines of holy matrimony, is considered taboo (by screenwriters in the horror genre, at least, if no one else), and it will surely be punished severely, with loss of limb, if not life. Nudity, as a precursor to sex, also identifies (often female) characters as likely victims. (The characters are more often female than male because most people believe that women look better in the nude than men do and because women seem more helpless, because they are typically physically weaker than men seem to be.)
We do a pretty good job of hiding our animal natures, but, despite our art, our culture, and our complex social structures, our philosophy and religion, and our humanity, we remain very much mammals who eat, drink, fornicate, sleep, and otherwise exhibit the animal within. We are not simply ghosts; we are ghosts in machines, and the machines we inhabit are made not of iron and steel but of flesh and blood. We are driven by fleshly as well as by psychological and social needs. We have appetites for food, for sex, for dominance, and for blood. The fact that, concealed beneath our shirts, blouses, trousers, and skirts, we have breasts and vaginas or penises and testicles and buttocks indicates that we are not merely human beings; we are also animals who breed and devour and hunt and kill. Nudity is a reminder of our animal natures, and female nudity is a reminder of the seldom-displayed, but always present, nudity of the male of the species. In seeing a nude woman, we understand that men, too, have “private parts” that disclose their animal nature, just as the undraped form of the female of the species reveals her own animality. Nakedness is a reminder, too, of our reproductive capability, a capability that we share with the so-called lower animals. Moreover, our nakedness reminds us that we, as much as lions and tigers and bears, oh my!, are (or can be) red in tooth and claw, that we are also potentially predators and prey, that we are, each and all, Drs. Jekylls and Mr. Hydes.
Under our clothes, we are flesh and blood, not the steely selves our aggressive personas sometimes tend to make others suppose we are. We can look daggers at another soul. We can set our jaws. We can give another person the cold shoulder. We can shake our fists and stamp our feet. We can stand tall. In short, we can use our bodies to intimidate others, but doing so while naked might be much more difficult, if not impossible, to do, because our fleshly selves, minus the armor of our suits and dresses, gives the lie, as it were, to the armor of costume and the arsenal of body language cues by which we seek to impose our wills upon others. It is hard to take someone in his or her birthday suit very seriously, no matter how he or she might glower or glare. Nudity renders us vulnerable. In horror movies, vulnerability of any kind is seldom a good thing and is apt, sooner or later, to get one killed. A nude character is a vulnerable character, and a vulnerable character is likely to become--well, a dead duck.
Nudity, we observe, is not necessarily gratuitous. In horror movies, as in other types of film, nakedness can, and frequently does, serve thematic purposes. (Typically, it also identifies probable victims and may characterize them as sexually promiscuous and, therefore, morally weak of perverse.)
In forthcoming posts, I will take up this matter again, exploring, more specifically, the contribution to the horror genre that on-screen nudity makes on a more-or-less regular basis.
Until then, for goodness’ sake, keep both the lights and your clothes on!